Preaching proceeds across a series of stages. It takes time, both in the number of hours invested and in the duration across which those hours are spread. The stages in the process pursue a set of primary concerns to which integrative preaching is committed. Preparing to preach is above all, a devotional process. It is a way of praying before it is a way of preaching.
1. Identify the Textopic
The preacher may begin either with a text or with a theme. The text is a complete unit of thought in Scripture. The topic expresses truth as it is appropriated by a listener . Regardless of which aspect the preacher begins with, the two must cohere entirely.
Some preachers prefer to preach sequentially through books of the Bible. This is a good thing given that we might never get around to some key issues if we are setting the agenda ourselves. Other preachers prefer to analyze the need of the audience in their particular time so as to hear what God is saying in the particular moment. Both approaches can be commended as long as text and topic unite congruently.
2. Read the Text and People
Before you read the commentaries, you need to read the text. As you interpret the text, you need to read the people - the people in the text and the people for whom the text is given.
This is all about listening. Hearing a message from God requires attention to the Word and to the Spirit. It is both an exegetical process, and a spiritual process. While discovery begins as a private process for the preacher as one who "leads in listening," it will result in leading others to their own discovery of the transformation intended by the gospel.
3. Gather the Materials
Moving from hermeneutics to homiletics is a major challenge. It will help us if we could read with a view to the materials that will be useful later on. Think in terms of your need to fill four bins with materials.
What are the problems that people have with your textopic? What points could be helpful? What are the prayers you might be led to offer? What pictures are you seeing? Think deeply until your bins are full to overflowing. You won't need everything you think of when it comes to the next stage of preparation.
4. Conceive the Theme
The text must be distilled into a theme – a single, simple declarative proposition that can express the message in a memorable and compelling way, utilizing as few words as possible, uniting point and problem. The following questions might be helpful…
- Is the theme expressed as a single, complete, declarative sentence?
- Does the theme say one thing? (eliminate conjunctions and redundancies)
- Would it help to reverse the direction or tone of the statement?
- Are there more compelling (or textual) words for what the theme is saying?
- Does the theme offer any imagery that might empower a sermon from this text?
- Does the theme avoid jargon, using words that people understand?
- Is the resulting statement memorable (sticky)?
- Does the final expression adequately offer what the message needs to be?
The resulting theme statement can be easily expressed and repeated in the sermon so that it will resound in the listener's mind and memory.
- God breathes life into his people by his Word. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
- Persist in the mystery. (Ec. 11:1-6)
- God is urgent for his promise within the timing of his purpose. (Is. 60:22)
- Faith sees further. (Mark 2:1-11)
The distillation of the message into a pithy tweetable theme does not suggest a lack of interest in the necessary complexity a textopic might present. However, any consideration of such complication will not be for the purpose of displaying learning but so as to create clarity.
1. Find the Fit
The sermon will find its shape around the four integrative elements: the engage, instruct, convict, and inspire. The sermon theme will be the tentpole around which the other elements will organize themselves. The story prepare us to hear the theme. The gospel comes in response to the theme, which will then send us out on mission.
Managing these elements will be about selecting those materials that will be most helpful in driving the message so that the intended outcome is achieved. The approach we take may be deductive or inductive, or it may be less linear, but we will need to be sure that the elements are all fully engaged in some manner within the structure of the sermon.
The key is to establish the theme as the sermon’s tentpole. Everything then, will find it’s place around that central piece.
2. Apply the Finish
Having constructed the sermon, it is necessary to give it polish. Sermon finish is about unity and flow. An effective sermon will offer a unified use of language and of imagery.
The unified language of a sermon needs to derive from the sermon theme, resulting in a linguistic grid that unifies the sermon. The best sermons will repeat expressions from the semantic field suggested by the theme. Language can be formed into keywords and taglines, providing structure and substance to the sermon.
