Sharing the truth of the gospel is a mandate for every Christian, but preaching from a stage is certainly not for everyone. The limitation is due partly to gifting—not everyone is called to preach—but at least as much to preference—very few people want to preach. For many, the image of standing on a stage in front of a room of people is a nightmarish vision. Public communication of any kind can be nerve-racking; preaching has the added weight of spiritual significance. You’re not getting up to talk about just any old topic, you are approaching subject matter of the utmost importance. You are speaking to people who have come to grow closer to God. It’s an intimidating task to take on.
Over the years, I have had the privilege of getting to preach from time to time. I first shared a message in youth ministry in my early twenties. I’m not sure which is harder: speaking to a big room full of adults or speaking in the back room to fifteen teenagers. Both are scary. But, over time, I have grown more comfortable in my own skin and learned how to lean into my unique style and gifting. These days, I don’t find myself trying too hard to be one thing or another; I have settled into the surprisingly complex rhythm of just being me.
One of the most challenging parts of preaching is preparation. Most people who enjoy preaching enjoy the preaching part. I don’t know many who love the prep part. But I have actually learned to love the process of preparing to preach. I don’t have some perfect system in place, and each sermon comes in its own way, but here is my attempt to explain what my prep looks like these days. Disclaimer: This is not a formula for how to write a good sermon. It’s just me offering some insight into what this has looked like for me lately. Ask me again after my next sermon and you may get a new answer.
Here are five thoughts on preparing to preach.
1. Ask God to Speak
As I get started, the first thing I do is remind myself that I should not, and don’t have to, attempt this alone. It is certainly possible to write a sermon without asking God for insight, but it is probably not going to be a sermon worth hearing. Before I do anything else, I remind myself that I need God’s help. I acknowledge that I don’t want to do it alone and invite the Holy Spirit to speak to me as I prepare. This step is very simple and very important. It doesn’t have to take long or involve some earth-shattering experience. It can be as simple as saying, “Holy Spirit, speak to me as I read your Word.”
2. React to the Text
The next thing I do is take time simply to react to the text. I read the passage I have selected—or, even better, the passage I have been assigned—and write down my initial reactions. I don’t filter or think through them much, I just let the text speak and allow my mind to wander. I write down questions that I feel need to be answered, things that confuse or bother me, related passages that come to mind, personal stories that might apply, relevant words and phrases, etc. These initial reactions help to shape the direction of my sermon. They are the raw materials that I can refine into fully-formed ideas, the clues that I can follow to discover the truth at the heart of the story.
3. Organize Your Thoughts
The next step is to begin to organize. I read through my notes, write down additional ideas, and rearrange things to make a bit more sense. Then I begin to research some of the concepts in my notes. I look for people who have wrestled with the questions I am asking and sift through their answers. This part of the process can get a little tedious and feel like wasted time, especially if it’s not something that comes naturally to you. I like research, but sometimes I question whether I am using research as an excuse to delay the painful process of actually writing something. That can be hard to figure out, but I like to feel like I have explored enough and gained a fairly solid grasp on the context and concepts before I dive into writing.
4. Don’t Stop Till You’re Clear
Once I have organized my ideas and developed a framework for where I would like to go, I start to write. People approach this differently, but personally I am a transcript guy. I like to write a sermon word for word from start to finish. Even if I didn’t attempt to preach my manuscript—which I do—I think I would still approach it this way. There is no better way to attain clarity than through writing. Writing is organized thinking. Preparing an outline and filling in the details on stage is a viable strategy, but it bets on the fact that you will be in the right frame of mind to pull off that feat when the time comes. My preference is to write everything out so that, no matter how I feel in the moment, I know I will have something coherent to say. That way, my worst-case-scenario will be reading what I have written.
One of the biggest mistakes I have made in the past is stopping short, taking a message to 90% but failing to follow through. Usually this is just because I have run out of steam. I put a lot of energy into the intro and body of a message, then rush the conclusion because I want to be done. If you take one thing away from this article, please take this: Don’t stop until you are clear. Don’t settle because you’re tired. Continue to dig until you uncover the center of your message. If you had to distill it into a single sentence, how would you summarize what you are trying to say? If you can’t do that, you’re not done yet.
5. Get Out of Your Head
Perhaps your tendency, like mine, is to let off the gas at this point. Everything up until now has required an enormous amount of energy, and you may not feel like you have much left. But getting your thoughts on paper is not the end of the process. Once you have gotten clear about what you want to say, you have to internalize your content. You have to get it out of your head and into your heart. My method for doing this is really simple: I just read it. Out loud. Over and over again. Each new pass just drills it a little deeper. Along with reading through the message, I like to look at the sections, considering how they fit together and what each part is designed to accomplish. I give each section a name that encapsulates its core concept, like chapters in a book. Understanding the structure and flow of my message helps me to rely on my notes less and decreases my likelihood of getting lost.
Preaching is more than a presentation. Your goal is not just to deliver information. You have to care about what you’re saying. It has to mean something to you if it’s going to mean anything to them. It can’t just come from your head; it needs to come from your heart. Don’t settle for good thoughts and catchy phrases. Deliver what God has revealed to you with conviction and passion. Don’t hold back out of fear, overanalysis, self-consciousness, or laziness. Bring the fullness of who you are to your message. Leave everything on the stage. You are not responsible for the response or the results. You can only plant and water. It’s God who brings growth. If you will play your part, God will play his. If you will be you, God will be God.