I’m not a preacher; I’m a theologian. But now that I’ve graduated seminary I sometimes have the honor of preaching. And as someone who just barely passed the two required preaching courses while he was focused on other things, I’ve had to go back and really develop a theology and strategy of preaching. It should go without saying that it’s a work in progress, but I’m at a place now where I’m comfortable with my system—which means the next step is to share it. Maybe someone out there can benefit from what I’ve learned, but either way there’s always room for improvement and maybe you can help me see where.
The first and most obvious question is what to preach on. I was trained to be sensitive to what the congregation needs to hear, but not being a pastor I don’t have that kind of insight. I once heard John Piper say when he’s a guest preacher he preaches to himself that way he knows at least one person needed it. I like that better, but this early in my ministry I’ve taken to something a little less holy: what can I preach well?
This has really driven most of my sermons to-date, especially because I usually have only a few weeks’ notice. I preached on Ahab because I had just read about him in my devotions. I preached on the tree and its fruits because I had just studied the passage in the context of LGBT acceptance. Most recently, I preached on 1 Corinthians because that’s what we’ve been studying in Sunday School. The more I know something ahead of time, the better chance I have of knowing what to look for and how to communicate it.
Once I have my topic, I start running the passage through a system in the three phases we used in seminary: exegetical, theological, and homiletical.
Phase 1: Exegetical
The exegetical phase is just getting into the passage itself. First, I want to know the immediate context for the passage. Why is this here? What ideas are continuing, and which are new? How the author frames the passage is probably the most important factor in choosing how I will introduce it in the sermon. If it’s an epistle, I will also play with a structural outline to try and identify rhetorical choices.
Second, I want to try and surface issues in the Greek. I do a very rough translation, and if a word jumps out at me I take note. I’m looking for ambiguous meanings, untranslated concepts, repeated words, related words, etc. I don’t expect to come up with a better translation than the professionals; I just want to have some idea of why they made the choices they did and what might be getting lost in translation. (Note: I don’t talk about Greek and Hebrew words from the pulpit; I only explain the concepts because that’s what I expect people to remember.)
Third, I take the list of questions I’ve been building and I start to do research. Who’s the referent in this verse? What does this metaphor mean? Is it used elsewhere? What’s the relationship between these two ideas? Does this command really imply that? My research is mostly based on Scripture alone, although there are times when I have to turn to historical background information to really get a reference. I see the Bible as one whole text even though it has many authors, and I’m very interested at drawing legitimate connections across books. I’ve also found Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies is a great help at avoiding common errors in biblical studies.
Phase 2: Theological
The boundary between exegesis and theology is thin and messy. I was given conflicting advice on this: some professors insisted I “bracket out” my theology, take nothing for granted; others insisted the only way to read it rightly is with Christian presuppositions.
I try to do both if I can.
Not all doctrines are equal. I refuse to bracket out core doctrines like the Trinity or salvation by grace alone through faith alone. But I feel very free to challenge other doctrines. My sense of how far to take which ideas is really very intuitive and not something that lends itself to explanation.
In short, the question raising and answering process is really the beginning of the theological phase for me. I’m looking for key ideas and trying to identify the timeless truths they communicate. Now there’s a danger here: you can use a passage to communicate all kinds of good theology. I think it’s much better when you can identify the theology the author was trying to communicate.
So one could hypothetically use Jesus’ tree/fruit analogy to talk about order in creation or a theology of arboreal imagery—and I might even do that in a teaching context. But preaching is a different task to me. I believe preaching is exhorting with the authoritative words of God. I’m not up there to educate. I’m there to press the points I believe God is pressing. If I teach anything else, it’s on my own authority. Hopefully it’s right. But if I’m going to say “thus saith the Lord,” I’d better be a sure as I can be that this is really His point; because again, not all doctrines are equal. So that’s why in this example I preached that the fruit of your life reveals the tree of your heart. I’m confident that was Jesus’ point, not mine.
Once I’m done with my exegetical studies, once I’ve done my best to figure everything out on my own—that’s when I turn to the commentaries. Just like with doing the translation, it’s not that I think I’m better than the experts; I do it because I know the text better when I wrestle with it myself. What’s more, as I wrestle with it I get a better sense of where others may have trouble, so I know to explain them more carefully or illustrate them more vividly. The only reason I even open the commentaries is for validation: did I miss anything or draw a wrong conclusion.
Phase 3: Homiletical
Throughout the whole process thus far, I’m keeping my eyes open for anything interesting, catchy, or eloquent. In some ways I’m having a conversation with the text and cross-references, and I note the parts of the conversation I like. If a crucial idea jumps out, I want to note it so I can craft a phrase around it. If an idea gets me really excited, I’ll jump out of my seat and pretend I’m preaching on it right then and there. Often those bursts of inspiration have gems worth polishing. Hopefully by the end of the exegetical process and the theological Q&A, I have a list of ideas and phrases to sprinkle in as I actually write the sermon.
One unfair advantage here is I took a course in copy writing, which is basically script for advertising. I especially liked what my professor called “fulcrum phrases,” like M&M’s famous “melts in your mouth / not in your hand.” It’s a skill I’ve tried to hone in my songwriting. If you can find that well-crafted phrase that has symmetry, it connects deeper and sticks better. I try to make sure I find at least one for every sermon. Here are some I’ve used:
- It’s not yours to take; it’s God’s to give.
- He who walks in humility walks in grace.
- The fruit of your life reveals the tree of your heart.
- You don’t have to hold on to anything for God to hold on to you.
So that’s my ideal, but I’m looking for anything at all that excites me, because if I’m excited about something there’s a good chance someone else will be, too.
At this point, I’m ready to start writing my sermon. I know what the text is about, why it exists, how it relates to the rest of Scripture, which parts are difficult to understand, and which parts are exciting. But before I can build content, I need a skeleton.
