A Letter On Sermon Preparation – Steven ColeNovember 8, 2007
An expository preacher I greatly admire is pastor Steve Cole from Flagstaff Christian Fellowship, Arizona. Along with commentaries I read, often I turn to one of pastor Cole’s sermon to glean further insights into the passage and how I might communicate it. Find his massive sermon database here. I’m grateful to Steve for allowing me to publish online a letter he wrote to a fellow pastor on the theme of sermon preparation.
Regarding sermon prep, I had Haddon Robinson at DTS, and his course is basically contained in his book, “Biblical Preaching.” I don’t follow his method to a T, but I do generally follow it, with many shortcuts that are necessary for ministry survival. I begin just with the old observation, interpretation, application process that we learned in Bible study methods. I try to jot down any issues that need to be resolved, to figure out why the Lord included this passage in this context, etc. I try to determine what the subject of the passage is, and what it is saying about the subject (Robinson explains this process). If I can, I take an initial stab at a main idea.
Then I start reading commentaries. I start with the more technical ones first, trying to figure out interpretive issues, textual problems, history and background, grammatical matters, etc. After reading a half dozen or so, I generally know what the various problems are and what the major views are. I save the more devotional writers for last (Morgan, Spurgeon, Maclaren, Boice, etc.). With them, I’m looking to see how they applied this text to their congregations. All through this process, I’m throwing thoughts onto the computer screen in pretty much random order.
Eventually, I try to nail down the main idea in succinct form. For example, I just finished this Sunday’s sermon on the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-11), and I’m taking it in the direction of when unity is wrong. My main idea (I’m going here from memory) is something like, Unity is wrong when it compromises the gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Then my major points develop that theme. So I come up with an outline. Then I go back and move all of my notes around to fit under each point or subpoint. Some of my observations are interesting, but don’t fit, so I leave them out unless I determine that they really need to be said. Once I get my outline with my observations arranged, I print out those notes (usually one to two pages). I use these printed notes to work out my manuscript.
I type the whole thing out, as you know from looking at our web page. I find the discipline of manuscripting it forces me to be concise and precise. I usually have far more than I have time for, so I go back and chop out stuff that may be interesting, but isn’t crucial to the point. I’m always aiming at application–how should this affect people’s lives? I usually try to come up with an introduction that grabs attention, creates a need so that people want to listen, and introduces the body of the sermon. I also have an extensive illustration file (3×5 cards, a la Robinson). I began it long before computer days, so it’s all on cards, not on a computer data base. If I were starting now, I might figure out a way to scan them onto a computer. I’m always reading looking for illustrations and quotes (Reader’s Digest, books I read, etc.). I cross reference them, too, so that I can track them down.
Anyway, once I’ve typed out the manuscript and edited it to the right length (3500 words for a 35-40 minute sermon), I take the printed copy (face up, half sheet size, so I don’t have to be flipping pages in the pulpit), highlight and underline key words and quotes, and go over it several times, especially Saturday night, so that I know it well enough not to be tied to my notes. I do take the manuscript into the pulpit, but I never read it, unless it’s to give a quote verbatim. I glance at it and see the highlighted words and remember where I wanted to go, but I try to maintain eye contact with the congregation as I speak. I haven’t mentioned it either, but the whole process is shot through with prayer, both in preparation and prayer for delivery and the results.
I don’t feel very gifted at the process, like Spurgeon was. He was incredible! I have to work hard at it and it usually doesn’t flow easily. But that keeps me dependent on the Lord.