Questions from my students: how do you prepare sermons?

I’m not sure I know two pastors who prepare sermons in the same way. I know many who are similar, but none that are identical. This is the first reason why it’s difficult to answer such a question. I learned how to prepare a sermon from my youth pastor and life-long mentor, Joel, but I can tell you that we prepare and preach very differently today.

This is probably because learning to preach is like learning any artistic skill, it evolves over time. Sermons are a genre of literature, which is to say they are a form of art. While there is some science to Biblical interpretation, there is very little science to preaching. To preach is to write and to speak and to craft something creative. Therefore, preachers start out preaching the same way musicians or painters start out: imitation. When you first learn to play the guitar, you learn your favorite song — you imitate Jimi Hendrix (albeit poorly) and you learn the solo to “Californication” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers (barely). Nevertheless, every guitar player starts by copying the guitar players before them.

I can always recognize a young preacher when I recognize who they sound like. When I was first starting out, I copied Matt Chandler’s notes and preached his sermon on Matthew 6 pretty much verbatim. I was 18. I did the same with John Piper and Tim Keller a time or two. I took their outlines and tried to sound just like them — inflections, emphases, and wordplay.

You may be surprised to hear that I do not think this is a bad thing. It’s good. It’s also close to inevitable. I tell young preachers to not just listen to what their pastor is saying, but how he is saying it, and then to try it out as best they can. And I tell them to record themselves and listen back. This all will help them see clearly the difference between themselves and a world-class preacher. It will also crush them (which is good because we all need some humility).

The other reason it’s difficult to answer this question is because, as a preacher, you’re always preparing a sermon. When someone asked Matt Chandler how long it took him to prepare one Sunday’s sermon, he said, “I’ve been preparing this Sunday’s message my whole life.”

We often see “sermon prep” as something each week that will take us anywhere from 6–20 hours (yes, they can take that long). But the truth is I’m constantly preparing a sermon. I wrote about this phenomenon elsewhere. But this is the truth: your daily life of prayer, meditation, scripture reading, and obedience is all the pathway to preparing a great sermon. It doesn’t just happen when you study commentaries the week before.

All of that said, it’s not a very helpful answer to your question, but it is some introductory comments I feel like I have to make. Now, here’s more of how it goes for me.

I start with a passage of Scripture. This normally comes from the sermon series we’re in or the book we’re studying. But every sermon starts with the text. Preaching is the act of pulling the truth of a passage to the surface in a compelling, auditory way. We do not share our opinions and sprinkle some Bible on the top, we share Scripture’s message and sprinkle our opinions on the top. Preparing starts with setting the limits of the passage. Even if we’re in a topical series (meaning, let’s say, we’re doing a series on “The New Birth”), I will pre-assign each message title with a Scripture passage (for example, Romans 12:1–2). This means that sermon is not about “Transformation” or “Regeneration”—or whatever other words and titles we use—that sermon is about Romans 12:1–2. The titles are just summaries, but the text is the meat.

Then, I go to the commentaries. Before I write anything I try to read everything. A study Bible, a library of commentaries, and (of course) Logos Bible Software, are all my friends during this time. I’m reading the original languages and then reading people who know the original languages better than me. I’m reading widely too, as much as I can, trying to see what different commentators have written on the subject. I’m also looking at other translations of the passage and seeing how and why they may differ. Ultimately, my goal here is to simply fill my mind with wisdom from Christ’s body, the church. Others who are far smarter than me will help me, and I will always benefit from reading and ingesting a ton.

After this, I look back at the passage and form a one-sentence description of what this verse is communicating. I ask this question: based off of my reading and studying, what is this author communicating? What is his underlying theological reflection that he originally shared with his hearers that 21st century listeners could also understand? Sometimes this “one sentence” is rough and more like a paragraph, but I try to get something down to summarize what I’ve learned.

Next, I form an outline. This can be 2–6 points that match with the message of the passage of Scripture. I will form “sticky statements” (Andy Stanley’s term) or memorable phrases that reflect what each section of Scripture is teaching. A recent outline from Colossians 1:24–29 went like this:

In this passage, Paul is asking us 1) What are you suffering for (verse 24)? 2) Who are you burdened for (verse 25–26)? And 3) What are you striving towards (verses 27–29)?

My hope is to break up the passage in a helpful way so as to be as clear as possible. I also share this brief outline in my sermon intro so my hearers know where I’m going and aren’t asking, “When will this be done?”

Then, I write the sermon. This is where it all goes crazy. Sometimes the outline sticks, but other times as I’m writing the whole sermon the whole thing changes…or some of it will change. But I start with the intro, think of something compelling, and just go. I write the sermon from start to finish. I’ll include as many examples, quotes, metaphors as I can along the way but I don’t worry about that too much yet (see my final point). I try to just get the sermon out. I’m hoping, at this point, to just fill up a page and get some stuff out there — which is easier said than done. This part is normally kind of fast for me because I’ve done most of the thinking (and outlining). It slows down, however, when I’m writing and realizing (as I’m writing) that none of it makes sense. This is when I get depressed and panicky and fall into a brief day or two of despair where I think I’m a terrible preacher. It happens.

Finally, if I get to the end of it, I read through and edit and embellish multiple times. Basically, I’m re-reading and making small changes until the moment I preach the sermon. But I’m also editing even as I’m preaching, if you can believe it. Most preachers know this. You go in with a plan but you trust the Spirit to make it all come alive. On paper, it’s sort of a sermon; when it’s preached, it’s got a life to it. And so from the moment the sermon is all written out to the moment I’m on stage preaching, I’m editing. This is where I add quotes, dial in a story, shape a metaphor, and correct little pieces to the language of what I’ve written making sure I’m saying it in the most clear way possible. You can see why this part of the process happens up until the moment something comes out of my mouth.

From there, it’s all the Holy Spirit. When we pastors pray before we preach, we really mean it. Our words are nothing unless empowered by God’s Spirit. Preachers will tell you: our best sermons feel like they’ve come from somewhere else, where you feel more like a hose than a cup — God moving through you in a unique way. That makes it sound cooler than it normally is because more often than not sermons themselves are like prayers. They’re just put out there to a congregation in a kind of anguish. We work really hard but then just throw them out there hoping God would use someone as small as us. And often, in between that ugly desperation and hard work, a sermon arrives.