Some of the most frequent questions I am asked as a pastor are in regard to sermon writing. “How do you write a sermon week after week? How do you know what to say?” Here’s how it works for me.
First, let me say this. There are many ways to write sermons, and there is no single right or wrong way. What works for me will not work for others, and vice versa. My method is what works best for me, and what works for my church, Christ Community Church in central Florida.
Writing sermons is a major part of my job. It takes up a big chunk of my time during the week. The vast majority of my sermons are part of a series of messages that deal with a common topic. In my opinion, linking several sermons to the same topic provides a flow of study from week to week, it allows me to develop and expound on common principles more than once, and it helps me plan several weeks ahead. And speaking of planning ahead, there is no worse feeling than coming into the office at the start of the week unsure of what Sunday’s topic is going to be. I try to plan at least a couple of months ahead. That way, I can be on the lookout for illustrations and real life examples of the sermon principles. Plus, my staff needs to know what’s coming up so worship services can be planned and graphics can be created. And you never know when the phone is going to ring and take you away from the office…
There is (again, my opinion) a right and wrong way to approach the writing of a sermon. A pastor can decide on a topic, anger for example, and she can find Bible verses to support the points that she wants to make. This is an inferior way to write a sermon, because there is a danger than the sermon ends up being the pastor’s opinion, supported by Scriptures that can be unrelated to each other and used outside their proper context. A better way to write a sermon is the other way around: find a specific section of Scripture where anger is addressed, study it to understand what the verses are saying, and then simply relay the message of the verses to the listeners. That way, the truth of the Bible is maximized and the bias of the pastor is minimized. The power of the message isn’t found in the delivery or the intelligence of the pastor. It’s found in the truth of Scripture.
Once the topic and the accompanying Scripture have been selected, it’s time to write. I use some excellent Bible software that resides on my computer. This program makes available a ton of resources, commentaries, dictionaries, Bible versions, etc. that really help. I make a rough outline and start putting words on the screen. My worst enemy during the week is a blinking cursor. You have no idea how many hours I’ve sat and stared at that stupid thing blinking. It seems to be saying, “Ha…. ha…. you’re… stuck….”
But then slowly, sentence by sentence, an idea takes shape. The goal is to get words down without worry about editing for now. Because I’ve been doing this for a few years, I know how many words it takes to produce a 25 or so minute sermon (for me, about 2500 words). There’s a saying about sermons that goes, “If you haven’t struck oil in 25 minutes, stop drilling.” People have a hard time staying with a pastor that speaks longer than about 25 minutes.
Once the points of the sermon have been written, it’s time to edit. I spend 25% of my time writing the sermon and 75% of my time editing what I’ve written. I happen to believe that individual words and phrases are extremely important, and I spend a considerable amount of time finding just the right words to make a point. Some pastors’ notes consist of nothing more than an outline of their message, and they fill in the details extemporaneously. I don’t have that gift. My notes are manuscripts- that is, a word for word document. I don’t read word for word when I preach, but if a disaster happens and I lose my train of thought, I can find my place until I regain my senses. And instead of speaking from printed notes, I use a tablet. That way, I can continue to refine and make small changes all the way up until time to speak if I want.
Once the sermon is developed enough to suit me, I write sermon notes to go into our church bulletins and small group Bible study questions based on the message. My deadline for publishing all this is Thursday around noon. That way, the bulletins and inserts can be printed, the power point presentation that is used during the message can be written and loaded onto the computers. Therefore, I have a deadline. And I have to be honest: some weeks the deadline is hard to meet.
So that’s what happens when I write a sermon. There’s a major element that I haven’t mentioned, and that is the spiritual dimension of sermon writing. Without the involvement of the Holy Spirit in both the writing and delivering of the message, it’s a huge waste of time and effort. Maybe that can be a future topic.
Does this post generate a question or comment about sermon writing (or sermon listening)? I’d love to hear them and know what you’re thinking.