As a full time pastor I write every week when preparing my sermons. I write for a variety of purposes, but sermon writing is different from other forms. Creativity and telling a great story are not the goal. At least they shouldn’t be. What is the goal? What is the method I use? Let me share with you some personal details about what goes into preparing a sermon.
First of all, sermon writing is a means to an end. Not every preacher writes down what they are going to say. Some pastors use an outline. Others prepare by reading the text and cross-referencing commentaries. Then they rely fully on their memory (and the Holy Spirit hopefully) to deliver a clear message to the congregation. Though I have certainly done this in the past, it is not my preferred method. The point is that whether one writes a lot, a little, or none at all in their sermon preparation, as long as God’s Word is being communicated, and the Church is being adequately fed, then glory be to God.
A Blank White Screen
My word processor of choice for sermon preparation is Logos Bible Software, which allows me to have parallel windows open to see the Scripture I’m studying alongside other helpful tools. I’ve been doing it this way for a couple years now. I used Microsoft Word before that.
Like any other form of writing every sermon begins with the infamous blank screen. For preachers, writers block should never be an issue since we have been given all the material and subject matter we will ever need. God’s Word is a vast ocean that we will never fully plunge the depths of. If you don’t know what to preach (or write) then go spend time with God in His Word until He shows you. He will show you.
We journey through books of the Bible in expository fashion at our church. This means that unless we are in a mini series for a holiday, or taking a season to preach on a much-needed topic, I always have the Bible passage in mind that I’ll be preaching or teaching next. The screen doesn’t stay blank for long.
I’ll often begin with my title. It could be as simple as the book, chapter, and verse we are studying, but I generally try to come up with a meaningful title that functions as the primary point I’m making. I have to remember that even though the title is important to me, it may not be as important to everyone else. That’s OK. It helps me get the juices flowing.
Distractions Are Real
When I’m writing a sermon my mind can wander. I’m human after all. Thoughts of food, another task, my family, a bill that needs to get paid; all these can flow through my mind in a ten second period. This can be distracting. Because I choose to use computer software and not pen and paper, I subject myself every week to needing the discipline of self-control. Social media, an email notification, a phone call or text from a church member, or another project can sideswipe me in an instant, so I try to help myself by keeping all unnecessary tabs closed and choosing to focus.
The simple prayer of, “God help me to focus on your Word so I can feed Your flock”, is often uttered. Trust me, I’ve done plenty of repenting while preparing a sermon. Like it or not, distractions are real in every kind of work. All we can do is work on being more disciplined, and learn to say no to the things that do not need to be done till later.
The Flow of the Sermon
One reason I like manuscripting my sermons is because it gives me complete control of the flow from beginning to end. Sermons have a rhythm. There is a certain cadence about a good sermon. A good sermon is not choppy and scattered. Thoughts and points flow from one to the next, connecting with one another but without causing confusion for the hearer. That’s the goal anyway. I’m not always successful with this, and I’ve preached my share of “bad” sermons. By writing it all down I can manage my thoughts and be more confident in the delivery.
The general flow of my sermon writing goes like this. Start with an intro. Sermon introductions can range from a brief recap of where we have already been, an anecdote (I’m not good at these), or even the Scripture text itself. A sermon with no introduction might feel a little like sitting down for a meal and suddenly there’s food being crammed in your mouth. The introduction is like setting the table for those who are going to be eating what you have prepared.
My manuscript follows the flow of the Bible text itself. I want to display the plain meaning of what the text is teaching. It’s not just about what it is saying (otherwise preaching would only be reading), but about what the Holy Spirit had in mind when inspiring the author to write it. Whether preaching expositonally or topically, there needs to be a flow that works. A beginning, a middle, and an ending. The middle, for me anyway, consists of several clear points. Every text has a point that I want to draw out for God’s people. Whether I find one, three, or seven (seven is a lot), points give people something to hold onto when listening. They’re like stepping stones across a river. I write these out and try to make them memorable, or even quotable.
Is it worth repeating, is a good question to ask. Between the points are further explanations that I use to draw attention to the Bible and what the writer is saying in his context. After the points are made, and the text has been explained, it is time to make application and land the plane.
Apply The Gospel and Land The Plane
A sermon needs application. The text itself should dictate the amount and the placement. Though there will be points of application throughout the body of the sermon, there comes a time (usually near the end) when I want the Gospel to become clearer. I agree with Spurgeon, that no matter where we are in Scripture I can and should bring them to Jesus.
Application can sound like, “do this”, or “don’t do this, “think this”, or “don’t think that”. These are not all bad. Scripture does make commands that Christians are obligated to obey. We should delight in obeying. Remember, though, not every in the room is of the same maturity level. Some may not be born again. If I’m intentional about Gospel application I can leave people asking, “What has Christ done perfectly on my behalf?”, more than, “What do I need to do better?”. This doesn’t remove our obligation to do what Scripture teaches, or to make the changes in our lives that God desires. It ensures that we know where the power for that change is going to come from.
It is about time to land the plane. I want there to be resolve in people’s minds. I’m not saying I don’t want to leave any tension in the room. The Bible often creates necessary tension that needs to be there. People need to be wrestling with truth, making decisions, repenting and dealing with sin. I don’t want that tension to be because I’ve left everyone hanging and wondering what happened. By the end of a message, as the analogy implies, we need to be on the ground. Planes that don’t land (or won’t land) keep people worried. Sermons are no different.
Personally, this is the most difficult part of delivery for me. As I near the end of typing my manuscript I start to envision my congregation; what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, and what I want the last words to be that leave my mouth. There are times on a Sunday when I read the last word from the page (my planned landing) and I go on to say more. I ad lib. The church is a living and breathing organism of people, so I have to leave room for something the Holy Spirit may prompt me to say in that moment. Then I leave it with God.
Do What Works
This is what I do after almost twenty years of ministry, and six years of weekly preaching. It works for me. You need to do what works for you. If you work with notes on a napkin, and you struggle with flow and how to land the plane, then try the manuscript method. If you’re a no notes kind of guy, then praise God. You are driving the “Cadillac” we all wish we had. That is, unless your preaching is bad. Whatever your method of prep and delivery is, let’s be sure to work hard at making our message clear, compelling, and true to the Gospel.