Call me odd, but I’ve loved the adrenalin rush of public speaking since I was 3rd speaker on our high school debating team. There were a few speaking competitions I entered then and I also had some opportunities as one of the student leaders. But when I became a Christian in my twenties and trained for ministry, I found preaching training quite difficult. It was the enormous spiritual weight of what I was being trained for. The privileged role of sharing God’s words rather than my own, of opening up the Scriptures for people and helping them to both understand and to apply them to their lives is a high and privileged calling. Preaching flips the priorities.
Interpreting and applying Scripture correctly is far more important than speaking skills. Preaching also means applying God’s words to our own lives as preachers first. It is a weighty thing. I call preaching ‘that hard thing I love’.
It was my time spent training for ministry at SMBC (Sydney Missionary and Bible College) that was most instrumental in developing my preaching style. We had a chapel service just about every day at college and there were a number of opportunities to preach as a student there, and also on the annual college missions. I studied preaching under our Principal, the Reverend David Cook and John Chapman was a consultant in our preaching classes as well. Our text book was Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching (Baker Academic). Serving for a few years as associate leader on Hat Head SUFM also gave me opportunities to open up God’s word for the team. David introduced us to a preaching template which I have adapted for myself over the years. The great value of the way in which we learnt to develop a sermon was that it did not require the consulting of any commentaries.
Commentaries are valuable but reading one can certainly squash your own voice. Commentaries are so good that one can feel a sense of obligation to follow them. They are best left late in the process, as a check and balance rather than a directional guide as we develop our sermons. What I will check routinely though is the Greek text for the New Testament, and a theological dictionary. (I use Accordance software for this).
Below I lay out my approach to each weeks preaching task in my parish, where I try to get this weighty calling right.
Time to work on the sermon. Mondays would be the best time to start, but realistically Wednesdays are usually the earliest I start the exegetical process. I won’t do a great deal at this point. I will simply read the text and the surrounding text a few times and start to think about what it means. Spreading the preparation out over a few days means the subconscious mind has space to process the text and I find this results in better ideas than when I compress all preparation into one block of time. For example, in preparing a recent sermon for Palm Sunday, the reading was about how Jesus was publicly celebrated one day and publicly condemned a few days later. My mind immediately went to modern day cancel culture and this influenced my sermon. On Thursday or Friday I will do most of my work on the text, testing out any ideas, using a template I’ve developed and I have linked at the end of this article. I rise early on Sunday and go over the sermon. I will whisper it in outline form to myself in my study (trying not to wake others!)
Work on the text. On Wednesday or Thursday, following the template, I take a fresh blank A2 sheet which I spread on my desk and on which I glue a small font printout of the text to the centre of the page (biblegateway.com is handy for this). This allows me to put all thoughts onto one sheet of paper over the next few days. It keeps the text as the focus and allows me to highlight and brainstorm. I know I can do all this electronically, but I find handwriting is the best for brain engagement and later recall. It also limits me so that I don’t end up with reams of paper by Sunday.
I jot a few points about pre and post context for the passage and then paraphrase the text, trying NOT to use the words of the translation. This is hard because the longer we are Christians the more religious words seem normal to us. In another recent sermon I tried to paraphrase a text about baptism without using the word baptism. Not easy, but it really helps the exegesis.
The next step is to identify the flow of the argument of the text. In the Palm Sunday text of Mark 11: 1-11 the flow is,
1. The crowd recognise Jesus as a kind of King (Laying palm branches, singing hosanna)
2. The ‘coronation’ is a bit off (a donkey features!)
3. He really is a king (Old Testament references)
4. No one welcomes him at the temple courts..a hint of what is to come
Next I look for key words and metaphors which might already be in the text. The secret is not to create things if you don’t have to, but rather use what God has given you in the text. In Mark 11, that’s a donkey along with the words ‘Hosanna’ and ’King’.
Next, I work on what Haddon Robinson calls the ‘Big Idea’ of the text. What is this text about and what is it saying about what its about? This can take me a long time to discern. Sometimes days. I will work and rework on this until I am satisfied I’ve got it right, and I won’t allow myself to draft anything further until its done. This is because the big idea, the subject of the text and its complements will dictate the structure of the sermon.
Without it, I don’t have a structure. With it, I have the bones of the sermon and more than half my work is done.
What remains is to consider the application and to fill in the flesh on the bones of the sermon. Working out the application can be easy or difficult, depending on the text, but I know that a weakness for me is to underdo the application. So I try to make the application take up half my notes on my A2 sheet and have as many points as I do for the outline of the argument.
At this part of the process I might consult a commentary or perhaps google the passage. I like the Bible Speaks Today Commentary series because it’s written with preaching in mind and sometimes suggests an illustration. I’ll be checking these to make sure I’m not way off track with my interpretation of the text.
Once all of that is done, I map out the sermon on a fresh A3 sheet which I will take into the pulpit. Again, it has the text pasted to the centre of the page to keep me focused.
Occasionally I will take a photo of my A3 sheet and preach from an iPad if I’m preaching offsite somewhere.
In mapping out the sermon, I will have three parts:
Introduction: An illustration or a question that I spend a bit of time on. I’ll also try to put something personal into this to break the ice with my listeners. Andy Stanley makes the point that in the first few minutes, people are deciding whether you are worth listening to, so you need some kind of hook and you need to show a bit of yourself for them to make that judgement. I’ll end this part of the sermon with the phrase – ‘what about you?’ I wonder if you find this to be the case…or I wonder if you struggle with this? Or something along these lines…. I’m trying to make the subject of the sermon relevant to them. The I’ll say something like ‘ its great that our text today addresses that….let’s jump in and look at the text..’
Body: I usually work through three teaching points, and I’ll usually illustrate or give examples for each one. I may apply the text as I work through it or I may have an equally long application after working through the points. Either way, application will have at least an equal number of points as what I think the text is saying.
Conclusion: This is often called ‘landing the plane’. I may do a few different things here. I may try to inspire people to imagine what our church or community or country would be like if we really applied this text. I may use a prayer to conclude. I may quote a hymn or I may summarise the main points and leave them with a challenge.