How I Prepare to Preach

Every so often, folks ask me how I go about writing sermons. Here's my ten-step process for preparing to preach. It's certainly not the only way to do it, and might not even be the best way, but it might be helpful to someone out there. 

Here are three preliminaries to keep in mind as you read this. First, at every step of the way, pray. The Bible is God's Word, and it only opens when the Author enables and guides the interpreter. Second, at every step, I am writing. I am writing my observations, word definitions, commentary quotes. It is my habit to write in full sentences as I go along, as it aids in gaining clarity. Third, these steps tend to overlap. Translation and observation are going hand-in-hand; sometimes excellent applications will present themselves on the first read through or a great outline will come together early on. But generally, I move from study of the text to preparation of the sermon in that order. 

1. Observation 

Before I do a deep dive, I simply read over the passage I'm preaching multiple times. I note the flow, structure, transitions, and natural divisions of the text. Since I usually preach consecutively through books of the Bible, I should already know the context. With that in view, I attempt to nail down right away how the paragraph/pericope/unit relates to the argument of the whole book or chapter. Meaning in texts can something of a hermeneutical circle, interpreting the part in light of the whole and vice versa. Before you put together the puzzle, it helps to know what’s on the box. 

2. Translation

If you’ve got the training in Greek or Hebrew, write your own translation. You’re not doing this because you can somehow fix all the egregious mistakes of the learned scholars of 1611 or 1979 or 1995, but rather, to force yourself to interact with the originally inspired words of Scripture yourself. You’ll notice unique word order, rhetorical devices, unusual syntax, unfamiliar vocabulary, and most importantly, be forced to pick through the text word-for-word. It's at this stage that I'm looking at my lexicons and doing word studies if necessary. I’m noting text variants and scanning the apparatus. As I go, I’m anaylizing every phrase and wrestling with the syntactical relationships in the sentence. I’m writing out what I think the text means based on what it says. In my opinion, nothing enhances the observation phase of study like writing your own translation. I’ve found that diagramming is more helpful in epistles than in narratives, where the flow is quite self-evident. If I diagram, it’s a simply flow-of-thought diagram, not a line diagram (and I’ve got no clue how to arc!).

3. Meditation 

I tend to be quite academic and nerdy. I can be Tozer’s scientist who loses God in the wonders of His Word. Taking time in my morning devotions to simply pray through my text (not merely pray for my sermon) has done much to apply the text’s message to my own soul. Letting it fuel my worship, confront my sin, motivate my gratitude, and nurture my obedience helps me better lead others to do the same. Taking time throughout the entire process to do this will enrich your study in ways few other things can.

4. Comparison

As you study a text of Scripture, compare multiple translations, even if they’re not your preferred translation or your main preaching text. Pay attention to the differences and the similarities. On more than one occasion, the wording of the NIV or ESV will grab my eye and send my mind off in a direction I had not considered. Even if you’re not awesome at Greek or Hebrew (I’m especially weak on Hebrew), careful comparison will often uncover the range of meaning of a particular term, reveal text variants, or highlight phrases that could be rendered multiple ways. A wonderful tool to this end is the NET’s translation notes. Even when I disagree with their decisions (which is quite often), seeing the arguments laid out succinctly is very useful. Reading the timeless truth of Scripture in fresh ways can help you see something you’ve always missed due to familiarity.

5. Correlation

By this, I mean correlating your text within the larger context of God’s Word. Some correlation is interpretive: it’s using other related texts to understand the meaning of your particular text. For example, you might compare the synoptic parallels of the Feeding of the 5,000 if you’re in one of those accounts. Other correlation is theological: it’s discovering how the Bible unfolds the theme in your text throughout redemptive history. 

A widely-available tool to help with both types is the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge. It’s basically a cross-referencing tool on steroids. Another tool is a solid lexicon like BDAG. Looking up other texts that use a key term in the same way (beware of flattening out the meaning and confusing semantic domains) can greatly enrich your understanding of your passage. The Bible is often the best commentary on itself, and you might be surprised how a journey through the cross references makes plain the point of the text you’re studying. 

One word of caution here: just because a text uses the same term your does does not mean it is necessarily using it the same way. You need to understand the contexts of the passages you examine to ensure that they truly are related and similar.

