I have the privilege of preaching nearly every Sunday, and I have also had the privilege of being in the room when all four of my children were born. Stick with me … because there is a correlation. My wife was amazing (or crazy!) and chose “Natural Childbirth.” Four kids. Only four Advils. While each child entered the world the same basic way (I will spare you the details), each birth was quite different. Our babies varied in size from 6 to 10 pounds, the length of labor varied from 3 to 30 hours, and the complications after birth varied from none to my wife nearly bleeding to death because the placenta did not detach correctly. Same woman. Same hospital. Same doctors. But each birth was quite different.
You may well sense where this is headed? While I do not pretend to know what natural childbirth feels like, after 13 years of preaching I am convinced that preachers birth sermons. Some come right out. They are the perfect weight and length and they are not even cone-headed! They only take 2-3 hours and everyone who comes in marvels at their beauty! Others take 30 plus hours of labor and pushing and even after they are born there are complications. The room is the same. The process is the same. But each sermon birth is quite different.
I am mentioning this because while I certainly have a “Sermon Preparation Process” that I follow week in and week out I have found that every week is different. I can’t explain it any more than I can the fact that my wife was only induced with our fourth child, and two weeks after the due date, after every doctor said: “The fourth always comes early.” It seems that when I think everything will go smoothly there are hiccups. Sometimes I really, really struggle to birth a sermon and it is just ok. Other times the struggle leads to an awesome message which impacts people with the love of God. Then there are the times when it just comes out in moments instead of hours and it is powerful and has a tremendous impact on the church. Or … I thought it was powerful and it falls flat. Knowing this keeps me humble and reminds me to be flexible.
A process is good. It is needed. But the truth is when you are in the delivery room rules tend to be more like guidelines.
My Sermon Preparation Process
Knowing where to start
As I shared in a previous article, I am a big fan of preaching in series. The series gives me a place to start and at least gives me a little direction. So, the first thing I do, generally on Tuesday, is to look at the series guideline to see how the message fits in. Are we working our way through the Bible or is this a topical message? Do I need to come up with the main point or was this already decided? Knowing where to start is key.
I am aware that some may object and shout, “Shouldn’t we start with the Word of God?!” Yes. We should. But this doesn’t mean that every sermon preached must come from a certain passage of Scripture, and this assumption negates the series planning process. A well thought out series is based on the Bible. It may take 2-4 weeks to make one biblical point, but this point is at the heart of the series. So, I start with the series which is based on the Bible.
Finding a text
After I know where the message is headed and how it fits into the series, I seek to find a specific story or text from the Bible. Please hear me. I am not a fan of eisegesis. I do not think we should develop a point like Christians should always answer the door if they are home, and then find a verse to support it (Revelation 3:30, “It could be Jesus knocking on your door!”). I think we often do the Bible injustice by pulling verses out of context and using them to make a point. So, that is not what I am advocating. Quite the opposite.
Stick with me. If the series was developed with the Bible in hand, and if the point being made is biblical, then there should be a passage in the Bible which clearly shows this. That passage is what I am looking for. Once I find that passage and have the truth, I have a foundation for the message.
Researching the text
Next, I hit the books and Google. For this step, I set aside what I think the Bible says and allow it to speak for itself. I read the passage several times and note anything that sticks out to me. Then, I pick up commentaries or Google the passage and read online commentaries. Finally, after I have spent at least a couple of hours thinking about the passage and reading thoughts on the original language and context, I look for messages based on this passage. Generally, this is done with a simple Google search. I try to then read or listen to 3-4 messages based on the text I plan to use.
While this may sound counterproductive, I am intentional to listen to or read pastors that I may not agree with. For example, if I am an Arminian preaching on Romans 8:28-30, I am always going to listen to a message from a solid Calvinist. I do not want people to reinforce what I already believe. I want to be able to think about what I believe and why and to do this fairly I need to hear other points of view.
Also, it is important to add that I take careful notes during this part of the process. If I hear a pastor say something and think, “that would make a great intro,” or “that is an awesome point,” I write down what they said with their name. I do not want to plagiarize. I err on the side of giving credit where credit is due. It only takes a moment to say, “I am using an outline from Pastor Bob” or “Minister Buckingham made this point when he said…” It is important to be honest when we preach.
Pulling it together
After I know, for sure, where I am headed I put together an outline. I try to be flexible, but always include (1) an introduction, (2) move to the text, (3) the truth, (4) the main points, (5) application, and (6) a conclusion. Brandon Kelley has a similar approach and suggests that each sermon have Engage, Tension, Truth, Application, Inspiration, and Action. I like the “Inspiration” in his outline.
Whatever guide you chose to follow, it is important to always connect with the congregation in the introduction. Every week I ask myself, “Why should someone listen to this?” I can’t assume they will listen because I am speaking.
Next, it is always important to get to the Bible. At some point, the sermon must be tied to the Bible or it is a Ted Talk. I really do believe that the Bible has the potential to change lives because it is the truth of God. Reading it and applying it is at the heart of every sermon.
Finally, it is important to always have a takeaway. This is where it can get tough, but if we are giving the “what so” we must also provide the “so what.”
Writing the sermon
At this point, I am a few hours into the process and I have an outline. Now it is time to write. As I mentioned above, sometimes the message births itself and other times I must use the forceps! Either way, I try to do this in one sitting. I generally set aside a chunk of time and tell everyone not to disturb me. Then, I follow the outline I have generated. It is essential that I hang meat on the bones until there is a fully formed message.
Finally, when I am done I am done. Sticking with our illustration, when the baby is born the baby is born. The process is complete. When the message is done it needs to be done. I know guys who have scrapped a message on Sunday morning at 6:00am. While I am not saying that this should never happen, I would be concerned if this became the norm.
Too often I fear we mess with things when we should leave well enough alone. If we have set out with the main point which is based on Scripture, if we have researched the text and put together an outline, we really should be good to go. There is a tendency to keep messing when what may be best is to practice what we have.
A final thought
I have the privilege of preaching nearly every Sunday, and I have also had the privilege of being in the room when all four of my children were born … hopefully, you were able to stick with me and see how these two things relate. There is a process in birthing babies, but the goal is not the process. The goal is a well-birthed baby.
There is a process in preparing sermons which should be adhered to, but the goal is not the process. The goal is a clear sermon which invites sinners to know Jesus and encourages followers to grow. Remembering this encourages us to be flexible and to keep our eyes on God as we prepare.
Nathan Hardesty is the Senior Minister at Bridgetown Church of Christ in Cincinnati, Ohio. Nathan has been in a church leadership role since 2003 and loves spending time with his family, hanging out with friends, fixing up his old house, teaching, and preaching.