Doug at CoffeeSwirls recently asked me for some thoughts on sermon prep and delivery and I thought I would share them with you.
First of all I’ll admit that I have gotten a bit sloppy and don’t really follow the textbook approaches as much as I used to. I think this is a normal thing once you have been preaching for awhile, and in fact, it’s probably normal for anything we do. When you are first learning how to do something you have to be very careful to get the mechanics just right. But after you have been using the mechanics for awhile they become second nature and you don’t have to consciously be thinking about them all the time.
I point this out because my practice at this time may not be all that helpful to someone who is just starting out. Further, my practice at this time is probably not what it ought to be in the future. I’ve developed a certain comfort level in preaching over the last couple of years that can be dangerous. There are some things I’ll need to do in the future to improve my preaching.
But having said that, here’s a few things on how I go about preparing and delivering sermons.
The first and most important thing I do is simply to read and soak in the text. Nothing can replace that. I just read it and re-read it and re-read it some more until I have an idea of what the text is saying. There is no set number of times or minutes that I will read a text, I just feel the need to keep reading it over and over again until I get a feel for what it is trying to communicate.
The first few times I read it I’ll read it just to try to understand it, but then I will switch to reading it in order to develop a preaching outline. I’m still one of those “three points and a proverb” type preachers, although the three points sometimes become five or seven points and sometimes its just one or two points. But the point is that I am in to “points.” I realize that narrative preaching is all the rage now and in narrative preaching the focus is not so much on outlining the passage as telling the story of the passage. That is not what I am comfortable with, but I have heard it done very well and am wanting to learn how to do it. I do think this practice of outlining and giving points is a pedagogical device that is not necessarily required in Scripture. Scripture wasn’t given to us in bullet points and with an outline – it is far more narrative. So that is an area I am willing to learn. It’s just that, right now, I have a comfort zone which involves giving a detailed and highly structured sermon outline.
On a tangent, it is worth pointing out that just as preachers have patterns of preparation and delivery, congregations have patterns of listening. If a congregation has been trained to expect the “three points and a proverb” type of sermon it will be as hard for them to adjust to listening to narrative preaching or some other style as it is for the preacher to make the switch. For that reason, the shepherd needs to be sensitive to his sheep. The sheep develop “grooves” into which truth is poured and when we cut across those grooves with new grooves it may put them off balance a bit. Groovy huh?
Getting back on track though I would point out that, whether you use the highly structured and outlined approach as I do, or a more narrative approach, the object is to communicate the meaning of the text. This is the whole point of expository preaching. Expository preaching “exposes” the text to the listener. A narrative type of sermon can be expository if it communicates the meaning of the text. A topical sermon can be expository as long as it is based on a text, or set of texts and the meaning flows out of the text, rather than being read into it.
So, after reading the text several times I will have a pretty good idea of what I think the text is communicating and what kind of outline I want to use. At this point I roughly follow the advice of Andy Stanley. I heard a message he did on the preparation and delivery of sermons where he said we need to be “Clear as M.U.D.” A sermon that is clear as mud is:
M – memorable
U – Understandable
D – Doable
As to being memorable, Andy says he tries to locate the big idea and he comes up with one particular sentence or phrase that he wants the people to remember and take home. In that sense, he advocates the one point sermon. He says that one main point is about all that people can handle. I don’t do a good job in coming up with a sentence that is memorable but I do structure my introduction and closing around one big idea. I think that is one of the most important things to say to beginning preachers. I had this problem, and lots of beginning preachers have the problem of giving three or four sermons in one. Stick to one main idea, and let all of the points and subpoints support that one main idea.
The understandable part is the explanation of the big idea. This is where the points, or the body of the sermon come from. This is where the explanation, or exegesis come in. In Andy’s mind these points should not be separate ideas, but supports for the big idea in the “memorable” part. Again, I’m a bit sloppy on this, but the points of my sermon are usually used in service to the big idea.
As to “doable” I don’t really like the word, but it’s the best word for the M.U.D. acronym. I know that many preachers give something doable in the sense that there are actions or steps of obedience to be followed as a result. I understand this and it is valid, but I don’t like the idea of “doable” simply because the Christian faith is not about what I must do for God, it is about what He has done for me. Still, the idea of “doable” simply means that a sermon should have practical application and I agree with this. The practical application of a sermon might be that I repent of “doing,” or it could be something I do, like reconciling with someone or something like that. The point of the “D” in MUD is that the sermon should call for lifechange, not just fill our heads with knowledge.
