How to prepare a sermon – part 6


Step 6: Form and Fill

This is the step in my sermon preparation where things really start to take shape. It marks a transition from the mass of exegetical information, insights and expository questions to something that begins to resemble a sermon that can be communicated to the congregation on Sunday.

About now I sit down with a blank sheet of paper and create a spider diagram of the main thoughts, ideas, illustrations that come to mind when I consider the sermon as a whole. There is no new information being added at this stage: it’s just an attempt to gather the main thoughts into one place visually.

On a fresh page I then jot down the Big Idea and Aim Sentence for the sermon in question. This is where the discipline of creating those short, pithy sentences come to fruition. With the Big Idea and Aim Sentence looking up at me from the page, I start to throw out various ideas to structure the sermon. The following questions may help:

  • Does the bible passage naturally break up into chunks that lend themselves to sermon points – be it two, three or four points?
  • Is there a central set of literary contrasts that could serve as the main points? (A passage contains darkness/light or slavery/freedom themes)
  • Is it more helpful to present the points of a sermon as a series of questions, especially if the sermon is more thematic?  For example, if the sermon is on God’s love, suitable points may be ‘What is God’s love?’ ‘Who receives God’s love?’ ‘How do we get God’s love?’

To be completely honest, it takes a bit of practice to get good at constructing a sermon. I can’t say I have arrived but as I become a more experienced preacher it seems to happen a bit more naturally.

Far greater preachers than I will go into great detail and form their sermon points with meticulous care (Bryan Chapell has a great section on this in his excellent book Christ-Centred Preaching). I’m not convinced that a lot of time should be invested in coming up with clever sermon points. In my view, sermon points should simply serve to give the congregation a few footholds in the sermon, a few mental landing zones where they can more easily assimilate what is being said. If your points all begin with the same letter, or they are teaching the main points of the sermon themselves, all well and good.

The Skeleton

What you are aiming for here is a solid backbone that helps to support the main body of the sermon. If your points make sense, respect the biblical teaching and connect to the Big Idea of the passage, then you have your sermon skeleton. At this stage I often sense relief, ‘there is a sermon in all this after all!’ You’re on the finishing straight (kind of).

On a fresh sheet of paper I then note down the main points (even if they still require a bit of tweaking to get them sounding really tight) along the top and then begin to fill in the meat of the sermon in note form below. I find this happens more naturally with pen and paper, enabling me to scribble, jot and draw in a way that I can’t do on a computer.

Again, there is no new information at this stage. I am simply drawing from the study that I have done up to this point. Some segments work well together, some need to be switched around. Some bible quotes and illustrations work well but need to be moved; others sound artificial and need to be etched out completely. This is the fun stage I think. It is the creative bit. It’s all about working out the best way to communicate the truths of the bible in a way that connects with your hearers so that they clearly hear God’s word of life.

Quite how you add your material together and shape the meat on the bone is down to you. Basically for each point in the sermon state (what the text actually says), explain (what the text means) and apply (what the text does). Aim to preach and teach in a way that sounds natural to you. If you can say something and it works, then great. But if you write your sermon in order to sound like someone else, don’t preach it unless it sounds natural in your own tongue as well. Again, this comes from experience and practice so don’t put yourself under too much pressure to sound amazing at the start of your preaching career. You probably won’t. I certainly did not.

Going to press

At the end of this handwritten effort, it is now possible to see the entire sermon on a sheet or two of A4. Even looking visually at your writing helps to demonstrate the balance that your message possesses – or lack thereof! Perhaps you need to adjust things at this stage if one point is massive and dwarfs the other two or three. Maybe you can do without that illustration or maybe you need to shorten that foray into the Old Testament Mosaic law you planned.

Now I have a fair idea of the content and flow of the sermon I transcribe it on to a Word file. I prefer my sermon material typed out for a number of reasons: it is clearer and easier to read in the pulpit; it is easily stored for future use; it can be accessed remotely (if saved on Google Drive for instance) if sermon papers are lost on the way to church etc.

Points, notes or script?

Preachers differ on what they take up with them into the pulpit. There are benefits and drawbacks to each version.

At the start of my preaching career I wrote my sermons out in full script. This is a really helpful discipline as it helps you think through word by word how to deliver your sermon. Plus it has the added benefit of giving you pretty much the exact words for your preaching so that nervousness won’t be enough to distract you, and you will be able to keep going should you be overcome with fear! I still use this technique for weddings and funerals – atypical sermons that are (for me anyway) much more nerve-wracking and emotional than my regular Sunday preaching.

A few years ago I transitioned to using abbreviated notes instead of a full script. This allows for a bit more freedom in preaching and can sound a little more natural to the listeners in my estimation. There are no full sentences in my crib sheet (unless I am quoting a particular author) and sometimes only a single word to prompt a short discussion. It does have the effect of removing the safety net so requires more confidence as a preacher. This will come as you mature in your preaching and in your learning. In general I use two pages of A4 maximum to contain my extended sermon notes.

Finally there is the option of simply using the skeleton – just a few lines of prompts to provide the foundation for the entire half-hour sermon. Some go further and simply construct a skeleton and then memorise it – the note-free sermon. Visually this is impressive depending on the church context and thus the style you are aiming for, but don’t be fooled: it requires more preparation and practice each week to get a sermon memorised and presentable. For those who are tempted to wander in their preaching or easily forget when nervous or stressed, this option is least favourable.

Ultimately, figure out a construction that works for you. Some are more naturally inclined to the skeleton notes, whilst others are most comfortable with a full script. Perhaps the situation should also influence which method you choose.