Archive for December, 2014

How to Prepare a Sermon: Selecting the Sermon Text

This article originally appeared on my blog, pastorhuff.org. I’ve rewritten it somewhat for this site.

One of the first tasks in preparing a sermon is simply selecting the biblical text to preach from. While it seems like such a simple thing, it can often be a monumental task. The text will determine the message. Preaching from a particular text will mean that some things will be said, and other things will be left unsaid. It will mean that you will address certain topics thoroughly while other topics are ignored completely. Time, energy, and thought in selecting the sermon text should not be neglected.

There’s no one way to select a sermon text. There’s no verse in the Bible that says, “This is how you go about selecting a passage to preach on.” So there’s a certain amount of ambiguity and flexibility involved. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that we should follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit in sermon preparation, which includes the selection of the sermon text. Here are a few suggestions I’ve compiled that have helped me in determining what I will preach on in the coming weeks.

1. Prayer

I simply ask God to guide me in what to speak about. God will often direct my thoughts as I pray, bringing to mind passages or even just portions of verses that are relevant to where my church is at the moment.

In fact, prayer is a vital element of the sermon preparation process whether or not you are at the stage of selecting the sermon text.

2. Follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit

God will often lay a particular passage on my heart in the course of the week. This shouldn’t be ignored, even if you already had a plan for Sunday’s sermon. I think sometimes we miss opportunities to lead our church through significant spiritual growth because we’re too rigid in our systematic preaching.

3. Read through Scripture

By simply opening God’s Word and reading, a passage will often jump out at me. It might be a passage that I’m already fairly familiar with, or one that I don’t even ever reading before. As God leads you, preach on it.

4. Select a passage that contains one complete thought

Sometimes this will mean preaching on 50 verses in one sermon. Sometimes it will mean preaching on half of a verse. Keep in mind that the chapter and number divisions in our Bibles are not inspired. They were added to the Bible centuries after it was written in order to help in finding and referencing particular passages in the Bible. So don’t be limited or bound by those divisions.

A couple more notes about preaching on one complete thought:

  • Sometimes a section of Scripture that contains a complete thought will still be based on the passage before it. We find this a lot with passages that begin with “For” or “Therefore.” As often as possible, I try to back up a few verses in order to show what the text that I’m preaching on is based upon.
  • In the same way, when I preach on just a verse or even half of a verse, I almost always read more of the passage around it in order to make the context of the verse clear.

5. Start a sermon series on a topic

Perhaps use a concordance to find several passages that talk about repentance, and focus a week on each passage.

6. Preach systematically through books of the Bible

I love this method because it forces me to preach on many different texts and topics, and doesn’t allow me to just pick the verses I’m most familiar with. In just the past 5 years, which were the first 5 years of my weekly preaching ministry, I’ve preached through Hebrews, Malachi, Colossians, Philemon, Jude, First, Second, and Third John, and now I’m preaching through Luke. I will probably be in Luke for the next 2 years.

I like this method of selecting the sermon text so much that I actually use it sometimes when it doesn’t make much sense to use it. For example, I preached a series of 4 messages through Jude during chapel services at a Christian school. This in itself doesn’t seem strange, but I actually preached each message months apart over a period of about a year. But this was what I felt God placed on my heart to preach, so I did.

7. Try to preach on passages that you’ve never preached on before

It’s okay to preach on passages and topics that you’ve heard preached before (as long as you don’t just re-preach their message, and always give credit for illustrations and ideas that you use). But it’s easy to get into a rut of preaching on the same things week after week because we’re familiar with those things, neglecting the rest of God’s Word.

Of course, if you preach long enough, you’re going to start preaching on passages that you’ve preached on in the past. That’s certainly acceptable, and to be expected.

8. Determine a preaching plan for the next few months or years

I’ve yet to plan an entire year in advance, but I hope eventually to plan about 3 years in advance. Such plans should be tentative, allowing for flexibility as various needs arise, but can be extremely useful.

9. Get suggestions from a lectionary

Lectionaries are basically plans to read and/or preach through all of Bible every 3 or 4 years (depending on the particular one used) so that no part of God’s Word is neglected. This is different from preaching systematically through books of the Bible because it doesn’t always go through a book from start to finish, but often jumps around.

10. Take a look at the calendar

Not only are there many Christian holidays, but the calendar is full of days to observe and note (such as National Day of Prayer and Right to Life Sunday).

11. Take a look at the top news stories

When something major goes on in the world, your nation, or even your community, people want to hear what the Bible has to say about it.

Of course, it’s impossible to follow all of these suggestions in selecting a text for every sermon that you preach. I often vary in how I select a text any given week. For instance, I sometimes preach topically for a few weeks before determining what series I will start next. But some of the above habits ought to be practiced in preparing every sermon, such as prayer and following the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

I certainly don’t have the definitive steps in how to select a sermon text, but ultimately, we can’t go wrong in selecting a text to preach from, as long as it’s in the Bible. The Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, and it will not return void.

