Recently, some of my preacher friends have participated in an online discussion of how to prepare sermons. I really enjoyed reading their insights and decided to jot down a few of my own thoughts. For those of you who are preachers, hopefully these words will be beneficial in your own preparation. I would certainly love to receive your feedback and ideas.
For those of you who are not preachers, perhaps this will be an interesting peek into the labor your pastor performs each week on your behalf. Preparing sermons is a long process that can easily fill thirty to forty hours in a week (or more!). Be sure to thank God for your pastor’s work and pray for preparation each week.
What follows are a basic summary of principles I use to prepare sermons:
Start with the text: The purpose of a sermon is to communicate what God has said –not what you think. Starting with the text helps guard you from the latter.
Be sure to select a complete thought. This could potentially be one verse or an entire book depending upon how much you choose to “zoom in” or “zoom out.”
Interpret the text. Study the text carefully before reaching for commentaries. This will help you engage the text with your mind and sharpen your biblical study skills. When you stand up to proclaim the text, you need to know it inside and out. Remember, you are searching for the author’s intended meaning in the culture and context in which the text was written. Let Scripture interpret Scripture and be careful to avoid reading the current culture back into history.
Determine the main idea. If you don’t know the main idea, your sermon will be pointless (literally). The main idea will always hover around a timeless truth.
Prepare to communicate the text: After you have determined what the author’s intended message was to his original audience, you are ready to plan for communicating to your audience.
Ask yourself how the timeless truth of the text applies to your audience today. Try to write your sermon in one sentence (not a run-on). This may take a little work, but it pays off in organizing your thoughts.
Prepare an outline in the order that will communicate best (ie. chronological order, the order of the text, logical order, etc). Fill out your outline with specific concrete examples, word pictures and illustrations. Think through the issues from your listener’s point of view. What situations do they encounter which this text speaks to? Your task is to connect their world to the text.
Prepare your introduction and conclusion last. I find it helpful to introduce a problem or tension in the introduction so that the sermon serves to provide a biblical solution, which of course is ultimately found in Christ.
Point to Christ: Jesus said that the law and the prophets testify of Him. In other words, every sermon should come back to Christ. Sometimes this is more challenging than at other times. But without the redemptive message of the gospel, a sermon is simply an informative lecture or moralistic pleading.
Call for application: Sermons are meant to be acted upon -not merely digested. But the preacher must not assume that his hearer will automatically put two-and-two together. The most effective sermons serve the listener by suggesting application points and challenging the hearer to take action. Whether it is a call to repentance or deeper commitment, application is essential.
Cut the fat: The hardest part of sermon preparation for me is to trim away the unnecessary ideas in order to present a clear and potent message.
Avoid the temptation to use an interesting story, fact, or illustration just because you like it. If it doesn’t point clearly to the main idea of the sermon, it will only be distracting.
Practice: I find that the more I practice presenting a sermon, the better I can refine it. And simultaneously, the message begins to burn in my heart. Someone has said, “what comes from the heart speaks to the heart.”
Pray: Ultimately, the power of preaching is not in us. The Holy Spirit illuminates the Word to hearts of the listener. He pierces the soul with the Sword of the Spirit. Our study and preparation, then, must not be outmatched by the effort and time we pour into prayer. Pray that God would help you understand the text fully. Plead with God to prepare the hearts of the listeners. Ask that God would grant you clarity of thought and guard you from error as you preach.
Most of these ideas and principles have been gleaned from my classes under Dr. Jesse Thomas and Dr. Joel Slayton. In addition, I have greatly benefitted from the book “Biblical Preaching,” by Haddon Robinson, and “Christ-Centered Preaching” by Bryan Chapel.
What about you? What ideas or principles would you add? What have you found helpful in sermon preparation? Do you have certain resources that you would recommend? I’d love to hear from you.