Ordinary Ministry: Sermon Writing
by Kyle Beshears
In a previous post, David Kakish gave us a peek into his habits of studying for sermon preparation: listening, praying, meditating, organizing, and reading. It reminded me a bit of shopping for ingredients at the grocery. We want to bake something good for our people, so, we walk down the aisles of our scripture passage and study resources, placing in our cart all the items that the Spirit nudges us to collect. Once we’ve made it through the checkout and unloaded our bags at home, however, the next step can feel a bit daunting. How do we piece together everything we’ve got? We’ve collected the ingredients; now it’s time to bake a cake.
But, unlike The Great British Baking Show, where contestants are graded solely on their ability to bake tasty treats, preachers are expected to be more than a good baker. Preaching isn’t merely a calling to do something; it’s primarily a calling to be someone. Preachers walk two parallel lines that lead directly to the pulpit: piety and preparation.
Writing a sermon has every bit to do with living the sermon. That’s why my first step in sermon writing has nothing to do with writing at all. It’s humbly receiving an important reminder from Paul.
Piety as a Path to the Pulpit
“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching,” Paul admonished his protege, Timothy. “Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1Ti 4:16).”
These words hover over my desk, handwritten on a Post-It note, taped to a lamp. They are a constant reminder that sermon writing isn’t merely putting pen to paper; it’s also putting piety to practice.
Notice that Paul first says to keep a close watch on the self and then the teaching. There’s no reason to watch our teaching more than our self or vice versa. They both demand our equal attention. But I think Paul places the self first because it’s tempting to become so concerned with watching our teaching that we forget to watch our self, as if it were possible to tease apart preaching from the preacher.
But we aren’t teaching a hard science that can be distanced from the character of the teacher. A man full of vices can teach me chemistry, but he can’t teach me faithful obedience. Why? Because the character of the preacher is meant to be a model of what the sermon intends to create in the church.
A preacher is only as trustworthy to his congregation in public as he is faithful to God in private. So, when it comes to sermon writing, I make a conscious effort to interweave the mechanics of crafting with spiritual disciplines.
This interweaving affects every aspect of sermon writing, from beginning to end. For example, it changes the initial questions I ask myself when writing a new sermon. As the cursor blinks on an empty document, it’s tempting to get the ball rolling by asking: “What is the main point of this passage? What do I want my hearers to learn? How do I want my hearers to respond?” These are important questions, but they can only be asked after answering this question: “How is it with my soul?”
Meditating on this question in humility and repentance saves us and our hearers, so we must ask it as often as we ask any other. In other words, while you craft the sermon, let the sermon craft you.
An Analogy from Kindergarten
Speaking of crafting, I loved arts and crafts time when I was a kid. It was a break from the monotony of multiplication tables and vocabulary cards, a sabbath that unlocked a whole new world of creative possibilities. I remember enjoying the process of creating just as much as the finished product. Give five-year-old me construction paper, scissors, crayons, pipe cleaner, glitter, and glue, and I’ll give you back a three-eyed, sparkly Martian named Glibglam. And I had a blast doing it.
It’s a messy ordeal, arts-and-crafts, which is why it reminds me so much of good sermon writing. Writing a sermon is a messy process. I have an idea of what I’m making, but, let’s be honest—we’ll see what I have when we get there. A lot of the materials I intended to use are left out, like the giant swath of construction paper I used to make one, tiny star. Yet, somehow, things I didn’t intend to use end up in the finished product. My hands are sore from cutting, my fingers are caked in glue and glitter. A lot of my creation ended up on me and not the finished product.
This is what I’m getting at when I say to let the sermon craft you as you craft the sermon. Are you affected by what you’re writing? Are you practicing what you’ll preach?
If your sermon writing does not affect you—if you approach the pulpit without glitter and crayon under your nails—then something’s wrong. Never ask change of a congregation without having first undergone that change yourself, and that begins in sermon preparation. So, before you step behind the pulpit, check your nails. Make sure they’re filthy.
Preparation as a Path to the Pulpit
Now for the practical part of writing the sermon. As I continue spiritual disciplines (especially prayer and meditation), I begin by asking myself five questions that help me organize what I’ve prepared.
What is the main point of this passage?
How would the first Christians have understood this passage?
How will my people understand this passage?
What objections might I anticipate?
What do I want them to walk away with, i.e., what is the “so what?” question?
I type out the answers to these questions in a separate file, occasionally revisiting them as I’m writing the sermon. They serve me as a “big picture” guide to prevent me from getting lost in the weeds.
Then, I start writing my outline. I feel the need to say the obvious at first: there is no one-size-fits-all approach to sermon writing. I think that your preferred style of preaching and personality play large roles in how you end up outlining. Some prefer short bullet points with big concept headers and supporting points tucked beneath. Others prefer a manuscript, something they could easily copy-and-paste to a blog. Me? I’m a hybrid guy. I like a little bit of both.
For example, each week I recap the previous sermon. That’s bullet pointed. Then, I write a transitional statement (usually a paragraph) that captures the entire sermon for that Sunday. Hidden in the transition is the major points of what I’ll preach. Essentially, I tell the church what I’m about to tell them.
From there, it just depends on the content. Essentially, I’ll bullet point what I want to freestyle and riff, but I’ll manuscript what I want to say with absolute precision.
