A step-by-step checklist for beginners (or old-hands with bad habits).
N.B. This is part of Peter Adam’s short handbook: Local Church Training Program for Potential Preachers. See part 1—“Training Preachers in the Local Church”—here and an additional “Further Training” resource here.
Don’t be surprised if a sermon takes you a long time to prepare. Most of us take 8-10 hours. If you are starting to preach—or do so infrequently—it will take you longer. And one-off sermons take longer to prepare. Most people find it best to use 1 or 2-hour blocks of preparation time.
I try to spend half my total preparation time on steps 1-11, and then half on steps 12-25.
Pray for God’s help in preparing the sermon. Pray that you will understand the text. Pray for the people whom you will serve by preaching. Pray that you will be pastorally sensitive, that the people will hear and respond, and that the fruits of obedience will be found in their lives.
3. Bible passage
Choose your Bible passage. It may be given to you, or you may have to choose one. Make sure that it is not so short that it is meaningless, nor so long that it is unmanageable. Topical sermons are more difficult to preach: if you are asked to give one, then preach on the Bible passage that is most relevant.
4. Find the meaning of Bible passage and its intended impact
Work through the text word by word, asking yourself, “What does this word mean?” “Why is this sentence here?” “What is this and why is it here?” You may find commentaries—or discussing the text with friends—helpful at this stage.
5. Find the theological meaning of the text
Ask yourself: “What basic and important theological themes are reflected in the text?” “What particular aspect is expressed through the text?” “What does the text say about God and his purposes?” Go deeper than immediate practical application.
6. Study the text in its context in the chapter and section of the book.
Look for major themes, repeated ideas, developing arguments or ideas.
7. Study the text in its context of the whole book in which it occurs.
What is the pastoral purpose of the whole book? How does this passage fit into that pastoral purpose?
8. Study the text in the context of the whole Bible.
How does this passage fit into the whole Bible; in the light of its gradual revelation—from promise to fulfilment in Christ—in the light of Salvation History and Biblical Theology?
9. Focus on the question, ‘Why was it written?’
We often focus on what is happening in the text or on what it means to us. We need to ask: “What did the person who wrote these words hope they would do to the people who first received them?” “What did God intend these words to do when he inspired them?”
10. Don’t individualise a text that addresses God’s people as a whole
Most Bible books are addressed to the people of God—the church as a whole. Don’t individualise their message.
11. Don’t universalise the message of the text
No one text of the Bible says all that the Bible teaches on a topic, so don’t pretend that it does. (For example, if you preach on John 5:1-16 about the healing of the paralysed man, on the basis of v. 14, you might be tempted to say that all sickness is the result of sin. That is not the case, as you will find in John 9:1-3!)
12. What questions will the congregation have about this Bible passage?
Think of the people who will hear this sermon—such as enquirers, new believers, mature Christians, outsiders, atheists. When they hear this passage read, what questions will they have? What will they find difficult? What are they likely to misunderstand? What do they need to know?
13. How does it connect with, and apply to, the congregation?
What are the connections between the Bible passage and the everyday lives of the congregation? How does it apply to the particular congregation to whom I will preach? It may help you to think of particular individuals, or types of people, and ask yourself the question: “If they lived according to this text what difference would it make to their lives?” Think about and pray for the people who will hear it.
14. Decide what aspect you will preach
Almost any text you choose will have far more in it than you can possibly cover in one sermon. You have to decide which one aspect you will preach on. Write a one sentence summary of your theme: “What I really want to preach on is …”
15. Write your one sentence
Write down the aim of your sermon in one sentence, including the content, the means, and the end/purpose of the sermon. Use interactive language: not “my topic is … ”, but “I want you to … so that … ” Unless you can give the purpose of your sermon in one sentence, your congregation will never understand it.
16. Prune away the rest
This is a most important step where you discard what you will not preach on this time. You have to prune away what you won’t preach on, so that what you will preach on is left in simple clarity.
17. Shape what remains
Here your task is to organise your material according to the one sentence purpose you have just decided on. Achieving that one sentence will involve a number of steps—now is the time to choose and shape them.
18. Arrange the application
Decide whether to leave all the application to the end or whether to integrate it into the body of the sermon (so that you are continually moving from the text to the people in front of you). Or you could begin with the application, to give the congregation motivation to listen to the rest of the sermon, then restate the application at the end.
19. Write the conclusion
You are now in a position to write the end of your sermon. It will include:
- a summary of the sermon;
- that one sentence repeated;
- the specific action which you expect to occur on the part of your hearers.
20. Write the introduction
Now that you have written the body of the sermon and the conclusion of the sermon, you can write the introduction. It is good to begin with a question, or a statement of the problem that leads directly and naturally into the sermon.
21. Check back with the Bible passage
Now that you have your sermon before you, check back with the Bible and make sure that what you are preaching is in the passage. Beware of distorting it, or reading your own thoughts and agenda into it. If you have not been true to the passage, rewrite the sermon.
22. Review for hearing
Hearing something is very different from reading it. Don’t preach an essay! Make sure that you present your sermon with the right language and style for hearing. This will mean that the steps will need to be simple and that you will need to summarise all the way through what you have done and where it fits into the sermon. Perhaps preach it to a few friends in the place where you will preach it later.
23. Arrange your notes
You may choose to have your sermon written out entirely or you may decide to use brief notes. Either way, make sure that you can read them without squinting. If you have brief notes, make sure that you have your one sentence summary clear—and perhaps include one-sentence summaries of each of the paragraphs or main points. Make sure that the lectern and microphone are well placed when you preach.
24. Know it
Spend time reflecting on the sermon and reading it through so that you know it well.
25. Pray again
Praise God that he will use your hard work for his glory; that he will use the Bible to build up his church and convert unbelievers to Christ.