I recently had the distinct (and rather surprising) pleasure of being interviewed by a Ph.D. student about the way I prepare my sermons. It forced me to sit down and reflect on the whole process. What follows isn’t a prescription for every preacher out there, but it’s an honest assessment of where I am. I hope some of it can prove fruitful for others.

Today I’ll share my biggest influences. Be sure to check part 2, when I discuss the bigger picture—the sermon process itself.

Two foundational texts for a lot of young preachers are Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching and Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching. I’ve read both, and appreciate their concern to make preaching both expositional and engaging. To use as a standard, cookie-cutter approach, though, I find their models a little too constraining. While the principles of exegesis, interpretation, and hermeneutics are the same (and can never be abridged), different texts and subjects call for different approaches.

In addition to Robinson and Chapell, I’ve been greatly influenced by (and sometimes imitate the style of):

John MacArthur and Tommy Nelson. Simply move through a text, explaining what it means as you go. This is a way of helping people to “read the Word of God better,” to borrow from Nehemiah’s famous explanation of preaching. In sermons like this, there isn’t a real “outline,” or often even a main point. The goal is simply to help people read a passage better.

James MacDonald. In this approach, I work through a passage with some minor commentary as I go. It’s essentially a “reader’s” version of MacArthur or Nelson. Then, preach an outline based on the text for the remainder of the time. It’s almost like two messages on the same passage. I use this approach more than any other—probably about 75% of the time.

Tim Keller. Keller has probably influenced my basic thought on how to structure an outline more than anyone else. (And he’s avowedly indebted to Chapell, so it’s complementary, not contradictory). His basic structure goes something like this: “1. This is what God’s Word says should be—and we all wish would be. 2. But we can’t do it. 3. This text points to Jesus, who did it perfectly for us; accepting his finished work on our behalf changes our hearts, so we can begin to do it, too.”

Andy Stanley. Andy has a very simple outline for just about every message, and I think about that for every introduction and conclusion that I write. Sometimes, based on the topic or the text, I’ll use his outline outright. I’ll let him explain it in his own words:

“The outline revolves around five words, each of which represents a section of the message. They are: Me, We, God, You, and We. With this approach, the communicator introduces a dilemma he or she has faced or is currently facing (Me). From there, you find common ground with your audience around the same or a similar dilemma (We). Then you transition to the text to discover what God says about the tension or question you’ve introduced (God). Then you challenge your audience to act on what they’ve just heard (You). And finally, you close with several statements about what could happen in your community, your church, or the world if everybody embraced that particular truth (We).”

Rick Warren and James MacDonald (again). Warren and MacDonald are great for how to structure the application points. They preach like disciple-makers, leading you to something rather than simply explaining the text. In my view, a preacher is a leader who exegetes, not an exegete who inadvertently leads. Remember: our goal is disciple-making, not information transfer. Warren says that, in general, sermon points shouldn’t be about the Bible character, but about the audience. So instead of saying, “David was caught in temptation because he was disengaged from the battle,” you should say, “You will be most prone to temptation when you’re disconnected from ministry.”


Be sure to also read part 2, when I answer, Pastor J.D., how do you prepare your sermons?