6. Clarification

All throughout the process, I write. I write my observations. I write my translation. I write out my questions. I  write my own comments, in complete sentences and paragraphs as I determine what a passage is all about. I’m wrestling with the text, attempting to understand the Spirit-inspired meaning. I’m summarizing what I’m learning, and trying to keep it all organized and coherent. The goal here is not volume, but clarity. 

At this stage in my study, I try to work through the large amount of data I have to draw clear conclusions about what the text means. I arrive at provisional understandings of the text and try to write out in clear questions what I do not understand. 

7. Interaction 

Obviously, one guy staring at the Bible can miss something. The significance of an aorist tense. A reversal of the normal verb-subject order in the Hebrew. A chiasm buried in the text. Some cultural background or contextual clue. Thankfully, God has gifted the church with scholars and teachers and pastors who have carefully studied God’s Word and wrestled with its meaning. 

This is where commentaries come in. I consult commentaries to help me better understand the historical and cultural context, literary structure, and other technical aspects of Bible study I am not well-versed in (rhetorical criticism, discourse analysis etc).I save commentaries for later in my sermon preparation (usually Thursday) because I do not want to short-circuit the journey of discovery. I would rather have something to say to the commentaries than simply sit before them mute. Commentary use should be a dialogue, not a monologue. 

In my document I start to argue with them as I read. I try to summarize their arguments on points of disagreement. I attempt to weigh each argument and arrive at well-reasoned conclusions about the text. For this reason, I prefer commentaries that argue in this way, that dig into grammar, logic, and challenges of the text. I’ve found the NAC, NICNNT/NICOT, NIGTC, PNTC, TOTC/TNTC, and WBC to be helpful in this regard. I don’t typically have time to dig into devotional or homiletical commentaries.

8. Organization

Up to this point, I’ve written my thoughts out. Now comes the time to begin organizing my material into a sermon. I set aside the document with all my observations, citations, arguments, and conclusions about the text’s meaning and start a new document for the sermon itself. A sermon seeks to take God’s Word to the original audience and proclaim it as God’s Word to us today. That means extracting the timeless truth, noting the trajectory of the passage, and determining its significance for today (I use the term “meaning” to refer to the objective meaning of the text as it was intended to its original audience and the term “significance” to refer to its application for today’s readers). This requires some theological reflection, especially as you preach and apply Old Testament texts. How does this text apply to me as it is filtered through the lens of the finished work of Jesus? 

Here, I step back and ask, “What is the main point of this text? How can I most simply and clearly organize my sermon to reflect the argument of the text?” From those questions emerge a preaching outline. Or more accurately, three or four outlines. 

Most of the time, my preaching outlines attempt to reflect the structure and natural breaks of the text, like a river following a valley. Sometimes I will break out of the text’s formal structure, but always my goal is to faithfully preach the text’s main point. For those who care, I manuscript my sermons, mostly because my brain is Swiss cheese and I’ll say something stupid otherwise. Usually, my manuscript is around 2,500 words. 

9. Application

Towards the end of my preparation process, I fill out an application grid. Basically, down the left hand column, I write my main points. Across the top, I have categories of people. I’ve alliterated mine--sinners (lost), skeptics (objections), saints (faithful Christians), sufferers, strugglers (saved...but stagnant or carnal), and society (either the church or the broader culture). I attempt to come up with a specific application for every group for every point. I then choose the best of those and sprinkle them back into my sermon. This discipline has helped guard me against making the same generalizations every week, and forces me to think specifically about individuals in the church I serve. 

As a last step on application, I work on the discussion guide for our sermon-based small groups. Because I don’t want these discussions to simply rehash the sermon, I try to think through the main point of the sermon, a text or group of text that deals with it, and some questions to get conversation going. I’m not great at this, but I’m learning through trial and error. 

10. Simplification

As a final step, I go back through my final manuscript and cut out what seems superfluous, redundant, or unhelpful. The goal is to ensure that the sermon’s thesis is the focus, and that rabbits are free to flee un-pursued. It’s painful sometimes, but not everything I learned throughout the process needs to be said. Truth be told, too much still makes it into my sermons. I imagine that, as I grow in maturity, I’ll become more comfortable saying less, saving material for future sermons. 

There you have it! That’s basically my process as it stands right now. I'm young, so there's plenty of room for growth. I imagine that my process will look different 20 or 30 years hence. 


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