The Mocking Cursor: How to Break (Sermon) Writer's Block
by Nik Lingle
I’m just four months into my first role as senior pastor, revitalizing a church that was planted seventy years ago. I came here with the conviction that the preaching of God’s Word is the primary means he uses to bring life and growth to his people. We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (cf. Matt. 4:4).
I’ve preached quite a bit over the past fourteen years that I’ve been in ministry, but this has been my first time writing back-to-back sermons. I started to experience something like writer’s block in the middle of a week. I stared at an amazing passage of Scripture, then stared at a blank Word document that was mocking me. When I hit that sermon writer’s block, here are six strategies I’ve found helpful (which I’m sure other, more experienced preachers have probably practiced for years).
1. Dialogue. Grab a good conversation partner and say, “Hey, can I run this part of the sermon by you?” Talking it out sometimes helps ideas flow. There have even been a few times when I’ve not had a conversation partner nearby, so I just dialogue with myself, talking aloud as if I’m explaining the passage to someone else sitting in my office. How would you explain it at the conversational level? That has helped me move forward.
2. Focus. Some of my difficulty finding a way forward results from a distracted, multi-tasking mind that has not sufficiently focused on the truth of the passage at length. My goal is to keep working to develop the capacity for what Cal Newport calls deep work: “professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” Sounds a lot like biblical meditation. And my most productive stretches are definitely marked by the fewest distractions.
3. Personal Application. How has this text changed me in the past? How has it convicted me this week as I’ve studied? Cultivating this habit of self-evaluation is essential for my own integrity. As John Owen said, “If the Word does not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us.” But it may bring the happy by-product of helpful sermon material as well.
4. Big Picture. Sometimes I get stuck on how to explain a specific sub-point which then becomes clearer by returning to the overall structure of the larger passage or book. How does this minor idea relate to that bigger point? This has also helped me build a coherent message from beginning to end.
5. Bare Explanation. When I explained my writer’s block struggle with a friend, he simply suggested, “Just stop trying to come up with something clever.” There’s no need to prove your intellect with sophisticated cultural analysis. John Owen famously told King Charles II referring to the relatively uneducated John Bunyan, “May it please your Majesty, if I could possess the tinker's abilities to grip men’s hearts, I would gladly give in exchange all my learning.” Of course I want Spirit-given insight into the text. I want to prepare thoughtful application for listeners to consider. But sound exegesis is foundational, followed by bare explanation without any flourishes.
6. Prayer. Prayer puts us in the spirit of dependence, the heart from which our sermons should always flow. It’s not merely another cure for my writer’s block, but rather the key to any right understanding of God’s mind. Paul says that the Spirit of God helps us understand the Word of God, “interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (1 Cor 2:13).
May God in his grace help each of us to craft sermons that are Christ-centered and clear. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).