No one would dare write an organized checklist of steps a woman must execute when giving birth. You can't guarantee a woman how long she will be in active labor. Themes repeat (e.g. "it hurts"), but no two labor stories are identical.
I think the same is true for sermon preparation. After detailing all the steps I follow, I will prepare another sermon. More than likely, I will break my all my rules.
That isn't to say there's nothing to gain from organizing a process. There is. But I don't think preparing to teach a passage of Holy Scripture to human minds is like your local car wash shop. Vacuum. Water. Soap. Scrub. Rinse. Strawberry air freshener. Repeat.
Let's consider it telling my story, my process. Like birth stories, this is helpful to hear, for you are you and I am me. If you teach (or will teach) the Bible, our stories will have resemblances, but that is all.
I remember asking my father, a great Bible teacher, how he did it. I asked him more than once. I loved to hear it. I loved to adapt it. I loved to think about it.
He would show me Scriptures he had printed out, then proceeded to mark up with codes only he understood. He would tell me which resource material he had read for that text. He would show me his final outline. I'm impressed he could teach so well from it. I couldn't mimic it, but it worked well for him.
So I've journeyed for the past twenty years and have tried to learn the craft. The second I tell someone how it's done, I will discover something new, so I won't try. But here is my process, usually. Here is the overview.
I begin long before the first sermon. My first step is to select the Bible book I will cover. I don't teach Bible topics, but Bible books. I trust the correct topics are in the texts. So this leads me to consider the book I will teach.
But how do I make that selection? This is less mechanical and more emotional. More subjective than objective. Perhaps this doesn't sound spiritual, but it's true. My mood is prayerful, but I take a lot into consideration.
Have I taught this book recently? How would this complement the previous books we've studied? Does the church need a narrative after a stretch of epistolary? What is my level of interest in the content? Should we cover a shorter text after living in a longer text for a while?
I make this decision a few months out from the first teaching. Partly for our church team to prepare for, partly for my own preparation. I like to give our pastors an idea of the main themes and subjects I'll cover during our study of the text. This also gives any creative members of our team time with the theme. Then, they might create supportive elements, like print art or video introductions.
Once I select the book I will teach I spend some time gaining background information about the book. My goal is simple: create a working theme statement for the book. I want to have a stated mission for the text we are going to cover.
Romans is the current book our church is in, so the Gospel of Grace was our simple title for it. This has been helpful.
Once, when teaching the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), I entitled the study Reign. I wanted to communicate that our King was teaching us to follow Him in this way.
In Colossians, we entitled the study Christ Is Enough. I thought Paul wanted the church in Colossae to grow satisfied with Jesus, in whom are "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."
A good theme is helpful to me, as the teacher, and to the congregation, as the listeners. After a few weeks in a given book, I often lose the forest for the trees. The theme snaps me back into the big picture. Additionally, someone might walk into the church at week twenty of our Romans study. They need to catch the theme, something to help them jump into the text for that week.
After I decide on the book I will teach, and develop a theme, I outline the book. This does not mean I have the individual teachings prepared, but a teaching calendar. For instance, our current Romans study takes us from January to December this year. I have sometimes changed the pace, but for the most part, this has been my sermon schedule. I have stuck to it.
Will Romans take us one year? Four years? Four months? All these time lengths are possible, but without an outline, I would have no idea. I much prefer this to winging it weekly. I enjoy digging into the text each week, rather than asking the question, "How far should we go this week?"
Another reason I appreciate the outline and schedule is that it allows me to see how the year will flow. Where might we be around Easter? Will we finish by Christmas?
We have noticed September and January are great times to begin new studies. If I my outline naturally allows, I try to begin new studies at that time. For example, Romans began in January and will end by Christmas. This allows me to consider a fresh book for the new year.
This schedule allows me to easily invite others into the teaching calendar. I can see natural breaks in the text. This might provide an opportunity for the congregation to hear another voice.
After creating my outline and theme, I don't study until the week of the teaching. I've attempted to prepare a few weeks in advance, but I could not maintain that rhythm. The urgency and freshness were lacking. Maybe I'm just a procrastinator, but if I prepare the week of I have more passion during delivery.
I don't usually study for Sunday on Monday, although that hasn't always been the case. I learned much from our church's previous pastor, Roger Scalice. He used to begin his preparation by reading the text on Sunday night, seven days before the teaching. This method allows you to think about the text in your spare moments throughout the week. I have incorporated this. I try to get my mind on the text as early as possible.
For me, however, the first day I get into the serious work of study is on Tuesday or Wednesday. The entire process usually takes me 2 full mornings, with additional time sprinkled throughout the week. Either Tuesday and Thursday or Wednesday and Thursday.
