Three Keys to Effective Sermon Preparation

“So what do you do for a living?”

I have a new answer to that question: “I write sermons.”

Occasionally, an alert listener will reply, “You only write sermons? Do you preach them?”

Then I give the punchline. “Sure, I do. But it’s hard to remember that part. As soon as the sermon is over, I have to start writing the next one!”

iStock_000021625716_Small-2That’s the life of a pastor. We have the joyful burden of weekly preparation. To keep your head about water and become effective you have to learn to hack the process.

You need a system for Bible study and sermon preparation. Whatever system you choose should include these three elements.

Read diligently.

You cannot be a faithful preacher if you are not willing to read. Reading is essential to sermon preparation. We are charged to preach the word (2 Tim. 4:2). How can you fulfill that charge without reading the word?

To understand a text, you must read it. And read it again. Then read it again. You must also consult reference books that will help you understand the meaning of the text. There is wisdom in a multitude of counselors. And the more you read, the more you glean from the wisdom of others to better understand the text.

It helps to read deeply and widely. If you can, don’t just read those with whom you already agree. Consult those who will stretch your thinking and force you to dig a little deeper.

Record carefully.

You should study when you are most alert and focused. It will help you to learn and remember what you learn. But still get an insurance policy – a pen and paper or a computer keyboard. Either way, record what you are learning. A dull pencil beats are sharp mind any day. You won’t remember everything. So don’t fill a bucket that has holes. Plug the holes by taking good notes.

Find a way to keep a good record of your what you learn. These notes will benefit you greatly as you turn from text to sermon. But don’t throw the research notes away after you complete the sermon. File them away. As you continue to preach, you will run into the same words or themes again. And that file can help you then.

You can speed up future study and make it a bit easier by keep a record of what you have learned in the past. In this way, you are creating your own study Bible. And you aid your growth as a Christian and preacher by building on what you have learned in the past.

Reflect prayerfully.

You have read deeply and widely. And you have recorded what you have learned. Now what do you do with all the material you have dug up? Whatever you do, please don’t rush to the pulpit and preach what you have learned!

Your exegetical notes are foundational for your sermon preparation. But they are not a sermon. And just because you know the facts of the text does not mean you have crystalized its meaning and message.

You need to spend time in prayerful reflection over what you have studied. Seek God about what the text applies to you. Is there a sin you should confess, a promise you should trust, or a command you should obey? Then consider those who will hear you preach this text. How does this text speak to them?

This is why should you start you study early in the week and guard you study time jealously. Saturday night specials kill creativity. But the more you meditate on the text the more its truth marinate in your heart and mind.

The bottom-line is that you when you study a text for the first time, do a good job and take good notes. Use your time wisely to make you have time to think and write and be creative before you preach.

What do you think about these three tips? What tips would you have to help make sermon preparation time more effective? I look forward to your comments.

For more helpful preaching tips, get a copy of my new book, On Preaching

Related Resources:

On Sermon Preparation 

Building a Preacher’s Library

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. 

On Choosing Sermon Titles

The sermon title is not the most important part of a sermon. And choosing a title is not an essential part of sermon preparation.

Some preachers slap any title on the sermon after the hard work of preparation. Others decide not to give the sermon a title at all.

This is understandable. It is also unwise.

Your sermon needs and deserves a good title. To present a sermon without a title is like trying to sell a book with no title. The title promotes the content.

  • It is the first impression the congregation will get of your message.
  • It gives a “brand-X” sermon an identity.
  • It advertises the subject of the sermon.
  • It names the baby before you present it to the world.
  • It buys the goodwill of the congregation, as it determines whether to give you their attention.

You should not judge a book by its cover. But people do. Likewise, you should not judge a sermon by its title. But congregations do. Don’t fight this reality. Use it to your advantage. Choose a sermon title that reflects the content of your sermon that must be heard.

Here are seven practical guidelines for choosing effective sermon titles.

Stimulate interest. The sermon title advertises the message to grab attention. It is the logo that promotes the content of the sermon. The title is the sermon concealed. The sermon is the title revealed. As the title and sermon are so linked, give careful thought to the message’s stated name. Craft the title skillfully. Be original. Practice clarity. Use subtlety. Leave mystery. Spark curiosity. Choose a title that holds the congregation’s interest until you formally state the proposition of the sermon.

