Some solid suggestions about sermon preparation are found here at Dr. Tim White’s Blog:
Before being called to pastor Ballymoney Baptist Church, I inevitably faced a raft of questions from its eldership. Beforehand, however, I also asked the elders some questions of my own. Since mentioning this in a prior post, I’ve been emailed several times to forward a copy of those questions to pastor’s in the same situation. Here then is a slightly ammended list of the questions I asked.
A. Theological Questions
1. What is the church’s statement of faith and how did the church devise it?
2. What has been the most vexed theological question the church has faced? Has there ever been a church split over theology or practice? Why?
3. On the wider scene, what theological trends and strands of false teaching would the elders at Ballymoney be particularly concerned about at the moment?
4. What are the key functions/roles of an elder at Ballymoney?
5. What is the elder’s relationship to the pastor? (For example, is the pastor an elder? Do the elders perceive themselves as, in some way, subordinate?)
6. What would the church’s position be on the role of women?
7. What is the church’s position on the function of charismatic gifts?
8. Is there a different kind of membership for someone differing on secondary issues? Would it ever be considered?
9. What kind of church government structure is practiced? How does it work out in practice?
B. Ministry-Philosophy Questions
10. What is the process of being baptised and becoming a church member? How is baptism and membership encouraged?
11. What are the expectations laid upon church members?
12. How does the church practice church discipline? (What sort of discipline has been practiced in the past?)
13. Do the elders have any plans for expansion of the building or church planting?
14. What, if anything, would the elders want to see change or develop in the future? (each elder might want to answer individually!)
15. Do the church members generally (and happily) follow the lead of the eldership?
16. Can the elders give evidence of an openness to growing in their role? (by eg. reading resources on eldership, attending conferences, having a weekend away with pastor, etc)
17. In what ways (if at all) do you think my young age might affect my reception both in the church and among the eldership?
18. What would be the minimum and maximum expectations be of the frequency of the pastor’s preaching? (ie. is one Sunday evening off in preaching a month the minimum acceptable; on the other hand, would preaching every service without fail be deemed unhelpful)
19. What items in the current services are non-negotiable? What other items are deemed acceptable and have been featured in the past? Is the pastor responsible for putting together all orders of service?
20. Is the current practice of communion (format, timing, gap between service and communion) set in stone?
21. What sorts of things do the Ballymoney elders feel the pastor should not be doing with his time?
22. What are the congregational/eldership expectations (these two may be different) regarding pastoral visitation?
23. How often are business meetings conducted? Does the pastor moderate this? Are they productive and generally positive? What is typically discussed?
24. Does the church have a yearly budget and if so, how is it put together?
25. What is the church’s attitude and approach to missionaries?
26. Who is responsible for the website and library and how easy would it be for the pastor to make a significant input into each of these areas? (Note: I believe these resources would have some relation to my teaching function as a pastor)
27. Has the church ever had Fellowship Groups? If so, what is the leadership’s feeling about their significance?
28. What are the leadership’s views concerning counselling?
29. How would you sum up the spiritual health of the congregation in qualitative terms (against measurements like prayer, heart for evangelism, love for one another)?
30. What kind of impact have ‘the troubles’ and its aftermath had on the Ballymoney congregation?
31. Pardoning the expression, are there any ‘sacred cows’ in the church?
32. Would the congregation consider adding an additional paid staff member at any point?
C. Personal Questions
33. Would the elders have any objection to the pastor working from a church office? (my preferred place for sermon prep)
34. What is the view of the elders regarding the pastor resourcing himself? (conferences; the odd retreat to read & plan, etc)
35. Are there any expenses for things?
36. What is the rationale regarding days off and holidays?
37. Is there any scope for ‘preaching away’ from Ballymoney? (Note: I would be very cautious about doing much of this, especially early on, however)
38. Do you think it would be relatively easy for a young family to settle into the church/town? What challenges might Nicki and the children face?
