Preaching by the Numbers
Here is a 12-step process that will help you be thoroughly prepared for your next sermon.
By Doug Green
I love both cooking and home improvement shows. I am keen on spatulas and hammers. The experts on these shows teach me how to make it happen. I can make a six-layer chocolate cake moments after installing a skylight in the living room. It’s fun to see the process unfold, step by step.
Is it possible to have the same enthusiasm about preparing a sermon?
I believe so, because preaching also has a unique sequence. There are practical steps to follow in sermon preparation. From the time you open your Bible on Tuesday to the time you deliver your sermon on Sunday, preparation has a path you will want to utilize each week.
Let us walk through the process — a practical process that will help you be thoroughly prepared for your next sermon. This process might seem overwhelming, but it is doable.
First, let me address the supernatural side of sermon preparation: prayer, self-examination, confession, the need to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, and such. These actions undergird the science of sermon craft. God speaks to humanity, and pastors tell about it from the pulpit. To be entrusted with such an honor is enough to keep you on your knees. Through Him, we can do it. Without Him, we cannot.
1. TEXT: Select the Passage
What biblical text am I using?
Start with the Bible. In proper literary context, you select a text (X number of verses) consistent with the logic and structure of the writer’s intention. Seek to find a reasonably coherent unit of thought. It can be one verse, one paragraph, one chapter, or one book. Size is not the issue; unity and coherence of the passage are.
Because each genre in the Bible is unique, each one requires special consideration. For example, an epistle is usually organized in paragraphs based on units of thought. Note how the author moves from one topic to another. Handle each unit as a separate sermon.
A narrative passage follows a plot. You would not preach just a paragraph of the story; you would tell the full story. In longer stories (e.g., the Abraham narrative), pay attention to how the story shifts location and time to find where one part of the story ends and the other starts. Handle each new scene (unit) as a separate sermon.
Poetic passages, like the Psalms, are grouped by stanzas. You might want to preach a single stanza, but you are generally safe to preach the entire Psalm. (Psalm 119, however, might take more than one sermon.) Preach each poetic unit as a separate sermon.
As a general rule, applying to all genres, choose a unit of biblical thought (with a clear start and finish) as the text.
2. RESEARCH: Study the Passage and Gather Your Notes
What can I learn about this text?
The primary goal of research is to find context. Every unit of thought fits into a larger context. In a paperback novel, for example, we would treat chapter 8 as part of the whole story. Each preaching unit is part of a larger context within a wider framework of Scripture. For example, you cannot pull a single word out of its rooted connection to its sentence, its paragraph, its chapter, and so on.
Before you turn to research tools, read the passage and interact with what you hear. Read it out loud. Words leap off the page in a different way when you hear them and see them. Make notes, ask questions, try to discern what you do and do not understand.
After you have spent time reading the text, consider using tools: lexicons, concordances, Bible dictionaries, and commentaries. Gather notes about your text. (I print out multiple copies of my passage on a white piece of paper with wide margins. I use these to take all my notes as I interact with the words of the text — circling key thoughts, drawing connections, underlining key words, and making notes in the margins. I try to be high tech, but at this stage there is nothing better than paper and ink.)
After gathering pages of notes, you should have a good handle on the context of the passage.
3. BIG IDEA: Discover the Exegetical Idea
What is the big idea?
The Bible is a collection of ideas. Each unit of thought (preaching passage) has a distinctive idea. Biblical sermons share the Bible’s unique big ideas, inspired by the Holy Spirit and written by an ancient author.
To determine the main idea of the biblical text you selected, ask four questions. (I will use Psalm 1 as an example.)
- What is the topic? The topic of the passage is not the big idea but the one-or two-word concept of the passage. (Topic of Psalm 1: God’s paths.)
- What is the subject? Every biblical writer writes with a question in mind. This is how we write. We answer questions when we form ideas, obvious or not. The Holy Spirit guided the questions of the author, and He will help you find them in the text. As you study your preaching portion, understanding the original author’s intent, you will find the question propelling the text. (Subject of Psalm 1: Where do God’s paths lead?)
- What is the complement? After identifying the subject (the overall question of the author), complete it with the complement (the answer the author provides). Just as a question demands an answer, a subject demands a complement. (Complement of Psalm 1: They lead to wisdom and life.)
- What is the big idea? If you join the biblical author’s subject/question with his complement/answer, you will have the big idea of the passage. This is what you preach. It becomes the unifying idea of your sermon. Every part of your sermon from beginning to end is about this idea, for thisidea is the point of the passage. The preacher does not create a biblical sermon’s big idea; he extracts it from the text. (Big idea of Psalm 1: God’s paths lead to wisdom and life.)
4. ANALYSIS: Analyze the Exegetical Idea
How can I analyze my big idea?
Now that you have a big idea, there are only four things you can do: restate, explain, prove, or apply it. Analyzing your big idea will propel the rest of your preparation. Ask four analyzing questions. (Psalm 1 big idea: God’s paths lead to wisdom and life.)