Emphasize Scripture. Sermon titles may come to you at any time during the preparation process. But it is best to make your final selection after you have theme, proposition, and movements of the sermon had been determined. We are to preach the word, not our sermon title. The text and its message should have priority in the sermon, including the title. So go from text to title, not the other way around. Don’t tie the title around a quote or illustration in the sermon. Anchor it to the text. Choose a title that will cause the listener to remember the message of the text.

Be user-friendly. The title is not for you. It is for your listeners. So choose a title that is meaningful to the audience. Don’t assume they will get obscure references. Don’t be unnecessary complex. Don’t use technical religious jargon that only you and your Systematic Theology professor will understand. And don’t just slap “part 2” on last week’s sermon title. (Each sermon should stand on its own, even in a series.) Choose a title that will be clear, relevant, and helpful.

Don’t overpromise. The sermon title should accurately represent the text, point, and content of the sermon. The title should not bear false witness against the sermon. It should not make promises the sermon will not fulfill. It should not raise questions the sermon will not answer. It should not announce problems the sermon will not solve. Be honest. Make sure the sermon delivers what the title advertises. Guard your pulpit credibility by steering clear of overstatement.

Practice brevity. As a general rule, the title should be no more than seven words. “Several Reasons Why the Church Is Not Carrying Out Its Gospel Mission in the World to the Glory of God” is a bad title for many reasons. Above all, it’s too long. Be succinct. Use an economy of words. Don’t try to summarize the entire sermon in the title. However, do not sacrifice clarity for brevity. One-word titles are too broad. You are not really going to preach about “God” or “Love” or “Salvation.” You’re going to preach a little slice of these great doctrines. Choose a specific yet brief title that fits.

Avoid sensationalism. The title should grab attention. But be careful. The silly can get attention just as easily as the substantial. As Christian preachers, we are royal heralds, not court jesters. We are called to edify and evangelize, not entertain. Pick a title that piques interest. But don’t pick a title for shock value. Refuse to use crude, vulgar, flippant, absurd, offensive, irreverent, or ridiculous titles. Always show good taste. Take the preaching assignment seriously. Respect the dignity of the pulpit.

Use variety. Good sermons title come in different forms. Take advantage of them. Don’t be monotonous, especially if you are preaching to the same people every week. Repetitive big questions, scripture quotes, or “how-to” titles soon lose their punch and stereotype your preaching. Stay fresh by trying different title styles. Consider the following examples:

  • Biblical references: “Thorns in the Flesh” or “The Hymn of Christ” or “When You Pray”
  • Declarations: “God Knows What He’s Doing” or “God Won’t Take No For An Answer”
  • Questions: “Which Way Are You Going?” or “Are You Faithful?” or “Can You Handle An Answered Prayer?”
  • Exclamations: “Trust God!” or “What a Fellowship!”
  • Paradox: “Seeing is Believing” or “Strength through Meekness”
  • Alliteration: “Practicing the Presence of God” or “Facing Friendly Fire”
  • Application: “How to Get to God” or “How to Clean Up Your Life” or “How to Life a Fruitful Life”

What advice would you give for choosing sermon titles? Please comment. 

On Preaching Without Notes

We were hanging out at the church, waiting for the afternoon service.

An unidentified woman pulled up. She was there to pick me up for the service I was schedule to preach at her church that afternoon.

My father had told her pastor I would preach the meeting. But he forgot to tell me!

So there I was. On my way to preach. Barely in my teens. Scared out of my wits.

I preached the story of David and Goliath.

This was my introduction to preaching without notes. A baptism by fire.

More than twenty-five years later, I am used to preaching without notes. I still write sermon manuscripts. But I rarely use them in the pulpit.

If I need the manuscript, an extended outline, or an index card of notes, so be it. I will not sacrifice content for style. But most weeks, if I have done my work in the study, I don’t need anything but a Bible when I stand to preach.

Do you want to preach without notes?

Here are twelve practical recommendations that will help you learn to preach without notes:

Decide if preaching without notes is for you. It may not be for you. That’s okay. Some of my favorite preachers use full manuscripts in the pulpit. And it doesn’t seem to hurt their preaching. Likewise, you must decide what is best for you. Don’t try to go to battle wearing Saul’s armor. Go to the pulpit with your slingshot and five smooth stones.

