Deep work refers to “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” It is work that is most demanding mentally, most consequential in what it accomplishes. Sermon preparation is quintessentially deep work.
Every pastor knows the constant weight of sermon preparation. Sunday is a standing, unmovable deadline. It is like living in final exam week, with a massive deadline before you every Lord’s Day. But the preacher’s test is a public one, for all to see. He will be judged by God’s people. And, more importantly, he will be judged by God himself.
To weekly stand before God’s people, open his Word, and be his spokesman is a daunting responsibility. I question the judgement—if not the calling—of those who take it lightly. That is why pastors spend so much time each week preparing sermons. To be a preacher is to be a sermon preparer.
Given the neediness of the church, the cultural pressures we face, and the general social upheaval of our times, how we preach has never been more important. That means our sermon preparation has never been more important either.
Recently, I enjoyed reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. It is one in a long line of new books detailing our challenged attention spans, social media’s deleterious effects on our ability to concentrate, and how the modern man bounces from one distraction to the next. Newport laments these challenges and offers helpful suggestions for correction. As I read his book, my mind continually raced to sermon preparation, and how pastors can strengthen their study time. Consider these six keys.
1. Realize the value of deep work. Deep work refers to “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” It is work that is most demanding mentally, most consequential in what it accomplishes. Sermon preparation is quintessentially deep work. Whether authors, composers, economists, politicians, or preachers, those who have accomplished much have—whether calling it or deep work or not—prioritized deep work.
2. Reserve blocks of time for deep work. Deep work, like sermon preparation, almost always requires blocks of time. Two, three or more hours of uninterrupted focus is needed for sustained focus. It is just impossible to exegete and outline a text in ten-minute bursts. Give yourself major chunks of time in which you can immerse yourself in God’s word. This is a recurring theme throughout the book, and rightly so. If you get nothing else from Newport’s book or this blog post, make sure it is this point.
3. Batch process shallow activities. All of us have minutiae we must deal with which occupies time during our days. No matter who you are, you cannot avoid returning phone calls, responding to emails, reviewing the upcoming order of worship, etc. The key is to not sprinkle these throughout the day, but reserve a couple of blocks of time to batch process them all together. It is better to turn the administration faucet on and off intentionally than have a constant, slow drip which hinders your study.