Sermon Preparation

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on April 6, 2003 under Ask the Pastor | Be the First to Comment

A minister recently visited our “Questions To The Pastor” section and asked, “How do you prepare a sermon?” Here’s Pastor Greg’s answer …

Dear Brother,

Thank you for your question; and I’m honored that you would ask. Frankly, I feel that immediately after each Sunday morning service I preach, I learn a new lesson on how I SHOULD have prepared the sermon. But nevertheless, I’d be happy to share with you what I have learned.

I’ve come to appreciate that preparing a sermon is half “art” and half “science” (and, of course, all a matter of depending on the Holy Spirit). If you ask most pastors how they prepare their messages, you’d hear certain “steps” in the process that they all had in common. But there is a lot about the marvelous task of sermon preparation that involves sanctified personal style and practice; and that comes to each individual preacher only through time and experience. One of the greatest preachers in church history, George Whitefield, said that the best way to prepare to preach on Sunday is to preach on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday! I think he’s right.

I’d like to attempt an answer to your very good question by, first, affirming a couple of overall principles about preaching; and then, I’ll share with you the steps I generally follow in preparing a Bible message. I’ll end by recommending what I believe are the most helpful books available on the subject.

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Here are some general principles. First, I believe that a sermon must be the product of a man that is utterly dedicated to holiness in Jesus Christ. The most important verse to remember on preparing and preaching sermons is Proverbs 4:23: “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it springs the issues of life.” One of the chief preparations you must make in order to preach is the preparation which concerns your own soul. You must be sure that your heart – and indeed, your whole life – is set apart for the Lord’s use. This whole-hearted dedication must be reflected in what you think about in your mind, what you say in private, how you treat your wife and children, how you manage your business affairs, what you do when no one is watching, what you watch on television or in movies, or what you read. This isn’t to say that you must be perfect, of course; but you must not keep hidden areas of sin in your life, nor harbor unconfessed sin in your heart. What comes out of the preacher’s mouth on Sunday morning will, in the end, rarely rise higher than what’s already in his heart. So, spare no effort in guarding your heart.

Second, I believe that a sermon must be biblical. And by that, I DON’T mean that it should merely be a sermon that contain a lot of Bible verses. What I mean is that the theme of the sermon, the goal of the sermon, and even the very structure that the sermon takes, must be guided by a text of Scripture. Sometimes, what happens is that a preacher thinks-up a subject or a topic that he’d like to preach on; then he develops the main points of his sermon based on his own knowledge of the subject; and then, finally, he finds verses that support those points. But that’s developing a sermon completely backwards. When a preacher develops a sermon that way, he is the one that’s really in charge – and not the word of God. As preachers, we have authority ONLY so long as we are accurately telling our listeners what GOD has said – ONLY so long as we are speaking “not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches” (1 Cor. 2:13). We must always be sure to obey Paul’s instruction to Timothy: “Preach the word!” (2 Tim. 4:2); because the true authority in preaching lies ONLY in proclaiming God’s word.

Third, I believe that the work of developing and delivering a sermon must be done with dependency upon the Holy Spirit. The preacher must bathe his work – from beginning to end – in much prayer. The Holy Spirit is, after all, the one who gave the Bible to us. He is the one who loves the people in our church infinitely and guides them to the Savior. All that God intends preaching to accomplish for people is, in the end, something that ultimately only the Holy Spirit can do. Even no less a preacher than the great apostle Paul wrote, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:1-5).

That passage reminds me of a fourth and final principle: I believe that a sermon should always glorify Jesus Christ – not the preacher. We must always make sure that “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” is the grand theme that undergirds our preaching ministry. Personally, I have taken Colossians 1:28-29 as my guiding verses: “Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily.” What people need to be urged to do, above everything else in life, is to look to Jesus. When people leave church on Sunday, they will have gained NOTHING if the only thing they looked to was the preacher! The preacher should, in the end, be simply an arrow that points them directly to Jesus. If he does this, he will not only be a blessing to his church, but he’ll be a blessing to the world.

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Now, let’s talk about the work of actually creating the sermon itself. I don’t claim to be an expert; but here are the steps I typically follow in preparing a sermon.

