I’m often asked about the way I prepare my sermons. This is, by no means, a standard for all preachers. In fact, it may highlight the unique elements of my situation. But I pray that some of this might help young preachers as they think through their process.
(These questions came from a Ph.D. student who chose to investigate my preaching process. It was, by and large, a non-invasive investigation! Be sure to check out part 1: “Pastor J.D., who are your biggest preaching influences?”)
1. Can you describe the research phase of your sermon preparation?
It begins with the big picture—picking the content of the entire sermon series. This happens anywhere from 3 to 6 months prior to the start of a particular series. I consult with our Lead Researcher, our Communication Director, and several other key church leaders to determine what to preach. We ask questions like: What parts of Scripture have we not preached recently? What is going on in our church that requires pastoral leadership? What has God been teaching me and our leaders? Once we determine the general shape of the series, the research proper begins.
At the Summit, we alternate between marching right through a book of the Bible and doing more topical series. We feel that both are faithful methods of exegetical preaching. John Stott once borrowed the Apostle Paul’s imagery of the steward to describe the task of preaching. The steward, Stott says, isn’t in charge of the house or the children. That’s the master’s role. But the steward is given a measure of freedom with, for instance, choosing what the children will eat at any given meal. The master doesn’t want him to just grab the first eight items on the shelf and give them to his kids. The master actually wants the steward to use his wisdom and creativity to choose from among all the possible ingredients, making sure to combine them so the children of the house get all of the nutrients they need.
I like to let multiple minds speak into the sermon preparation process from the very beginning. So along with my Lead Researcher, I’ll gather resources from effective communicators. That may be in the form of a book commentary, but it often comes from listening to other preachers approach the same topic. How do they make the topic relevant to their church? How are they looking to lead their people on this text? And gradually, as we listen to sermons and read commentaries, we’ll come up with the broad strokes of what each message will focus on.
After that, it’s a matter of digging into each specific text, availing myself of key people who help me get the text better. I regularly look to guys like Tim Keller, Tony Evans, John Piper, Louie Giglio, and lesser-known guys like John Mark Comer or Scott Sauls, to help me interpret whatever passage I’m looking at. I even consult guys whose approach to ministry differs quite markedly from ours, like Andy Stanley and Steven Furtick. Each person I listen to offers something that others don’t, so it’s important for me to vary the types of people I go to.
2. Do you research illustrations along with the Greek, Hebrew, and exegetical study?
Most young preachers know they should be consulting their Bible and their commentaries (and, if they have a big budget, their Logos software), but they feel uneasy about researching illustrations. I regularly look for both exegetical insight and illustrative insight as I’m researching specific texts, because the people in my church don’t just need good theology; they need to understand and feel the gospel. And the perfect illustration or story will often make a gospel truth relevant in a way that dozens of word studies never will.
In terms of where I go for my illustrative research, it comes from the most eclectic of sources. I am constantly reading 3 or 4 books at a time, listening to podcasts, and perusing a handful of helpful blogs. If you make a point of cataloging good illustrations as you come across them—instead of searching for them when you need them—you’ll find that you compile a research cache that you can access when the time arises.
I also have a handful of preachers that I’ll listen to specifically for their capacity to take a theological idea and put a fresh spin on it. Some of these guys aren’t the best exegetes, but it’s a matter of “eating the fish and spitting out the bones.” Just because I listen to and learn from someone doesn’t mean I aspire to preach exactly like them.
3. How do you combine the research to form an outline?
As I mentioned above, I start big picture, by reading and listening to a lot before I start planning how to communicate anything. So if I’m preaching through the book of Judges, I’ll read the book a dozen times. I want to get it into my blood.
Getting from research to outline is a fluid process. I try to follow a weekly pattern. By Monday, I’ve been reading and researching informally, but Monday morning is where I focus in and start coming up with the main points for that week. This is where I’ll look at my outlines of different preachers, my notes on different commentaries, and my notes on the specific text. And by the time I’m done with my sermon prep on Monday, I have a rough outline of the sermon.
I spend more time on it each day throughout the week, and on Wednesday, I meet with 10-20 of our pastors and key leaders to share the transcript as it currently stands. This is one of the most important parts of the sermon preparation. In that room, we make sure to have several women, someone from our missions team, our Pastor of Counseling, and other people who bring differing perspectives to the table. I’ve heard it said that a sermon ends up being preached to all the people the pastor met with that week. And this is one way for me to expand my net, so that I’m not just responding to what I feel is important in the life of our church.
By Thursday, I go back over the sermon again, fleshing it out so that it’s close to what it needs to be for the weekend. I usually let it sit on Friday (my day off), and come back for some final additions and changes Saturday before my first sermon of the weekend.
Throughout the entire week, questions arise that require new research. So I’ll periodically pause and have to look up the meaning of a Greek word, or the background of a specific Jewish practice, etc.
4. Do you preach from the outline or do you use a full manuscript?
I wouldn’t necessarily advise this for everyone, but I write out my sermon outline almost word-for-word, so that it is written down just as I would preach it. The reason I say I wouldn’t advise this is that most people don’t write exactly how they speak. So when they try to do a full transcript, their preaching ends up sounding like someone reading a position paper.
Of course, anyone familiar with my outlines will recognize that there are certain illustrations, stories, and points that I don’t write out completely. Many times I’ll just need a word or two (“Karate Kid”) that makes perfect sense to me but would be essentially nonsense for someone who happened to pick up a manuscript later.