You wake up in a cold sweat, overjoyed that your latest version of “preacher’s nightmare” was not reality. You know the terrible dream: it is time to preach, and you are either not prepared, or you cannot physically arrive at the pulpit. The task of preaching is both thrilling and frightening. While a healthy fear and respect for the magnitude of the task should never completely dissipate, thorough preparation can aid in dissolving the unnecessary terrors. Come with me into my study and let me share the approach I take on the glorious journey of sermon preparation.
The first step in sermon preparation is to prepare the preacher. Power in the pulpit comes when the preacher takes the approach Ezra took:
“For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” Ezra 7:10 (NASB)
He set his heart to study the Word of God, practice the things he learned, and then teach them to the people under his charge. That formula cannot fail if used consistently.
Pick Your Dig Spot and Get Out Your Shovel
Before a preacher crafts a sermon, he must select a text. Preaching through books of the Bible will keep you from spending hours each week flipping through the Bible wondering what to preach, and it will ensure that you give the people a “balanced diet” of the different truths contained in God’s Word. The preacher gains much when forced to dig deep into a difficult passage rather than only choosing texts that he feels he already understands. As God brings to my attention an exciting Scripture passage that I feel the church needs, I frequently interrupt the book through which I am currently teaching.
After prayerfully determining the chosen passage for the week, I begin reading the text prayerfully over and over, seeking to uncover both the evident and the hidden truths. You can also diagram the sentences or identify the who, what, when, where, and how, or read each word very slowly. Anything we can do to go from a rapid “drive-by” to a slower “walk-through” will significantly increase our insights into the passage.
Then I look to understand the central truth. What did it mean to the original hearers? What does it mean to us now? Make sure that your determined central truth does not take the Scripture out of context (while it may be true, is it true from this particular text?).
At this point, and often throughout the several-day process, I must bathe the preparation in prayer. One of the blessings of not being brilliant is that I am forced to depend on God throughout the entire process. God is the author, so He knows all the deeper meanings behind the text!
This is a good time for word studies and any other Greek or Hebrew study. I want to unearth other gems, which might be waiting in the original language. I will either go through each word or at least examine the key words in the text. You must either complete your own study of the original texts or avail yourself to the plethora of excellent tools available on the market.
Organizing the Found Treasures
Then I begin seeking the best way to divide the passage and the best approach to explain the text. It is best to let the text determine this. Some weeks I find it easier to explain the text using points (1,2,3, etc.). Other weeks it seems more natural for me to explain the passage all as one large point, building toward the central theme. Whether I use points or no points, I strive to explain the meaning, illustrate the meaning, and apply the meaning to our lives today.
Having determined the central theme of the passage and succeeded in arranging a basic outline, I proceed to commentaries and other similar resources. Unless I am utterly clueless about the initial meaning of the text, I make it my goal to have done my own work before reading what others have said. This sequence preserves my role as my church’s local pastor through whom God is speaking.
There are also cross-references to consider. Are there other verses that will aid in our understanding of the passage in question? If so, then these are added to the outline. However, I don’t want to use so many cross-references that I am no longer digging deep into the current text at hand.
Having now scribbled all over one or two pieces of paper, I begin cleaning things up and arranging the notes in their proper places within the outline (or in the discard pile). At this juncture, things come to a grinding halt. Where are all these truths and thoughts and word meanings and notes going? Have I captured the big picture that God would have me communicate? How will this message become more than just a download of interesting facts? I have a weekly reminder sent to me by email that says, “Application makes it a sermon.” A Bible study presents the truths of God’s Word. A sermon carefully and prayerfully applies it to the workplace, the kitchen, the neighborhood and everywhere in-between.
Then comes the time to think about illustrations. While there are illustration resources, the best illustrations seem to come from life itself. Humor can be appropriate if not overdone. Once again, I often find myself praying to God, asking Him to help me illustrate the explanation or the application in word pictures that transport the ancient truths to the present moment. I endeavor to keep illustrations brief enough as to not overshadow the Scripture text.
From Scribbles to Script
At this point, I go to the computer keyboard. In this process of typing out either an entire manuscript or a very extensive and detailed outline, I discard some of my notes and the Lord gives some new insights. I aim to type in the language in which I speak, which is different than the language used for an essay.
I am then haunted each week by the question, “so what?” What does this message ask the hearer to do in response? How will this message affect Monday? Is there clarity in the prepared sermon and does it point to a clear response?
At times I will opt to “preach” the sermon to an empty room before finishing the preparation process. Since sermons are spoken rather than printed, this practice gives a chance to discover how it sounds when spoken. Does it communicate well? Is there a more succinct or more memorable way to speak these truths?
Then there is the incubation or slow-cooking time. I set Thursday afternoon as the deadline to finish that week’s message. This allows time to think and pray about it for a few days (and it allows me to enjoy my family on the weekend!). As I pray through the weekend, I will remove some content and add other thoughts. This process repeats itself many times up until the time that I enter the pulpit. On weeks where the passage of Scripture calls for somewhat difficult subjects, I am crying out for the Lord to give me the grace and strength to say what must be said and that I can state it with discernable humility. Occasionally I will memorize all or a portion of the Scripture text. Not only does this help me memorize the Word, but it also aids in my understanding of the text.
Package Delivery Time!
On Sunday morning, I am praying for the power of the Holy Spirit. I am praying that I will be faithful to His Word. I am praying that I will be able to “get out of God’s way” and allow Him to speak.
While I will occasionally preach without notes, or with limited notes, most weeks I take a manuscript to the pulpit and know it well enough to not look at it much at all.
Then, finally, one of my favorite times of the week arrives: the moment I have the unspeakable privilege of being God’s delivery boy. In that event, I stand like a midwife, delivering the sweet words of God to the sweet people to whom I speak. If I had 1,000 lives to live, I would wish to live them all as a preacher of God’s Wonderful Word!