The first thing I do is decide what passage to preach. Ordinarily, I preach through a book of the Bible in my church; and because that’s true, it’s usually pretty easy to decide what my next passage will be. But I also try to be sensitive to times when the Holy Spirit leads me to depart from my usual sermon series and preach from a unique passage – and that’s something that I feel He often does. Perhaps the Holy Spirit draws me irresistibly to a passage that I had read in my daily devotions; or perhaps He points my attention to a passage that relates to a problem my church family is dealing with. The guiding principle I have learned to used has been this: AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE, DON’T PREACH FROM A PASSAGE UNLESS YOU HAVE A PASSION FOR IT. There have been many times when I have studied and prepared to preach from a passage that was next in order in my usual sermon series; but I found myself frustrated because my heart wasn’t yet in it. Often at such times, I find that I’m wishing that I could preach from a completely different passage that my attention had been drawn to. Whenever that happens, I consider carefully whether or not that is the leading of the Holy Spirit. And if I’m convinced that it is, I preach from that passage instead. Even if I’ve prepared to preach from a passage – or even if it’s announced in our church bulletin that I’m preaching from a particular passage – I’ll still wait to preach from it until I have a genuine passion for it. I have been following this principle for several years now; and I’ve found that it serves God’s people very well.

The second thing I do, once I feel that God has led me to a particular passage, is decide how much of that passage to preach from. You have to define how much of the passage you can effectively deal with in one sermon. The principle I follow here is this: ONLY PREACH AS MUCH OF THE SELECTED PASSAGE AS WILL CONVEY ONE BASIC IDEA. To try to preach on several basic ideas in one sermon will only confuse people. The people of God will gain more from one biblical idea well established in their minds, than from two or more that are not well established. Sometimes this might mean preaching a whole chapter of a book of the Bible; but at other times, it might mean preaching from only one verse. The clarity of one basic idea, rather than the size of the passage itself, should be the decisive factor. I find this to be a very important step in the development of my sermon; and I will devote a great deal of work in trying to understand and clearly state that one basic idea that the passage conveys. As I study further on along the process, I might find that I have to change how much of that passage I preach from – either preaching from more of it or less of it. I might also find that I have to refine how I’ve stated its one basic idea. But as much as possible, I make sure to stick to no more than one main idea; and I let that one biblical idea be my guide in developing the sermon.

Third – as much as it’s in my ability to do so – I study the Bible passage in the original language – Hebrew if it’s in the Old Testament; Greek if it’s in the New Testament. (Not everyone can do this, of course; and if they can’t study from the original languages, they should at least try to compare different translations.) I try to copy the passage in the original language on a separate piece of paper; and divide the sentences and paragraphs into main and subordinate clauses. I also spend a lot of time looking up individual words in a Greek or Hebrew dictionary, and recording information about the individual words and points of grammar on this sheet of paper. As I do this, the natural divisions of the passage begin to become clearer to me; and later on, these will become the main points of my sermon outline.

Fourth, after I study the passage for myself – and (this is very important!) ONLY after I do so – I then consult commentaries. I don’t consult every commentary I can lay my hands on; but I try to make my time effective by consulting the best ones. I tend to characterize my use of commentaries in this way: I treat them as if I’m having a meeting with a group of scholars, that I’m consulting for expert advice on my passage. It’s as if I gather them together at a conference table and ask each one individually, “What have you learned about this passage? What problems did you run into in studying it? How do you see it’s main point being developed? What are the lessons you’ve learned from it? I’ve had a question about this one particular phrase; how do you understand it?” And of course, if I were really meeting with a group of scholars and asking questions like that, I’d never call them together without having first studied the passage for myself! Often, I find that after having consulted with the “experts” in this way, I need to revise my conclusions about the passage. If so, then God has used the commentaries to help me do my job! Sometimes, however, I find that I have discovered a legitimate insight into this passage that the commentaries failed to mention (although I’m very careful about concluding this); and if that happens, then once again God used the commentaries to help me think critically about my insights.