How to Prepare a Sermon: Start with the Word

I have a notebook in my Evernote account with topics that I’d like to incorporate into future sermons. Sometimes they’re one-liners, other times they’re fairly developed ideas.

I also have a notebook of illustrations. Some are hilarious jokes that I can’t wait to use. Others are incredibly touching stories. I’ve even attached some of them to specific verses of Scripture already because I know they’ll be perfect while teaching on those texts.

But I never start with any of these notes when I begin to prepare a sermon. I begin with the Word of God, and so should you.

It’s important to allow the Bible to say what it says. If we start with something else, we’re tempted to twist the Scripture to say what we’ve already decided to say.

Illustrations and memorable one-liners are extremely important elements in sermons. Most sermons should include them, and plenty of them. They help us to remember and apply what the Bible says. They help to keep the attention of congregants. But I rarely even think about looking at my topics and illustrations notes until very late in my sermon preparation process.

What does it mean to start with the Word? Here are two thoughts.

1. Read the Word

Read the passage you plan to preach on. Read it again. Read it again. Read it until you have a firm grasp on the flow of the text and how it fits within the larger context.

Meditate on the Word as you read it. Pray though the Word as you read it. Get inspired by the Word itself, not by some illustration or one-liner that you want to include.

2. Exposit the Word

When you start planning your sermon, it should primarily be an exposition of the biblical text. While our final sermon notes may take one of a variety of forms, whether a brief outline or a complete manuscript, the first things we write ought to be direct thoughts from the text.

I always begin by outlining the passage I’m preaching on. The text determines the outline. So then, as I flesh the sermon out with deeper exposition, illustrations, implications, and applications, these things are always connected directly to the text in focus.

It’s the Word of God that changes lives, so the Word of God ought to be our focus.

How to Find Opportunities to Preach

There are many places to get experience preaching. Some will be easier to arrange than others, and some places will be more comfortable than others,  but all of them will allow you to practice preaching and give you some great feedback on your sermons.

 1. Preach at Church

Probably the most obvious place to get opportunities to preach is in your own church. This is a great place to deliver your first sermons because you’re among family and friends who are cheering you on! They will love to hear the message that God has placed on your heart.

To start preaching at your church, just as your pastor. The pastor would (or should) love to help you get experience preaching. At first, he’ll likely allow you to preach at alternative worship services, such as an early worship service, or a Sunday or Wednesday night. But as you grow in your preaching, he’ll likely also call on you to fill in for him at the primary worship service from time to time when he’s out of town.

And if you ask him, your pastor would probably also give you invaluable tips as to how to develop your sermons, by looking over your notes and helping you clarify or illustrate your points.

2. Preach at Nursing Homes

Another common place to get experience preaching is at nursing homes. Nursing homes often have Sunday morning and Wednesday afternoon services where volunteers come in and lead the residents in worship. Many of the residents would be involved in a church every Sunday and Wednesday if they were able to be, but their health has deteriorated to the point that they need full time care. So they greatly appreciate ministers (even new ones) to come and share God’s Word with them.

It can be a very humbling experience to preach at a nursing home. Since these services are usually optional, the crowd can very greatly. When I’ve preached at nursing homes, I’ve spoken to as many as 20 and as few as 4 people. And no matter how many are present, there will always be a few who fall asleep. The acoustics are rarely ideal, since most chapel services are held in their dining hall without a microphone.

But despite all the challenges associated with preaching at a nursing home, it is a very easy place to get experience preaching, since they are almost always looking for volunteers who will come and preach. Simply call your local nursing home, and they would love to welcome you!

3. Preach in Prisons

I, personally, have never preached in a prison, but I’ve heard that they can be excellent places to preach. The inmates, I’ve heard, are usually very encouraging, and will amaze you at their faith, friendliness, and attentiveness to your sermons. Even though I’ve never preached in a prison, I do suggest you look into it and pursue it if the opportunity presents itself.

4. Preach at Chapel Services

Christian schools, whether elementary, high school, or even college, often have chapel services at least once or twice a week. Some even have services daily. These are great opportunities to preach! The students at these schools are used to hearing a variety of different preachers, and they often love to be introduced to new and young preachers who will preach with passion.

Once again, just call them up to get the ball rolling. The school’s secretary, if it’s a smaller school, is often the person who schedules the chapel speakers. Just introduce yourself over the phone and let them know your desire. They’ll likely be so thankful for your call.

5. Preach in Public Places

Preaching in public places is not for the faint of heart, and should be done tactfully. But I’ve seen several preachers on YouTube who have spoken God’s Word in parks, or on college campuses, or even on street corners. While this might attract hecklers, if done with love, even then you could show God’s love and truth in a way that brings Him glory.

Where are some places that you’d suggest to practice preaching?

Preparing Yourself to Preach

There are a number of things that we need to do as we prepare sermons. We need to select a passage of Scripture. We need to study that passage. We (generally) need to write down our thoughts and organize them.

