The process of preparing a sermon

When I prepare most sermons, I try to block out around two days or c.16 hours to get them done. Often, I don’t use up all that time. Occasionally, I run over and need a bit more. But I like to have that amount of time blocked out so I don’t feel under huge pressure as I prepare. I want to make sure I put in due time to get a handle on the text and get into the commentaries sufficiently.

Like with most things that are more art than science, there is not a set amount of time I take. Some sermons simply flow out of you. You read the text, it all seems pretty clear, the textual work just clicks and the applications all flow. For example, I was preaching the parable of the Sower the other week from Matthew’s gospel and the preparation for it really wasn’t very long at all. Not because I didn’t put the effort in but because it is such a straightforward passage that most the time was spent on application and, even that, didn’t take so long. I’m sure I didn’t take a full day to do that one.

Other sermons, however, take much longer. The reason I like to have two days available (where possible) is because, often, I find by the end of the first day I don’t appear to have written very much down at all. Particularly with tricky passages, or ones that aren’t hard to understand but are difficult to work out how you will preach them, a lot of time will be spent thinking about the main idea(s) and structure. One of the first things I try to do when writing a sermon is work out the overall thrust and then what the structure of the sermon will be. I know the rest will flow once I have my headline idea and I have worked out the three or four (or however many) points I am going to make that underpin the main point of the passage. But what that tends to mean in practice is – depending on the particular passage – the first morning, even by the end of the first day, if you were to look at what I have written down, you wouldn’t see much at all.

So, the very first thing I am able to do on any sermon is write the middle part of my introduction. I can’t write the opening part because I don’t actually know what the sermon is going to be about at this stage. I can’t write the last part of the introduction either because that is usually where I tell people what the main points will be that serve the main idea I told them about in the first bit. But I can write the middle part before doing anything else because that is where I give a few points of context on where we are up to in the book so far, which usually means looking through the last two or three sermons and briefly summarising the key ideas from them so that we can understand the context of what we are going to look at today. So, the first thing I write before anything else is three or four short points of context.

Once I have done that, I start reading the text of the passage in light of the context. What has been said up to now? How does this passage follow on? What seems to be the main idea in this passage? How is the passage structured to underpin the main idea? What, then, are the key preaching points to be drawn out of the passage? This is all a lot of reading, re-reading, thinking, consulting commentaries and re-reading again. My aim at the end of this part of the process is to have my main idea and my headline points with some note next to them of where they have been drawn from the text. Which usually means by the end of the first large chunk of time thinking about the passage, all I have on paper is a few points of context, a main idea and three or four headings with where they come from in the passage. This amounts to about five or six bullet points and no more.

From here, the work tends to flow much more easily. I begin with the first heading. This heading is usually a summary statement of what this part of the passage is about. I then focus my attention on the part of the passage and begin drawing out specifically what it is saying and connecting it back to my heading.

Once I have done that work and shown what the passage is saying, I then start applying it. What does this bit of the passage as summed up by the heading mean specifically for the people I am preaching to? What should they think or do as a result of it? What should they be encouraged by? What do they need to be challenged in? How does it apply to their very particular, but different, situations? What does it mean specifically for the asylum seeker in his hotel room waiting for a decision in his case? What does it mean for the single mum looking after children with complex needs? What does it mean for the person suffering through illness? What does it mean for the guys in various workplaces on Monday morning?

Once I have worked through these questions and applied it, I go back to my heading and change it. It was probably initially something like, ‘Jesus shows his authority by doing X’ just to give me clarity in what the text itself is saying on its own terms. Once I have done the work of thinking through and writing out application, I change the heading to the main point of application. So, if the passage is about Jesus showing his authority, and the main points of application have to do with submitting to the authority of Jesus, I change the heading to something like, ‘you need to submit to Jesus’ authority’ in order to connect what the passage says more directly with the people listening. Each point then becomes a broad statement of application showing how this is relevant to the people listening, some work showing from the text where that broad statement of application comes from and then some very pointed examples/challenges/encouragements for how this application specifically applies to us in our particular context. I repeat this process of textual work, application, changing the heading for each point I am making.

