Sermon preparation

Some bullet points on sermon preparation.

1. Have an interesting introduction. In Lectures to My Students, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, ‘the prince of 19th-century preachers’, says that every notice should have the word “Attention!” at the top; and so every sermon should call attention to the topic of the sermon. It should be composed last, when the whole message is clearly in your mind.

2. It should be possible to give the whole sermon a clear title – if not, the message is confused and needs to be tidied up.

3. The sermon should have clear headings – usually no more than three because the brain needs mnemonics to go beyond three. State each of them slowly without hesitation, and repeat them so that people who are writing or trying to remember them can do so. The title and the headings are the most one can expect the average person to remember, so give them the opportunity to do so. Anecdotes and illustrations will usually be remembered also, so make them useful and applicable to everyday life to help people recall the message when they come across the illustration in real life.

4. Stick to the headings. Material should be organised properly under each heading, not digressing in the second heading to explain something that should have been dealt with under the first heading. The last heading could be application, but if not, there should be an additional section for application. Some preachers begin to explain new material in their application. This common mistake is wrong. 1. it takes away from the force of the application. 2. if something needs explanation, it should have been explained in the body of the sermon.

5. The message of the sermon is the burden laid upon your spirit in prayerful consideration of the people you are hoping to address. This should be the same message in your text. If the text speaks of A and you want to speak about B, choose a different text.

6. Work on the message of the text, using your exegetical tools. If it is different from what you thought it meant, change your message to fit it, or find the correct text.

7. Having determined the subject, ask yourself what is the easiest way to explain it to the people in three headings. Not 1. the person speaking; 2. the people he addressed; and 3. what he said. This is boring and not helpful except in special circumstances. Rather, you have a message to deliver – divide it up appropriately into clear and logical headings. Under each heading, compose two or three subheadings that logically expand and explain the heading. These flow naturally from the heading and they need not, and possibly should not, be announced as subheadings; they are a logical development of the heading and should be seen to be so without needing to announce them as such.

8. As for the balance and content of the sermon, having worked on your message, you want now to review the whole to check that it is balanced with appropriate content.

A. does it have the basic 3Rs (not necessarily prominent, but there in one form of another) 1. Ruined by the Fall; 2. Redemption through Christ’s life, death and resurrection; 3. Regeneration by the Holy Spirit. These essential doctrines need to be integrated into the message, not necessarily as subheadings but inserted under the appropriate heading. Visitors to the congregation may be present for the first and only time, and they need to hear the essence of the Gospel in every sermon. This ensures that all sermons have Christ in them, and one should aim for their being Christo-centric but not divorced from the needs and applicability to the hearers. Sermons are to be practical, not simply theoretical. Faith without works is dead, and sermons are a call to action ‘the words of the wise are as goads’ Ecc 12:11 – to worship, to glorify God, to dedicate oneself to His service, to bring His message to the world in which we live. There are other basic ingredients with which to season the sermon, to make it tasty, and you can add these as your cooking skills improve.

B. an illustration should illustrate; if you need two illustrations it means that the first one did not work, or was not complete. Scripture uses two illustrations when there are two points to develop. Make them applicable to real life so that when people come across such situations in real life, hopefully the message of the sermon will be recalled ‘the words of the wise are as fastened nails’ Ecc 12:11.  Illustrations can take various forms, so that there is huge scope for meaningful and interesting illustrations, so that no sermon should lack interesting information. An occasional anecdote, or point from a book, or news item, can be used as illustrations, but Spurgeon says in his Lectures to My Students that too many illustrations is like a house with too many windows, whereas a sermon without illustrations is like a house without any windows. They should be sprinkled like salt in appropriate places. Do not strive to insert an illustration if the topic is simple and clear enough already.

C. the application needs to contain the free offer of the Gospel, along with an appropriate warning about its neglect. A sermon without the free offer is like a house without a door. The door should be opened with a Gospel invitation. Theologically, sinners close in with Christ and find Him in the free offer of the Gospel. Application can also be trickle-fed throughout the sermon, for example, at the end of each heading. Illustrations can be used in the same way. To catch the attention of careless hearers it can be useful to have a pointed application or interesting illustration in one’s introduction, to highlight the purpose of the sermon and to make them sit up and listen.

D. the overall tone and the impression created by the sermon is important and needs careful attention.  Is it clear, warm and inviting, with suitable seriousness and warning? This is what will be felt and remembered much longer than the details of the message.

9. Know how you are going to finish your message. Don’t let it tail off into insignificant or banal comment. Give it a clean and pointed finish so that people know that it is completed.

10. Bring to the boil with fervent and meaningful prayer.

11. William G. T. Shedd recommends reviewing your sermon immediately after preaching. This is correct, although many preachers profess to want to forget their own sermons and some don’t even want to discuss them!  Rather, this is the time to clarify points or difficulties, while the sermon is fresh in your memory.  Add better illustrations and ideas, and reorganise points that could have been presented in a better order or needed additional explanation. This ensures that the sermon is improved and it will not be the same when preached to a new audience. Jesus preached the same basic messages on repeated and different occasions.  In reviewing your sermon just preached, it is an opportunity to commit the hearers to the Lord in prayer, to pray for specific people brought to your attention during preaching, and to pray for all sermons being preached around the world. The sermon needs prayer both before and after, as well as during its delivery.


18 Jun 2015: this blogpost arises from a request from Graham Mair, who prompted another one here.

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