Fifth, after having done all this work, I spend some time meditating on the passage, and thinking carefully and prayerfully about it. This is a very crucial step to me; because it’s how I get the information to go from my head into my heart. I let the passage preach to me for a while. I try to take as much time as I need in this stage of my sermon preparation. This may sound strange to some; but some of the most rewarding times of sermon preparation for me have been the times when I lay in bed at night, with a reading light next to my bed and my Bible open before me, and just thinking through the passage word for word and praying silently to God about what I read. I’m often overwhelmed by the things God permits me to discover during those times. Of course, this ought to happen only after I’ve done all the preparatory work of studying the passage; so that I won’t make a mistake and think that the passage says something that it doesn’t really say! But this has been a way that God has shared some precious truths from His word to me. Sometimes, I turn out the light and I find that the sermon begins to take its shape in my mind while I’m going to sleep. (Hopefully though, no one will go to sleep when I actually preach it!!)

Sixth, after having meditated on the passage for a while, I begin to write the sermon. I tend to write out my whole sermon word for word. (I don’t try to read my sermon from the pulpit though.) I have found that writing it all out word for word helps me to think through my sermon logically and accurately. It helps me to select my words carefully, and keeps me from going off track. I begin by writing down the main points of my sermon – checking to make sure that those main points truly represent what the passage is intending to say. Then, I make sure that those individual points truly support the one main idea that God is wanting to teach us from that passage. Then, I write an introduction, write a conclusion, and then fill in the blanks with the overflow of what God had laid on my heart in the course of my study. I try to write my written sermon as if I were actually speaking to the people who will hear me on Sunday morning.

And let me say something at this point about sermon illustrations. I prefer to use illustrations that come from my heart – either from experiences in my own life, or from some story that I recall from something that I’ve read somewhere. (I prefer to do this as opposed to using ready-made illustrations taken from a book of sermon illustrations. I don’t fault someone else who uses such books of illustrations; but I don’t use them personally because they don’t seem natural to me. I also try to restrict myself to using illustrations only when they will be effective. If an illustration is so good that it almost demands to be used, and because it will genuinely and effectively helps explain an important point in the passage, then I’ll use it. I never try to use illustrations to fill up space.)

Sometimes, I do things a little differently here or there in the overall process; but generally, that’s the procedure I follow in creating a sermon. After I have completed my written sermon, I read it a few times aloud in practice, and then I step into the pulpit, try to ignore my notes, and just preach from my heart. I always pray before I preach; and I also pray afterwards that God will continue to use His word in people’s lives after the church service is over. A few days after I preach the sermon, I review my written sermon, make some changes and adjustments, and then send it out to go on our church’s website where (GASP!) the whole world can read it. I also pray, though, that God will use my written sermon to bless someone who visits the website.

For me, the whole process of creating a sermon, from beginning to end, usually takes me twelve to fifteen hours.

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That’s what I do to prepare a sermon. But if you would like to learn more from experts who are far more qualified than I to speak on the subject, I recommend the following books:

Without question, the first book I’d recommend would be “Biblical Preaching” by Dr. Haddon W. Robinson (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2001). Dr. Robinson’s is recognized as an esteemed authority on the subject of biblical preaching, and is one of the greatest preaching instructors in ministry today. I have heard him preach a few times myself; and have been amazed at the power God gives him in his preaching. His book is used by Bible colleges and seminaries around the world; because the method he teaches is so simple and clear. If you can’t get any other book on the subject but this one, you’ll certainly have more than enough to help make you an effective preacher!

The second book I’d recommend – one that has blessed me greatly – is “Preaching & Preachers” by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971). Reading this book reminds me a lot of what it would be like to have an older, more experienced preacher put his godly arm around you and giving you good, sanctified advice. Dr. Lloyd-Jones’ book will help you think the right things about the awesome task of preaching. Not everyone will agree with all he has to say; but I have read his book many times, and have gained something that made me a better preacher each time I did.

A third book I would recommend is “Rediscovering Expository Preaching”, which is written and edited by Dr. John MacArthur and the faculty of Master’s Seminary (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1992). This book is a lot like having a whole seminary course on preaching in your hand. Dr. MacArthur has set a standard in our day for expository preaching; and he has gathered much expert advice together in this book. It contains separate chapters on all the different stages of sermon preparation; and it will walk you through the different steps of getting ready to preach. I highly recommend it.

If any of this proves helpful to you in your ministry of proclaiming God’s eternal truth to the people in your care, than I am grateful to Him. Thanks very much for an excellent question. God bless you.

Yours in Christ’s love,

Pastor Greg

(All Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)

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