How I Write A Sermon
“Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint,
but blessed is he who keeps the law.”
(Proverbs 29:18 ESV)
As far as I am concerned, my primary calling as a minister is to faithfully attempt to bring God’s message to His people at the Sunday services and other gatherings. This involves: being attentive to God’s leading; actively seeking His leading; and prayerfully attempting to interpret Biblical text and message for the congregation (the mechanism of which usually entails ‘bridge building’ between the ancient text and the modern listener).
I usually go about this in the following way (and this should really give you some insight into my working week!)
1. At the start of the sermon writing process I always pray a prayer based on Psalm 119:1-48. I’m asking for God to ‘deal bountifully with me’ and to reveal His message to me. Above all things, I’m asking for an anointing of His Holy Spirit.
2. Next comes choosing the correct Biblical text or theme. I prayerfully consider many aspects of what has been going on at church. Most usually, I write quite detailed written Bible studies on most days and then look back over several months’ worth of these, before then selecting some that might be relevant. Incidentally, I always write these daily Bible studies in orange Rhodia™ notebooks and keep them in a little orange zip up thing.
3. Having settled on a passage, I read around it within Scripture to put it in context (i.e. if Old Testament passages are referenced in the New Testament, I’ll go through them and vice-versa; I’ll read before/after the passage itself; etc.) Using an A3 sized sheet, I make a few initial notes.
4. I write a detailed set of notes on each verse. These notes include possible meanings, anomalies, obscurities and so forth. I try to be brutally honest about things that make no sense and I find this a very, very valuable way of getting to the ‘heart’ of a passage.
5. I do either a Hebrew or Greek translation of the passage (using Westminster Leningrad Codex for the Hebrew or Nestle Aland 27 for the Greek – sometimes, just for kicks, I’ll push the boat out and have a sneaky peak at UBS 4 for the Greek, but only if I’m alone in the house). This work produces (often) a very different view of the passage. For example, reading the Lord’s Prayer in Greek reveals a lyricism and beauty that is lost in English. This might not change the actual structure of the sermon, but it often changes my personal passion for the passage I’m speaking on. I can enthuse more from the pulpit, having some knowledge of its hidden depths. Sometimes, too, it’s possible to get a completely new angle on a passage that does change the sermon dramatically.
6. At this point, I write a sermon under a section heading entitled, ‘At this point…’ It’s kind of like asking myself, “If you had to get up and preach in an hour’s time, what would you say?” And so, I take about an hour and write the best sermon I can from this material.
7. Having the basis of a sermon from my own studies, I now begin to read through the various available Biblical commentaries on the passage I’ve chosen. The NIV Application Commentary series offers somewhere in the region of 700 pages of notes per Biblical book (sometimes far more!) and this offers excellent historical backdrop, etc. I use 3 or 4 other commentaries and sometimes (though rarely now) I’ll go to the shops and buy a book that gives sufficient depth. I find that without this element of academic study, a sermon lacks intellectual rigour.
Study of commentaries is also a very crucial part of not missing something obvious. There’s nothing worse than preaching an Old Testament sermon, and someone coming up to you afterwards and saying, “Jesus mentioned that passage and drew a very different conclusion!”
I make use of Colin Day’s excellent ‘Thematic Thesaurus of the Bible’; the ESV Cross References at this stage too; and also the NIV Exhaustive Concordance (based on Spurgeon’s favourite, Strong’s Concordance) to see how the themes of the passage are represented across the whole canon of Scripture.
8. From the body of commentary work, I highlight some things that I believe are of the greatest relevance to the sermon message, as it stands.
9. The sermon preparation now moves into a very different phase. It’s based on Fred Craddock’s ‘2 Eurekas’ notion (he basically stated that a preacher must have two, tangible “Eureka!” moments for the congregation to have just one, specifically: “Eureka, this is what God wants me to say!” and “Eureka, this is how God wants me to say it!” Only then will the congregation ‘get’ what’s being said and have a eureka of their own).
Looking through the notes taken, usually about 5 sides of A3, I begin trying to find what the specific message is. That done, I try to discern how it might be presented to the congregation.
This can be one of the most annoying and agonising parts of the process. On the occasions that I have really late nights, it’s usually wrestling with these things. There isn’t a shortcut for the process and more written work can simply make finding the answers more difficult. Craddock himself found that he needed a different chair from his desk chair, in which to sit and ‘be creative’. A US Professor called Mike Graves (who I’ve had the privilege of being taught by) goes for a walk in the local park to allow his mind to process what he’s gone through.
The pressure of this is increased by three factors: firstly, an immoveable deadline for your work, Sunday morning/evening; secondly, the immediate scrutiny and feedback on your work by the congregation; thirdly, a belief that getting it wrong will be letting God down in some way – it absolutely wouldn’t do to just stand up and say something if you didn’t believe God wanted you to say it!
10. Once I’ve had my eurekas, I write the sermon proper, do a run through mentally and then rewrite it having juggled a few things.
11. I learn the sermon and condense it to a single sheet of A4 (in landscape) with key aide-memoires highlighted.
12. Sunday morning is final tweaks and delivery.
13. Monday morning is starting it all again!
Just a last couple of things: Martin Lloyd Jones famously believed that a sermon was doomed if you didn’t spend 2½ days on it (under normal circumstances, not including of course being suddenly inspired!) And John MacArthur (who’s pretty good, apart from his cessationalist leanings) takes a hefty 4 days to prepare. Both were/are of the belief that there should be no compromise in such a crucial ministry. To be fair, I would say the same of any Church ministry. We should all work towards exercising our gifting uncompromisingly.