39. What role would the pastor’s wife be expected to have in the church?
40. What are the schools like in Ballymoney?
41. How easy might it be to buy an affordable house in the Ballymoney area?Tweet
LISTEN UP! by Christopher Ash (Reviewed by Phil Dunn)
Here’s a question for you. Think back to church last week. What was the sermon about? Have a think. What passage in the Bible was it from? Do you remember the main points from the sermon? Can you remember any of the applications the preacher made? What truth impressed you most? Tricky questions – aren’t they? Well if you’re struggling with your answers, you’re not on your own. In fact my suspicion is that most of us can’t remember very much about last Sundays sermon at all.
Now that’s a pretty big problem. In fact one experienced, now-retired pastor recently commented, “One of the biggest problems in the evangelical church today is that its members simply leave their brains at the church door!” Yet Jesus said “Consider carefully how you listen.” (Luke 8v18)
Of course some of us do have good intentions and try our best to listen, but we never seem to take in very much. Others are content with just getting out to church and staying awake! Whatever category you fall into I think you’ll agree we could all do with some sound advice in how to listen better in church.
So then, let me introduce you to a super little booklet entitled ‘Listen Up’. It’s a practical guide to listening to sermons – and I’ve got to say its absolutely brilliant! It really is! It’s written by Christopher Ash – the director of the Cornhill Training Course in London. Its quite short – just 31 pages, and is attractively designed with lots of colour and little pictures. But the best thing about it is that its really reader friendly. Its written for the man in the pew. So it’s is not a difficult read – but it is definitely a very challenging one!
The booklet begins with ‘seven ingredients for healthy sermon listening.’ Each of the points begin with an interesting little case-study looking at two easily recognisable, contrasting viewpoints. Then after an explanation of each point (around 2 pages each), there is a little bullet-point section called ‘practical steps to take’ helping the reader to know what to do in response to each point. These are the seven ingredients which Ash expands upon:
1. EXPECT GOD TO SPEAK
2. ADMIT GOD KNOWS BETTER THAN YOU
3. CHECK THE PREACHER SAYS WHAT THE PASSAGE SAYS
4. HEAR THE SERMON IN CHURCH
5. BE THERE WEEK BY WEEK
6. DO WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS
7. DO WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS TODAY – AND REJOICE
The explanation and advice given in each point is always biblically based and extremely practical. Some things, doubtless, you’ll might know already – but to read them properly fleshed out is actually very enlightening. Other aspects you probably won’t have considered – and these again are sure to help you gain more as you listen to your pastors sermons week by week.
But what about those of us who have to endure ‘bad’ sermons in our churches? Lets face it, many of us do have this experience. Helpfully Ash takes time to address this problem and suggests three types of bad sermons and how we should respond to them as listeners. He offers advice on dull sermons, biblically inadequate sermons and heretical sermons. Even just by categorising bad sermons like this is beneficial as it helps the reader identify what the problems actually are in the sermons he/she hears each week. The advice offered is also very practical and helpful.
The last page of the booklet contains 7 suggestions for encouraging good preaching. These are things we can do as listeners to encourage better preaching in our local church. Particularly helpful (I thought) was the fourth suggestion of thanking the preacher. Here we’re advised against flattering the preacher, or just giving vague comments – instead “try to be specific and focus on the biblical content of the sermon.”
In summary then. I cant speak highly enough of this little booklet. I honestly cant imagine anyone reading it and not finding it immensely helpful (and that includes older Christians too). Are there any drawbacks – well, I really couldn’t think of any! It’s short (only takes about 5-10 minutes to read), it’s clearly laid out, and it’s easy to understand. And if the reader takes the content to heart he/she is bound to benefit and enjoy Gods word much more. My advice – grab a copy for yourself – or even better get one for each member at your church!
(Available from www.thegoodbook.co.uk)
Phil Dunn is a member of Ballymoney Baptist Church.Tweet
HT: PJ Tibyan.
