Ordinary Ministry: Sermon Preparation
This is the first of three installments on the process of putting together a Sunday sermon from conception to delivery. I (David) will tackle the initial topic of Sermon Preparation, Kyle Beshears will handle Sermon Writing, and Brad Mills will close out the series with Sermon Delivery. It goes without saying that the content of these posts is neither exhaustive nor prescriptive.
Each of us serves as the primary teaching pastor at our respective churches scattered across the country (Washington, Alabama, and Texas). I think I speak for the whole cadre when I say that although preaching is the most visible and tangible aspect of our ministries, it is not our sole responsibility. Like most pastors, we, too, do hospital visits, have people in our homes regularly, spend time praying for our congregations daily, carry out impromptu counseling sessions at the grocery store, attend baby showers, and perform weddings and funerals. We don’t have research assistants, Scrooge-McDuck-sized book budgets, or the auxiliary staff to delegate our less noticeable responsibilities (nor do we wish to!). In truth, this is a “behind the pulpit” look at different aspects of the sermon writing process from three very ordinary, mercurial, and low-key Pastor John Does for the ilk.
Outside of eating a large steak, there are few things you should attempt to do in one sitting. This includes writing a sermon. A shotgun sermon is easily recognized. The preacher inevitably uses volume, pace, and charisma to distract you (and himself) from his uninspired content, shortage of cohesion, and lack of biblical depth. So, let me start with a commandment: Thou shall not write your sermon in one sitting.
A sermon isn’t something I need to knock out; it’s a holy task that I have the privilege of doing. Because of this, I take the morning portion of the first three days of the week to carefully craft the embryonic draft of my message—all in all, around 15 hours in toto. The scope of this post is to give you a window into the first day of my process, sermon preparation, where I listen, pray, meditate, organize, and read.
I am a strange bird (if I had to pick, maybe an Amazonian Royal Flycatcher) who adores productivity and detailed workflows. What follows is my actual sequential todo list for sermon prep with some color-commentary along the way. I don’t slavishly tick every box each week. In truth, I would make a terrible Pharisee, as rule-following is not one of my strengths. But as Benjamin Martin tells his young sons before teaching them to kill the British: “Aim small, miss small.” That said, let’s start with Garfield’s least favorite day of the week: Monday.
After preaching on Sunday, I completely understand why a large portion of pastors choose to take Monday off. But even if I tried to make Monday a Sabbath, I would end up spending a majority of it analyzing and evaluating the previous Sunday, feeling the pressure of writing another sermon, the guilt of not following up with new guests, and delaying responses to the feedback I received from our parishioners. What should be a day of rest, ends up being a day of stress. Why give what is arguably one of my most distracted days of the week to my family? For that reason, I wake up early Monday morning, make a cup of coffee, spend some time with the Lord, and jump right in.
The first thing I do is acquaint myself with the passage. I want to know it inside and out. Oftentimes, I will take on the venture of translating the passage myself; not because I think I can improve on the labor of biblical scholars who have done the work for me—I can’t. The reason I make the “C” grade quality attempt of translating is because it forces me to slow down, to account for every word, and wakes me from the haze of familiarity with the passage. If you don’t translate the passage, I would encourage you to read the text in at least five different translations: (ESV, NIV, NKJV, NASB, and CSB).
Before doing anything else, I write down one sentence and say it out loud—“I don’t need to unlock the meaning of this passage, God loves to speak to his people.” I do this every time I sit down to work on my sermon. I could try to explain the reasoning behind my confessional-mantra, but I think John Webster says it better when he writes, “As Word, God is not absent or mute but present and communicative, not as it were waiting to be ‘made sense of’ by our cognitive or interpretative activities, but accomplishing in us the knowledge of himself.”1 My refrain reminds me that God is with me, that he has not surrendered his prophetic office, it fights off functional deism, and aligns the posture of my soul to receive: it’s God’s Word, his church, and, therefore, it is ultimately his sermon.
My next step is to copy and paste Sunday’s text in a Word Document and export the file as a PDF for annotation. You could just as easily print it and use the analog pen and paper. But I’m from the digital generation that would rather text than call, I have terrible penmanship, and I’m too cheap to pay for ink cartridges.
I read the text two more times, and then on the third read, I do so with pen in hand (read: Apple Pencil). Now, it’s time to throw the spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. This is a safe place, I don’t have to publish this document, so there are no bad ideas here. This is my naked and unashamed time with the passage before I have to put on my Sunday fig-leaves and pretend that I know what I'm talking about.
I highlight keywords, action verbs, causal adverbs (e.g., because, therefore, as, since), and discourse markers. I make a list identifying setting and characters, read cross-references, jot down any and every question that comes into my head, possible illustrations, and then try to divide the passage into three sections that correspond to possible points for the sermon.2 Keep in mind, we’re just putting these points in our preaching cart while we peruse the rest of the store. We’re not checking out until day two.
From there, I switch mediums and transition to a digital note-taking app. I use Evernote, you can use whatever you want. However, you want to make sure that whatever framework you use helps you to capture, catalog, and prioritize your data and ideas.
When we begin a sermon series (our church is currently 9 months into the Gospel of Mark), I create a digital folder with individual notes nestled safely inside for each pericope we will hit along the way. As you read, experience the flora and fauna of daily life, listen to your fellowship group, or discipline your youngest child for submerging TP rolls like she’s Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October, you will inevitably come across something you wish to remember for a later passage. Creating digital storage lockers for each passage in advance allows me to have a safe place to put nuggets, quotes, illustrations or whatever else I run across in a note for a passage that I may not be preaching for another 6 months.
