Firm Foundations (part 2)

January 24, 2007

Following on from last week’s first installment, we’re back for “Firm Foundations” part two. Read below the continued explanation of how Peter Grainger (the senior Pastor of Charlotte Baptist Chapel, Edinburgh) prepares his sermons. This excerpt comes from his book Firm Foundations – available from Christian Focus publishing.

So how do I spend those hours in the study preparing to preach? There is no ‘divine blueprint’ but the following is my normal practice. After preaching on Sunday, I take Monday as my day off (a personal Sabbath for rest and renewal). The one or two sermons which have occupied so much thought and effort during the previous week, and have now been discharged, are relegated from the forefront to the background of my thinking – not exactly ‘deleted’ but at least placed in the ‘recycle bin.’

So on Tuesday morning I (hopefully) begin with a refreshed mind and a relaxed body – preparing to preach on the chosen passage and topic on the coming Sunday morning or evening – or both. In Charlotte Chapel, we normally have an Assistant Pastor who will preach twice a month which means that I have two Sundays each month when I am only preaching once. This allows me some latitude to do other things in those weeks – and also to hear God’s Word from someone else on those Sundays. I try to avoid the preacher’s syndrome of speaking elsewhere every time I have a free Sunday and to be as good a listener to others as I hope they are to me.

My first task is groundwork – to familiarise myself with the Biblical passage in order to make sure that I understand what it says and means. To help me do this, I read the text in several different translations ranging from the more literal through to paraphrases (we use the New International Version at Charlotte Chapel). A knowledge of the original languages (Greek and Hebrew) is useful though not essential as there are many excellent commentaries and other resoureces which define words and meanings.

Commentaries and other books fall into two broad categories. Some major on exegesis – explaining the meaning of the text to those who were its original recipients, often with detailed analysis of words and phrases in the original languages. Others, including books of sermons, focus on application – trying to understand the relevance of the text for us today. Many include both categories but are usually stronger on one than the other.

As I read these books, I make rough notes on anything useful, noting any useful sentences or sections that might be worth quoting directly (If I do so, I always acknowledge the source – out of courtesy and honesty, and also hopefully to encourage others to buy and read the book).

D.A Carson’s New Testament Commentary Survey is a useful resoruce which summarises the strengths and weaknesses of commentaries for the New Testament. And, although he preached over a century ago, I find that Spurgeon’s sermons usually shed fresh light on any given passage.

Building Work
After groundwork, comes building-work – an attempt to put the material into some semblance of order. Although I accept that some hearers and speakers favour a holistic approach to preaching and learning- describing a broad theme and then coming at it from different angles – I am not one of them. I am a linear progressive thinker and preacher and so I find it helpful to analyse the structure of the passage or theme and divide it into several major points (usually anything from two to four or five depending on the topic). I try to make these as memorable as possible – using alliteration or balanced paraphrases, so long as they are not forced. This will also be determined by the type of passage – narrative is very different from discourse, parable from proverb, or Gospel from Epistle. I sometimes struggle to find a good structure and find that sleeping on it is often beneficial.

Perhaps the hardest pasrt of all is application and, rather than spending thirty minutes on explanation and then only the last few minutes on application, I try to include the application as I go along with each major point. However, I usually attempt to isolate the major point which summarises the theme of the passage and whcih the hearer can take away.

I find that a suitable title for the sermon can help to do this. Again, I know that some people, such as Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones did not favour title, but it is surely significant that the editors of his sermons have given titles to each of them! The title can also arouse interest ahead of time – depending on the choice. A church I visited recently had an attractive leaflet with the sermon topics, but the title for Luke 8:40-48 was ‘Woman with haemorrhage‘! Something more imaginative such as ‘Living with long-term illness’ or ‘Hoping for healing’ might have attracted a wider audience!

Another aid to focusing on the theme is the opening section of the sermon. Working on the well-known premis, ‘If you don’t strike oil in the first five minutes, stop boring!’ I choose with care an opening illustration to catch the listener’s attention. This can be drawn from the personal experience or from current news or some topical issue which engages with the heareres.

For example, on one ocassion, I was due to speak on the attitude of Jesus to the Sabbath and in that very week I read in the newspaper that the Chief Rabbi in Israel had announced that throwing snowballs on the Sabbath was against the Mosaic law (unless those you threw them at gave their permission!) It made an excellent introduction to Sunday’s topic!

Finally, I try to drive the main point home with a concluding illustration – sometimes returning to the one with which I began or even adding some further details.

I prepare very full notes from which to preach. When I began preaching in my teens, I prided myself on three points written on the back of an old envelope. As I have gotten older (and wiser?) I find that writing out in full helps me to think through what I want to say. I then familiarise myself with the material and use the notes as a prop rather than reading verbatim from them.


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