“Preaching through Bible Books – This is from a conference in 2003 called, “Katoomba Christian Conference Centenary (Sydney, Australia).” D.A. Carson lectured on 12 points in preaching through a book of the Bible. You can listen to the audio by downloading the message here (left-click). This is taken from The Gospel Coalition website.
(4:58 ) – Eschew the division of head and heart.
(6:14) – Early on attain sufficient grasp of the book that you can succinctly state (a) what the book is about, (b) what this book contributes to the canon that overlaps with what other books bring to the canon, and (c) what distinctive things this book brings to the canon.(All these things need to be thought about simultaneously.This is what brings clarity and precision).Scan biblical theologies on the book to get a large scale picture of the book.
(11:10) – At roughly the same time determine (a) the number of sermons you’ll devote to the book and (b) the large scale outline of the book insofar as it impinges on your text boundaries for each sermon (11:10).
(19:27) – Start working on individual sermon preparation (either in advance or week by week).Ideally work on the text first. A.(23:26) – Ideally develop note taking techniques.This keeps your tools sharp and keeps your files for resources for future ministry (writing, preaching, evangelism, etc.); B.(29:32) – from these detailed exegetical notes(Note for young preachers: you must determine and discipline yourself to leave stuff out).You need to know what to leave out.The sermon is the best of the material and the highlights of what you learned.The aim is to think through what contributes to the burden of that text; C.Work on the text’s structure.Work on it so that it is fresh and appealing and helpful.
(32:27) – Each sermon must simultaneously stand alone and constitute a part of the series.
(33:34) – Remember the different contributions of a Paul House (corpus/book) biblical theology and a Charles Scobie (thematic) biblical theology.
(38:11) – Recognize that there may be special study and focus necessary for certain books (historical, cultural, literary genre, etc).
(42:32) – Ideally try to make your sermon material reflect in some way the genre of the book you are treating.
(44:24) – Remember constantly that this is not an exercise in artistic creation.The sermon is not an end in itself, but it is a re-revelation of God to his people.This means that as you prepare you ought to be thinking about the people to whom you are ministering.
(50:28 ) – ideally keep revising, praying, preparing so that it is not so much that you have mastered the material as that it has mastered you.There is a way of preaching that projects an image of being an expert and an image of being captured by the text.Tweet
Scott Thomas has an interesting post about preaching on the Acts 29 network. One part of it that intrigued me was a form used to evaluate sermons. There are two broad categories that are considered: Faithfulness to God/Scripture, and Communication. Apparently, these categories derive originally from Tim Keller. The Christological focus is particularly helpful, I think.
Faithfulness to Scripture and God. These questions are related to the preacher’s theological accuracy.
1. The preaching assertions (points) were clearly rooted in the text and squared with the whole teaching of scripture. (1 – Strongly Disagree 2 – Disagree 3 – Not Sure 4 – Agree 5 – Strongly Agree)
2. The central theme was an illustration of Christ – the message was clearly all about Jesus. (1 – Strongly Disagree 2 – Disagree 3 – Not Sure 4 – Agree 5 – Strongly Agree)
3. The speaker seemed in awe of God, not merely focused upon his sermon and the audience. (1 – Strongly Disagree 2 – Disagree 3 – Not Sure 4 – Agree 5 – Strongly Agree)
4. The speaker avoided moralizing or psychologizing, and distinguished these from the gospel. (1 – Strongly Disagree 2 – Disagree 3 – Not Sure 4 – Agree 5 – Strongly Agree)
5. The goal was to get people face-to-face with God, rather than merely instruct. (1 – Strongly Disagree 2 – Disagree 3 – Not Sure 4 – Agree 5 – Strongly Agree)
6. Christ and His finished work were applied as the practical solution to any problem. (1 – Strongly Disagree 2 – Disagree 3 – Not Sure 4 – Agree 5 – Strongly Agree)
Message Delivery and Communication. These questions are related to the preacher’s communication abilities and connection with the intended audience.