But I think before you even start to prepare a sermon, you need to prepare yourself.

Just as there are a number of things we need to do as we prepare sermons, there are also a number of things we ought to do as we prepare ourselves to preach. This certainly is not the definitive list, but here are my ideas as to how we can and should prepare ourselves to be in the pulpit.

1. Be immersed in the Word.

Don’t make Bible reading something you only do to prepare sermons. Saturate yourself with God’s Word.

If we think we have a message of hope, we ourselves should find hope in the message! If we think the Bible’s message is full of joy, we should find joy in the Bible! If we think God’s Word contains wisdom because it’s from God, then we should read it not just so that we can speak it, but so that we also may become wise in our thoughts and actions.

2. Be devoted to prayer.

Our work is not merely academic in nature. It’s about relating to God. I can’t think of a more fundamental way of relating to God than through prayer.

Through prayer, we not only acknowledge facts about the nature of God, but we also tell Him that we see those facts as beautiful and good, and that we humble ourselves before the God who has those qualities. When we pray, we are in essence telling God that we trust Him and want to know Him more.

Of course, this assumes that we pray a certain way. We don’t pray merely to command God to give us things. We pray in faith, knowing that He wants what is best for us. Even though our prayers will often include things that we ask for, we ultimately need to trust that God knows better than us.

3. Be obedient in your lifestyle.

While it’s impossible to be perfect this side of heaven, we should never use that as an excuse. Our aim at all times is to be obedient to our Lord.

God is not looking for hypocrites to preach His Word. While the message itself may still honor Him, we’ve probably all heard of preachers discredited because of some secret sin that had later come to light. We ought to honor the Lord not just in our preaching, but in our lifestyle.

While I think this point is very important when it comes to being prepared to preach, we should also not allow our degree of personal holiness to cause us to become narcissistic, because we all have a long way to go, and we are only preaching and living by the grace of God.

4. Be confident in your Lord.

We can have confidence in our lives and preaching because of what Jesus has done for us. He died for us, to save us from sin, and to redeem a people for Himself. And He’s given us His Holy Spirit so that we would be empowered to live as His people.

This means that when we live (which includes when we preach), God’s Spirit is with us to lead us in the right direction. This happens as we read His Word, pray, and seek to be obedient. If we’ve trusted in Jesus, and are doing these things, we can have confidence that God will use our preaching.

I’m not saying that by doing these things, we’ll be perfect. I often cringe at the mistakes I still make in my preaching. But I rest in the fact that God is using me, and that I can’t mess up God’s plan.

What are some ways that you prepare yourself to preach?

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Preacher?

There are many types of preachers out there. Some are loud and charismatic, others are quiet and reverent. Others seem to be all over the place. And certainly different environments call for different styles of preaching and preachers.

Sometimes when we look at all of these styles of preaching, and we see how some have truly mastered the art of preaching, we might wonder if we ourselves have what it takes to preach.

We might start looking at our qualities and abilities to evaluate ourselves as to whether or not we’re eloquent enough or knowledgeable enough.

But before you even think about speaking God’s Word, you need to let God’s Word speak to you.

What I mean is that preaching should not be thought of as purely an exercise in preparation and delivery. Way before you even think about embarking on those activities, you need to be changed by the Word of God. You need to have a conviction that it’s true, and that it gives hope, because you yourself have experienced its truth and hope.

And this should go without saying, but you should first and foremost know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, who is the Word of God, and who all of the Bible points us to.

I guess what I’m saying is that God doesn’t call the equipped; He equips the called.

There’s a place to evaluate abilities, but that’s not the first question. The first question is whether or not God has called you to preach. And you’ll only be convinced of the answer to that question if you look to Jesus and His Word for your own hope.

SermonAx: A Resource for Preachers

It’s funny how ideas are born.

I had the idea for this website about 5 years ago. I bought the domain name, set up the website, and even wrote about why I started the site. But then I let the site sit here and didn’t promote it, or add to it, or really even think about it much for 5 years.

But now, 5 years later, and after 5 years of preaching, I still think the idea for this site is needed, both for new preachers, as well as for myself.

I’m far from a seasoned preacher. I’m not sure when someone crosses that line, although I think we can all distinguish seasoned preachers just by hearing a few words uttered from a pulpit.

So I’m creating this site for all us preachers who need a little nudge in the right direction. I fully admit that I’m one such preacher, but I hope that I can also help other preachers, new and old, to be more faithful to God in their preaching.

The idea here is that we can all learn from each other. I’m going to be blogging about some major concepts regarding preaching and the preparation of sermons, and I invite other preachers to contribute a blog post by sending it to me as well. But the main idea I had 5 years ago was for a place where we can actually listen to and give feedback on one another’s sermons. This will happen on the forums.

Even though I had this idea so long ago, it’s still in its infancy. It will probably change and develop over time, based on how it’s being used, but the main thing I think a lot of us preachers need is a resource to help with us with our preaching.

Please join me, and we’ll sharpen our axes together.