So, being clear as M.U.D. is in the back of my mind as I prepare my sermons, but I don’t pursue this in a mechanistic fashion. After reading and getting a good outline in my head I will start writing. I begin with an introduction that lays out the main point of the sermon.
Then I go to writing the body, the supporting points. It is at this point that I will get into the exegesis of the passage. I try to read the passage in several versions to see if there are any difference in translation. Where I find a difference in translation that will be my cue to pull out the language resources and commentaries to get a better flavor of why one translation went one way and another went the other.
I also am careful in the way I use commentaries. I use them as references and what I mean by that is that I don’t let the commentary dictate the course of a sermon. Of course, sometimes I am writing a sermon and I read something in a commentary that makes me see that I have misunderstood something. Then I will have to make changes. But, a long time ago I heard someone say that a message prepared in the mind reaches minds, but a message prepared in the life reaches lives. For that reason I try to shape my message along the lines of how God is speaking to me through the text and how it is shaping my life. So, I use commentaries to sharpen my sermon, rather than as the basis for the sermon. I’m not downplaing their usefulness, I’m just saying that there is a temptation to give a wonderfully academic presentation that covers all of the linguistic highlights, historical background and theological implications that we have found in the commentaries. That’s all well and good in the seminary or Bible college classroom, but a sermon has a different goal, and that is lifechange.
So, as I do all of this stuff, I basically write out the sermon word for word. I don’t do the old research paper notecard approach that we learned in school. You remember that don’t you? You go to the library, do your reading, put it all on notecards then come home and use your notes to build your paper. I basically start writing the paper/sermon. As I am writing it I am constantly jumping back and forth between the sermon and the text and commentaries and other stuff. It’s almost a stream of consciousness process, just with more structure.
And, the practical application, or “doable” part of the sermon, is woven throughout the sermon. The intro and conclusion will usually state and restate the big idea, but there is practical application laced throughout the body of the sermon, going side by side with the explanation of the text.
I write the sermon out word for word and print it and take into the pulpit with me, but I don’t read it as written. My sermon notes are there for me as a kind of crutch. The exercise of writing the sermon word for word goes a long way toward helping me memorize it. After writing it I will usually read it over a few times to burn it in. It also gets burned in more on Sunday morning before the service. Almost every Sunday I get to the church and re-read my sermon and find something I don’t really like about it. So, I’m revising up till the minute I get ready to preach. Hopefully other preachers aren’t as neurotic as I am about this. But this little neurosis of mine and these last minute revisions help burn the sermon into my mind that much more. I can then go to the pulpit and use the sermon notes as a crutch to help me stay on track if I get lost.
So, that was a rambling description of what I do – I hope some of it was helpful. I’m not really recommending my way of doing it. If you are just starting out preaching, or speaking in any form, I recommend that you find a model and follow it mechanistically at the outset. I had a linguistics class in college where the professor talked about the difference between “learning” a language and “acquiring” a language. He compared it to tennis. When Andre Agassi first played tennis he had to be very mechanical about it. As the ball came to him, he had to consciously think about the proper foot placement the extension of the racket, and the mechanics of the swing. He did this in the “learning” phase. After awhile he had “acquired” the game of tennis. He no longer had to think about these things, they came to him automatically. That is what happens in learning a language and I think it is a fair analogy of learning to preach or speak. Start by following a model and do it very mechanistically until you get comfortable with the process. I recommend the “clear as M.U.D.” thing. After awhile though this will become second nature and you won’t have to think about it as clearly.
In this I was talking very generally about preparation, and there is much more that can be said about the process of exegeting the text and other things. But to start with I recommend any standard class on public speaking or preaching. As to books I like Bryan Chappell’s book Christ Centered Preaching the best. For pure mechanics of preparation and delivery I like Ken Davis’s stuff real well. He has this thing he calls “SCORRE” which has some similarities to the clear as M.U.D. thing. Anyway, enough rambling, hope some of that was helpful.
ps. keep sending me how you do sermon prep, preferably as concisely as possible. (firstname.lastname@example.org)