Sermon preparation and delivery are a weekly part of my life. I can think of all kinds of words to describe the process of writing a sermon: Consuming, intimidating, humbling, necessary, cherished, difficult, privilege, and so forth. I am occasionally asked about my process for writing a sermon, so I thought I would outline my basic approach. Every pastor has different methods for sermon preparation; there really is no right or wrong way. It takes time to discover what works best for each individual pastor, and the guidance of a mentor is usually very helpful, at least it was for me during those first few years of preaching.
I prefer to preach through books of the Bible. I know that sounds fairly basic, but you might be surprised how seldom such a thing happens. A topical sermon series can be a very good thing, but I prefer to preach topical sermons when a particular issue is pressing or to break things up a bit. For example, this past spring the Supreme Court of the United States was ruling on a historical case concerning same-sex marriage. That was a fitting time to preach a topical series on marriage. But for the most part, I will pick a book and preach it. Of course, the glorious truth is that when you are committed to preaching through books of the Bible, you will inevitably hit the topics anyway.
I will usually do nothing in preparation for Sunday’s sermon on the Monday before. Having preached usually twice in the previous 24 hours, my brain needs a break from the process on Mondays. On Tuesday I will read through the text to be preached two or three times. I will not mark anything in the text or begin studying, but will just read and soak. Wednesdays are usually pretty silent for me in terms of preparation.
Thursday is my day for the majority of preparation. On Thursdays I will try to accomplish these things:
1. Mark words, phrases, or actions that jump out at me. I may not use all these words or concepts in my message, but I will begin marking basic words.
2. Trace the argument. This is probably the most critical step for my sermon preparation. I learned the process of tracing the argument, or “arcing” as it is sometimes called, from Dr. Tom Schreiner during my time at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It changed the way I prepare sermons and changed the way I study the Bible. The process is not easy and takes a lifetime to master, but oh goodness it is so helpful. Tracing the argument is a way to better understand the thought and structure from a biblical author by paying careful attention to the propositions used to piece sentences and paragraphs together. It is at this stage that I begin to get a sense of where I want to go in my sermon because I get a better sense of where the biblical author is going in their writing. This process is especially helpful for the Pauline epistles. For those who want a taste of what tracing the argument looks like, you can read this basic overview from Dr. Schreiner himself.
3. Consult commentaries. After tracing the argument I will consult a variety of commentaries on my passage. I use different commentaries for different books, but will almost always read through Calvin’s Commentaries if available. For my current series in Acts I have been using Darrell Bock’s commentary on Acts in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament.
4. Listen to sermons. I will try to watch or listen to one or two sermons on the text I will be preaching. Obviously this isn’t so I can copy their sermon, but it serves as a kind of commentary for me – to see how other pastors have dealt with the information in the text. Plus, it is edifying to sit under preaching before I do the preaching.
5. Write the sermon. At this point I will jot down the basic outline of the sermon. I used to manuscript my entire sermon, but I stopped doing that a few years ago.
6. Memorize it. After I have my points and direction, I will memorize my sermon, especially in the areas where I transition between points. I think those transitional areas are some of the most important parts of a sermon for quality delivery. I will take my outline in the pulpit with me, but usually will only look at it for quotations. Knowing the sermon backwards and forwards is incredibly important to me. Although I have it memorized, since I am not tied to notes, the delivery does not sound wooden. (At least I hope it doesn’t!)
Piecing the furniture together and memorizing it are typically tweaked all the way up until late Saturday night and even early Sunday morning. I typically arrive at my church office about 6:00 am on Sunday morning to finalize where I want a phrase or illustration.
So that is my basic approach to sermon preparation. At the beginning, at the end, and all in between is the necessity of prayer. The real challenge is “letting a sermon go” after I have preached. That is so difficult to do. But necessary.
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