I recently preached a sermon where I felt God was leading me to change up the introduction entirely. This occurred to me minutes before I was about to preach. I sat on the front row during worship and it was clear to me – the plan I had for the sermon opening just didn’t fit. The direction I felt like God wanted me to go was to share a personal story of my dealings with sexual temptation as a teenager and into college. This was a risky proposition when completely extemporaneous, but I’ve told the story many times so I went with it.
This experience made me think about the best ways to ditch your plan when you feel like God is leading in a different direction with the sermon. Here are seven pointers to keep in mind:
1. Prepare well. The better prepared you are the easier it is to deviate from the plan. You won’t be wondering how the sermon wraps itself up, you’ve prepared well enough to know. For more in-depth help on how to prepare well for every sermon check out my new book: Preaching Killer Sermons: How to Create and Deliver Messages that Captivate and Inspire
2. Don’t make a habit of it. Your listeners will begin to question your sincerity if you default to ditching the plan too often. They’ll wonder if you ever even have a plan. Not to mention, the people running your media elements (slides, videos, etc) will grow weary of your ever-changing plan.
3. Avoid announcing your change of plans to the church. This happened as a near constant in the churches I grew up in. The pastor would get up and say, “Well, I had a message prepared today, but I feel God is leading me to speak on something entirely different. So instead of Romans, turn to 1 Kings.” This kind of warning can make people expect the sermon to be bad because it is off-the-cuff. If they’re expecting it to be bad it probably will be in their minds. Sometimes it’s unavoidable to mention it if you’ve provided message notes and your sermon is different. But to the extent you can avoid bringing attention to it, I would.
The same principle applies if you get up and say, “Well, I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare this week so ‘bear with me’ through this.” Let me speak for your congregation: “No! We don’t want to bear with you! All you’ve said is that for the next 30-40 minutes you’re going to waste our time with what jumbled mess you manage to stumble through.” Sound harsh? It’s meant to. The only thing worse than not preparing well to speak to God’s people is telling them you’re not prepared.
One half of your listeners will respond how I’ve described above. The other more empathetic half will respond by feeling badly for you while cringing through what they hope is not an embarrassing and awkward experience for you. Needless to say, you don’t want either of these reactions. You set the tone for how people feel when they’re listening to you. Avoid giving them reasons to be distracted with unhelpful (and unnecessary) thoughts.
4. Only preach an entirely different sermon in rare instances. First of all, I’m not saying God can’t or doesn’t lead in this way, but all things being equal, I don’t recommend preaching an entirely different message than the one your prepared except in rare cases. If a tragedy recently struck your town or a child in the church suffered a life-threatening injury, it would be fitting. When there is something catastrophic it makes sense to drop the plan and walk your congregation through it. But, generally speaking, changing up the plan entirely is to be avoided if possible. If you notice that you’re doing this with some regularity you should consider how tuned in to God’s leading you are in your preparation. I fully believe that God speaks to us in our preparation and not just in the moment.
5. If you know in advance, let the right people know. Let your worship leader know, the people who advance your slides, and anyone involved in follow up or prayer afterward. Make sure the right people have warning if you can give it to them.
6. Preach as if it is what you prepared all along. If you only change up parts of your sermon but the main points are the same, you will likely be the only one who knows. No one knows what’s on your personal preaching notes but you anyway. So, if you change up the plan, it could go unnoticed to your audience unless you tell them.
7. Pray. I only recommend changing up the plan if you really feel God is leading in a different direction. You must be in prayer during this process to know exactly where you should take the sermon.
What is your experience with ditching your plan? What have you found helpful?