Preach with notes, sort of. Do not transition from using a full manuscript to note-free preaching cold turkey. Start with limited notes. Whittle your manuscript down to a page or two. Use just an extended outline. Take baby steps. As you confidence grows, try preaching without a safety net.

Start as early as possible. Saturday Night Specials undermine effective preaching without notes. Last-minute study will rob you of clarity, creativity, and confidence. The more time you spend with the text, the more it will benefit your preparation and presentation. So don’t procrastinate. Start as early in the week as you can. Give your peak hours to study. And stay in the seat until the hard work is done.

Study the text diligently. If you sweat in the study, you can relax in the pulpit. You may not remember every quote, reference, or list. But you can preach with confidence when you know the meaning and message of the text. Do a good job in the study. Then stand and explain, apply, and illustrate what you have learned.

Have a clear sermon skeleton. An essential key to preaching without notes is to have a clear structure for your sermon. Call it an outline, movements, or whatever. You need to know where this sermon is going. And you need to know how you plan to get there. A clear path produces smooth preaching.

Write a full manuscript. Preaching without notes is not an excuse for pulpit sloth. It is not a license to preach extemporaneously. You should write a full manuscript, even though you don’t plan to use it in the pulpit. The process of thinking through what you want to say and how you want to say it will help you preach clearly and confidently without notes.

Make clarity the top priority. You will find note-free preaching to be more difficult, if your goal is to be cute or clever. Don’t stuff your sermon will filler material. Stick to the basics. Don’t try to be impressive. Work to prepare a message that your congregation will understand, not one that will impress your seminary professors.

Internalize the material. You are not cramming for a test. You are preparing to deliver a message. Read the sermon through several times. Mark up the manuscript. Think through your transitions. Sing the hymn you plan to quote. Pray over the sermon. Examine yourself in light of what you will be preaching to others. Work to get it in your heart, not just your head.

Master the material through word associations. I use word associations to memorize my sermons. If I can remember key words, I’m ready. For instance, I may use five words to remember my introduction: Quotation. Context. Text. Point. Transitional sentence. These words tell me to start with the quote, address the historical background, land at the text, state the point of the message, and then transition to the outline. I can work through the first page of a manuscript by memorizing these word associations.

Practice the message. I trust you are beyond standing in the mirror to rehearse your sermon. But you should preach it aloud. As you exercise. In the car. While you are dressing. Use every opportunity to talk through the message. There is something about hearing yourself say the words that aids memorization. It works. Try it. But warn your family first, so they won’t think you are going crazy.

Preach the message, not the manuscript. If you do not get to say everything you prepared, so what? The one who guides the preparation of the message, governs the presentation of it. And he has the right to edit your sermon as you preach it! Your job is to preach the message the Lord gives you as he leads you, not to say everything you wrote in the manuscript.

Just do it. You will not learn to preach without notes if you never preach without notes. At some point, you must suck it up, face your fears, and trust God to help you preach what he has taught you in private. It is a step of faith, for sure. But God is faithful. Trust him to help you preach without notes. Then just do it!

What advice would you give for preaching without notes?

Your comments are welcome.

On Writing Sermon Manuscripts

The pastor left his sermon manuscript in the pulpit. When the janitor found it, he couldn’t resist the urge to read it. He was impressed, until he stumbled over a note in the margin: “Argument weak here. Start yelling!”

Old story.

Timeless truth: Passion is never a substitute for clarity. If you write yourself clear, you won’t have to yell to cover up a weak argument.

I am a manuscript preacher who cheats. Most weeks, I write a complete manuscript. Most weeks, I do not carry anything to the pulpit but my Bible.

I believe both practices sharpen the preacher – writing manuscripts and preaching without notes.

Here are 11 tips for writing yourself clear in sermon preparation.

Pray. This is not a cursory step. You should pray before and throughout your study of the text. And you should pray your way through sermon preparation. You need guidance in what to say and how to say it to your congregation.

Start with a sermon skeleton. Begin by determining the title, theme, central idea, outline, and other elements that make up the framework of the message. Establish the structure of the sermon. Then put meat on the bones.

