Bonus article: How to prep a sermon

A guide for 'doing' sermons

As a bonus for this week, and as promised, here’s a draft paper that I prepared for the trainees at Campus Bible Study to work through as they are preparing sermons. I’m sharing it:

  • in case it proves useful in giving your own sermon prep a fresh twist

  • so that you can use it with preachers-in-training that you’re working with

  • and so that you can tell me how to improve it!

It’s based on the idea I put forward a few weeks ago that our aim when we preach is do for our hearers now what God was doing through the text we are preaching.

And a Bible verse to pin to your wall as you do this:

Isa 55:10-11  For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

How to do a sermon

The preparation unfolds in 4 phases:

  • Phases 1 and 2 work out what God was doing in the original context; what was the force, purpose and desired effect of the words spoken through the original human author;

  • Phases 3 and 4 are about re-performing that action or purpose of God’s word for your hearers now; bringing the word to them with a force, purpose and desired effect drawn from the original context, but matching our context now (as people on whom the end of the ages has come). In other words—let the main purpose and content of the passage be the main purpose and content of your sermon.

Phase 1: Context and observation

  • Skim read the whole book in which the passage is located (or at the very least read the NBD or NBC article on the book). What’s your sense of what the whole book is about? 

  • What genre or kind of writing is this? 

  • Read your passage through once.

  • Now read the couple of chapters immediately before your text, noting down anything you think is significant as background or context for your passage.

  • Translate your passage from the original language or read it again carefully in a very literal translation (the RV or ASV), noting any key differences from your usual translation. 

  • Work over your text carefully and write down (and/or mark up) anything significant you observe:

    • Repeated words or ideas

    • Key characters/people 

    • Striking or repeated images or metaphors

    • Important verbs (inc any key commands or directives)

    • Important connecting words/phrases (logical connections, or markers showing a change of time or location)

    • Anything else at all that strikes you as important to the intent of the whole passage

    • Anything you find puzzling or unclear. 

  • Now write out a bullet point outline of the passage showing its structure (logical or narrative or poetic structure).

  • Have a look at a commentary or two at this point (and not before this point): 

    • To see if there’s something important you have missed in your observation

    • To compare your structure with the structure the commentary suggests

    • To dig into some of the puzzles/questions you have.

Phase 2: What is God doing in the passage?

  • What kind of communicative action is happening in the passage?

    • Are there one or more of these kinds of speech happening: promising, explaining, teaching, telling, declaring/announcing, warning, correcting, rebuking, exhorting, reminding, celebrating, mourning, crying for help, and so on?

    • How do these actions fit together? For example, is there a cry for help, followed by promise, followed by an outburst of rejoicing? Or is there an explanation or exposition of some truths followed by an exhortation or command?

    • What is the overall action of God’s word in the passage? How would you summarise it? What is his word ‘doing’ to whom? 

  • Why is God (through the author) doing these things? 

    • What presenting problem, issue or context explains why these things are being said (or done)?

    • How would you summarize the immediate circumstances or issue that has brought forth the speech in this particular passage? 

  • How is God (through the author) doing these things? 

    • With what arguments or points or reasons? 

    • What what content or stories or illustrations? 

    • I.e. what are the key elements of the passage that contribute to what God is doing through it overall? (For example, if he is promising something: what is he promising, on what basis?) 

  • For what expected response is God doing this? To what outcome?

    • What outcome or effect is expected in the original hearers or readers? 

    • How does the passage call on the reader to respond?

  • How does this passage connect with what God is doing in the whole of Scripture? 

    • That is, how does it relate to biblical theology: to the unfolding purpose of God, centred on Jesus Christ, that the whole Bible reveals?

    • If an OT passage, where does it fit in the overall story of God’s purposes? How does it point forward to the fulfillment that Jesus brings? How does it serve as an example for us, on whom the end of the ages has come? 

Phase 3: How can I do the same thing with my hearers?

  • What is it that I primarily want to do in this sermon that reflects what God is doing through this passage? To teach, explain, warn, promise, reassure, remind, rebuke, declare, celebrate …? 

    • There may be more than thing I want to do — I want to explain X so that I can then exhort them to Y. 

    • Boil your intention down to a simple sentence or two. 

  • Why is this relevant to my hearers?

    • What issues or questions in the life and mind of my hearers connect directly with what I want to do in the sermon?

    • For example, are their specific examples in their lives of the dangers that are being warned of, the joys that are being celebrated, the moral actions that are being taught or encouraged, etc.

    • Are there different hearers in my audience whom these issues will affect differently (e.g. non-Christians, new Christians, established Christians)? 

    • Is there an alternative understanding (current or common) that I will need to critique or clear away?          

  • What effect or outcome am I seeking for my hearers? (i.e one that matches the kind of outcome that the passage was looking for)

    • How would I pray that my hearers respond to the message; what outcome do I seek in their actions or thoughts or words?

    • Write a simple sentence or two that summarises this — that describes the ‘so what?’ of your sermon. (This is often called the ‘application’, but it doesn’t have to be some action to do. That would depend on what God is doing in the passage.) 

  • How am I going to it

    • What are the main arguments or points that would support what I want to achieve?

    • What illustrations or metaphors or images might help explain these key points?

    • What background or context would my hearers need to understand? 

    • What existing understandings or alternatives might I need to dismantle or refute in order for them to understand?

    • Write out in bullet point form the argument of your sermon that will do what you’ve said you want to (above) and lead to the desired outcome or response you’re wanting to get to (also above). 

    • What you’re doing here is sketching out the structural body of the sermon. 

  • How do I engage with my hearers at the start? 

    • How can I get my listeners intrigued, interested and ready to listen at the beginning? 

    • What question or issue could I pose? What mystery that needs solving? What common problem we experience? 

    • This should be directly connected with where you want to land/conclude — with the effect or outcome you’re seeking at the end. 

  • Pull together your outline

    • Based on the work you’ve just done, complete the rough outline of the whole talk. 

Phase 4: Prepare to speak

  • Write out the text of the whole talk, on the basis of your outline. 

    • Some people like to start with the body and then conclusion, before writing the intro. 

    • Others just start at the beginning. 

  • Once you’ve finished this, put it aside and don’t look at it for at least 24 hours. Two days is preferable. 

  • Come back to your sermon text and rework it. (Don’t be surprised if you make fairly significant changes at this point, especially in weeding out material that is not essential to your purpose.)

  • Read the re-worked text aloud, as if you were preaching it, and fix up anything that is clunky, that doesn’t sound natural to your speech, etc. 

  • Practise it once or twice more, so that you feel very comfortable with the text; so that you don’t need to read every word; so that it seems to the hearer like you’re speaking it rather than reading it. 

  • If you prefer, summarise your final text as a bullet point outline to speak from.