On Sermon Preparation

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. – 2 Timothy 2:15

A pastor’s primary responsibility is to preach and teach the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 4:1-5). Faithfulness to this holy charge requires personal devotion, diligent study, and laborious preparation. Sermons don’t grow on trees! Well, biblical, Christ-exalting sermons don’t. Good preaching is hard work.

But how do you get from text to sermon? What steps should a preacher take to preacher a sound, clear, and helpful sermon?

The following steps represent my regular process of sermon preparation. It is not the only way to do it. But you may find it beneficial to compare another preacher’s process of sermon preparation.

Pray. Start your sermon preparation with prayer. Pray that the Lord would open my eyes (Ps. 119:18) and give me understanding (Ps. 119:34). But do not let this become a perfunctory act. Prayer needs to pervade every aspect of the process. Pray that Christ would oversee your study. Trust the Holy Spirit lead to you to the truth. Seek the mind of God in the text. Repent as the text confronts you with sin in your life. Pray for wisdom as you read. Ask for clarity as you write.

Read and reread the text. Before you understand what a text means, you need to listen to what it says. So don’t begin crafting an outline before you have spent time reading the text. Read prayerfully, slowly, and carefully. Read it aloud. Mark it up as you read. Read expecting the text to speak to you. Then read the text again. And again. Saturate your mind with the text until it gets into your system.

Compare translations. You may study and preach from a particular translation. But it pays to read the text from several different versions. It can help you to see the text with fresh eyes. It will highlight words that need to be studied further. And it will further get the text into your heart and mind. Read the committee translations, like the New King James, New American Standard, English Standard Version, and New International Version, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible. Likewise, read some good paraphrases, like the Living Bible, J.B. Phillip’s paraphrase, or Eugene Peterson’s The Message.

Do observations of the text. The inductive Bible study method asks four big questions of the text: (1) Observation: What does it say? (2) Interpretation: What does it mean? (3) Application: How does it apply? And (4) Correlation: How does it relate (to the rest of scripture)? But it all begins with Observation. Start your formal study of the text with an open Bible, pen and paper (or computer keyboard). Just work through what you see in the text. Note long, important, repeated, difficult, or repeated words. Do sentence diagrams. Ask journalistic questions (who, what when, where, and why?) Do “sanctified brainstorming” until you have thought yourself clear.

Perform word studies. You may not be an expert in the original languages. But with all of the study helps available, there is no excuse for you misreading the words of the text. Study word meanings, grammar, and usage. Then make sure you put what you learn in clear, picturesque language, so that you do not drown your people in technical details unnecessarily.

Review the cross-references. This is the Correlation part of the inductive Bible study method. You want to make sure your reading of your text lines up with what the rest of scripture has to say on the subject. If you have an idea that cannot be backed up anywhere else in scripture, you’re wrong. So let scripture interpret scripture by carefully reviewing pertinent cross-references. Some may suggest themselves as you study. Or use a topical Bible (like Nave’s) or The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge.

Read the commentaries. There is wisdom in the multitude of counselors. So take advantage of the wisdom of diligent Bible commentators. Don’t treat commentators as if they are divinely inspired. But be humble enough to learn from the wisdom of others. Read exegetical commentaries for insights into the text. Read homiletical commentaries with a view toward shaping the text for the pulpit. Read devotional commentaries to get at the heart of the text for application. Read the commentaries to sharpen your thinking, not to steal material. Milk a lot of cows, but churn your own butter.

Survey additional sources. Thank God for the Internet! There are many church and ministry websites where sermons outlines, manuscripts, and audio messages are posted. Likewise, there are books of sermons, which may have a chapter on the text you are working on. And there are sermons tapes, CD’s, and mp3s you can pick up to hear how different preachers have dealt with your text. Take advantage of these resources to broaden your thinking as you prepare your message.

Develop a Sermon Skeleton. A “Sermon Skeleton” is a statement of your sermon’s purpose, aims, and structure. This is where you put your study material together in sermonic form. Pick a title. Identify the doctrinal theme of the message. State the point, thesis, or Big Idea of the sermon in a single sentence.  Work through the objectives for the sermon (What do you want the hearer to think, feel, do?). Craft your outline. Write out your transitional sentences.

Write a complete sermon manuscript. If you develop your Sermon Skeleton carefully, you may be tempted to slap an introduction and conclusion on it and declare yourself ready to preach. Resist that temptation. Take the time to write out a complete, word-for-word manuscript. You may not take it to the pulpit. In fact, I recommend you don’t. You should prepare a brief set of notes for preaching. But these pulpit notes should be pared down from a complete sermon manuscript.

In summary, your sermon process should consist of several practical steps: Think yourself empty. Read yourself full. Write yourself clear. And pray yourself hot. Then go to the pulpit and be yourself. But don’t preach yourself. Preach Jesus to the glory of God!

Did you find this article helpful? How do you go from text to sermon? Any sermon preparation ideas you want to share? Join the conversation in the comments section.