My First Day
On my first full day of study, I sit down with the text. My initial step is to read myself full. I like to throw my own mind and heart into the text for as long as I can.
The way I do this is to paste the text into a no-frills word processor so that all I see are the words of the text. It is there I read and reread, for half an hour at least. As I do this I take mental notes. I try to notice the emphasis, the flow, the repeated words.
After allowing the text to saturate my brain for a little while, I begin to manipulate the words on the screen. Here I use the "return" and "tab" key to create a visual outline of the text.
This is how I outline the text. I want to see how it breaks down in front of me. Often, by the time I'm done breaking the text up in this way, I have a pretty good idea what this message will be about. At this point, I am about 60-90 minutes into my entire prep. It is here I will add descriptive headings to the paragraphs and word groups. Again, this is going to be what I preach and teach.
After outlining the text, I begin to write about the text. Under each verse, in my word processor, I begin to note various words and make my own comments about them. If I think of parallel passages or cross references I could use, I put them down at this point. Nothing is too small for me to mention or write at this point. An illustration, a question, anything I notice: I write it all at this point. Here is where I'll begin studying the original languages. This is me writing myself empty about the text.
Here, I'm making an attempt to observe and interpret the text on my own, without the aid of resources. I want to see if I can see the flow and meaning for myself. If I can, I find teaching the material much easier. If I "know" the text, I can communicate the text. If all I "know" are teaching notes, that's all I will be able to teach. I want to look people in the eye and see if they get it. If I sense they don't, I want to know what that "it" is that I must reinforce on the fly.
Read Full (Again)
After writing myself empty, I read myself full once again. Only this time, rather than sit with the text myself, I begin reading what others have to say on about my text. This is where various commentaries and outside resources are helpful.
Now, on the subject of commentaries, I'm often asked which ones I use. There are hundreds or to choose from for each book of the Bible you might teach, so how does one decide? Over time I have developed a working list of trusted commentaries, some of which I will list here, but I don't always use the same resources.
My decision on which resources to use is tied to the book I am teaching. For instance, G. Campbell Morgan is one of my favorite authors. He is phenomenal in the gospels and narratives. He, however, never spent much time Romans. He left that to Martyn Lloyd-Jones. So I don't try to use Morgan for Romans, but I do when in Luke.
I also find that some commentaries lack the pacing I need for my given text. Like Jones, for instance. For the pace I chose in Romans, he soon became impractical. His methodical journey through Romans is powerful, but unhelpful for my purposes. Since I chose to cover Romans in 40 weeks or so, I needed work that touched the book more lightly than he did. So I pay attention to the pacing of the commentaries I choose.
For each book I'm teaching, I generally use around seven different commentaries. On my first full day of prep work, I try to get to as many of them as time allows. I often have one or two left to read on day two, but I try to plow through the commentaries on morning one.
Everyone has their medium of choice. I like paper, but my resources are often digital, unless I can only find them in print. I use Logos Bible Study software, so I often buy a handful of commentaries before I launch into my next book.
Sometimes I read these resources straight off the computer screen, but often I send them to my Kindle. I like the option of walking, sitting, or standing up while I read. I highlight as I go, using an online resource to capture these highlights for later reference (see Clippings.io here). What I'm doing at this point is adding to all the comments I've already made in my rough document. I am collecting as much information as I can. I am trying to get that message into my head.
There are times when just a little bit of research will do, but usually, I want to get into all of it. I like to have my research at around 10,000 words. If I have accumulated that many words for myself, I usually have a great idea of where the text, and I, am going.
My Second Day
Between my first and second day of prep I think. It is here I get an opportunity to listen to someone else teach my text, maybe even via podcast while on a run or walk. I get to think about the passage while driving around town, doing chores, lying in bed. It is on my brain. This is part of the prep work. If anything huge enters my mind I will make a note about it, or even add it to my research notes.
But that is my between time. The big work begins with day two.
As I mentioned earlier, day two sometimes begins with additional reading. I will often not be able to read everything I want to on the first day. I will give myself another hour or so to complete that reading at the beginning of day two.
The can be dangerous, however, as it may be tempting to parrot whatever I read that morning. I try to select any resource I go to on this morning carefully.
If I do read any further material at this point, it is because I have some unresolved issues regarding the text. I am still searching for sufficient answers, so I try to read material that would deal with the type of issue I have.
After brief reading, if any, I begin to craft my teaching outline. Up to this point, all I have written is a set of research notes. As I said earlier, these usually sit somewhere around the 10,000-word count, mostly populated via cut and paste. These would be insufficient to teach from. That is not what they are for.
