Behind the Scenes: Preparing Sermons

From time to time, I will do what I’m going to call “Behind the Scenes” blog posts where I’ll share a process or piece of information that is more “how” we do things or what goes into them. While the practitioner may find this more valuable than others, I do hope there is some appeal, especially if you’re a curious “how do they do that?” kind of person.

So I had a few ask about the process I go through to prepare sermons/ messages and where I come up with the angles/ applications in messages. If that is of interest to you, well then, read on!

Let’s start with message series. I like to think in terms of series as opposed to individual messages. Most subjects are too complex to hit in one week for 35-40 minutes. Plus I find that when you do a series it keeps people connected and engaged for a period of time as opposed to never knowing what each week will be. When I develop message series I tend to think about time of the year, season in the life of our church, the needs of our community and what God would want communicated. As a rule of thumb I probably do about 60-70% through books of the Bible and the other more “topical” (however, to be clear, when we do topics here we start with the Bible not the topic – this keeps us from manipulating the Bible to say what we want rather than what is actually there.) For example, our current series “Family Drama” is being preached now because of the convenience of Mother’s Day to Father’s Day (a 5-7 week window), we already think about family at this time so it’s a natural fit. Then we decided to dig through the Bible and find all examples of families. Once we looked at each family example, we chose scenes/ situations that would address issues we all face in family. We avoided sticking just to marriage, but also looked at some brothers, sisters, and parenting issues as well. In most cases the Old Testament examples of family are more descriptive than prescriptive – so we’re tending to pull in some New Testament passages in order to get the practical applications on how to move forward. But in each case we’re starting with the biblical story, dealing with the issues that are raised from the story and then speaking into those issues.

Once the series is determined then the process for the weekly sermons begin. I typically try to plan out our series 3-4 months in advance. This allows me to “work” on messages in advance by keeping my eyes open as I read, observe things etc. I keep files for each series and as I come across things in my regular rhythms I put them in files as part of the preparation process. In this time period I may also look for sermons that other pastors have done on the same text to glean an idea or two. I will begin listening to messages and to be honest, may find 1-2 nuggets total (on average, that would fit for our church etc) from listening to 3-5 different pastors/ sermons. Then about 4-6 weeks ahead of when the sermon will be delivered, I sit down with each text and begin some high level study of the text on my own. Reading and re-reading the passage, praying over it and reflecting on the context and original intention and how it might apply to our context. Once some main themes are derived, I send these on to our creative team (of which I’m a member) so that we can begin working on the rest of the service (non-sermon) development like the music selections, drama, movie clips, worship stations etc.

Then, again about 5-6 weeks ahead of time I meet with what I call my “sermon study group” which is made up of a seminary student, one of our missions partners and typically an elder or biblically astute person from the church. I will print out the text for that week (5-6 weeks ahead) and we will study it together, share observations, ask questions and wrestle though what our church needs and how this text might be best presented. I feverishly try to write down as many thoughts as I can from those meetings as they are often rich! While I can’t use all we come up with in those sessions, they are incredibly helpful. This work then gets added to my folder.

Then the week I’m scheduled to preach the sermon, I sit down first of all with the text from the Bible. I will study it again on my own, make observations and wrestle with God’s intention in it. After that I will pull out my folder and review the thoughts and ideas I’ve accumulated from various resources. I then will go to commentaries, Bible scholars and do some “language work” (looking up various words in the original language they were written in and finding various translations of that word etc). Sometimes I will get an observation or “aha” from the text, and I like to see other scholars discovering the same thing, if I’m the only one who seems to have found this angle or idea, I typically will leave it out of the sermon or I will put some disclaimers on it — I value the interpretive community and want to make sure when I preach that there is some solid backing behind what I’m saying.

Finally once all the research and work is done, then I figure out the presentation and “bells and whistles”. This involves a critical question I want to answer in the first 5 minutes of the sermon: “why should I listen to this message?” For this question I want to create some tension, show the value if the sermon were to be applied etc. I will then add humor, illustrations and other things that will make the concepts clear and memorable. Finally I will look at how one might actually live differently because of the sermon. I will brainstorm a list of ways this message could be applied to everyday life. I will then synthesize my notes, jot some thoughts down in my Bible and review aloud some of the key points and transitions. I will also typically “practice” the first 5 minutes aloud on Saturday afternoon before preaching that night. The reason I do the first 5 minutes is that is typically when I’m most nervous and also the critical time where people will decide to actually listen or check out, so I want to get it right. The rest of the sermon I give myself a fair amount of flexibility and each service tends to be slightly different as I may emphasize certain things one hour that I don’t another. Sometimes I even add entire stories/illustrations on the fly that I don’t use all the hours. But now we’re getting into the presentation stage which maybe could be a future blog post.

Not sure if that’s helpful, but that’s my typical process and I’ll tell you, I LOVE what I get to do!