How Do You Put Your Sermon Together, part 2
6. Having looked at the text on my own and consulted the commentaries, now I need to tackle the hardest part of sermon preparation: how to organize all this information. This is where a good sermon is won or lost. I must be ruthless, and sometimes am not, about cutting out any nuggets (oh how precious!) that do not serve the overall argument of the sermon. I was taught “big idea preaching,” that every sermon should have only one main thought. I don’t follow the method closely, but I do think about the 3:00 AM test: “Pastor, sorry to call you in the middle of the night, but quick, in a sentence, tell me what you sermon is about!” If I can’t describe the point of my sermon in a sentence I’m not ready to move on in the sermon-making process. This means first knowing the point of the passage and then understanding how I am going to preach it. So Mark 1:40-45 may be about Jesus healing a leper and how this leads to increasing opposition in chapters 2 and 3, but the point of my sermon will be: Jesus can make you clean.
The process of organizing a sermon feels very organic to me. I think and pray and chisel away until the basic outline feels right. But two specific questions are often helpful. (1) Should this sermon be inductive or deductive. An inductive sermon lands at the main point. A deductive sermon states the main point and then offers supporting or explanatory evidence. Inductive often feels more like telling a story. Deductive feels more like making a case. Either approach can work. (2) A second question is: do I start with the text or start with the congregation. Many preaching teachers say you have to start with the congregation and then show how the text speaks to the need you’ve raised. But starting with the text can work just as well. So I could start a sermon on Mark 1:40-45 with a story of sinful uncleanness or I could start with the placement of this story in Mark’s gospel. Personally, I find it best to vary the way I start a sermon. Sometimes I have an illustration, sometimes background information, sometimes I just jump right in.
Danger: beware the sermon that is held together as “five things about…” or “three observations from the text…” Theses sermons can work. I’ve preached them before. I’ve heard great sermons like this. But these kinds of outlines usually signify that the preacher doesn’t know how all the interesting stuff he learned really fits together.
7. I should write my conclusion last so I know where am I going and make sure that I don’t rush at the end. But even if I don’t write it out, I almost always have an idea of how I am going to land the plane. I want to finish with a bang (which could be loud, soft, imperative, or indicative). I don’t want information overload at the conclusion. This is where I want to really be preachin’. The last five minutes are the most important part of the sermon. For most preachers, because it’s at the end, it’s the part they give the least attention to. It shows.
8. Once I know the basic outline and where I am going to end up, I start putting flesh on the skeleton. For me this means a combination of detailed outline and written out paragraphs. I usually start by dropping ideas, illustrations, exegetical points under my main headings. I go back to the commentaries one more time to see if I’ve forgotten any valuable and pertinent information.
9. My outline, at this point, is not quite tohu wabohu, but it is sloppy. So I need to go sharpen the focus, work on transitions, and add illustrations.
10. The outline is done, six pages of shorthand notes and full paragraphs that I may read verbatim. I set it aside and come back to it Saturday evening where I pray through the outline and (hopefully) make some more cuts and tweaks. I don’t take one hour of study for each hour in the pulpit. Sermon prep takes 10-15 hours for one sermon, and I preach around 45 minutes. Without one iota of false humility I can say that I am still learning how to be a better preacher–the study, the outline, the delivery, the whole nine yards. Mostly I pray for grace-soaked truth and truth-filled grace. And fresh unction from the Holy Spirit week after week.