In a series of posts entitled “So You Think You Can Preach? 6 Steps to Get Started Preaching” I walked through at all the ways to pursue preaching opportunities for those who are just beginning as a preacher. I suggested starting where you are… in your Bible study or small group… and continuing to look for opportunities to preach outside of that. Today I want to take you to the next level and reveal how to write a sermon.
So, let’s say you’ve led some Bible studies and small groups and you’re feeling relatively confident about teaching in small group contexts. But recently your pastor has tapped you on the shoulder and said, “Would you preach on Sunday night in two weeks?” Or you got a call from a church that is without a pastor and have been asked to fill in next Sunday.
This is so exciting! This is what you’ve been waiting for! But you have some aching questions: What do I do? Where do I start? A sermon is different than what you’ve done to this point. A lesson in a small group can go a lot of different ways. There is interaction and dialogue. In most cases, a sermon relies on you to carry the content from start to finish. This thought both terrifies and exhilarates you. By the way, the emotions of terror and exhilaration are part of what make preaching so fun and interesting. Embrace those feelings and keep moving forward.
In this series of posts, I want to give you a practical guide to go from a blank page to ready for Sunday. If you work through the seven action steps in this series, you’ll have a sermon written and be ready to go. But before I show you how to write a sermon, I want to give you one overarching principle to keep in mind:
Content is king. The tendency a lot of new preachers have is to want to look and sound impressive in their delivery. They want people to walk away saying, “Wow! He’s a natural!” This is not necessarily a bad thing. You certainly don’t want people walking away mumbling to themselves, “That was rough. I feel awkward.”
In fact, Preaching Donkey is not shy about our dedication to helping preachers communicate as effectively as possible. We are all about compelling delivery because we want pastors to connect to the hearts, minds and emotions of their listeners in a powerful way.
But for our purposes today, if you are just starting out, worry about delivery later. Your content needs to be rock solid. This will work out in your favor later because if you structure your content the way we teach, it will lend itself to effective delivery. But it won’t be just because you project your voice in the right way. It will be as a result of content that builds tension, creates interest, points point to the Scriptures and motivates them to take action. With that foundational principle laid, you are now ready to start developing your sermon.
One quick note before you get started: I’ve presented these steps in a logical order, but the nature of sermon preparation means you’ve got to be flexible. Some of these steps could be ordered differently. You may need to dig into step #2 before you complete step #1. Or you might work on step #3 before you can go back and finish step #1. That’s totally okay! Use these steps in whatever order works for you and fits your goals. The point is to make sure you complete all 7 steps before delivering your sermon.
If you want to discover more in-depth how to put these methods into practice, check out my new book Become A Preaching Ninja: Sharpen Your Skills, Hone Your Craft, Maximize Your Impact as a Preacher. It dives deeper into this topic and provides you with a systematic, streamlined approach to sermon prep and delivery that will save you time and help spur your listeners toward life-change.
Every sermon is going to have three structural elements that lay the foundation upon which you’ll build the message: the topic, title and hook.
The pastor who invited you to preach may have given you a topic to work with. He may have asked you to preach on forgiveness, or generosity, or pride, or love, or the gospel. Perhaps the church is working through a series and your message will fit into that series. Whatever the case, get as much information as you can about what the inviting pastor or church wants you to talk about. In some cases you will merely be given a passage of scripture on which to build your message. I’ll deal more with Scripture in the next step, but for now determine the topic based on what you’ve been given. If you’ve been giving the topic and the supporting scripture, great! If not, go with what you have.
In some cases you will be told to pick your own topic. “Preach on whatever you want.” I know this seems counterintuitive, but this vagueness can be terrifying because you have so many options. If this is the case I would suggest picking either a passage of scripture to walk through or a topic that everyone can relate to such as forgiveness, pride, fear, worry, faith, prayer, or love. For this article I’m going to use worry as our topic of choice and walk through the steps using it.
The next step is to determine a tentative title for your message. I use the word tentative because the title will likely change as you dig into your content, but having a working title as you write will help give you a direction in which to keep aiming as you write. For our example sermon on worry, I’m going to make the tentative title: From Worry to Peace. Notice this title is nothing fancy. I may change it as I move along in writing the sermon or I may keep it the same, but I chose this as my working title because I’m already thinking about what my hook will be. What is a hook?
The hook of your sermon is what initially makes people interested in the content. The hook is what makes them give you their attention and say, “I need to hear more.” If I were to walk up on stage, open my bible and say, “Today we’re going to talk about worry,” I’ve merely stated a fact. My audience is now informed of what the message is about. It’s about worry. Yawn. Most people are asking, “So what? Why is this going to matter to me?” Even if they experience worry on a routine basis they are still going to need more information to be convinced that the message is something they should attend to.
Let’s contrast that with this simple change, “In today’s message we’re going to discover how to ditch worry and experience lasting peace.” This is a hook because it has signaled to my listeners that the sermon will add value to their lives and benefit them in some way if they pay attention. It is not a fancy hook, it’s not worded in the most creative way, and that is intentional. It doesn’t have to be sophisticated. If this is your first sermon you should not get bogged down in making a pithy hook or bottom line to your message. Rather, in this step, simply answer this one question, “Why should someone listen to this message? In this case there is a simple reason: to ditch worry and experience lasting peace.
If you want to look into this more broadly you can check out my post on developing an objective and a desired response for your sermons. It provides the 30,000 foot view of what I am describing in more detail here. Now that we have a topic: Worry, a working title “From Worry to Peace” and a hook “Discover how to ditch worry and experience lasting peace” we are ready for our next step which is to dig into the scripture. More on that in the part two of this series. For now, begin planning a sermon and decide on a topic, title and hook using the steps outlined in this post.
What are some example topics, titles and hooks you could use or have used in your sermons?