As with language, effective sermons might offer a single unified image. The primary imagery can be conceived variably, as story, metaphor, example, illustration, picture, or vision. This image could be seen from many life perspectives - congregational, political, familial, cultural, technical, or athletic. A single image will be a powerful unifying feature for the sermon.
Flow describes the way the sermon moves across time. A sermon is not static, but will carry the listener from where they are to where they need to be. The movement may be linear (the plate) or it may be more random (the bowl), but either way the sermon needs to lead the listener to a place that is different from where they started.
In this third distinct stage of preparation, the preacher empowers the message by attending to the outcome intended for the sermon. Before the preacher offers a word of the sermon to others, the preacher must own the message for his or herself.
This, is going to take time. Empowerment is not a last minute project. It is important to give space for this work so that the preacher has time to brood over the material. There is a useful distinction to be made between "clock time" and "calendar time."
Own the Message
Before we offer this message to anyone else, we are going to have to own it for ourselves. This is going to take some time. We might have to go for a long walk, prayerfully considering the places where this message has affected or is affecting our own life. We might have to go out and do something tangible to respond to what God is asking of us, before we are in a position to ask something of those we will preach to.
Share the Message
Our preparation must move beyond our isolation. Our message will be more fully empowered as we share it with others, trying out ideas and sounding out responses from trusted individuals and groups. This is a kind of pre-preaching that will deepen and improve the product we will eventually offer more widely.
Speak the Sermon
Preaching is oral communication. As such it should be spoken into being. The best way to appropriate and own the content of one's sermon is to speak it out loud. Talking through the substance and structure of the sermon in private, will not only help us embed the content within us, but it will deepen the quality of what we have to offer.
Pray the Sermon
Empowering sermon outcomes requires private prayerful reflection, beyond the work of sermon construction. In the closet, the preacher works through the sermon material, listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit and considering the implications. Here the preacher needs to ask honest and humble questions, in keeping with an authentic encounter with God.
Now the preacher is ready to deliver the sermon in what becomes a unique event in God’s presence - the work of God in a particular point in space and time. We are not solely talking about God. We are engaging God and we will be forever altered by the contact.
The preaching event can never be published or repeated. God meets his people by his Spirit through this Word. The preacher both delivers this message, but receives it also for him or herself.
Preaching always happens in a context. The best preachers understand how to adapt their presentation to the needs and expectations that attach to a given context. Preachers need to be present to their people in ways that make sense given the nature of the event.
The preacher's tone, for example, will depend upon context. Larger settings will typically require more formal and monological approaches, while smaller contexts will typically command less formal and more dialogical approaches. The collective experience of a congregation at any given moment will inform the preacher's manner. Tone will be expressed through the nature of the preacher's speech, dress, and physical gesture.
Similarly, some sermon settings and events will demand a reverential tone. Other times we will want a lighter and more inviting manner. The best preaching will vary the tone within the same sermon, attending to the emotional timeline of the sermon as appropriate to the situation.
Whether the preacher chooses to utilize a full or partial manuscript, or chooses to act more extemporaneously, the content of the sermon must be well assimilated, so that the preacher can express the substance of the sermon without distance or artiface.
Perhaps the most helpful approach might be the summary manuscript which expresses the content of the sermon in less than 1,000 words. The summary manuscript allows the preacher to focus and master the sermon material while sustaining the benefits of an oral presentation.
Physical tools and objects should be selected only for their pragmatic utility. Pulpits and podiums will be used when made necessary by one's manuscript notes, a stationary microphone, or by the cultural demand of the congregation. Face to face communication is an advantage, only diminished when the preacher becomes too impressed by the opportunity it offers to showcase him or herself.
Projected slides and other materials, if used at all, should be graphically pleasing, containing only material that is necessary to the listener. Video should best be used either before or after the sermon. Mixing media can be confusing to the listener. The best visual is the person of the preacher on the stage.
Preaching is a fearful task, but there are two kinds of fear. The fear of man will cripple us. The fear of God will empower us to the kind of preaching that God wants to use.