I am occasionally (very occasionally, I should stress) asked what my process is for preparing sermons. I’m never quite sure if that’s asked in the spirit of, ‘oh, that was good, how did you prepare that?’ or, ‘that was terrible, what process led to that rotter?’ More likely, I suspect, it is closer to, ‘I have no frame of reference at all, how do you prepare?’ with a subtext of, ‘I’ll probably ask a few people and see if some combination will work for me’. Well, regardless of why you’re asking, here is how I do it.
I usually prepare sermons around 2-3 months ahead of when they will be delivered. I am currently prepping sermons that I will deliver some time in February. There are three key benefits of this advanced working.
First, when I hit tricky passages, I am not under a massive time pressure to ‘get something’ by Sunday. As most preachers will tell you, some sermons come together very quickly; others take a lot of wrangling with the text. This way, I can spread sermon prep over several weeks if need be and can have greater confidence that what I am preaching are the main points of the passage rather than just what I had by Sunday (or glossing over it altogether).
Second, as most pastors will tell you, there is rarely a ‘standard week’ in ministry. Some weeks are beset with pastoral issues, visits and other things that need preparing. Other weeks, one might spend most time in the study. Preparing several months ahead of time means that I am not hamstrung on weeks full of crises and visits.
Third, this approach gives me the room to complete a sermon and then return to it in the runup to its delivery with fresh eyes. Whilst the sermon is effectively finished and ready to be delivered 3 months ahead of time, in the week leading up to its delivery I can look again and make alterations. If things have cropped up in intervening weeks, I can change some of the applications. Given that the key points and understanding of the passage is all there, I can also focus freshly on stylistic issues that tend to take a backseat during the main preparation phase.
That is when I start prep. But what do I actually do as I begin prepping?
First, I read through the passage two or three times and try to jot down whatever I think the main point(s) of the passage is/are. This phase is seeking to work out the key ideas and some of the issues with which I may have to wrestle later.
Next, I pick up some commentaries. If all of them suggest the main point(s) are wildly different to what I have found, I go back and read the passage again. If the overall thrust appears to be the same, I try to work out a preachable structure. This phase is, in effect, trying to work out the main points of the sermon. For example, will we make each point a look at the different characters in a particular story? Will we preach the narrative chronologically or thematically? However we approach it, these points must make clear the main idea(s) of the passage.
Once I have the overarching structure of the sermon, I dig into the details of the text for each point. For example, if my main points are structured chronologically (eg #Point 1, vv1-5; #Point 2, vv6-10; #Point 3, vv11-15), I dig into the details of each section and draw out where this main point is seen in the details of the text.
Once I have dug into the details of the text and shown where the headline point came from, I set about applying those details to the people in front of me. Every context will need these truths applying differently. With every point I want to help people understand what they need to do as a result of what the text says. Do they need to keep doing something, stop doing something, change their way of thinking? Does the passage aim to encourage, challenge, rebuke? What practices and mindsets have we fallen into that this passage wants to challenge; what practices and mindsets that we possess does it want to encourage? These are the things I want to draw out in application.
I then repeat the process in the above two paragraphs for each point.
Once I have dug into the details of each point (with reference to various commentaries) and applied them to our particular context, I go through the sermon and inset appropriate illustrations that serve those points and applications.
When I have inserted illustrations at appropriate junctures, I go back to the beginning and write the introduction to the entire sermon. This is an exercise in telling people what I am going to tell them and why it is worth their while listening for the next half hour. I think of an opening gambit that grabs attention and illustrates the main point of the passage that should be seen throughout. I write two or three sentences putting the passage into its context, usually based on the previous sermons in the series and (very) briefly recapping what we have heard so far and where this passage fits within the overarching narrative of the book.
As I mentioned, this is all usually done about three months ahead of time. In the week running up to delivery, I will look over all of this again. Although the sermon is pretty much ready to go, I familiarise myself with the passage again and make stylistic changes to the wording. If applications already seem out of date, or seem to miss the spot, I will change them as necessary.
Once I have done this and have a finished set of notes, I do an out-loud read through (usually twice) in my office. As I read through the first time, if there are things I have written that do not lend themselves to spoken word, I change them then and there. The second read through is usually a full reading of what will be delivered that Sunday.