- Restatement: Do I need to restate it? (Not really.)
- Explanation: What does it mean? Does this concept, or parts of it, need explanation? (Explain key concepts: God’s paths, wisdom, and life.)
- Proof: Is it true? Can I prove this is true? (Can you show examples or testimonies where this has proven true? Is it always true? Immediately? Eventually?)
- Application: What difference does it make?(If somebody is ready to walk God’s path, how does he do it? How will that look at work? At home? In tough times? In easy times?)
Because we want our hearers to obey the Word, we want them to apply it. (So what?) But they will not apply it if they do not believe it. (Is it true?) Furthermore, they will not believe it if they do not understand it. (What does it mean?)
If they understand it, they can believe it; and, if they believe it, they can apply it. Our goal is to remove roadblocks keeping them from doing the Word, allowing them to know and experience Scripture in word and deed.
5. IDEA: Formulate the Homiletical Idea
What is the simplest way to state my big idea?
You are now ready to say it in a lean and concise way. This tight reshaping will be your homiletical idea in about 15 words or less. It will be simple, forceful, and memorable. You will want to use concrete language –– language that is familiar to your listeners.
You will not compromise your commitment to the truths of the text, but the language you use to describe it needs to be accessible by all. Consider these questions:
- How can I state it for the ear?
- Can it be easily grasped when heard only once?
- Is it stated in positive, not negative language?
- Is it relevant to contemporary culture?
- Do I need to remove any religious verbiage?
You will want a sentence that summarizes the big idea of the text, stated so your listeners can sense you are talking to them about them.
Is your idea clear in your head? If you were abruptly awakened on a Saturday night, shaken by both shoulders, and asked what you are preaching about, would you be able to sit straight up and state your big idea with limited hesitation? If you know what you are saying before you get to the pulpit, there is a greater probability your congregation will know what you are saying when you are in the pulpit.
(Psalm 1: “God’s paths lead to wisdom and life” is concise, but can become “Walk this way and it’ll pay.”)
6. PURPOSE: Determine the Sermon’s Purpose
What is the purpose?
Purpose is a hot word in church leadership. Understanding the function and purpose of a sermon will make the sermon more meaningful — to deliver and hear.
Consider these questions:
- Why am I preaching this?
- When I finish preaching, what will the people be able to do?
- What beliefs, attitudes, actions, or values should change as a result of hearing this sermon?
- Why did the author write this?
- What effect did he want it to have on his original audience?
- Why was it included in the Bible?
Prayerfully submit this quest to the Holy Spirit, discerning what God desires to accomplish through your sermon. This purpose becomes the goal. This goal can be new knowledge, fresh insight, changed attitude, or acquired skill.1 Write your goal in a way that ensures evaluation, giving you the ability to determine success.
(Goal for Psalm 1: Listeners should be convinced that following God’s ways is not only the right thing to do, but the smartest thing to do.)
7. SHAPE: Choose the Sermon Shape
What is the appropriate shape?
There are deductive and inductive sermons. A deductive sermon places the big idea at the beginning; an inductive sermon places it at the end. The deductive sermon tells up front where the sermon is going; the inductive sermon keeps listeners guessing. A deductive/inductive sermon places the big idea in the middle.
Consider the shape of your purpose statement:
- If the purpose is to inform, your form should favor explanation (deductive).
- If the purpose is to persuade, your form will lead hearers to come to your conclusion on their terms (inductive).
- If the purpose is to inform and persuade, your form will draw the listener in (through induction) and then explain (through deduction).
8. OUTLINE: Outline the Sermon
What is the appropriate structure?
Now you are ready to write an outline. The text will shape your outline. The goal of expository preaching is to expose the text. The big idea is the main idea; the outline is what the author of the text is saying about the big idea (the points).
A good outline helps the listener follow the preacher’s thoughts. It helps the preacher have a flow. A sermon based on a good outline has unity, order, and progress. The work of writing an outline has these benefits:
- It heightens a sense of unity because it forces the preacher to view the sermon as a whole, not as parts.
- It crystallizes the order of ideas, making sure you will give them to the listener in the appropriate sequence.
- It exposes the places in the outline requiring additional illustrations to aptly develop each point.
9. ILLUSTRATIONS: Fill in the Sermon Outline
How can I illustrate?
Good illustrations (stories, examples, explanations, analogies, restatements, quotations, statistics, and so on) help reinforce the big idea, allow listeners tangible, concrete ways to obey Scripture.
Effective illustrations connect the scriptural idea to the audience’s personal experience. They arouse attention and stir emotions. They establish rapport, show care, and create sympathy.
They must be realistic, understandable, and believable. They must be authentic, allowing the preacher to identify with the needs of the audience, coming alongside, not down on.
Listeners love transparency, for the best stories are personal stories, especially stories that do not make the preacher the hero in every way possible. Stories from your week are always your best source of fresh inspiration. The more personal, the more powerful.