7. It was clear where the preacher was driving – and the progression of points was traceable. (1 – Strongly Disagree 2 – Disagree 3 – Not Sure 4 – Agree 5 – Strongly Agree)
8. The points were presented in a fresh, wise, and striking way as opposed to boring & cliché. (1 – Strongly Disagree 2 – Disagree 3 – Not Sure 4 – Agree 5 – Strongly Agree)
9. At the end of the preaching, the main point was both clear and persuasive. (1 – Strongly Disagree 2 – Disagree 3 – Not Sure 4 – Agree 5 – Strongly Agree)
10. It was clear the speaker understood the hearers’ hopes, fears, problems, concerns, etc. (1 – Strongly Disagree 2 – Disagree 3 – Not Sure 4 – Agree 5 – Strongly Agree)
11. The central metaphor or “hook” was gripping. (1 – Strongly Disagree 2 – Disagree 3 – Not Sure 4 – Agree 5 – Strongly Agree)
12. Jesus was made visible, not just taught about. (1 – Strongly Disagree 2 – Disagree 3 – Not Sure 4 – Agree 5 – Strongly Agree)
13. There was a balance of warmth, love and humility on the one hand and force, power and authority on the other. (1 – Strongly Disagree 2 – Disagree 3 – Not Sure 4 – Agree 5 – Strongly Agree)
14. The notes followed the message and enhanced comprehension. (1 – Strongly Disagree 2 – Disagree 3 – Not Sure 4 – Agree 5 – Strongly Agree or N/A)
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.
I’m not sure how I missed this till now but Sinclair’s Ferguson’s article “A Preacher’s Decalogue” is one of the best short exhortations on how to grow as a preacher. To make it digestible, I’ll divide up his Reformation 21 thoughts over a number of weeks.
1. Know your Bible better. Often at the end of a Lord’s Day, or a Conference, the thought strikes me again: “If you only knew your Bible better you would have been a lot more help to the people.” I teach at a seminary whose founder stated that its goal was “to produce experts in the Bible.” Alas I was not educated in an institution that had anything remotely resembling that goal. The result? Life has been an ongoing “teach yourself while you play catch-up.” At the end of the day seminaries exist not to give authoritative line-by-line interpretations of the whole of Scripture but to provide tools to enable its graduates to do that. That is why, in many ways, it is the work we do, the conversations we have, the churches we attend, the preaching under which we sit, that make or break our ministries. This is not “do it yourself” but we ourselves need to do it.
As an observer as well as a practitioner of preaching, I am troubled and perplexed by hearing men with wonderful equipment, humanly speaking (ability to speak, charismatic personality and so on) who seem to be incapable of simply preaching the Scriptures. Somehow they have not first invaded and gripped them.
I must not be an illiterate. But I do need to be homo unius libri—a man of one Book. The widow of a dear friend once told me that her husband wore out his Bible during the last year of his life. “He devoured it like a novel” she said. Be a Bible devourer!
2. Be a man of prayer. I mean this with respect to preaching. Not only in the sense that I should pray before I begin my preparation, but in the sense that my preparation is itself a communion in prayer with God in and through his word. Whatever did the apostles mean by saying that they needed to devote themselves “to prayer and the ministry of the word”—and why that order?
My own feeling is that in the tradition of our pastoral textbooks we have over-individualized this. The apostles (one may surmise) really meant “we”—not “I, Peter” or “I, John” but “We, Peter, John, James, Thomas, Andrew . . . together.”
Is it a misreading of the situation to suspect that preachers hide the desperate need of prayer for the preaching, and their personal need? By contrast, reflect on Paul’s appeals. And remember Spurgeon’s bon mot when asked about the secret of his ministry: “My people pray for me.”
Reflecting on this reminds me of one moment in the middle of an address at a conference for pastors when the bubble above my head contained the words “You are making a complete and total hash of this,” but as my eyes then refocused on the men in front of me they seemed like thirsty souls drinking in cool refreshing water, and their eyes all seemed to be fixed on the water carrier I was holding! Then the above-the-head-bubble filled with other words: “I remember now, how I urged the congregation at home to pray for these brethren and for the ministry of the word. They have been praying.”
