Birthing a Sermon
A step-by-step guide to bringing the text alive.
by John Ortberg
Garrison Keillor, on A Prairie Home Companion, tells about Uncle Cal, a deacon at the church in fictitious Lake Wobegon. Uncle Cal evaluates his pastor's preaching this way: "It's a lot of, 'On the one hand this, on the other hand that.' He never comes out straight with it. Many a Sunday I've walked away with no idea what he said. He never puts the hay down where the goats can get it."
Yes, there are some preachers who have a lot of hay, vast amounts of exegetical information. They're theologically aware. They like to study ancient languages. They have the hay, but they don't know what the goats are talking about or thinking about. And what's worse, they don't know that they don't know the goats. Often they don't even like the goats. They would prefer not to be around goats. They forget that the first test of good teaching is not what the teacher has taught; it's what the learner has learned. They have all this wonderful hay, but they forget that they are stewards of getting hay to goats.
But there are also preachers who know the goats, and who are very clever at being able to attract lots and lots of goats. They can hold the goats' attention, but they have no hay. They have nothing of substance. It's all superficial stuff. And what's worse, they don't know that they don't have any hay.
As preachers and teachers, our job is to get the hay down where the goats can get it. That means immersing ourselves in Scripture and great writing and deep thoughts. But it also means becoming a student of the goats: learning what moves them, what their questions are, and what gives them hope.
Sermon preparation is a complex process. When I think about constructing a message, I use the metaphor of having a baby, because I believe the stages are quite similar. There's the initial conception, which is often quite a lot of fun. Then there is gestation, which is increasingly difficult. Next, there's the delivery, which can be a combination of euphoria and intense pain. And finally, there are some post-delivery details.
As I conceive a sermon and decide what to preach, I find it helpful to think in terms of whole series.
Think in series. Preaching a series allows you to go into greater depth in the text, and spending several weeks on one theme allows the teaching to be absorbed more thoroughly. I recently finished a six-month series on the book of Acts, and it was wonderful to be immersed in the early church. I think one mistake preachers often make is to cycle through material too fast. Just saying something once doesn't mean it will sink in.
Doing a series also gives you momentum. It makes your research more efficient, and spares you the Monday morning question of "What am I going to teach on next week?" It also helps give you balance, teaching through the whole counsel of God. Those things happen more readily when you plan your series in advance.
I usually try to think in terms of four-month cycles. The church year generally falls into cycles of September through December, then January through Memorial Day, and then the summer months. Each of these seasons has a different feel. If you're thinking of a series that brings a greater intellectual challenge, the fall might be best, since people are just fresher. During the summer vacation season, people tend to be in and out, so it's good to do a series that doesn't make people feel lost if they've been gone for a couple of weeks.
Gather input. I've found it really helpful, for each series, to use a focus group. I invite eight to ten people to meet for several hours, and I ask them to prepare ahead of time.
I ask them to develop a couple of themes they would like to hear addressed, and I ask them to come with detailed ideas: a title for the series, titles for individual messages, what texts I ought to use, what topics or questions ought to be addressed, even potential outlines. I also invite them to come up with resources, illustrations, programming ideas, and music for the entire service.
Group collaboration is important because other people have questions I don't have, creative ideas that won't occur to me, resources I don't know about, and sins and struggles that are not on my list. People love to be part of this process.
When people feel they're getting to speak into what's being preached, there is high built-in motivation to participate.
After coming up with the series concept, I try to clarify, for each individual message, the big idea.
Clarify the big idea. Whether the series is going chunk by chunk through texts, or is a more topical series, it's enormously helpful to clarify the big idea of the message as early in the preparation process as possible. Doing so streamlines the research and writing process.
We live in a day where we know more about the Bible than any generation that has ever lived. Translations, commentaries, and background information are abundant. Today's challenge is managing the information flow and not being overwhelmed by it. If I'm not clear on where I want the message to go, the information could manage me.