Write. You will never write a manuscript if you do not write a manuscript. Don’t procrastinate. Sunday is coming. Starting writing. Write for as long as you can. Get your ideas on paper. Don’t worry about how good it is yet. A bad page is better than a blank page. Just write.

Write it out word-for-word. Type out your introduction, explanations of the text, scripture references, applications, illustrations, and conclusion completely. “The Vacation Story” or “Charles Spurgeon quote” may suffice in your pulpit notes. Not here. Write it all out. After you start writing manuscripts regularly, this practice will also help you to gauge how long your sermon is.

Write for the ear. A sermon manuscript is not a term paper, theological essay, or potential book chapter. It is a transcript for a message you will deliver to God’s people. As you write, think about those who will listen to what you say, not those who may read what you write.

Preach it as you write it. Talk it out as you are writing it down. This will help you communicate clearly and effectively. Some words that are easy to write are not easy to pronounce. That long, run-on sentence that looks so beautiful on your computer screen may be a nightmare to say. Likewise, preaching it as you write it aids memorization.

Strive for clarity. Process your word choice, sentence structure, cross-references, transitional sentences, and illustrations as clearly as possible. If you do, style and creativity will take care of themselves. Clarity is its own style

Craft transitional sentences. Car accidents often happen at intersections, during lane changes, or when making a turn. Likewise, moving from the introduction to the main body, from point 1 to point 2, or from illustration to application can be as dangerous as driving in rush hour traffic. So work on smooth transitions. Don’t say, “Let me say three things about the text.” Give them three reasons to pray or four ways to resist temptation or two benefits of trusting God.

Work around writer’s block. I rarely write a sermon from beginning to end. And I struggle to write my introduction and conclusion first. I write as it comes to me, which may be point two. If I get a mental block, I start working on another part of the sermon. This helps me to keep writing when a section is not yet clear.

Mark the manuscript for preaching. I put the main points in red font, sub-points in dark blue. Scripture references are italicized. Quotes are blue. Illustrations are purple. “Runs” are green. Hymn lyrics are orange. I highlight, underline, and change font sizes. This helps me memorize the message. Or if I have to preach from the manuscript, ideas, sections and transitions pop out on the page.

Edit maliciously. The manuscript is a draft until you preach it. Keep working on it. Explain technical words or choose simpler ones. Shorten your sentences. Take out cliché, well-worn words and phrases. Find a different way to say it. Use one cross-reference, instead of three. Cut out that section that was good study material but doesn’t fit in the message. Eliminate unnecessary repetition. Have the courage to leave some hard work on the cutting room floor for the sake of clarity, unity, and movement.

What tips would you share for writing sermon manuscripts? 

REPOST: You have to do what you have to do!

“You have to do whatever the Lord says you have to do in order to preach that Bible.”

When I heard a friend say this in a conversation with a group of preachers, I laughed. He was asked his philosophy of sermon preparation. Specifically, they wanted to know what steps he takes to get from text to sermon. How long does it take him to prepare? Things like that. His answer: “You have to do whatever the Lord says to do in order to preach that Bible.”

I laughed.

(Some things we laugh at because they are funny. Some things we laugh at because they are true. And some things we laugh at to keep from crying.)

Sermon preparation is both an art and a science. It is a science in that there are basic rules and principles you must follow to develop a biblical sermon (assuming you are seeking to prepare a biblical sermon). But it is an art in that the dynamic of each person’s process is unique. Two men can go through the same steps of sermon preparation on the same text. But that does not mean they are going to end up with the same sermon (that is, unless they both wind up stealing a sermon from the same internet site).

But one thing is the same for all who would preach faithfully. You have to do whatever the Lord says you have to do in order to get ready to faithfully preach the word of God.

There are times when you go through all the steps and still end up without a sermon. You have read the text dozens of times. You have performed word studies and examined comparative translations. You have researched the historical and contextual background of the passage. You have looked up cross-references. And you have consulted the commentaries. As the Gospel song says, “You prayed and cried… You prayed and cried….” But still no sermon.

I have a cartoon picture in my study of a man on his hands and knees crawling through a dessert. He approaches a sign that says, “SERMON.” Under the sign is a map with a dot that says, “You are here.” But there is absolutely nothing else on the map! I have approached the weekend feeling that way many times.

