I remember the first time I ever preached a sermon in a church. I kid you not, as I walked up the steps of the platform, a series of hidden emotions surprised me. Scenes like memories from church history flooded my mind as I neared the podium. I thought of Matthew 16 when Jesus declared to Peter and the others the authoritative and missional role his Church would have in the world. I thought of John Wesley and the circuit riders who worked so diligently and faithfully to plant churches throughout my country. And I thought of my dad, a pastor who I watched minister faithfully and effectively for years in his local communities. I knew that I was participating in a rich tradition … and taking on a great responsibility. And I wanted to do my best with that opportunity.
Our society doesn’t view being a pastor with the same respect it once did. This has probably developed due to a variety of reasons, from a suspicion of authority, inappropriate behavior by pastors, overbearing leadership style, lack of professionalism, and so forth. But, the pastor is the only person who can show up at any occasion and be welcomed – a wedding, a funeral, a celebration, a lament, a city crisis, and the like. So, I am intrigued by the pastors on Twitter and Facebook who work to not use the word “pastor”, but to prefer monickers like “entrepreneurial thinker” “thought leader” or “lead teacher” and want to focus on words that suggest a detachment from others versus Christ’s model of a nurturing shepherd. A pastor. (See Scot McKnight’s post of Brittany Smith’s article regarding podcast sermons and pastors)
Of course there are many good books on speaking and preaching out there. But, as I recently prepared to speak on a Sunday morning, I thought of some sermon checkpoints I use to buff a nice luster on what I do…. and to make sure I’m responsible and faithful in the process.
1. Pray first and don’t quit praying
This actually is independent of what we do, we ought to be about this all of the time. But, purposeful prayer for the sermon process keeps me mindful that it’s not about my ability, but about what the Holy Spirit does.
2. Do your diligent study
So, I review background materials, read a reliable commentary, use my Logos software to study the biblical text, and look for common popular references to the Scripture and topic at hand.
3. Compose a clear teaching aim
After the study, I try to write about a clear aim for the message: “By listening to this sermon, people will (here I pick a word that is thinking, action, or feeling oriented) …. (and then the content/ result).”
4. Organize your outline
this avoids rambling and crafts a clear progression, argument, or series of thoughts that you can then develop and strengthen. This provides a necessary framework that serves as a guide to know where you’re going and how you’re doing getting there.
5. Create a strong beginning and ending
Like a novelist, a speaker takes listeners on a journey and we speak to each other in ‘movies’ often…. so create a strong ‘hook’ and make sure people are with you, that they want to hear what you have to say next. And can’t wait! But, perhaps the weakest element of most sermons I hear is the ending, the “so what?” element. Most sermons are content-heavy so the speaker feels that the dispensing of information is sufficient. Wrong. What is is that you’re asking them to do? How do they do that? (this is a very important question to ask) And… does your ending help you accomplish your teaching aim.
6. Bring life through illustrations
This helps with the novel element of the previous point. So, for each main statement, how can you bring ‘life’ to it, showing people how your point connects to real life? Not just stories from your past, not movie clips, but illustrative elements. In fact, you ought to be changing what you do every 7 minutes. I don’t always accomplish this, but I try to make sure every 7 minutes I change in some way by inserting a story, showing media, or drawing an illustration.
7. After letting it set a day, go through it again
I believe you have to sleep on it a night and edit it again. This means you need to be done with your preparations two days in advance!
8. Practice it out loud
Never never never skip this step. Always make your ears hear what your mind tells your mouth to say. Your ears are your best editors you have. In fact, I tell my students to read their papers out loud before they hand them in. My dad used to go “preach to the pews” (or to the garden in summers) every Saturday night and that is a non-negotiable for me now. I even did it for youth talks on Wednesday nights. If you’re a ‘professional’ and speaking is one of your main functions, why would you want your ‘rehearsal’ to be your first service? Never never never skip this step.
As your ears tell you where you’re weak (i.e. opening, ending, transitions, too much information packed in), edit edit edit. You may need to practice it again out loud to make sure you’ve got it right.
10. Keep praying
Even though we are doing all of the preparations, the final element of ministry is that we are truly God-bearers and participating in a ministry of the Holy Spirit and God grants the ‘victory’ (Proverbs 21:31).