So, you’re scheduled to preach… huh?
Whether you are a seasoned preacher or a novice who is only just starting out, you are probably glad to hear how other preachers prepare for the task. As a matter of fact, a preacher spends far more time on preparation than he does on preaching, and yet preparation is the part the job which very few people actually see. So many preachers have fewer tools in the belt than they’d like as they start to build their sermon.
To the interested reader, a few good books will give you more than this article. I recommend Preach by Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert. This book will provide an over the shoulder look at how two different preachers think about preaching and how they each prepare to do it. I also recommend Getting the Message by Daniel Doriani. This book will help the preacher with some basic mechanics for interpreting and applying the Bible faithfully.
The content below is my own list of tips and helps, which I give to any preacher in my own church. When I invite a church member to preach for the first time or when i want to encourage an experienced preacher to hone his craft, I send the substance below. In other words, this is the stuff I use in real life as a preacher and as a pastor of other preachers. May it be a help to you in some way.
As you begin to prepare, you’ll want to keep some general thoughts in mind.
In one sense, preaching is nothing special. You aren’t firing a rocket to the moon. You’re simply reading a text from the Bible, interpreting that text, and then seeking to explain it and apply it in generally helpful ways.
Take comfort, my friend. Your effort to faithfully perform this simple (i.e. uncomplicated) task is likely going to honor Christ and edify His people!
In another sense, preaching is totally unique. A preacher stands between God and the world, and he has the audacity to say, “Thus says the LORD God of the universe…” A preacher stands ahead of a congregation and aims to do great good to all of them by feeding their eternal souls with the living and active words of God.
Take notice, my friend. God Himself will judge you for what you say and do in the pulpit.
Lastly, remember that God is delighted to bless faithful preachers. The time and effort you give to preparation and to the delivery of your sermon will likely be a great blessing to you and to those who hear you. Just try your best to be faithful to Scripture. Aim to persuade the unconverted, to motivate the lethargic, to comfort the downcast, to rebuke the rebellious, and to strengthen the weak. In humility, pray that God will help you… and trust that He will.
Now, on to the mechanics of preparing.
First, familiarize yourself with the context of your passage.
Try to understand the basic idea of the book and the context of the verse or verses. Read the whole book in which your verse is found (in one sitting if you can). Most books of the Bible can be read in less than 30 mins, and those that take longer are usually narratives, which can be broken into smaller portions according to the storyline. Psalms and Leviticus are exemplary exceptions, but books like these can also be broken into productive chunks.
If you can read the whole book multiple times (like once every day for a week or two), then you will notice great gains in your familiarity with the flow and content of the book. This will help you keep from pulling your particular preaching passage out of context later. You’ll also want to read your specific passage many times over. I recommend reading it aloud as well, and you may benefit from having someone else read it out loud to you (audio tech tools can be a help here).
Pray through your passage, asking God to grant what He commands there or praising God for what He reveals about Himself there. I regularly find myself praying, “God, help me believe this!” or “God, help me trust You for this!” or “God, help me do this!” Prayer will be helpful throughout your preparation, and remember that God intends for us to depend upon Him for illumination and insight.
Outlining your passage is another exercise to familiarize yourself with it. You might outline the whole book (like Titus or Colossians) or you might just outline the immediate Scripture context (like the storyline centered upon Joseph in the book of Genesis or the storyline focused on Jesus and the woman at the well in John’s Gospel).
However broad your outline reaches, you want to zero in on an outline for your passage. This outline for your preaching text is often called an exegetical outline. Try to create an outline on your own, without using someone else’s notes. If you’ve never done this before, or if you want to check yourself after you’ve done it, then you can usually find an outline of each book of the Bible in a study Bible or a commentary. In a study Bible, it’s almost always at the beginning of the book, where other introductory notes can be found as well.
The second step in preparation is collecting your thoughts.
Write or type them out. Don’t worry about organizing them yet, and don’t worry about having too much. Just put down everything that comes to mind.
- What does God reveal about Himself here?
- Is a major Christian doctrine addressed here?
- What does God reveal about humanity here?
- Is this passage primarily an imperative (command) or an indicative (a description of what is true)?
- How does the indicative of this passage lead into or undergird the imperative?
