Posted on 27 Sep 2013 by Mark Leong
While the preacher stands up in public to deliver his sermons each week, few people get to see him at his desk in preparation. In this post I want to take you behind the scenes to show you the four stages that I work through in preparing a sermon:
- Working on the text
- Commentary and other reference work
- Planning and outlining
- Writing out
The screenshot above is how I usually set up my work space for writing out sermons: text, notes, outline and manuscript.
1. Working on the text
I begin by working on the passage that I’m going to teach, reflecting on what it says and taking note of any questions I have and the issues it raises in my mind. This is of course framed, whenever possible, by prior study of the wider context (usually at the level of the book from which the passage is taken). The aim here is to work out the original context and message of the text.
While making notes on the text, I am often already getting a sense of how it needs to be taught and applied. At this stage though, I try not to get too involved in how I am going to teach it and consign myself for now to just write these ideas down in my notes, to which I will return later in the third stage of my prep. Once I’ve exhausted the text and written down all my questions and ideas, it’s time to do some background reading.
2. Commentary and other reference work
If time is limited or if the text is particularly long, I may only read one commentary on the passage (see http://bestcommentaries.com/ if you want to know which commentaries are best). Ideally, I’d want to read 2-3 commentaries on the text to see how the different commentators handle the text and any exegetical difficulties.
I try to pick one “old guy” commentator alongside the modern ones. This is not because I have a rosy view of the past that assumes that old is gold, but because they wrote from a context with different cultural biases and blind spots than those of this day and are therefore able to challenge the thought and culture of today in a way that modern commentators are sometimes unable to. It also helps me to get a gradual education in church history for free!
Sometimes if a passage raises particular theological issues, I will take some time to look through the relevant topic in a systematic theology textbook. This helps me to decide in light of the rest of Scripture how much to make of what this passage says on a given topic.
Work at this stage helps me figure out any difficult parts of the text and often shows me details that I missed or considered insignificant in my own study. Everything that I think here gets added to my notes on the text.
3. Planning and outlining
This is the stage at which the sermon gets put together. Here I think through everything that I’ve worked out about the passage and decide what I am going to aim to achieve with the sermon and how I am going to go about doing so. This is a time of shaping and working out priorities; not every idea and question from my notes will make it into the sermon.
By the end of this stage I will have produced an outline, which will show how the points in the sermon fit together to form one extended argument and exhortation. Sometimes it will be a classic 3-pointer, but other times the natural shape of the text will suggest a better form.
I try to go into as much detail as I can at this stage, thinking through illustrations, length, my audiences’ presuppositions etc.
My planning at this stage isn’t linear; I tend to move up and down through the outline as I work on the sermon as a whole. This is necessary because earlier parts of the sermon will often have to be set up in a certain way so that what comes later has legs to stand on – not just in my head after having thought about the text for an extended period, but also in the minds of those that I am speaking to.
Having time away from working on the sermon after producing an outline is particularly helpful. If I am able to come back to my outline a day or more after having done my initial work on it, I often find I have “new eyes” to see improvements that I can make.
4. Writing out
The final stage of my sermon prep process is writing out the sermon in full. Here I work from my outline to figure out how I will say what I am trying to communicate.
Not all preachers do this, but for me it’s something I must do because it makes me (at least mentally) vocalise what I am going to say so that I can hear what it sounds like. Sometimes points that look simple on paper in my outline turn out to be difficult to explain in speech. This is the stage that allows me to discover these tough spots before I get up to preach. I find also that the discipline of writing down what I am going to say makes me think more clearly about my outline and argument as a whole, which means I often get to improve my outline as I work on my manuscript.
After my manuscript is done and if time permits, I run through it under my breath as if I was preaching it. The first thing I’ll be looking out for is parts that will be hard for my audience to catch because my sentences are too long or because I am making too many points in too short a time. The second thing I’ll be doing is annotating my manuscript with formatting (adding colour/bolding for emphasis/changing whole words to uppercase) that will help me say the sentences with the right emphasis and tone. I find this helpful because in the pulpit there are many things to think about and it is easy to not quite get the tone right. These annotations help me remember to say what I need to in the way that I mean to.
Please pray for me that I would “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2 ESV).