The very last thing I do in sermon prep is return to my introduction. I have already got the second part (a brief bit of context) and the third part (my structure of what I’m going to say), so now I write up the first part. This is where I introduce what the sermon is actually about, what the main idea in the sermon is and why anybody should bother listening to me for the next 30-40 minutes. Sometimes my introductions are more involved than at other times. Sometimes I just want to jump straight into the text. But ultimately, I can only write the opening part of the sermon once I actually know what I am saying and where it is going. Once I have written the opening part of the sermon, I am done with my initial draft. What exists would be a passable, preachable sermon if it was immediately required of me. However, there is one final step.

Usually, I am prepping my sermons around three months ahead of when they are due to be delivered. So, the sermon I am currently prepping and was working on yesterday is due to be delivered some time midway through February. I appreciate this isn’t for everyone, but I have found this to be a really valuable part of my preparation. It gives me a significant chunk of time between writing the full script and then editing it later on. So, having completed my first draft, the script then sits on file for three months or so untouched.

In the week running up to delivery, often on the Saturday so its freshest in my mind, I do a thorough edit. As I haven’t touched the script since writing the first draft, I effectively come back to it cold. I think this is as close as I can get to how people will hear my sermon and, if things are not clear to me in what I wrote, I am fairly sure they won’t be clear to anyone else. I find it is very easy in the mist of all the writing and studying, with commentaries and insights coming out your ears, to assume everything makes sense as you first wrote it. My experience coming back to the same script months later is that it just isn’t so. Giving myself that breathing room helps my edit and make my sermon much clearer.

It is not at all uncommon in my edit – when the thing is no longer as fresh in my mind as it was – to read things that probably made perfect sense when I originally wrote them down that, on this reading, are not nearly as clear as I first thought. These are precisely the bits of the sermon that either get entirely reworked or removed. The edit almost never adds anything (unless there has been some major cultural event or development that clearly serves what the text is saying or cannot be ignored). It is almost exclusively a cutting exercise, removing what is unnecessary, repetitive or obscures more than clarifies. There may be some edits of what is not as clear as it should be, but typically, what is not very clear gets removed. It is almost exclusively an exercise in reducing the word count and making the message sharper.

Once I have edited the whole thing, I do a full read through (out loud) in my office. I aim to write as I would speak, but in the midst of commentaries and writing full sentences I sometimes write as I would write. I find reading the whole thing out loud allows me to catch any bits where, whilst what I have written may be written nicely, it just isn’t how I would say it and it won’t land so well as it is spoken. I am conscious written and spoken communication are different and need to be done differently. So, my final read through serves two purposes. First, to catch any bits of written communication that need to be spoken differently. Second, to embed the sermon in my mind. I am not trying to read off a script particularly. I find when I have read the script out loud it sticks in my mind better such that when I glance at my notes, I can recall large chunks of it as I am delivering it. My script really does then become more of a prompt than something I am reading, which allows me to actually look at people while I’m speaking and apply the scriptures directly to them as I am speaking.

It should go without saying (but I will say it anyway), I commit all of this to the Lord in prayer. Without the Spirit’s work, nothing I say is going to do very much. So, I pray for help as I prepare, I pray for God’s blessing once I’ve prepared and I pray that he would help me deliver his Word helpfully just before I get up to do it. I probably don’t pray nearly as much as I ought about it, to be honest. It is all too easy to rely on competence and process in these things and I almost certainly should pray more than I do for the Spirit to be at work being as the results of these things are entirely his purview.

But that is how I prep my sermons. I usually blank out a couple of days for it (not including the Saturday edit later down the track). But I don’t have a particular time it takes me to do them. Sometimes, a sermon comes together in a few hours. Other times, I overrun the two days because the hard work of getting main ideas and working out how to preach the passage just isn’t coming. Sometimes I probably jump into the commentaries too early and rely on them too much. Sometimes that is more a hindrance than a help as they disagree with other and discuss technical details that obscure the overarching point of the passage! Broadly, anywhere between 8-16 seems to be about my normal preparation time.

This seems to be a setup that largely works for me. If there is anything in that helpful to you as you think of your own preparation, praise God. If that setup doesn’t or wouldn’t work for you, I can only say almost none of this is mandated in scripture and so do whatever works best for you. The key is that you work, not so much in the way you find easiest, but in the way that helps you to preach the best sermons it is within your ability to deliver. Sometimes we may need to adjust our preparation and make life harder for ourselves because the results will be significantly better. But harder doesn’t necessarily mean better sermons, it may just mean working against our natural temperament. That is for you to figure out and for those closest to you and who know you best to help you think about too. But maybe there is something here that is of use to you as you think about preparing sermons that will best serve your people.