Use illustrations to show your listeners what the truth of the text looks like. Tell stories that turn their ears into eyes. Model the healthy biblical action into the plot. Show; don’t just tell.
10. BOOKENDS: Prepare the Introduction and Conclusion
How do I introduce and conclude?
Now that you know where you are going and what you are attempting to do, write the introduction and conclusion. The temptation will be to write them first, but wait till you know what you are introducing and concluding. The introduction and conclusion are tools that serve the body of the sermon, which serves the text. They open and close the curtain for the main act — the exposition of the biblical text.
In the introduction, listeners decide whether or not they will continue to listen. If the introduction is fuzzy, the listener will be confused the rest of the way. A good introduction will appeal to three important features of the listener:
- ears — arresting attention and arousing curiosity.
- heart — exposing need and linking it to the listeners.
- head — introducing the topic.
The conclusion bookends the sermon, giving the congregation another view of the main idea, entire and complete, driving it home, giving a final reminder of the truth proclaimed in the biblical text. There are many shapes for a good conclusion, but the safest shape is a summary reinforcement, helping land the plane without circling the airport. Attempt to stop talking before your congregation stops listening.
11. MANUSCRIPT: Write the Manuscript
How can I write it all down in full completion?
Much of your content is either in outline form or bulleted segments within the outline. Bring everything you have together and write out the entire sermon in full sentences and full paragraphs. The process of doing so will not only complete the sermon on paper, but help you think about each concept all the way through.
On my computer I type in 14-point font, on a single-spaced Word document. When it is time for a new paragraph, I start one. I indent my illustrations. I put scriptural passages in red and direct quotations (letters, e-mails, quotes, etc.) in blue.
Each page equals about 5 minutes. If I am trying to speak 30-35 minutes, I need to keep my manuscript to 7 or 8 pages. If I have 10 or more pages, I will go too long.
The manuscript forces you to think through all of these issues. The discipline of putting it on paper makes you better prepared for the delivery. It exposes sermon strengths and weaknesses. It becomes visible evidence you are or are not ready to preach.
12. REHEARSAL: Practice the Sermon
How can I practice?
Although I write the sermon word for word, I do not take my manuscript to the pulpit. I rehearse by reading it over and over again, making sure I have said everything the way God wanted me to say it. I look for fuzzy and weak transitions. Sometimes when I am prepared ahead of time, I put my manuscript down for a season and come back to it when my head is clear. The time away and the return to what I have written brings new insight — both what I need to delete and what I need to add. I make the edits and I read it over again.
I try to walk through the contents from memory. Each movement of the sermon’s logic should naturally flow into the next movement. Usually, when I cannot remember what comes next, it’s because there’s a flaw in the logic and I need to adjust my connection. If I can reduce my sermon to a series of key words or visuals, I can go to the pulpit with limited or no notes.
What I may lose in content by not preaching from my notes, I will gain in contact. Since the vast majority of human communication (as much as 90 percent) is nonverbal (nonmanuscript), it is best to minimize the amount of time you spend in the pulpit looking at your notes or reading your manuscript. The more eye contact you have, the more effective you will be. Your body language and how you speak are vital to your effectiveness. Practice your sermon in front of a mirror or a video camera. See what your congregation sees. Practice your vocal skills.
This is why I leave my manuscript behind. I cannot be effective without preparing it because it forces me to think through every thought. Subsequently, I cannot be effective by taking it to the pulpit because I need to connect with the congregation as one who is right alongside them, walking through the life-changing words of a living God.
I heard Chuck Swindoll speak to a group of pastors. He told us the last sound he wants to hear when he leaves this earth to meet his Savior is the sound of his head hitting the pulpit. He wants to go out preaching the Word. I love this fervor.
Although sermon preparation and delivery are not easy tasks, and it does seem more fun at times to cook or do a home improvement project, the assignment to preach and the grace and power to pull it off week after week is the highest honor God can possibly give the pastor. I know the sacrifice to do so with excellence and authority. I get it. I do it every week just like you. It’s hard work.
With that said, it is also a tremendous blessing to spend time each week with words that are eternal, provided by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is fulfilling to spend days helping people meet a God who speaks directly to their hearts through His Word. He uses the humble, contrite pastor like you and me. This trust is more than enough for me. I can do it, through His strength, a bit better than last week, and so can you.
Until we hear the sound of our heads hitting the pulpit.
1. For a complete chart on how to write a sermon purpose, see Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 110.
For a thorough guide through sermon preparation, consider the following textbooks and authors. They have influenced much of what I know about preaching:
Robinson, Haddon W. 2001. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Grand Rapids: Baker.
Sunukjian, Donald R. 2007. Invitation to Biblical Preaching: Proclaiming Truth With Clarity and Relevance. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications.
Chapell, Bryan. 2005. Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon. Grand Rapids: Baker.