The bread and butter of a pastor is preaching. Most of my seminary training was directed towards preparing me to preach. A lot of my time and energy are devoted to preaching or, more properly, preparing to preach. In this post, I want to fill you in with some of the details of how I prepare a sermon. I’ll divide it up day by day — Monday to Friday (I normally take Saturdays as my day off). This is only about preparing a sermon on a particular biblical passage — preparing catechism sermons is a different process.
First, A Word About Text Choice
I usually plan my preaching schedule in three month blocks. So, four times per year, I sit down and map out what I’m going to be preaching on. As described here, I typically practice “serial expository preaching.” I preach through books, verse-by-verse. That makes text-choice fairly straightforward. This past Sunday I preached on John 8:21-30; next Sunday I’ll be preaching on John 8:31-38. Sometimes I do go elsewhere in Scripture or do a series of textual sermons related to a topic. For example, this past year, I preached on a number of passages relating to “Building Community.” Of course, there are also the extraordinary Sundays with special events like ordination, profession of faith, and so on. For them, I usually select a text oriented to those occasions. While I don’t follow the practices of Lent or Advent, I do preach on the agreed-upon “days of commemoration” and choose fitting texts for those too. Whatever the case, whatever the occasion, when Monday morning rolls around I’m never casting about and wondering what I’m going to be preaching on in six days time.
My work begins with prayer. I ask God to help me understand his Word and preach it faithfully for the benefit of his people. Prayer is something that continues through the whole process, right up to and including the moment I’m on the pulpit delivering the sermon. It’s vitally important to remember that sermon preparation is a spiritual matter.
I then read the text in the original language — Hebrew, Greek, or even, rarely, Aramaic. I make my own translation of the passage. As I do, I note features that stand out or questions that arise.
Next comes some study of the state of the text and its preservation. As you may know, there are sometimes issues between various manuscripts. A preacher has to study those and reach his own conclusions.
I have a look at the grammar and syntax of the passage. Are there any noteworthy problems or special features that will have a bearing on the interpretation of the passage?
Tuesday is context day. I pay attention to what’s called canonics. Canonics is an area of study that deals with the books of the Bible and their authorship, purpose, date, themes, and so on. When I’m doing serial expository preaching, this step usually gets skipped after the first few sermons. For example, since I’ve preached dozens of sermons already on John, I’m quite familiar with these matters.
However, I never skip consideration of the literary context, both immediate and broader. I study the relation between the passage and what comes before and what comes after (immediate context). But I also study the passage in its connection to the rest of the book, and the rest of Scripture.
At times, depending on the text and what it involves, I’ll also study the historic or cultural context of the passage.
It’s Word Study Wednesday! This is the day I focus in on particular words or phrases that appear to have some special significance for the meaning of the passage.
Once again depending on the text, I may also look at the literary structure. Are there any special features that may help me in preaching?
This is the day I try to get the meaning of the passage clear in my own mind. My first step is to write out my own exegesis (or interpretation) of the passage, typically verse by verse. So I have my own idea of what the text means and how it might be preached and applied. I also think in terms of how the passage reveals God and how it speaks of Christ and the gospel.
Then it’s time to hit the commentaries. One could spend all day reading commentaries, but after a while, they do start repeating each other. One of my seminary professors recommended just selecting three commentaries, three that are quite different from one another. This has been my typical practice — unless there’s a really thorny issue where I want to check out what some others have said. The reason I consult commentaries is two-fold: 1) to check my own understanding against that of others. If I’m standing alone in my understanding of what the passage means, that could mean that I’ve gotten it wrong. 2) To fill in the gaps of my own understanding of the passage. Many times commentators will see things I missed in the passage.
Now I’m ready to start thinking in terms of crafting a sermon. I develop a theme and (usually) points. The theme and points form the structure for the sermon. I used to write sermon outlines, and occasionally still do, but I’ve found that serial expository preaching often creates its own outline.
At this point, I’ll also go back, look through my notes, and see if there’s a natural Bible reading that goes with the passage. For example, last Sunday when I preached on John 8:21-30, Jesus calls himself the “I am.” It made sense to read from Exodus 3 and Isaiah 43, both passages where God describes himself with those words.
What about the introduction to the sermon? I think good intros are really important. Sometimes it’ll come to me at this stage on late Thursday morning, but many times it doesn’t until I go for a walk on Thursday afternoon, or, sometimes, while I’m in the shower on Friday morning. Weird, eh?
Now it’s crunch time. I shamelessly preach from a full set of sermon notes/manuscript. I always have and, though I’ve experimented with preaching from notes/dot points, I doubt I’ll ever do it again. To me, it’s not worth it. Maybe more on that some other time. Anyway, on Friday morning I’m in my study writing out that sermon in full. It usually takes me until about lunch or maybe just past.
Friday evening comes and it’s time to finalize everything. I always aim to be done by 8:00 PM. I give the sermon a practice run — I speak it out loud. My notes get marked up as I’m doing this and then I make the necessary edits. Then it’s done and dusted, ready to go for Sunday morning. I normally don’t look at it again until I’m on the pulpit. But I’m certainly thinking and praying about it!
A Final Note
Please note that this post is entitled “How I Make a Sermon.” That’s intentional. It’s not “How to Make a Sermon.” This is my way of doing it and has been for a long time. It works for me. It’s not necessarily going to work for everyone because we’re all different. But here’s the thing: almost all the bits and pieces of my process have been cobbled together from learning what others do. If you’re a preacher early in the game, or perhaps a seminary student, maybe one or two of my bits and pieces will be helpful for you as well. For the rest of you, you get a little idea of what this particular minister spends a good deal of his time on.