Alas for me if I don’t see the need for prayer or for encouraging and teaching my people to see its importance. I may do well (I have done well enough thus far, have I not?) . . . but not with eternal fruit.
(Tomorrow, Derek Prime answers 10 Questions)Tweet
I love receiving books. But when someone sends me a book entitled “The Expository Genius of John Calvin” I’m verging on cartwheels. I am glad to say that having now read the book, I am no less enthusiastic.
So what has me so enthused about Steve Lawson’s latest offering? For the full answer, I’ll organize my reflections into four sections: i) the content, ii) the book’s commendable aspects, iii) some minor criticisms, before finally iv) my recommendation.
The book itself is the first installment of the proposed series: “A Long Line of Godly Men.” In due course, the plan is to cover other Christian worthies such as Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards and Charles H. Spurgeon. But here the focus is John Calvin.
While we associate this Reformer most closely with the city of Geneva and his massive tome “The Institutes of the Christian Religion”, here the spotlight falls upon Calvin’s preaching. Lawson’s goal is to consider “the distinguishing marks of his [Calvin’s] pulpit ministry… the core presuppositions that undergirded his biblical preaching, and …his personal preparation for preaching. In short, we will explore the distinguishing marks of Calvin’s expository genius.” (xiii)
In order to do this, Lawson begins with a helpful historical sketch of Calvin’s life and ministry. Next, he covers six broad sections that describe the Reformer’s preaching: Approaching the Pulpit (ch 2) deals with Calvin’s key theological pre-commitments, whilst Preparing the Preacher (ch 3) touches on his broader spiritual development, which inevitably enriched his preaching. The chapters Launching the Sermon (ch 4), Expounding the Text (ch 5), Crafting the Delivery (ch 6), Applying the Truth (ch7) and Concluding the Exposition (ch 8), then walk us chronologically through some specific aspects of Calvin’s preaching style.
Within these six chapters, Lawson pulls out thirty two distinctives of Calvin’s preaching. To give but a few examples: Calvin’s “sequential exposition” (#4), “direct beginnings” (#8), “literal interpretation” (#14), “provocative questions” (#20), and “succinct summation” (#30). Coverage of these distinctives vary somewhat in length, but are all relatively short summaries. Helpfully, they are replete with specific illustrations of the given point, drawn from Calvin’s sermons.
The closing chapter is both a passionate call to the church and a prayerful plea to God. May preachers of the Calvin variety once again arise in our day. No preacher could read these three short pages without getting tingles down their spine!
ii) Commendable Aspects
There are many positives about this book, but I’ll limit myself to three. First, Lawson’s style will be an easy read for historians, pastors and layman alike. Lawson has aimed for an eminently readable treatment of the subject and he has certainly achieved it. Added to this, the brevity of the book (136 pages) means that it can be easily read at two or three sittings.
Second, the book balances well both the presuppositions that underpinned Calvin’s preaching (eg. his commitment to the sole authority of Scripture), and the methodology of his preaching method. It is quite common to read a book on preaching full of practical insights into sermon prep, with nothing said about the preacher’s view of the bible. But if the latter is wrong, arguably the former is inconsequential. On the other hand, it is possible to deal with a preachers theological pre-commitments, to the virtual exclusion of discussing his practical method. Lawson steers a middle course. Calvin’s preaching is presented in practical terms, but not as a shallow pragmatism rooted in the thin topsoil of theological error.
Thirdly, the very nature of the book (with 32 distinctives) means that it can easily be used as regularly consulted text book. One thought I had for future use was that this could read by a preaching pastor – or his team -over 32 weeks. What value there would be in considering one distinctive every week as a spur to discussing one’s own preaching.
