‘There is no one way to prepare sermons’, writes John Stott in I believe in preaching. ‘Every preacher has to work out his own method, which suits his temperament and situation.’ Nevetheless, there are skills that can be learned and habits that can be acquired. The following outline of the relevant chapter (6) in Stott’s book is taken largely from Xenos.
Choose Your Text
Of course, there must be a text, ‘for we are not speculators, but expositors’. And if we are regular students of the Bible, possible texts will line up, just asking to be preached on. Four factors may influence our choice:-
- Liturgical, following lectionaries that reflect the seasons, including Christmas, Easter, etc.
- External, including some national event, or some issue of public debate.
- Pastoral, based on an assessment of the congregation’s current needs.
- Personal, arising from the preacher’s own personal experience and convictions.
Keep a notebook to scribble down ideas for sermons, insights, burdens, illustrations, etc. Record them immediately wherever they come to mind, because you will usually forget them later.
Meditate on the Text
A. Whenever possible, plan out texts weeks or months in advance. This gives the benefit of “subconscious incubation”.
B. Concentrated “incubation” should begin at least one week before preaching. It should involve the following:
Read, re-read & re-read the text.
Be sure you understand what it means. Do your own interpretive work. Never use commentaries until you have formulated specific interpretive questions which you have been unable to answer, or until you have completed your interpretive work.
Brood longer over how it applies to your people, to the culture, to you, etc.
All the while, pray for God to illuminate the text, especially its application.
All the while, scribble down notes of thoughts, ideas, etc.
Solicit the insights of others through tapes, talking with other preachers, etc.
Isolate the Dominant Thought (this is the purpose of II.)
Your sermon should convey only one major message. All of the details of your sermon should be marshaled to help your people grasp that message and feel its power.
You should be able to express the dominant thought in one short, clear, vivid sentence.
Arrange Your Material to Serve the Dominant Thought
Chisel and shape your material. Ruthlessly discard all material which is irrelevant to the dominant thought. Subordinate the remaining material to the dominant thought by using that material to illuminate and reinforce the dominant thought.
Your sermon structure should be suited to the text, not artificially imposed. Avoid structure which is too clever, prominent or complex.
Decide on your method of preaching for this text: argumentation, faceting, categorizing, analogy, etc.
Carefully choose words that are precise, simple, clear, vivid and honest. Write out the keys sections, phrases, and sentences to help you in your word choice. Stick to short declarative and interrogative sentences with few, if any, subordinate clauses.
Come up with illustrations and examples which will explain and convict. Employ a wide variety: figures of speech, images, retelling biblical stories in contemporary language, inventing fresh parables, retelling true historical and/or biographical events, etc. Keep a file of these, especially if they do not come easily to you. Avoid making illustrations and examples so prominent that they detract from the dominant thought. Also avoid applying them inappropriately or overusing them.
Add the Introduction and Conclusion
The introduction should not be elaborate, but enough to arouse their curiosity, whet their appetites and introduce the dominant thought. This can be done by a variety of means: explaining the setting of the passage, story, current event or issue, etc.
The conclusion should not merely recapitulate your sermon – it should apply it. Obviously, you should be applying all along, but you should keep something for the end which will prevail upon your people to take action. “No summons, no sermon”. Preach through the head to the heart (i.e. the will). The goal of the sermon should be to “storm the citadel of the will and capture it for Jesus Christ”. WHAT DO YOU WANT THEM TO DO? Employ a variety of methods to do this:
- Argument: anticipate objections and refute them
- Admonition: warn of the consequences of disobedience
- Indirect Conviction: arouse moral indignation and then turn it on them (Nathan with David)
- Pleading: apply the gentle pressure of God’s love, concern for their well-being, and the needs of others
- Vision: paint a picture of what is possible through obedience to God in this area
Write Down and Pray Over Your Message
Writing out your sermon forces you to think straight and sufficiently. It exposes lazy thinking and cures it. After you are thoroughly familiar with your outline, reduce it to small notes.
Pray that God will enable you to “so possess the message that the message possesses you.”