Preparing a sermon is hard work. Ironically, the more one reads about how to prepare a sermon often complicates the work, making a tough job even tougher. Before putting pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard), the well-read preacher with a biblical text in front of him must first decide how to view his task. Will he picture himself as H. Grady Davis’ arborist nurturing the growth of the sermon as a tree? As John Stott’s bridge-builder? As David Buttrick’s “mover” and shaker? As Eugene Lowry’s playwright about to construct a homiletical plot? Or as Michael Quicke’s swimmer wading into the stream of divine revelation?
Having settled that matter, he must then decide how to tackle his task. Will he exercise Wayne McDill’s “12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching?” Work through Haddon Robinson’s “10 Stages of Development for an Expository Message?” Follow Rick Warren’s advice on how to “C.R.A.F.T.” a purpose-driven sermon? Or consult one of the contributors to Michael Duduit’s Handbook of Contemporary Preaching? While he’s trying to make-up his mind, his eye catches a glimpse of the newest title on his homiletics’ shelf, Peter Grainger’s Firm Foundations: 150 Examples of How to Structure a Sermon! What’s a preacher to do?
Faced with this plethora of choices myself, I have often recalled a scene from one of the Bad News Bears movies. Coach Buttermaker has just learned that his star pitcher who is supposed to be practicing on the sidelines isn’t. When he asks why, a kid tells him it’s because the hurler cannot decide which major leaguer he wants to pitch like. The youngster was suffering from “paralysis by analysis.”
Too often I find myself seated at my desk thinking more about how to prepare a sermon than the sermon I am preparing. Much is going on between my ears, but little of it will actually come out of my mouth the next Sunday. To refocus my thoughts and get the wheels of progress turning again, I have found three simple questions most helpful: What do I want to say? What do I hope to accomplish? How can I make it happen?
What do I want to say?
To answer this question I take my cues from the biblical text. Tipping my hat to Robinson, I ask, “What is the subject of this text? What is the complement?” I want to make sure of the “big idea” first; then I can decide whether to preach that entire idea in my sermon, a part of the idea (in context of course), or an application of the idea.
While searching for the big idea, in the back of my mind I am paying homage to Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching by staying sensitive to what the text says about God and man. If I overlook God, I miss the point. If I overlook man, I miss the point of connection.
What do I hope to accomplish?
To speak to the whole person, I must ask account for the hearer’s intellect, emotions, and will. I want to do more than inform the intellect. I want to touch emotion and challenge the will. What do I want my audience to think? What do I want them to feel? What do I want them to do?
Jay Adams’ Preaching with Purpose and Warren’s more recent emphasis on purpose-driven preaching have pounded into my head the importance of purpose and my knowing the outcomes I am looking for as a result of the sermon being heard. Besides the immediate outcomes of a hearer raising a hand to request prayer during the invitation or coming forward for counseling at the altar, I must think of outcomes for the coming week or more distant future.
How can I make it happen?
In other words, “How does my audience need to hear what I have to say so that they will do what I want to them to do?” Rather than thumb through Grainger’s 150 Examples at this point, I think about the results I want and where the audience is now in relation to those results. What will I need to say first to show that I know where my audience is intellectually, emotionally, or volitionally on this matter? What will I need to say next? What will I need to say after that?
If I think of the desired outcomes as the final destination and the introduction of the sermon as the “YOU ARE HERE” on a map, the sequence of my message’s thoughts and their final form come more naturally. If I fail to identify my ending and starting points from the beginning, I end up just spinning my wheels. The sermon then goes nowhere but my files.
Now that I think about it, these three questions were basically the same questions I asked back when I first started preaching. They were much simpler then, not based on any book’s thesis but upon my own personal “feel” for how to speak so that people might respond. My ignorance then does not make the questions any less instructive than they are for my more educated self today.
When all is said and done, preaching is as simple as pitching. Sometimes you just gotta rear back and let’er rip.
Gregory K. Hollifield is Chaplain with Youth for Christ in Memphis, TN.