At Dallas Seminary I learned that a good introduction has the same essential parts, and I use the acronym INSTeP to remember them: image, need, subject, text, and preview. As someone with some creative writing background, I didn’t like this at first. But truth be told, a good sermon borrows from both storytelling and essay. The story draws you in, but the essay keeps you grounded. And just like a good essay, you need a thesis statement and its essential supports to help prepare people for what’s to come.
In my mind, the most important aspect of the introduction is the boring stuff: what’s the subject, what problem does it solve, where is our passage, and what are the main points. The image serves that. As a student I wanted to pick a great image that really stood out and captured people’s attention. But right now I’m in a place where all I care about is getting people interested in the need. If I have an image that raises the need, great; if not, I’ll try to explain my way to it. If you get through the introduction and people still don’t know what you’re talking about or why they should care, you’re about to fight an uphill battle.
The preaching style taught at Dallas and many other evangelical schools is sometimes called “Big Idea” preaching. The short version is that every sermon should have a well-crafted thesis statement. The way it’s taught, it’s everything; your exegesis is all about finding it, your homiletics are all about driving it home. In some cases the thesis becomes more important than the passage itself, which I think is going too far.
But I do think there should be one main idea tying everything together. It shouldn’t replace the passage, but it should drive the passage. As I go through my study process I’m making a list of possible thesis statements. If I haven’t found it by the end of the study process, I keep working toward it. There’s no point in writing the sermon until I have that unifying thought because I’m interested in every detail, every rabbit trail. I need that thesis to give my writing purpose, to tell me what to cut and what to emphasize.
Once I have the thesis, I try to take the existing structure of the passage and relate it back to that thesis. I know there are many different structures you can play with, but I find I do a better job of preaching the passage when I follow its structural cues. When I try to write a novel structure, I tend to make the passage just a series of illustrations for my own points; I’m sure better preachers are skilled at avoiding this problem.
Once I have the thesis and the structure, I write a draft of the whole sermon, weaving in those phrases I had stored up.
Somehow application seems to be the most contentious part of the sermon. Some preachers try to draw out every possible implication while others see application as purely the Holy Spirit’s job and provide nothing. While there are many possible applications, I try to find one that the text emphasizes more than the others and make that the whole deal. So while I really wanted to say something in my last sermon about how we should love unconditionally just as God does, that wasn’t Paul’s application. It’s true and we should do it, but Paul’s application trumps mine because it’s his passage. So I talked about boasting in the Lord.
Once I have my application, I take it in two directions—and I consider this my own secret sauce. I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of it, but I didn’t hear it anywhere else. My professor always told us “give them something to do!” In fact, he would say to give them something concrete to do that very day to maximize the chances that they will actually apply the sermon. I love it! It takes no time at all to forget a sermon.
But then I discovered there are some who take issue with this entire method of application, among them one of my favorite preachers, Tim Keller. For them, giving people something to do inspires legalism, and that endangers the Gospel. Instead they strive to show how Jesus already fulfilled the command of this passage, and the application is just to believe in Him, to adore Him, to marvel at Him. I love this, too! I absolutely believe that every passage properly understood relates to Christ in some way, and every application can be used to point to His perfect example and finished work.
So I try to do both. And here’s why: both are true. Christ has given us new life and yet we are called to live out a new life. The work is done in one sense, and yet we labor in another. So I always begin with showing how Christ has perfectly applied the passage and inviting people to believe in Him and rest in His finished work. Then because of what Christ has done, I call us to imitate Him by applying it ourselves.
At this point all I have to show for my labor is a rough draft. In order to make it presentable, I have a few more steps I go through, and these typically take me a week all by themselves. My goal is to make the sermon sound as natural and engaging as possible.
First, I read the sermon out loud and mark anything that doesn’t sound like me. Maybe I was copying someone’s tone, or more likely my tone was too formal or too informal for the moment. I also italicize the words I want to emphasize. It’s all about the sound.
Second, I memorize the sermon. (Yes, the whole thing.) This is what they trained us to do in seminary, and I thought it was overkill. Yes, you can get better eye contact, step away from the podium, I get that. But what I’ve discovered is that when I memorize my work it polishes the sermon like nothing else. If I can’t remember what I’m about to say, how can I expect the congregation to remember? Memorizing forces me to find the best words for the job.
It also helps me on a structural level, because if I can’t remember what I was about to say next, it shows that there’s a weak connection between the two points. In a compelling script, the next thing has to follow the last. Once you know why the two are married, you can go back and make it more obvious to the congregation.
As I memorize, I boil down the transcript into a preaching outline, which has just enough structure and content to cue me if my mind goes blank in the pulpit. It will have the necessary structural elements, markers for key phrases, and all condensed so that it fits on just a few pages on the platform. (One danger is if I don’t use it in practice, it’s less helpful on Sunday.)
Third—and frankly this is the step I’m most likely to skip—I try to choreograph my movements. I believe good preaching is theater, but not in the sense that you’re dramatizing the text. Your whole body is communicating whether you want it to or not, so your gestures should be purposeful. Use the space to organize thoughts, repeat certain motions when you repeat the same thought, make sure you’re not sending mixed signals. Usually I run out of time before I get here, so I have plenty of room to grow in this area.
As I reflect on my process I realize that it’s uniquely tailored to me. My background as a writer, my love for theology, and my unique skills all lead me to emphasize different things. For someone with a different background and skill set this might be like trying on another man’s armor. How can you leverage who you are to preach better?
Of course, I didn’t do this from scratch; I was given a great model in seminary and have observed some great preachers thanks to modern technology. The key for me is molding this process to fit my unique mix of strengths and weaknesses, and that’s sure to be a never-ending project.