10 Steps to a Better Sermon this Sunday
The first sermon I ever preached was on a muggy Sunday night in a Baptist Church. My legs shook as much as my voice while I tried to thunder out the horrors of Hell and wax eloquent on the urgency of evangelism.
I had spent about two weeks studying and filled up three pages of notes on a yellow legal pad. I brought those notes to the pulpit, preached through them twice—I literally repeated the sermon two times—and finished in about 10 minutes. The people were delighted. Not because the sermon was good, but because the whole service was over in 30 minutes.
Of course, I was humiliated.
Truthfully, I’m embarrassed of a lot of my early sermons. They were filled with lots of performance-based religion, that try-harder-to-do-better-to-make-the-Lord-happy kind of legalism. Plus, I didn’t know how to properly study or write a sermon.
That was more than twenty years ago. Thankfully, those days are behind me (and so are the cassette tapes).
Preaching a Good Sermon
One of the things I’ve learned is preaching a good sermon can be broken down in two parts: proper preparation and perfecting practice.
The infamous cliche says practice makes perfect, but the truth is practice makes permanent. And if you practice poorly, you will perfect poor performance.
A 10-step Process
I use a 10-step process for sermon preparation. It’s not a magic formula I invented. It’s just a hermeneutically sound approach that works well for me. Hopefully you can glean something that will help you perfect your sermon preparation and preach a better sermon this Sunday.
Prayer and personal worship
The first step is probably the most important. It’s a time to prepare my own heart. This includes personal worship, confession, offerings thanks to God, and supplications for wisdom and insight into the word. I pray the words of David from the Psalms “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Psalm 119:18)
This is the prayer list I use for each step of the process:
- Search my heart and make me a vessel suitable for your service
- Teach me what your word says
- Teach me what your word means
- Show me what I need from the study
- Show me what your people need from the study
- Teach me the best way to present the truths you want me to share
- Prepare the hearts of your people to receive the truth
This step takes about an hour. I read the passage I’m preaching from–and the passages before and after it–several times in various translations (I’ll read the whole book if I’m preaching from one of the smaller epistles). I take note of salient words, imperative verbs, questions about the text (what, where, when, why, how), and initial insights.
To do this, I like to copy the text into a word document that’s double-spaced with 2” left and right margins (This can also be done in Logos Bible Software, but I prefer to do it on paper first). I make all my notations, questions and insights on that page using pens, highlighters, and symbols that are meaningful for when I return to the text later. I do this at least a week (two if I can) before I preach the sermon so I have time for it to marinate along the way.
The first thing I do at this step is try to determine the historical and literary contexts of the passage. Then I define the important words. It’s important to study a word’s spectrum of meanings and then try to determine its precise meaning by the context (I use Louw-Nida, BDAG, and only occasionally Strong’s).
The key in this step is to determine what problems, concerns, or issues occasioned the writer to address his audience here. Further, I want to determine how this fits into the bigger issues in the whole letter (book), and ultimately, the larger narrative of Scripture.
It’s important to know what the writer was trying to communicate to the original audience the best that can be ascertained. A passage can never mean to us what it didn’t mean to the original audience. This step also takes about an hour, give or take.
Extract Theological Principles
At this point, I am trying to determine which principles in the passage are relevant for today’s Christian. Keep in mind all of the Bible is written for us, but not all the Bible was written to us.
However, every passage of Scripture has a Fallen Condition Focus (FCF). Bryan Chappell defines this as “the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those for or by whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage to manifest God’s glory in his people.”
In other words, the Bible’s purpose is to address our fallen condition and bring us to completion (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We need to discover the purpose for which the writer (and the Holy Spirit) was addressing this theological issue at this place to this audience, and how it addresses the fallen human condition and it’s remedy, the gospel. Exegeting the FCF is just as important as exegeting the content of the passage.
This is where we begin asking how the gospel answers this issue. It may be explicit or implicit. But that is the central question that needs to be answered at this step. This step takes another hour or more.
Cross References and Commentaries
Here I consult commentaries, articles, sermons, and theological journals to gain greater insights and check my understanding of the passage against what others have discovered. Also, this is a good time to research if there are any ongoing discussions among scholars or sects about different understandings of a passage (e.g. controversies).
Then I cross-reference with other passages in the Bible that deal with the same issues or truths. This step may take a couple of hours depending on how much has been written, and what resources are available on the passage.
Outline and Preaching Objective
This is the time when I determine the preaching objective. Personally, I am more of a teacher, and tend to want to unload the whole truckload on the listeners, so this is where I determine the “one big idea” I’m going to get across.
I also determine the appropriate approach to delivery, give it a skeleton (outline), and title the message. This takes about 30 minutes to an hour for me.
Illustrations and Applications
At this step I search for illustrations and applications appropriate for my audience.
I usually find illustrations in personal experiences, stories or books I’ve read, files I’ve collected, or sometimes even the free Internet sites that collect sermon illustrations.
The applications are usually derived from my time with our church family, issues we are dealing with as a congregation, or as a city, or as a nation, etc. The important thing to answer is what human need does the gospel answer in this passage, specifically. This takes another hour or so.
Flesh and Exercise
Now I put it together. I flesh out the skeleton, implement learning readiness tools (i.e. attention-grabbing story, slides, maps, pictures, etc.), and practice my delivery focusing on good ways to transition from one point to the next.
Then I keep making revisions by trying to carve the actual delivery time for the message down to 35-45 minutes. I’m striving for concision and cogency. This takes an hour to an hour-and-a-half usually.
Meditation and Delivery
I like to meditate on the message the night before and again in the morning of delivery. I pray over the sermon again. I also pray for passion, for Holy Spirit unction, and for the faith to leave the results up to the Lord.
Sometimes I make some last-minute adjustments to the slides or illustrations, but mostly this is what will be delivered.
Even though this is usually developed in the flesh and exercise step, it’s beneficial to mention here that I always preach for a decision. I try to throw down a practical challenge for the people to be able to put the truth into action immediately.
Meditation is about a half-hour. Delivery is 35-45 minutes, usually.
Either Sunday afternoon or sometime Monday, while it’s still fresh on my mind, I assess the strengths and weakness of both the message and my delivery. I make notes on how to improve. Then I list out ways to re-purpose the message, or truths of the message, into a blog post, Bible-study, or book chapter. I don’t always repurpose the message, but it’s a good exercise, regardless. This takes about 30 minutes.
Organic and Fluid
Listing out the steps like this makes the process seem mechanical and rigid. Of course the process is arduous and requires commitment, but it is much more organic and fluid than what it looks like in outline form.
All-in-all I usually spend about 10 hours, give or take, on a message. But that’s me and everyone is different. Some people are much smarter and don’t need that much prep time. That may be you.
The truth is, there are certain times when circumstances require me to combine steps; or time will be limited and I won’t be able to give the process the full scope of time listed here.
Let me encourage you not to get hung up on the process for the process’s sake, but rather find in it a framework to help you develop an appropriate process for your own sermon preparation. Then go preach a better sermon this Sunday.
What do you do differently? Which step would be most helpful to implement?
About Scott Postma
Scott lives in North Idaho collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. He helps people cultivate their capacity to perceive and appreciate the good, the true, and the beautiful by sharing rich insights into the arts and humanities, meaningful perspective on faith and culture, and valuable tips on writing and teaching. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.