How to prepare a sermon – part 5


Step 5: Cross the Bridge

By the time you reach step five in the sermon prep process you will already have a fairly good grasp of the main passage. Some preachers will be tempted to go straight to the pulpit with this kind of exegetical material under their arm, but resulting sermons will only be mere explanations of the text at best – possibly quite interesting but not in the least bit edifying. Why? Because at this stage the sermon is still located in the ancient near east and has yet to connect with contemporary people in the twenty-first century. How do we make the connection between the ancient world of the Bible and the questions, needs and issues that face our congregations?

Expository Questions

A good preacher never preaches into a vacuum but rather brings the word of God to a specific group of people, who live in a certain geographic area, and are part of a wider cultural context. The closer a pastor is to the congregation, and more aware of the dominant culture that surrounds them, the more dynamically and poignantly he is able to apply the principles of God’s word to their lives: the more bite the sermon will have. Of course, you cannot apply each sermon to each individual person or to each facet of their culture, but when the preacher has a finger on the pulse of what is happening in the church and the world, the more specific he can be in his teaching.

So when I am working with the text for a particular Sunday, I am simultaneously thinking about the people who are going to be listening to the sermon, asking what questions are they likely to have when they hear this passage being taught. Knowing your audience helps you preach in a way that they can understand and connect with. Without this focus, a sermon might be technically excellent and exegetically sound but practically irrelevant to the listeners.

I mentioned in a previous post in this series that I create a new Word file called Expository Questions for each new sermon. In this file I record any questions that I have, or that the congregation is likely to have about the text.

Ask questions that are likely to arise in a Christian and non-Christian mind. We must consider how a particular biblical principle addresses sceptics and believers alike. This is one key way to reach those outside the Christian faith and to do evangelism during the regular preaching on any given Sunday. So whether it is Christian or non-Christian I ask myself, What do they value in life, and how does this passage challenge, affirm, encourage them? What are some of the key pastoral issues within the church, and how does this passage minister to them?  What does this have to say to parents with a difficult teenage daughter? What does this passage say to the recently bereaved person? How does this passage challenge the middle class materialism in my congregation? What does this say to those suffering? 

Expository Questions needn’t be limited to issues faced personally within the congregation. It is also worth considering the impact of the text on the issues with the world at large, whether it is something in the national news that week, or issues that are local to the city or town where the church is located: local politics, social issues, that kind of thing.

Obviously not every sermon can hit on each of these topics – the passage itself will dictate the theme of each message – but being aware of these questions will help you to apply the text deeply to your hearers.

Then, when I have complied between five and ten questions, I sit and type an answer to each question. I find that this process helps to clarify my thinking about a biblical text and gets the ball rolling when it comes to bringing the timeless truths of God’s word to the hearts and minds of contemporary people.

Much of what I write in my answers to these expository questions never finds it’s way into the sermon directly, but I find this process of responding to the questions helpful in my own thinking and preparation process. 

Aim Sentence

After all of my expository questions have been answered, I try to encapsulate the aim of a single sermon in one sentence, consisting of ten words or less; rather like the Big Idea. In other words, what does this sermon aim to do? What is the effect or implication of the message that I hope this sermon will achieve? Is it to encourage or to challenge? Is there a fresh truth to embrace or a word of caution about a prevalent sin?

Just like the Big Idea, the aim sentence enables the preacher and the congregation to be clear what the main thrust of application is likely to be. This is not to say that a sermon is not capable of having multiple applications, but that it greatly aids the cutting edge of a sermon if the aim is short, sharp and clear.