Other times you sit at your desk and it almost seems that the Lord is sitting next you whispering in your ear. “This is what I meant in that text. And this is what I want you to say to my people Sunday.” The point of the text is clear. You have a good idea about how to organize the text for preaching. The material you need to develop the sermon just falls into your lap like manna from on high. It rarely happens like this. But some times it does.

I think this mystery of sermon preparation is meant to both encourage and humble preachers. The sermon can be hard to come by when you have had a great week of study to remind us that scholarship alone does not produce the message God wants us to deliver. And the sermon can just come to you when you have had a hectic week that has stolen hours from your study to remind us that God is with us and he understands the burden we bear.

Above all, this mystery of sermon preparation keeps us from cheating! You have to do whatever you have to do to get ready to preach.

We preachers need to remember this. And so do those who sit in the pew and listen to us from week to weak. I often think that church members either misunderstand or underestimate what it takes most preachers to prepare. It seems they think that preachers learn everything they need to know in seminary. And from week to week, we just pick a text and stand up to preach from some storehouse of biblical wisdom. Believe me, you do not want to sit under a preacher who just picks a text and stands up to preach! If your pastor makes preaching look easy, it is usually the result of much hard work.

When the MacArthur Study Bible was being released, I saw an advertisement in a magazine that said something like this: “A young preacher asked Dr. MacArthur was the different is between average preachers and great preachers. He was surprised by the answer. ‘Good preachers stay in the seat until the hard work is done.’” How true.

You have to do whatever the Lord says that you have to do to get ready to preach the word of God.

"There is no fire on that paper!"

It was youth Sunday afternoon. I was hanging out on the church grounds with my dad, waiting for the youth musical to begin. A car pulled up and a woman got out and walked up to me and asked, “Are you ready?” She was the lady assigned to pick me up to preach the youth service at her church that afternoon. The service my father forgot to tell me about. As a boy preacher, just into his teens, this was an indescribable crisis. But I got through it. Barely.

This early experience taught me to always be prepared to preach. And it taught me that I could actually preach without notes. My father was a manuscript preacher. And most of the preachers I admired as a boy were also manuscript preachers. I just thought it was the way to preach, with a manuscript in front of you. But that day introduced me to a whole new world, as it were. And as time passed, I began to hear other men I admired who preached without notes. I even heard about one preacher who actually moved the podium from the platform when he preached revivals, standing there with just a mike (and a Bible, I hope). I never saw him do it. But I was impressed with the idea that he could stand without notes and preach.

At some point, I made an intentional decision that I wanted to preach without notes. I still wrote complete manuscripts, for the most part. I just would not take any notes to the pulpit. My dad used to say that I would stand there “flatfooted” and preach. It became something I was very proud of. Not a good thing. And not something I feel the same way about anymore.

As an older and hopefully more mature preacher, I am less neurotic about whether or not I preach with notes. In fact, when I moved from Los Angeles to Jacksonville several years ago, I planned to begin preaching with notes. No one in my new church would know the difference, I thought. But it never really happened. I still basically write out a manuscript or extended outline and review it thoroughly enough that I do not have to carry any notes to the pulpit. But it is not a big deal to me anymore. My philosophy of preaching can be summed up in the words of Malcolm X: “By any means necessary.” If I can do it with nothing in front of me, fine. If I need some notes to make sure I stay on point, fine. The goal is that I am faithful to the text and clear in my presentation. Whether or not I am able to do that without a “cheat sheet” in front of me is irrelevant.

If a younger preacher asks me how I preach without notes, I usually try to share some of the “tricks” I use to remember the major movements of my messages. But I confess that I have been doing it the way I do it for so long that I am not really conscious of my process anymore. I just do what I do. I also try to encourage them to put a lot of effort into the preparation of the message. Good preparation is the birthplace of good presentation. After you have fully prepared yourself in the study, the best advice I can give is that you do what it most comfortable to you. It may be that you preach best with a full, word-for-word manuscript in front of you. It may be that you preach best with an extended outline or just a few reminders. Or maybe you are able to prepare your message and deliver it without anything in front of you except your Bible. Good.

Think yourself empty. Read yourself full. Write your way clear. Pray your way hot. And then go to the pulpit and be yourself. Remember, preaching is, to use Phillip Brook’s famous definition, truth through personality. So be yourself. Don’t preach yourself. But offer the best you to God when you stand to proclaim the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.