There’s very little about this book of which one could speak critically. In fact, any minor quibble that I have relates only to the chosen genre, and so can hardly be classed as a legitimate gripe. For example, one could suggest that the book has something of an ‘introductory feel’, that it covers many aspects of Calvin’s preaching but to a fairly shallow degree. But Lawson’s work was never intended to be such a penetrating volume. This does mean however that there are places where you wish more had been said than the one tantalizing page before you!
In a similar fashion, there were places were I longed for a more critical interaction with some of Calvin’s methods, but didn’t find it forthcoming. One instance of this is the author’s treatment of Distinctive No.23: Unspoken outline. This made the point that Calvin did not fashion his sermons according to a logical outline .i.e. he did not use first, second, third points, nor alliterative headings. Knowing that Lawson himself uses a very structured approach when preaching (including alliterative headings!) I expected some comment on the relative merits of this. But Lawson simply comments that despite his lack of obvious structure Calvin was “hardly unprepared” and his “message was organized with great detail in his brilliant mind.” Probably, however, such engagement was beyond the scope of this short volume.
Perhaps the highest praise I can give to this book is that by the end of it, I understood a great deal more of Calvin’s preaching style, and was left hungry to learn more. I think this was precisely Lawson’s intention.
However, this book achieves much more than introducing us to Calvin’s preaching. In many ways, it commends the expository approach to preaching which we should all broadly welcome. Moreover, through John Calvin, Lawson displays a living, breathing embodiment of the approach that we should aspire to, even if we will not reach always reach it.
It is Lawson’s passionate intention to promote expository preaching today that transforms this historical study into an inspiring contemporary call to modern preachers. The book’s final sentences convey that passion:
“We do want Calvin’s again. We must have Calvin’s again. And, by God’s grace, we shall see them raised up again in this hour. May the head of the church give us again an army of biblical expositors, men of God sold out for new Reformation. Soli Deo Gloria.”
Amen, we say.Tweet
I probably don’t need to tell you that Alistair Begg is one of the most gifted preachers in contemporary evangelicalism. He is also a humble man, which is perhaps especially important when you are endowed with rich talents. Today’s Classic Materials is an excerpt from the excellent book he co-authors with Derek Prime, “On Being a Pastor.” I’m also mentioning this today to remind you to pray for Alistair, especially given his health situation.
“I remain fascinated by the variety of approaches that preachers take in preparing their sermons. In our preparation, as well as in our delivery we must ‘to our own selves be true.’ When I am asked to summarise my method of preparation, I mention the following points, which I learned from the late Leith Samuel….
1. Think yourself empty. As strange as it may sound, we must be careful to ensure that we do not avoid sound thinking. The temptation to respond emotionally to a passage (this is how this makes me feel) is not unique to our listeners. If we are to have ‘thinking’ congregations it is incumbant upon us to be ‘thinking’ pastors’! We do not want to be uncertain by the time our study ends, but it is surely right and proper to begin with the perspective, ‘I must know what this says, and I must learn what this means.’
2. Read yourself full.
3. Write yourself clear. Aside from the essential empowering of the Holy Spirit, if there is one single aspect of sermon preparation that I would want to emphasise, it is this. Freedom of delivery in the pulpit depends upon careful organisation in the study. We may believe that we have a grasp of the text, only to stand up and discover that somewhere between our thinking and our speaking things have gone badly awry. The missing link can usually be traced back to the absence of putting our thoughts down clearly.
4. Pray yourself hot. There is no chance of fire in the pews if there is an iceberg in the pulpit! Without prayer and communion with God during the preparation stages, the pulpit will be cold. In 1752 John Shaw reminded the incumbent pastor beginning his charge in Cambridge, Massachusetts: ‘All will be in vain, to no saving purpose, until God is pleased to give the increase. And in order to do this, God looks for prayers to come up to His ears. A praying minister is always the way to have a succesful ministry.”
5. Be yourself, but don’t preach yourself. A good teacher, like John the Baptist, clears the way, declares the way, and then gets out of the way.”
I’m always interested in the preparation methods of others. While each preacher must ultimately find their own route to the sermon, much can no doubt be gained as we examine the rigourous methods of seasoned preachers.
