10 steps to a great sermon

November 10th, 2014

I come from a family line of preachers. I married the daughter of a preacher. I've heard a lot of sermons in my life, covering the spectrum from awe-inspiring to so-lousy-I'm-angry-at-the-preacher-for-making-me-sit-through-it.

If you want to preach better sermons, follow these 10 steps.

1. Start early.

Your last-minute sermon is never going to be your best sermon. All of us have inspired moments when winging it actually works, but you can't rely on that as your regular practice. I know that ministry asks more than you can give, and I can't tell you how to manage it all. What I can tell you is that if you want to consistently preach great sermons, you'll have to invest significant time in the process of creating them.

Expect to put at least ten hours into a good ten-minute sermon. You might get faster as you learn to work your routine, but that's a good place to start. It's best if those ten hours don't begin Saturday night!

2. Follow your questions.

The best advice I ever got from my preaching professor in seminary was, "Follow your questions." I would emphatically add, "Don't start with answers!"

Sometimes, like Jeremiah experienced, the Word of God is a fire in our bones that we cannot contain. But I would encourage you even then, when you have a burning message you must preach, to slow down and take enough time to ask questions.

It is your duty as a preacher to publicly wrestle with God, with life, and with Scripture. It is not helpful to your congregation for you to present yourself as someone with only answers. Answers are helpful only if they start with questions. Questions are the basis for learning.

Question the scripture. Ask, What's really going on here? Why does this story even matter? Who is the author? When was he writing? Are there things that don't make sense? Might some words or expressions mean more than one thing?

Question God: Why does God want people to hear this? How does this help people grow spiritually? Do you agree with what the scripture says? If not, why? What do you do with Scripture that you struggle to agree with?

Question yourself. Ask, Why does this passage or topic jump out at me? What assumptions do I bring to the text? What might I be missing?

I can't stress this part of the process enough. Slow, curious investigation is the foundation of a good sermon, as well as your own spiritual growth.

3. Free associate.

As you dig into a topic or a piece of Scripture, those questions you follow will lead you to interesting places if you let them. Go there. Allow all thoughts in. Give in to your attention deficit disorder tendencies. Create a mind map if you're visual or a simply a list of thoughts if you're not. The point is, let it flow and whatever comes out, put it down. Maybe only one or two ideas will turn out to be golden, but often you can't find the gold unless you're willing to stand in the river with a pan in your hand.

A play-writing instructor I had in college called this "channeling", as if turning on this unfiltered creative faucet was a way to let our muses speak through us. You decide for yourself how long to let this go on, but it usually takes me a minimum of twenty minutes to feel like I'm getting into a good flow.

4. Step away.

Once you've dumped a satisfying amount of thoughts onto a page or into a file, it's time to step away for a bit. In my younger years, when I was a smoker, this was the perfect time in my writing process for a smoke break. The more healthy alternatives for me today are: take a walk, eat a snack, read something unrelated, or take a nap. If you've really started early enough, sleep on it overnight. Often your brain will organize ideas for you while you sleep.

The point is, get your conscious mind away from this job for a while so your subconscious can do its work. If an idea pops up while you're "off the clock", jot it down somewhere and save it for later.

5. Find the energizing story.

When you come back to the computer or page, take some time to review your notes. Chances are you'll already have some direction you'd like to take things, but review your notes anyway. Fresh eyes might find something you didn't think was important before.

Once you've looked them over, pick out the story that energizes you most. Notice I didn't say idea or message or image. It has to be a story, because stories are what your listeners will remember. Stories can have ideas or messages embedded in them or attached to them, but the body of your sermon should always be a memorable story.

Also notice that I said pick one. A classic mistake made by most preachers is to try to jam too many stories, ideas, or messages into one sermon. The result is usually parishioners who walk away remembering maybe one story but missing how it connects to the rest of what you said. Just pick the one that matters most!

6. Build bridges.

You started with a piece of Scripture or a topic idea that eventually led you to an interesting story. Now, if you're going to keep that scripture or topic you need to show your listeners how they connect. Sometimes this is easy and obvious, but it's best not to assume other people's minds work just like your own.

Also, if you have other ideas which you think relate to the story, make sure you tell your listeners how you think they relate. Remember, most of them will only hear this sermon once. It's not like a text that they can go over a few times if they don't understand it. They probably won't pick up on subtle points.

Or, perhaps you ignored my recommendation in step five and actually decided you had to include more than one story. If so, it is absolutely crucial that you build bridges that connect every piece of your sermon together. Make it flow like a smooth path from point A to point B, rather than random stones chucked into a river that you hope our listeners will be able to traverse without your aid.

7. Make sure it ends!

Sometimes endings are the hardest part of a sermon for me to write. I've noticed the same with other pastors. Often, they can't come up with a good ending, so they throw in three or four, which just confuses, bores or irritates people.

My problem is that I tend to cut sermons short. I'll take listeners on a thought-provoking journey through an interesting story, and then walk away leaving them to wonder, Where do we go from here?

The best endings wrap everything up in a concise, memorable message that you'd like your church members to take home with them. This is the place for a fully developed thesis statement or "take-away". Other times you'll hear it called the "So, what?" moment, as in, "So, what am I supposed to do with that?"

Sometimes it takes a lot of work to get to this moment, but for a sermon to work, it has to include a clear "So, what?" Please don't step up to the pulpit on Sunday without one.

8. Revise.

It's the oldest lesson in writing, but plenty of people ignore it. Read what you wrote! Or, if you prepare your sermons orally without writing it out, record yourself and listen to it. If you didn't find something to fix, you're being lazy.

9. Practice out loud.

Sermons are aural (and increasingly visual) experiences. There are things that read wonderfully on the page but sound totally awkward when spoken.

I used to preach at a church that had three worship services on Sunday morning. No matter how ready I felt before the first service, I always made changes to my sermon before the third. Every time I deliver a sermon out loud, I find improvements that can be made. The more you do this before you're in front of your congregation, the better experience they'll have.

10. Revise again.

I'm not just throwing this in here to have a tenth step. You have a deadline every Sunday, so eventually you have to deliver the sermon no matter what state it's in. Until then, why not take one more look at it to see what you can cut or clarify?

Now, get some rest, and remember there's always next week.

Once the crafting of the sermon is complete, let's hope you have some time left to sleep and eat a decent breakfast. If not, remember how you feel at the end of it all, and revisit step one!

The beauty of preaching is that you ask for and receive forgiveness every week. If you're not satisfied with how things went, you can always try again for a home run next week. Besides, even if you failed miserably, you'd be surprised what God can do with a bad sermon.

You can see more of Courtney's work at CourtneyTBall.com, or sign up to receive his weekly email, “Life and Depth.”

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