- What is the main point or theme or idea of this passage?
Write down personal questions or comments too.
- What do you personally find confusing here?
- Is there some odd word or concept you don’t quite understand?
- What sticks out as especially profound or powerful?
- Is there anything about this passage you’d like to study further when you have the time later on?
Whatever personal thoughts or questions you have about your passage, these may give you insight to the kinds of confusion or interest your listeners might have when you preach through it. In the end, you’ll have to decide what content to keep and what to leave on the cutting room floor, but everyone will benefit from the time you give to diving into your passage as deeply as possible within the time-frame you have available.
Third, you should organize your thoughts.
Arrange your thoughts in a sermon outline (often called a homiletical outline), such as the one below. Most preachers have a set time window, and I find it helpful to generally allocate space to each major point or section based on the time I want to spend there. An even distribution might be: 5 minutes on an introduction, 10 minutes on each major point, and 5 minutes on a conclusion.
Preparing an introduction may give you the chance to sharpen your focus at the outset of creating your outline, but I often write my introduction after I’ve completed most or all of my outline (sometimes even after I’ve written most of my sermon’s content). I am regularly not clear about how to concisely introduce my theme or emphasis until I’ve gotten pretty far into my sermon outline.
Whenever you choose to create your introduction, the body of your message is where you’ll spend most of your time. I find the traditional 3-point-sermon to be a faithful friend. I have sometimes strayed, using many more or even less, but 3 points regularly work just fine for building out the message I want to communicate. Here is one way you might structure your points:
- Background/Scene/Context – Help the congregation understand the basic idea of the book and the context of the verse.
- Who is the author?
- Who is the audience?
- What is the author’s purpose?
- What is the occasion?
- How does this relate to our own circumstances?
- How should our own perspective or posture be calibrated by this information?
- Explain/Interpret the Passage – Help the congregation understand what the passage is actually saying.
- What did this mean when the author wrote it?
- What themes or doctrines or commands do we see in the verse?
- How might you summarize the truth-claims or the commands in modern language?
- Application – Help the congregation understand what they should do and/or what they should believe because of what you have explained.
- What should a non-Christian do with this verse?
- What should a middle-aged mom do with it?
- What should a retired couple do with it?
- A weak or hurting Christian?
- A proud or indifferent Christian?
- What should the church as a whole do or change by way of application?
- How should church members adjust their practice of hospitality or their discipling efforts or their financial giving?
Fourth, decide what you’re going to bring with you to the pulpit.
Once you have your thoughts organized, you may want to write out a full manuscript of what you intend to say when you preach. Even if you don’t plan to preach from a full manuscript, the exercise of writing the whole thing out will probably help you be far more focused in your preaching than you might otherwise be.
There are various arguments among preachers about what you should bring with you to the pulpit. Should you preach from a full manuscript? Should you bring detailed or limited notes? Should you bring nothing at all? The short answer is: do whatever seems to fit your skill and personality best. But whatever you do, do it for God’s glory and not yours or anyone else’s.
If your personality is strong and you are comfortable with extemporaneous speaking, then you might use a manuscript in order to keep yourself from becoming too much of a distraction from the content of the message. You might also want a manuscript if you are less experienced or if you are prone to chase rabbits off the trail.
If you are naturally dry and monotone, then maybe you’ll want to use as few notes as possible so as to keep your eyes up and your face toward the congregation. Some preachers also find the discipline of using no notes in the pulpit to be an invigorating experience of God’s help and human dependence.
Remember that God’s Spirit will be with you in the study just as much as He is with you in the pulpit. Don’t be so naive as to think that a greater or lesser use of notes in the pulpit necessarily means any greater or lesser dependence upon God’s Spirit. Just prepare diligently, pray for God’s help, and faithfully preach as well as you may with whatever tools will help you do it with excellence and without distracting from God’s word.
May God raise up more faithful preachers, and may God bless the time and effort you might spend on this worthwhile task of preaching.
If you are a preacher, and if you are helped by any of the content I’ve listed here, then I’d be so glad to hear from you. If you aren’t far from East Texas, then I might even be interested in hearing you preach sometime. Drop me a line… Who knows what could happen?