I was intrigued, therefore, to recently come across a summary of John Stott’s preparation steps (putting in short form what he expands on in Between two Worlds). Thanks to the website Xenos for this link which I’ve quoted in full.
I. Choose your text
A. It is best to rely on expository book studies for the steady diet of your people, because this ensures they will get “the whole counsel of God.”
B. However, the following may be occasions for special sermons:
1. Special calendar occasions: Christmas, Easter, etc.
2. Special external circumstances which are in the public mind.
3. Special needs discerned by the preacher or others.
4. Truths which have specially inspired the preacher.
C. Keep a notebook to scribble down ideas for sermons, insights, burdens, illustrations, etc. Record them immediately wherever they come to mind, because you will usually forget them later.
II. Meditate on the text
A. Whenever possible, plan out texts weeks or months in advance. This gives the benefit of “subconscious incubation”.
B. Concentrated “incubation” should begin at least one week before preaching. It should involve the following:
1. Read, re-read, and re-re-read the text.
2. Be sure you understand what it means. Do your own interpretive work. Don’t use commentaries until you have formulated specific interpretive questions which you have been unable to answer, or until you have completed your interpretive work.
3. Brood longer over how it applies to your people, to the culture, to you, etc.
4. Pray for God to illuminate the text, especially its application.
5. Scribble down notes of thoughts, ideas, etc.
6. Solicit the insights of others through tapes, talking with other preachers, etc.
III. Isolate the dominant thought
(This is the purpose of section II.)
A. Your sermon should convey only one major message. All of the details of your sermon should be marshaled to help your people grasp that message and feel its power.
B. You should be able to express the dominant thought in one short, clear, vivid sentence.
IV. Arrange your material to serve the dominant thought
A. Chisel and shape your material. Ruthlessly discard all material which is irrelevant to the dominant thought. Subordinate the remaining material to the dominant thought by using that material to illuminate and reinforce the dominant thought.
B. Your sermon structure should be suited to the text, not artificially imposed. Avoid structure which is too clever, prominent or complex.
C. Decide on your method of preaching for this text: argumentation, faceting, categorizing, analogy, etc.
D. Carefully choose words that are precise, simple, clear, vivid and honest. Write out the key sections, phrases, and sentences to help you in your word choice. Stick to short declarative and interrogative sentences with few, if any, subordinate clauses.
E. Come up with illustrations and examples which will explain and convict. Employ a wide variety: figures of speech, images, retelling biblical stories in contemporary language, inventing fresh parables, retelling true historical and/or biographical events, etc. Keep a file of these, especially if they do not come easily to you. Avoid making illustrations and examples so prominent that they detract from the dominant thought. Also, avoid applying them inappropriately or overusing them.
V. Add the introduction and conclusion
A. The introduction should not be elaborate, but enough to arouse their curiosity, wet their appetites and introduce the dominant thought. This can be done by a variety of means: explaining the setting of the passage, story, current event or issue, etc.
B. The conclusion should not merely recapitulate your sermon–it should apply it. Obviously, you should be applying all along, but you should keep something for the end which will prevail upon your people to take action. “No summons, no sermon.” Preach though the head to the heart (i.e. the will). The goal of the sermon should be to “storm the citadel of the will and capture it for Jesus Christ.” What do you want them to do? Employ a variety of methods to do this:
1. Argument: anticipate objections and refute them
2. Admonition: warn of the consequences of disobedience
3. Indirect Conviction: arouse moral indignation and then turn it on them (Nathan with David)
4. Pleading: apply the gentle pressure of God’s love, concern for their well-being, and the needs of others
5. Vision: paint a picture of what is possible through obedience to God in this area
VI. Write down and pray over your message
A. Writing out your sermon forces you to think straight and sufficiently. It exposes lazy thinking and cures it. After you are thoroughly familiar with your outline, reduce it to small notes.
B. Pray the God will enable you to “so possess the message that the message possesses you.”