How To Prepare a Sermon: A Layman’s Guide

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What an honor! You have been asked to preach. After the initial excitement wears off, you start to think, “What have I gotten myself into.” How do I prepare a sermon? There are about as many ways to do this as there are preachers, so what I am about to present should not be taken as dogma. It is simply an example from which you may benefit. I also realize that many full-time pastors already have their routine, so I am presenting this as a layman, for laymen.

Sermon preparation is as important to preaching as the act of preaching itself, if not more so. As the preacher, we not only need to prepare our message, but we need to prepare our hearts as well. Accomplishing both should be our goal of our preparation.

The plan below assumes that you already know the passage of scripture from which you will be preaching. Please note, if you are currently writing a sermon and you do not know what your main text is (or texts), what you are preparing is a talk, not a sermon: even if you give your talk with passion and emotion. The word of God is what we are called to proclaim, not our own ideas. If you have not been assigned a text, find a passage of scripture and that ministers to you and stick with it; preferably something with which you are already familiar.

Step 1: Pray Without Ceasing (All 7 Days)

If you are being asked to preach, you are most likely a man of prayer already, but this week you will need to be more so. There is no specific time you should be praying as you prepare. You should be praying continually all week. Pray first for your own spiritual condition. Ask for forgiveness for all your sins. You are not entering the pulpit as the perfect spiritual specimen. Repent and guard your heart. You are weak and vulnerable to all kinds of temptations, especially pride.

The only fit condition for you to enter the pulpit is in recognizing your utter weakness to accomplish anything for the Lord if he does not move. If the Spirit of God is not at work in your heart, and the heart of your hearers, this will simply be another act of a man speaking and people hearing without spiritual benefit. This can happen even if you moved them to tears, and they loved every minute of it. If the Spirit of God is not involved, you might as well read the dictionary to the congregation. Ask the Lord to move in you and your hearers.

Step 2. Read. Study. Listen. (3-6 hours)

This is where you feed yourself full. Your goal is to understand the text. Read the larger context of the passage (preferably the entire book of scripture), study commentaries, and listen to other sermons on the passage you will be covering. For myself, I tend to do this Monday through Wednesday. I work full-time, so my prep time is limited. I typically put in a total of three to six hours over the course of the three days. This includes listening to sermons as I drive to work or walk the dog.

As you are going through this process, the goal, once you understand the passage, is to ask yourself, how these truths speak to our spiritual lives. Why is this passage of scripture important? If you are in the right frame spiritually, the Lord will begin to minister to you through His word. Once you have been warned, comforted, and encouraged by His truth, you are ready to preach it to others and not until then.

Remember, if you are not excited about the passage you are preaching, neither will your hearers, and I am not talking about artificial hype. Too many churches try to cover their lack of interest in the word of God with entertainment. Pastors often do this in their sermons as well. Do not do that. Whether or not the church where you will be preaching has all of these trappings is not the point. You need to ask, do I believe the passage of scripture I am about to preach is important enough that I am comfortable walking into a situation that will be boring if God does not show up? Has God ministered to you through the process of studying so much that the message is beginning to burn within you, and will you not be satisfied until you are able to share it with others? That is when you know you are ready to preach.

Step 3: Write (2 hours)

At this point, you are ready to sit down and write, and by write, I mean either manuscript, manuscript notes, or outline. Whatever it is that you want to bring into the pulpit, that is what you want to prepare. I tend to write manuscript notes. This means I write in an outline form, but the outline is so complete, that if you read it out loud, it would almost sound like you are reading a manuscript.

Whatever format you choose, it is important that you realize that you are not to fit everything you studied into your sermon. As that Lord was ministering to you in your studies, you most likely landed on one to three points from the text you are longing to make. Only use the material from your studies that help you make those points.

You are not called to exhaust the text or your hearers. Remember, this is the Word of God. Thousands of sermons could be preached from this passage, and you are only called to preach one for now. Don’t try to preach them all. Knowing what to leave out is crucial to sermon preparation, and this is where many preachers err.

For myself, I usually sit down for two hours on Thursday night and write the sermon. Avoid the temptation to make it perfect. Your goal at this point is to get something down on paper which resembles a sermon. You still have two days to refine it.

Step 4: Review, Edit, Rehearse (2-3 hours)

Yes, I said rehearse. There is something, probably pride, that wells up within us and says, “If I have to rehearse, it is not from the heart or led by the Holy Spirit.” That is a lie. Rehearsal does not cancel out the work of the Holy Spirit. It is often the means he uses to hone the message.

As you begin to talk your way through your sermon, you will notice phrases in your notes that do not quite work. You may even realize you need to rearrange your points. By practicing your sermon, you get to hear it in its allotted time span. By doing this, you will get a better feel for the flow and the connectivity of the points and illustrations. This is something you were unable to experience during the slower writing process.

As you run through it, make edits in the margin, and then go update your notes. You will be amazed by the things the Lord brings to your mind to enhance the sermon as you do this. You will find yourself recalling other relevant verses, biblical illustrations, and examples from life that you did not think of as you studied and wrote. In the end, I usually try to preach the sermon twice before I enter the pulpit. Once on Friday, and once on Saturday.

When I walk to the pulpit. My notes are typically 95% typed and 5% handwritten notes in the margin. I am usually making notes up to the point I enter the pulpit.

Step 5: Preach

You have now done your due diligence. You have been praying for yourself, the congregation, and the message. Now it is time to put it all in God’s hands and deliver it. In the delivery, remember, you are not preaching at the congregation. You are preaching to yourself as much as anyone. Preach as if your life is dependent upon the Gospel you preach because it is.

As you preach, you may stumble over your words, nerves may cloud your thinking, or you may feel absolute freedom. None of that proves the success or the failure of the sermon. You will never know who the Lord will minister to secretly. Your job is to simply present the truth. If you have done that, you have done your job whether the people like it or not. It is now up to the Lord to produce the results.

Now that you are done, listen to the godly men and women in the congregation who give you feedback. They are often God’s voice to you to help you improve if you are asked to preach again. Accept criticism with humility, and remember any praise you receive belongs to the Lord because you went into the pulpit weak and helpless entirely dependent upon Him.

May our Lord, Jesus Christ, be glorified by your efforts.

-D. Eaton