How I Go About Writing A Sermon

I was recently asked by another pastor to write down the process of how I go about writing a sermon. In hopes that it could be helpful to other pastors and speakers, the following is my reply to him.
Dear ___________,

I’m flattered that you would ask this question, but…full disclosure…I’m not the best example as I spend WAY too little time preparing sermons these days. I think I’m able to write sermons quickly because of 10+ years of preaching every week (there’s no substitute for practice…so keep at it!), and because of habits #1 and #2 and #3 below, which prepare me well to get right into writing the sermon after I’ve done exegesis and other text study. In a nutshell:

  1. As a regular habit, I voraciously read articles of relevance from Christian sources (I especially like Christianity Today…blogs like Relevant Magazine, Patheos, Centre for Public Christianity, and Gospel Coalition can also turn out some good stuff). I highlight as I go.
  2. I also consume as many secular “common grace” sources as I can on a daily basis (music, film, theatre, and the arts in general, Harvard Business Review, local newspapers and magazines, NY Times Op-Ed’s, The Atlantic, and Huffington Post come to mind). I also peruse twitter and facebook every day for gems that are trending. This helps give me a window into what is current, what people are thinking about. (I try to follow Spurgeon’s sermon writing philosophy of preparing a sermon “with a Bible in the left hand, and a newspaper in the right”). I highlight as I go.
  3. I read a lot of books, alternating between genres. Theology, apologetics, ethics, biography, thoughtful fiction, and of course CS Lewis, who is his own category. I also read pretty much everything that Tim Keller puts out. These days Tim is writing faster than most of us read. I highlight as I go.
* Doing the above three things will create an at your fingertips “storehouse” of current material that you can draw from. But…it takes time. For me it’s worth it.In addition to the three things above, here is my typical sermon preparation process. I usually do all the reading on Monday, then write the sermon on Tuesday. The entire process takes me about 5-6 hours total.
  1. I immerse myself in the text I will be preaching from, first devotionally then academically, and jot down my own insights as I go.
  2. I carefully read and highlight several SHORT commentaries…I’m not into long ones typically, though they can sometimes be helpful on more complicated texts. I always use IVP Bible Background Commentary, ESV Study Bible notes, The New Bible Commentary (DA Carson et al), and the online ESV Greek tools if it’s a New Testament Scripture. I continue to jot down more insights as I do this.
  3. If it’s a New Testament text, I will add NT Wright’s “For Everyone” commentary to the list above. Though I am not in full agreement with Wright’s teaching on justification, he has sooo many gems when it comes to the Kingdom of God, the resurrection, global Christianity, and the person of Christ. I continue to jot down insights.
  4. By this time an outline will have formed in my head. Because I’ve preached weekly for several years now, outlines usually come to me very quickly after I’ve done the above preparation.
  5. After completing the outline, I usually listen to a sermon on the same text from another preacher or two. James Boice, Tim Keller, and Dick Lucas are frequent go-to’s. Also, for apologetics oriented messages, John Dickson can be very helpful. New insights can come to light doing this.
    CAUTION: I don’t recommend depending heavily on others’ sermon material. For me this is almost always the last step, AFTER I have created my own outline and the sermon’s trajectory has already formed in my head. Listening to others’ take is mainly for window dressing…last minute insights that could add some extra “honey” to the sermon I have already written. As Wiersbe once said about preaching, “Take pollen from several flowers, but make your own honey.”
  6. After doing the above, I forget about my sermon from Wednesday through Saturday. I don’t like to work on sermons on Saturdays because it’s really the only day I get to have time with my whole family. Sunday I’m fried and the other days are school days for our kids. So Saturday is guarded time.
  7. On Sunday morning, I wake up around 5:00am and go into the office. I spend from 5:30 until 8:30 (the time CPC Central’s early service begins) praying, putting final touches on the sermon, and drilling the content into my head. My outlines are generally short enough to fit on one, single page, with a 1/2 page “appendix” for quotes. I color code my outlines with highlighters. Blue for illustrations, orange for main points and key words, green for sub-points, pink for Scripture references, and yellow for everything else. Then, I go through and circle/underline key words with a thin Sharpee to finish it off. By this time I will have been over the notes six times (one with each highlighter, one with the Sharpee).
  8. I preach the sermon twice at CPC’s Central location. About once per month I also travel in between Central’s services to preach at CPC Intown.
  9. I go home and get frustrated about all the things I should have said but didn’t, and did say but shouldn’t have.
  10. I thank God that he covers my weakness and foolishness (known and unknown), and that his Word never returns to him void.
  11. I take a three hour Sunday afternoon nap.

For a sample of what one of my finished sermon outlines looks like, click here.

Hope this helps!!!

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