There are usually multiple messages that could be preached from the same text. A friend of mine is a musician. He said in the musical trade they have a saying, "You've got to put it somewhere. If you wait till you're perfectly on pitch, you will never open your mouth to sing. So you got to put it somewhere." The same is true of preaching: you've got to put it somewhere. So decide where you intend the message to go.
Of course, prayer is a huge part of this. Ask, "God, what is it that I need to be talking about? What's at stake here?"
The answer to that question becomes the basis for your sermon introduction. In a good sermon, the introduction almost always answers this question: Why is it urgently important that we talk about what we're going to talk about? If you cannot answer this question, then you are giving the wrong message.
Research the topic. After conceiving the series and clarifying the big idea, the next step is to research the topic. Find a few good writers and spend your time reading them in depth. In my opinion, going deep with one good commentary is far better than skimming seven mediocre commentaries. It's tempting to build a vast library, but instead, look for the good stuff. Avoid the temptation to ride the information flood.
I also make use of researchers. These can be volunteers. I guarantee you have people in your church who would love to do research for you. Some of these people are really introverted and don't know where to plug in. But every church has them. It takes a little time to invest in them to help them understand what you need. Sometimes you will want certain important statistics, or case studies, or potential illustrations. Tell them what will help you.
Know your goats. The other side of my research isn't textbook stuff, it's "knowing the goats." I ask, "What's everybody talking about this week?" Is there a current event that helps communicate what I want to say? What questions are people wrestling with?
When I begin the actual writing process, I think about particular people who might be in the audience: someone who just went through a break-up, someone who just got accepted at college, someone who just lost a job, someone who struggles with a sexual addiction and is scared to death someone else is going to find out.
I picture them in my mind. Everybody has a need. Never write for a faceless crowd.
Delivery begins with the writing process, because that is when you flesh out what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. When it comes to sermon writing, generally there are two problems. Some preachers love the research stage but hate the writing, and they start writing too late. Others don't like doing research, so they move way too fast to the writing part. Figure out where you fall in that range, and push yourself in the other direction.
Identify and outline your structure. I don't think there is one magic structure. The goal of preaching is to build Christ in people. Any method that does that and treats the text with integrity is acceptable. The test of a sermon is not what people remember, it's whether their life is transformed as a result.
Structure, however, is like a skeleton. Without a skeleton, the sermon lacks shape and strength. Sometimes the structure is an exoskeleton (and the structure is obvious); sometimes it's an endoskeleton (not so obvious), but it's there. The key is that the structure allows the sermon to unfold in a dynamic way.
In Homiletics: Moves and Structures, David Buttrick says the structure of a message should proceed in a series of moves, similar to people having a conversation. In a conversation between just two people, the moves can happen quite fast.
But when talking to a large group of people, you need to carefully think through how you're going to transition from one move to the next. I've discovered that if I'm having a hard time crafting a transitional sentence, it's often because I'm trying to make the wrong move, not because I'm bad at writing transition sentences.
Another key question: What requires dwelling time? If it's important, you usually need dwelling time. If it's complex, it requires dwelling time. Dwelling might involve repetition, restatement, or illustration. It might require an image or a metaphor.
If something is quite complex but needs to be unpacked, I will often use humor. Humor has a way of bringing people back with you. It gives them a little energy. Other times I'll just tell folks, "Okay, the next five minutes is going to be kind of complex, so I need you to stay with me."
Narrow your focus. What if you have something that is quite complex and requires dwelling time, but it's not the most important thing you have to say? Shrink it down to size.
This is so hard. Once you've written something, you get attached to it. This is true of every preacher. We're tempted to spend too much time on secondary material.
The same applies to stories and illustrations. What is the number one law in real estate? "Location. Location. Location." It's exactly the same in preaching. You hear somebody preaching and they tell a story. It's a fabulous story. People laugh at it. They cry at it. It works great. And you think, Oh, man, I've got to tell that story next week. But next week you tell the story, and it falls flat.
Because what worked wasn't the story. It was the story in location. "A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver." But it's an apple of gold in a setting of silver only if it's apt. The great temptation is to think the power comes from the story itself, when in reality the power comes from its context.