Two men were walking together to a preaching engagement. One of them pulled a manuscript from his pocket and began to review it as they walked. His colleague observed this and said, “What are you doing with that manuscript? You need the fire of God to preach. And there is no fire on that paper!” Without breaking his stride, the manuscript preacher answered, “You’re right. There is no fire on this paper. But I can use this paper to start of fire!”

You Have To Do What You Have To Do

“You have to do whatever the Lord says you have to do in order to preach that Bible.”

When I heard a friend say this in a conversation with a group of preachers, I laughed. He was asked his philosophy of sermon preparation. Specifically, they wanted to know what steps he takes to get from text to sermon. How long does it take him to prepare? Things like that. His answer: “You have to do whatever the Lord says to do in order to preach that Bible.”

I laughed.

(Some things we laugh at because they are funny. Some things we laugh at because they are true. And some things we laugh at to keep from crying.)

Sermon preparation is both an art and a science. It is a science in that there are basic rules and principles you must follow to develop a biblical sermon (assuming you are seeking to prepare a biblical sermon). But it is an art in that the dynamic of each person’s process is unique. Two men can go through the same steps of sermon preparation on the same text. But that does not mean they are going to end up with the same sermon (that is, unless they both wind up stealing a sermon from the same internet site).

But one thing is the same for all who would preach faithfully. You have to do whatever the Lord says you have to do in order to get ready to faithfully preach the word of God.

There are times when you go through all the steps and still end up without a sermon. You have read the text dozens of times. You have performed word studies and examined comparative translations. You have researched the historical and contextual background of the passage. You have looked up cross-references. And you have consulted the commentaries. As the Gospel song says, “You prayed and cried… You prayed and cried….” But still no sermon.

I have a cartoon picture in my study of a man on his hands and knees crawling through a dessert. He approaches a sign that says, “SERMON.” Under the sign is a map with a dot that says, “You are here.” But there is absolutely nothing else on the map! I have approached the weekend feeling that way many times.

Other times you sit at your desk and it almost seems that the Lord is sitting next you whispering in your ear. “This is what I meant in that text. And this is what I want you to say to my people Sunday.” The point of the text is clear. You have a good idea about how to organize the text for preaching. The material you need to develop the sermon just falls into your lap like manna from on high. It rarely happens like this. But some times it does.

I think this mystery of sermon preparation is meant to both encourage and humble preachers. The sermon can be hard to come by when you have had a great week of study to remind us that scholarship alone does not produce the message God wants us to deliver. And the sermon can just come to you when you have had a hectic week that has stolen hours from your study to remind us that God is with us and he understands the burden we bear.

Above all, this mystery of sermon preparation keeps us from cheating! You have to do whatever you have to do to get ready to preach.

We preachers need to remember this. And so do those who sit in the pew and listen to us from week to weak. I often think that church members either misunderstand or underestimate what it takes most preachers to prepare. It seems they think that preachers learn everything they need to know in seminary. And from week to week, we just pick a text and stand up to preach from some storehouse of biblical wisdom. Believe me, you do not want to sit under a preacher who just picks a text and stands up to preach! If your pastor makes preaching look easy, it is usually the result of much hard work.

When the MacArthur Study Bible was being released, I saw an advertisement in a magazine that said something like this: “A young preacher asked Dr. MacArthur was the different is between average preachers and great preachers. He was surprised by the answer. ‘Good preachers stay in the seat until the hard work is done.’” How true.

You have to do whatever the Lord says that you have to do to get ready to preach the word of God.

A Word of Wisdom from Proverbs

I am way behind my in my sermon preparation for Sunday this week.

I am really looking forward to preaching in the morning. But I have not really had the time or energy or focus to spend the time in the seat that I needed to this week.

So I am in the seat today until I have finished preparing myself and my sermon for preaching.

I am going to take a detour from my study of the Sermon on the Mount tomorrow. And I am planning to preach on Proverbs 3:5-6.

This is one of those weeks when I responsibility to preach to my congregation violently collides with my need to be preached to myself! Hopefully, Proverbs 3:5-6 will minister to both me and my congregation in the morning.

Pray for me.