I’ve recently incorporated color coding. All scripture is purple to remind me of its royal majesty. They are not like the other words of Kyle in my sermon notes; they are the words of God. Orange means to preach slowly. As a fast-talking Yankee in the South, I need this reminder, a lot. Red means to preach only if I have time, e.g., the fun nuggets that I can do without.
I also use symbols, which some people find weird. It’s just how my brain works, though:
// means that whatever follows has an associated side
<||> means to pause and let the previous point simmer
Q: is a rhetorical question to the people
<Ills> means that what follows is an illustration
AP means an application point follows
Trans. means to read the transition statement verbatim
So, here’s a truncated version from an old sermon to see what a typical outline of mine looks like:
I. JN 1:14 - INTRODUCTION
a. John’s prologue so far (Jn 1:1–13)
i. The Word, God and with God
ii. Source of life
iii. Light, darkness cannot overcome
iv. Unrecognized Creator
v. Giver of right to adoption
b. Last week AP
i. <Ills.> Adoption Paperwork and Family Court
Trans. This week, John continues to reveal the Word. Q: Who is this Word? Who is this one who is God and is with God? This source of life, this light that darkness cannot over come? This Creator who goes unrecognized by his creation? This one who has the authority and desire to give people the right to be call children of God?<||>
//John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory—glory as of the only Son from the Father—full of grace and truth.”
/Trans./ Finally, this Word is revealed to us. //The Word whom John is revealing is none other than 1) God himself who became man, 2) our Immanuel who saves by grace and truth. <||> God become man; salvation by grace and truth. Q: How different is this from the world? This is such a backwards vision of God from the world, isn’t it? So much of the world’s religions teach how we go to God through our works, but here, John proclaims, that God came to us by his grace and truth!
II. JN 1:14a – GOD INCARNATE
et cetera and so on…
While I’m writing the sermon, I speak finished parts out loud. I want to hear the tempo, find a good cadence. Reading the sermon outline also gives me a chance to hear what works. I’m continually surprised at how many times something looks good on paper but doesn’t sound right when I say it. Not that it seems like orthodoxy on the computer screen but sounds like heresy from my mouth. Usually, I’ve not written clearly what I want to say. I only catch the problem by actually saying what I plan to say.
But that’s me. Everyone’s different. And, if I’ve learned anything after a few years of preaching under my belt, the best writing style to use is the one that allows you to best communicate the gospel.
Every style is best because they are all methods by which the Spirit guides you to proclaim the gospel. Now, naturally, some styles will suit preachers better than others, but that’s for each preacher to decide. Try them all on for a season. Keep the receipt; return one if it doesn’t fit and exchange it for another.
Whatever you do, remember that the goal of preaching is the proclamation of God’s word. You need to find whichever style best suites you for that task, and only you can know what fits best.
Quality Control Questions
Once I’ve written the sermon completely (usually done by Thursday), I set it down and don’t think about it for a whole day. Fridays are typically spent with family, kayaking, or working on other projects. I need some distance from the sermon to get an objective eye.
On Saturday evening, after tucking my daughter to bed, I crack open the laptop and re-read the sermon. This time, I’m asking myself six new questions:
Does this sermon explicitly outline the gospel, i.e., are the death, burial, and resurrection proclaimed and explained?
Are all three persons of the Trinity represented?
Does this sermon adequately exegete the entire passage?
Could this sermon be reasonably preached in a majority world context?
Is this sermon an apologetic?
When the people hear this sermon, will they be convicted of sin, encouraged in grace, and challenged to live the authentic Christian life?
This is my quality control, the last chance I have to make substantial changes that might need to be made.
The Moments Before I Preach
On Sunday morning, I wake up early, brew some coffee, and read aloud the sermon non-stop. This version is printed, the one I plan to take with me to the pulpit. As I sift through the pages, I number each page at the top, then read through carefully. If I’m happy, I write “S.D.G.” in the lower-left corner, which stands for the Reformation call soli Deo gloria to remind me during the sermon of who ought to receive the glory. (I stole this idea from Beethoven who, rumor has it, signed each page of music the same way.)
Once I arrive to the church building, I scurry to my study. There’s still work to be done. On the last page of every sermon, I have a personal spiritual evaluation, one more element of that interweaving. It’s based on Paul’s qualification for an elder in 1 Timothy 3:1–7. Before I stand above the people to deliver the word of God, am I also standing above reproach?
I ask myself these questions concerning my life over the past week:
Have I loved my wife in full fidelity, like Christ loves His church?
Have I been sober, in body and mind?
Have I exhibited self-control?
Have I acted respectfully and commanded respect from others?
Have I been open to others?
Did I have a humble, teachable spirit?
Was I gentle?
Were any of my decisions based primarily on finances and not faith?
Did I father my daughter well?
Did I grow in spiritual maturity?
Did I do or say anything that could compromise my witness to unbelievers?
Then, I pray, on my knees, that God would 1) forgive me when I’ve failed in these, 2) fill me with the Holy Spirit, 3) allow me to be his mouthpiece, and 4) prevent me from saying what ought not be said.
Recently, I also have invited a trusted friend to lay hands on me in prayer. He has one strict duty—fetch me 15 minutes before service to pray. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing (with very few exceptions), he’s suppose to interrupt me, go with me to a quiet office, and pray over me.
About this time, the worship team is calling people to the auditorium.
Service is starting.
Brad Mills will take it from here.