Use rich imagery. As I work with a text, I look for images that can become key in people's lives. One example: David hiding in the cave of Adullam.
What kind of image is a cave? A happy image or a sad image? You want to ask not only about cognitive content in a text, but about the emotional freight of the image. A cave is dark; it's sad; it's scary. You don't have to say all of that; the image does that.
David is hiding in a cave. We're all going to spend some time in a cave. But what David doesn't know is that God does some of his best work in a cave. You play that out as you preach: how David alone finds God, how God meets with him, and how David encouraged himself in the Lord. Then you shift to your audience: "Some of you are in a cave right now. It's a bankruptcy. It's a divorce. It's a whatever. What you need to know is that God does some of his best work in caves."
I also look for ways to weave together the ancient world and our world. For example, think about Samson. I live in California, and I want my audience to get a picture of what Samson was like. He was a judge. He was incredibly strong, maybe a body builder. He's a glamorous guy; women want to be with him. He becomes the political ruler. Anybody come to mind?
Californians are seeing a Samson named Arnold. All of a sudden they don't know if they're in Jerusalem or Menlo Park, because the world of the Bible and their world have been brought together.
Nail the takeoff and landing. The two most important parts of any message are the beginning and the end. Of those two, which would you say most preachers work harder at developing well? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it's the beginning. But the sign of a really skilled preacher is a conclusion that's as well thought-out as the intro.
I think it's a chronological thing, the way our minds are wired. A preacher is so aware of what it's going to feel like at the beginning that we force ourselves to put most of our preparation there. A good introduction will create a sense of urgency in the listener. We think, Well, once I get the plane up there, I'll find a place to land it. But you can squander all the power of your message if you don't know where you're going. If you begin with the end and work backward from there, you will build to something that is going to make a difference.
For every message, make sure you work as hard on the conclusion as you do on the intro. Know where you will land the plane!
When a baby is born, it is given a score that indicates its overall health at birth. In the same way, it is important to evaluate a message by gathering feedback from several sources.
In the early stages, a form is helpful, so you can ask a few others to write down what would be most helpful to you. Here are some starting questions:
Was the exegesis accurate and on target?
Was the message logical and clear?
Did the illustrations work?
I also ask my evaluator if I've communicated clearly on the following three questions that I use as I begin my preparation each week:
What do I want people to understand?
What do I want people to do?
What do I want people to feel?
Next, my evaluation includes a question about delivery. Do I have habits that are distracting? How were my voice and my pacing? Preacher who are gifted at this will know when the room needs energy, and they can also read how much silence the room can sustain. They use the whole range of inflection, cadence, and silence to keep attention.
Once you have people who know you well doing the evaluations, you won't necessarily need a form. I think it's good to restrict the number of people who evaluate you. Utilize a few people whom you respect and are there for you. A friend once told me that the kind of people we need are those who say (in effect), "You're not as good as you think you are, and I believe in you."
Post-partum depression? For me this sermon preparation takes at least 15 hours, and that's after years of practice. If all this sounds like a lot of work, it is. But it's worth it. For me, giving a message that doesn't connect is about the most painful thing in the world, and I cannot bear that pain. So my extensive sermon preparation and evaluation process is not a necessarily a spiritual thing; it's just pain avoidance!
But I believe that preaching is so important that we must do our best to get the hay down where the goats can get it.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.
John Ortberg is speaking at the National Pastors Convention in San Diego in February 27-March 1, 2008. Visit Nationalpastorsconvention.com.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
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Summer 2007, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Page 38
I wanted to get everyone's opinion on this. Do you feel that John is spot on, or do you, like I, feel like this way of preparing, and delivering is done very humanistically? To me it feels like God really isn't involved in the process. Or another way of putting it is that there isn't much reliance on God speaking through John, it is done out of his own strength. Thoughts? Is this how we should be birthing a sermon? Is this how we should be training other pastors to birth a sermon?