Preparing Talks and Sermons: Tim Challies

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

We are delighted to be able to republish Tim Challies’ addition to our “Preparing Talks and Sermons” series


I have enjoyed reading articles by various Aussies as they tell how they prepare their weekly sermons. I always find it beneficial to hear how others set about the task and thought I’d add my voice to the mix. The point in this article and the others is not to suggest that one method is superior to any other or to suggest any of them is worthy of total imitation. Rather, it’s to provide a smorgasbord of options other preachers may wish to draw upon—a little from here and a little from there.

Admittedly, there is an element of fiction to describing my typical process since there’s no such thing as a typical week. I suppose you should understand this as a kind of idealized version, a composite of the best efforts from my best weeks.

I prefer to work for two or three hours per day over the course of a week than to work for more hours over fewer days. I try to give sermon prep the best hours of the day—typically nine to noon or so. When possible, I begin preparing on Monday rather than later in the week since this means I can move at a relaxed pace and without much fear of having to pull a late night on Saturday. So let’s assume it’s Monday morning and get to work.

I try to give sermon prep the best hours of the day—typically nine to noon or so. When possible, I begin preparing on Monday rather than later in the week.

Monday

I begin by copying and pasting my text into a word processor. I remove all headings and all chapter and verse markings, bump up the line spacing, and print it. This then becomes the working copy of the passage that I’ll keep with me all week. It will soon be covered in notes, circles, underlines, and other random squiggles.

I spend the first day working only with that bare text—no study Bible, no commentaries, no sermons. I keep the basic OIA grid in mind (Observe, Interpret, Apply), but for the first day focus almost entirely on the “O” with maybe a little “I” when I just can’t help myself. I try to avoid any thought of application until I’ve got a better grasp of what the author is actually saying.

As I observe the text, I look for repeating words, phrases, ideas, themes, or characters, along with metaphors and other poetic devices. I note words or phrases I will want to explore later on and jot down questions I’ll need to answer. Because I’ve got no knowledge of Hebrew and only basic Greek, I do this using an English Bible (typically the ESV). I do often open the Greek interlinear text so I can gain a better understanding of the translation decisions translators have made.

(I pray a lot during sermon preparation. Some of these are extended prayers and some of these are very quick prayers as I wrestle with a particular word, verse, or idea.)

Tuesday & Wednesday

Over the next couple of days, I advance from observation to interpretation and also begin to actually write words that will eventually become a sermon. (I do all that writing in Ulysses.) At this point I open Logos and consult a few study Bibles to get brief overviews of their understanding of the text (typically ESV Study Bible, Reformation Study Bible, and Biblical Theology Study Bible). Then I begin to dive into commentaries, usually spending substantial amounts of time in four or five of them. I’ll also sometimes pull up a handful of sermons on the text, largely to see how other preachers have outlined their messages. This is when I work on interpreting the difficult words and phrases I encountered in the observation stage. My main focus is “what did it mean to them then?” I want to ensure I’m properly interpreting the text as its original readers would have understood it.

At some point I come up with a basic structure, even if not a formal outline. I begin to decide how I will divide up the text and settle on some broad headings that hopefully align closely with the flow of the passage.

Thursday

As I begin my Thursday, I have probably already written a substantial amount of the sermon. The plan is that by the end of the day I will have a completed first draft. I prepare a full manuscript that I will later deliver almost word-for-word, so I begin to put effort into the clarity and simplicity of every word. Hopefully by late Thursday, I’ve tightened up the wording of my outline so it is helpful, descriptive, and follows a consistent pattern. Whatever I want from my sermon, I want it to be accurate and simple—consistent with the Bible and easy to understand. At the end of it, I want listeners to better understand the text and to know how it should impact their lives.

Friday

By Friday I am finishing up the sermon while making sure it has some good and relevant application, speaks to children at a point or two, calls people to respond to the gospel, and offers at least a few helpful illustrations. Friday afternoon I typically preach the message in a condensed format to the staff at the church. They invariably offer valuable feedback that allows me to see where it’s not as clear as I thought, where it lacks application or illustration, and where it could otherwise be improved.

Saturday

On Saturday I go over the sermon once or twice and try to sharpen it a little more. I usually do this early in the day so I can set it aside and focus on other things. The most important improvements at this point typically involve getting rid of words. Wordiness is the enemy of clarity. I try to aim for around 4,600 words, which for me is a 40-minute sermon.

(When I was on full-time staff at church, I’d either take Monday or Saturday as a full day off, so on one of them would do no work. Now that I’m no longer on staff, I preach only occasionally and don’t consider it work. Hence, I take a full day off from blog and book writing, but not necessarily from sermon writing.)

Sunday

On Sunday I get up early and go over the sermon once more to ensure it’s fresh in my mind. But mostly I pray and otherwise mentally and spiritually prepare myself to preach.

Epilogue

Shortly after the Sunday morning service, we have a time of open Q&A which often helps me understand where the sermon could have been stronger or where the application could have been better. Then, on Tuesdays, the church staff has a “Sunday review” meeting where they may also offer feedback that will help improve that sermon (should I preach it again elsewhere) or help me become a better preacher (even if that particular sermon is never heard again).


First published at www.challies.com

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