“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” —1 Timothy 4:16
A major difficulty with learning how to preach is that most of our talk around sermons focuses on the end products of the sermons themselves. This common approach is deficient. Instead, we ought to focus more on the preaching process than on the product. By “process,” I mean the path we take to get to the product. By focusing more on process over product, we might see more confident preachers who actually preach more effective sermons with greater integrity.
I have been preaching for more than a decade, and over these years, I have spent much time deliberately developing a consistent process. I’d like to share some of my process with you to illustrate what I mean and offer some initial steps to consider for developing your own sermon preparation process.
Prerequisite: The Preacher
My process begins by paying attention to myself as a follower of Jesus Christ. If my personal commitments and convictions are immature or distorted, then I have no business preaching. Of course, we all struggle and need to persevere when it comes to the Christian life. I’m not saying preachers ought to be perfect—that is impossible in this life. What I am saying though is that preachers need to be continuously aware of our need for Jesus and what he has done for us. This is an ongoing part of our lives and also a prerequisite to getting started. It means Jesus is the most important thing in my life, and I seek ways to devote myself to him daily regardless of my vocation.
Step One: Prayerful Dependence on the Holy Spirit
If this prerequisite is accounted for, when I’m coming up on a preaching deadline, my first step is to depend on God’s Spirit to be at work in the preaching: In my preparation, through me in the pulpit, and (most importantly) in the hearts of those who will hear the message. I do this by praying not only while beginning to prepare but also throughout my preparation up to the point of getting behind the lectern. I even have a personal sermon preparation worksheet I’ve developed that reminds me to pray before, during, and after my process. I’m embarrassed that I pretty much always need the reminders to depend on God’s strength and wisdom, not mine.
Step Two: Dedication to God’s Word
After initially praying, I dedicate myself to focus on God’s word alone to be the message of the sermon. This means having a good understanding of the passage and its meaning for the original audience. I begin by simply reading and re-reading the passage and the logical context within the book of the Bible, maybe even the whole book itself. I also print the passage out and mark it up, often until there is no more space left to write on the page. Most of my marginal notes don’t end up in the sermon. At this point, I’m still simply engaging with the text: Underlining, bracketing, writing questions I want answered, noting cross-references, and the like. I’m basically looking at it from many different angles until I feel I know the text well.
Subsequent Steps: The Process Unfolds
From here, the rest of my process begins to naturally unfold. Only at this point do I finally begin to study commentaries, decide on my main idea, develop outlines, think of illustrations and applications, or anything of this nature. For you, these subsequent steps might take a different shape, but the important point is to begin by paying attention to yourself as a follower of Jesus, prayerfully depending on God’s Spirit being at work in the hearers’ lives, and committing yourself to God’s word to determine what you say before doing anything else.
I encourage you to shift your primary focus as a preacher away from your end product and to your ongoing preparation process. It’s helpful to recognize that all preachers do indeed have a process. Even if their process is as irresponsible as not preparing at all, they still have a process. It is just a very bad one. Most preachers do prepare though. Yet from my experience, their preparation is haphazard and inconsistent, often launching into preparation without prayerful dedication to what the text itself really means. I say this as one of the guilty. I have certainly prematurely forced an idea I already had, reducing the passage to a means for getting my point across. This is why I must re-dedicate myself every time I begin any sermon by committing myself to what God is doing and has to say.
If you take such a process-oriented approach, I feel confident that your sermons will be superior to sermons shaped by a product-oriented approach that is concerned with performance in the pulpit. This is because you will have humbly submitted yourself to God’s work throughout your preparation up to the delivery. By taking more of a process approach, you may also find that you have a lot less anxiety around preaching. This is because you will be depending on what God is saying and not on what you think you want to say. Paradoxically, the end product of your sermon might even improve in its effectiveness as well. This is because you will be less concerned with how you are received as a preacher and more interested in how God is at work through you to speak to others.