The first thing I do when opening the note for this Sunday’s passage is read through anything I stashed there previously. Sure, some of it is fake news, or no longer pertinent. Just delete it. But every week, there’s at least one gem that I had evidently forgotten about, and I’m thankful that it’s right where I left it.
After this, I create section headings in the note for each individual verse in my pericope (e.g., one heading for Mark 9:38, one for v. 39, and so on). I copy and paste the corresponding verse directly below each heading. In every step of my research, reading, and preparation, I want the text to be in my face. My hope is that I would encounter the passage so often throughout the course of that week that I commit it to memory without even trying to do so. Lastly, I copy over any significant notes or observations I made, as well any pertinent questions I still have about a certain verse, from the previous document to this one.
Having spent time soaking in the text, chewing on the passage, and ideating about possible sermon points and illustrations, I am now ready to dig into the commentaries.3 Good, gospel-centered, doctrinally rich commentaries are a means of gleaning from the gifts of the Spirit poured out on the transtemporal people of God. Commentaries are another voice to add to the conversation. They can serve as a cairn to ensure you have not wandered from the trail of meaning. Certainly, you should listen with discernment and measure everything said against the Word like the Bereans (Acts 17:11). Commentaries are not infallible (neither are your sermons!), but they can be a light to flash on a murky passage where the meaning seems obfuscated. 4
I read commentaries with my head on a swivel. I bounce back and forth from my digital document to the book in front of me. I read notes on a particular verse with my questions in mind. I jot down nuances, differing views, and very sparingly pull out direct quotes when they absolutely capture the best way to articulate the point (make sure to cite your sources!).5 After consulting five or so commentaries, I stop there for the day and move on to other pastoral duties. While this may sound like a heavy load for the first day of sermon prep, all in all, this usually takes up the first three hours of my Monday morning (8:00–11:00 AM).
Well, that’s the last stop on the sermon prep train. And while I’m sad to leave you, I take comfort in the fact that I’m putting the baton in the capable and more-experienced hands of Kyle Beshears, who will continue the next installment in the series by delving into the actual process of writing a sermon. But before we say goodbye, I want to leave you with one final word on sermon preparation.
One of the most important, yet sadly most neglected components of sermon preparation is the people. The congregation is not a distraction from your studies, they are an integral part of them. Your sermon should have one foot in the heart of the biblical author’s intended meaning and the other in the collective heart of your people. You cannot do that when you sequester yourself to an ivory tower all week to prepare for your keynote address. It’s an impossible task to contextualize your message if you refuse to or refrain from actually shepherding in your context.
A good sermon should prick consciences, call to repentance, relay grace, comfort the hurting, inspire the weary, wake the apathetic, highlight virtue, make Christ exclusive, spur obedience, instruct the faithful, further the Great Commission, and make the gates of hell tremble. If it sounds hard, that’s because it is (James 3:1). The gravity of this aspect of my ministry weighs heavy on me—and I think that’s right. It keeps me humble, dependent on the Lord for mercy, and ensures that I don’t take advantage of the godliness of our congregation who would love me even if I bumbled for an hour from the pulpit. By God’s grace and through the Spirit’s strengthening, I urge you to do the hard work of sermon preparation.
- John Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (Edinburgh; New York: T&T Clark, 2001), 64. ↩︎
- I limit myself to no more than three sermon points—the third always being the shortest. If it seems like you can’t possibly restrict yourself to only three points, better to break the text up into a two-part sermon than breaking the back and favor of your congregation by making them sit through an hour long homily. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m not John Piper, and if you’re still reading this article, respectfully, you’re probably not Pastor John either. No one wants to hear you preach for an hour; not even your parents. ↩︎
- In my almost 15 years of ministry, I’ve noted two extremes when it comes to pastors and commentaries. The first extreme is to think you don’t need them; to assume that your gifting and unction of the Spirit is so great that you don’t need to consult the saints of the past or stuffy scholars of the present. To that, I would say a few things. First, biblical interpretation is a dangerous place to be novel. Second, well, let me just let Spurgeon say it: “The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men's brains, proves that he has no brains of his own.” Third, if your assurance of having the Holy Spirit is the reason you don’t need to listen and learn from others, what gives you the right to presume that your congregation—who shares in the same Spirit (1 Cor 12:13)—should listen to you?
The second extreme when it comes to commentaries is to be a homiletical sluggard: sleeping all week on your duty to labor in the Word and then making a mad dash to plunder the silo of the ant. I won’t belabor the point, but if this cracked, glass slipper fits, I would point you to an article I wrote for The Gospel Coalition on the temptation and dangers of plagiarism. ↩
- If you’re unsure of which commentaries to use, I often consult Don Carson’s New Testament Commentary Survey, Tremper Longman’s Old Testament Commentary Survey, Best Commentaries, and reach out to pastor-friends for recommendations. ↩︎
- Too few quotations, and your people will assume you didn’t do the leg work to study. Too many, and they’ll assume you didn’t do the leg work to write your own sermon. It’s a lose-lose, really. But here’s a good rule of thumb. If you can present your sermon as a conference paper then it’s not a sermon; it’s a conference paper. ↩︎