six sermon prep tips :: how i get ready to preach

April 4, 2011

This weekend I ran into Ben, a friend of  mine from the Association Free Lutheran Bible School, which shares a campus with the Seminary where I currently live and study.  He was preparing to preach his first sermon and asked me if I had any pointers in getting prepped.

I had about 3 minutes.

So I grabbed his yellow notebook and shot from the hip.  I’m sure, given unlimited time and an endless supply of warm chocolate chip cookies, I could have done a better job.  This will have to do for now.  Here is the fast, cookie-free version:

(1)  PRAY!  It’s God talking, not you.  :: I think preachers forget sometimes that the Word of God has said enough.  Our job is to preach with the help of the Holy Spirit so that our congregations understand what God is saying to them.  This, then, is not so much an opportunity to support OUR ideas with scripture, but to help make GOD’s ideas understandable and connected to the real life of the people listening.

(2)  Identify your target.  Believers? Not?  :: This is common sense on one level, but is easily forgotten… and the ramifications carry some weight.  Before you can  communicate effectively, you need to know your  audience.  Some passages in scripture speak to the unforgiven.  Some passages challenge, strengthen, or encourage the already convinced.  Some passages speak to both.  Before you preach, figure out what God is calling you to say AND who he is calling you to speak it to.

(3)  Figure out the BIG IDEA of the text (The main thing you think God is saying here in one sentence).  :: A number of teachers whom I admire have said this before: most of the time, you will communicate most clearly by saying one thing well.  When I’m prepping a message, it helps me stay focused and clear to carefully craft my BIG IDEA before I begin writing the message.

(4)  Make sure you are saying what the text says, not using it to prove your own ideas.  :: No explanation needed.

(5)  Think about these three things BEFORE you write it out:

(A)  KNOW =  At the end of your message, what do you want people to know?  It helps me to restate my most important point using, “At the end of the message, I want people to know that ______________________.”

(B)  FEEL =  Yes, Lutherans can feel things.  Have you seen the Vikings fans when Green Bay is in town?  Right.  We can even feel deeply in church without compromising our spiritual integrity.  So I think it is appropriate to think ahead of time about how you expect people will FEEL as you deliver this message.  Encouraged?  Celebratory?  Reflective?

(C)  DO =  As a response to this message, is there something you’re asking them to DO?  It is important to remember that religiously motivated action that isn’t a genuine worship RESPONSE to what God has done for us is simply legalism.  I do think it is appropriate sometimes to suggest a specific responsive action – to ask them to DO something – but we must always make it an option, a suggestion, wrapped in the grace of God and a reminder that we love because He first loved us.

(6)  Make sure you include both LAW (our need for God) and GOSPEL (God’s solution in Jesus) in EVERY message.  :: I know… my Lutheranosity is showing.  This does not mean we have to shoehorn anything into the text.  The Bible always will point us to Jesus.  Cover to cover. The whole Bible points to and helps us understand the centerpiece of all of history: Jesus redemptive sacrifice on the cross as a propitiation for our sins.

There.

Is there something I missed?

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Psalm 24:7 & Luke 10:42 >> Like David, and Mary, I'm in pursuit of my one thing. I'm the Pastor at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Montgomery, IL. Pastor, teacher, writer, communicator, designer, and drummer. I definitely got the better deal in my marriage to Amy. And I couldn't be any more proud of my five amazing boys. Deeply grateful.

5 responses to six sermon prep tips :: how i get ready to preach

  1. fantastic, Josh – and all that “from the hip” – that’s a gift. It really applies to all areas of ministry – preaching, speaking, writing. I will use this as I prepare my message for a teen girls’ retreat at the end of the month – thanks!

    • Thanks Mela! I hope it’s helpful. I’m adding a seventh point on my blog shortly, but these were the first things that came to mind. Great opportunity to speak to young women! I’ll be praying that the Holy Spirit speaks through you, and lives are changed. 🙂 God bless you and your family and your ministry!

  2. Great list, Josh! I wholeheartedly agree. I fairly recently preached my first sermon, so I can feel what your friend Ben is feeling. If he takes your list seriously, he should do well.

    I failed executing 5B: feel. My emotions did not quite match up with what I was saying. I think if the folks saw and heard me communicating with a certain feeling (whatever would be appropriate for the text at hand), they would be more apt to desire for what I was saying to be true in their lives.

    One thing that helped me was to write my whole sermon out (not just a detailed outline). Then I had my wife read it. She said, “I can tell this makes sense to you…”. Which means, it didn’t make sense to her, nor would it likely make sense to others. So, I reworked a few things, explaining assumptions, and had her read it again. Then it made sense. Whether or not you have a complete manuscript or an outline in front of you while you are preaching is a different issue. But, for preparing my first sermon, it helped to write it all out and have someone read through it beforehand.

    Regarding #2, I’d say this: if one’s message is focused on non-believers, don’t feel that there isn’t anything there for the believers. Any glorious truth heard by a believer should stir the soul. It might not be new to them, but it will be true, and worthy of rejoicing in. Or, if the message is pointed at believers, God may use the strange things you are saying to open up the eyes of a non-believer.

    Only other thing I can think of is that no matter how much prep work is done–when you’re done, you’ll feel inadequate, and come up with a list of things to do differently next time. Which is good–us clay pots should feel a sense of inadequacy, and should be amazed that God calls us to this work. Take what you can from the experience, and in His strength try to apply those things next time around.

    • Hey Tony! Thanks much for joining the discussion. YES – I really agree with you on your clarification regarding #2. In fact, I’d say that in almost every case, preaching the truth of the Word is powerful and effective for BOTH the redeemed and the curious but unconvinced. However, I have listened to many sermons where the target wasn’t clear, and that makes it hard to track sometimes, and it can easily pull the message in multiple directions so that the MAIN THING gets lost. To put a finer point on it. I try to be aware of which group I am SPEAKING TO at the time, with the sensitivity that the other group will be “listening in.” In fact, very often I will address the believers or unbelievers specifically and help them see how a particular passage might be speaking to them. The point is, a clear target helps bring focus and punch to the message. Then the Holy Spirit takes our faulty words and speaks to the hearts of both believers and unbelievers alike.

      I haven’t gotten into the habit of manuscripting messages yet, but I might try it. I know there would be benefits. Generally I have a detailed outline, and then I practice it several times to work out the kinks. I like the idea of letting your wife read it. You’re a wise man. 🙂

      And lastly, regarding our inadequacy… amen. I’m learning that the more I understand our calling and the eternal stakes of pastoral ministry, the more IMPOSSIBLE it is. That reality will keep us on our knees.

      I’m reminded of a quote from brother Mark Driscoll out at Mars Hill Seattle. He said, “The difference between your calling and your ability is GRACE.”

      God bless, Tony. Keep praying and preaching and God will change lives through you, brother.

      • Thanks for sharing, Josh. I will have to spend more time thinking about my audience in the way you describe next time around.