I once heard someone say that a teacher should give out about 10% of what he has learned, and this is my way of doing that. The research notes are for my reference. Much of what is in them will not even be the final position I take, but someone else's take on the text. I like to see their argument and thought in my research, but I will not teach it the way they did.
At this point, with the outline of my message in my mind, I sit down with two documents staring back at me on my screen. Document one is my research notes, while document two is my final teaching notes. At the beginning of day two, my final teaching notes document is completely blank to begin with.
My first move is to enter my text into teaching notes. I prefer to have the entire passage in my notes, meaning I will read the text to the church from my notes. I have found this makes the delivery smoother. Rather than holding my Bible in one hand, glancing at my notes on the pulpit from time to time, I like reading the text from my notes.(This is what it looks like: Research on left, Teaching Notes on right)
I then enter in my outline, breaking up the text to follow this outline. Section one, section two, and so forth (see PDF). I will put in some headings and subheadings. To be honest, while teaching this message, this will be the most important part of my notes. The text, along with the main heading and subheadings, is actually all I need.
After putting down the text and main section headers, I then begin with a theme statement for that text, if I can. Sometimes my passage is so long it would be difficult and unnatural to force one constant theme. Usually, though, I am able to state, in one concise sentence, what my passage and teaching will be about. Whether I say this out loud during the teaching or not, I write this in the introduction section of my notes.
Here are some examples of theme statements I have recently used, just to give you an idea.
- Romans 8:31-39 Theme: The gospel message made Paul sing in the security of God's favor, God's justification and help, and God's love, and we can have the same song of security today!
- Colossians 4:7-18 Theme: Great friendships are forged in battle.
- James 2:1-13 Theme: Faith enables us to love and extend mercy to all people without the unattractive partiality often found in our world. Here, James gives us great tools to develop an impartial love.
- Luke 6:12-49 Theme: Jesus established the most important team in the history of mankind. His authority culminates in His choosing of the twelve. We thank God for this day.
The life of the sermon is in this theme. My notes will jog my memory and aid me as I make various points and explain various passages. But if the text has not found its way into my heart, the teaching will be lifeless. I need the theme to get into my bones.
I believe God is passionate to communicate to us in that text. When I, to the best of my abilities, lock into his passion, I am set on fire in the teaching of that passage.
Simply put, the theme is my way of stating "this is what I think God wants us to know from this passage.”
After this, I begin with the first section of the text. I might have some introductory comments to place in there, but often I save those for later. At this point, however, I like to dig into the main notes.
In talking with many pastor-teachers over the years, I've discovered the look of our teaching notes vary greatly. They are a personal issue, in that we must be able to interact with them personally. There is no point mimicking someone else's note style if it makes no sense to us. My brain works a certain way, so I structure my notes accordingly.
For me, what makes sense is to embolden the words in the text (again, right there in my notes) that I know I want to draw specific attention to. Then, I write that word or phrase, sequentially, in the section below. Once there, I begin to write my explanations and comments. (see example)
I repeat this for each section. This allows me to see where I have much to say, too much to say, and too little to say. I follow a linear outline, and my points and arguments come out that way. I think this works well for a verse-by-verse teaching style.
One could look over my notes and learn about the text, but they aren't meant to be an exhaustive teaching tool. They are a reference that jogs my mind once in the pulpit. The life is not found in these words. The life is found in my heart. This is why the theme is so important.
Introduction & Closing
I have grown over the years in that I used to create long introductions. They would chew up much of my teaching time. Often they were little more than the extensive background. Now I try to give a brief introduction that focuses more on the theme, where we are going that particular day. I try to think about the listener. Why would they want to hear this? How will this be helpful to them?
I will often begin my teaching with a question, something for the listener to consider. Other times, I will begin with a simple story, something that will pertain to the text and teaching. Sometimes the story is fluffy, brief but humorous, designed to grab everyone's attention.
I try, however, to start with something authentic and thought-provoking, even if humorous. I rarely go into illustration mode at this point. It is usually an experience of mine, a question of mine, a lesson I learned.
I will also tell them about my outline, oftentimes, at this point. I like to say things like, "so today we will answer this question. We will see how it plays out this way, that way, and also this way." I don't mind that they get an idea of what we will be doing today. I haven't ever felt unable to be led by the Spirit later in the teaching as a result of saying things like this.
My closing is often my weakest point. Sometimes it will be a simple phrase. Sometimes it will come across as the classic tell them what you just told them style. But I've found my strongest closes come when I give a Bible verse or story that I think encapsulates the sermon. I especially love going into the Old Testament at this point.
One thing I try to avoid is closing my teaching during my closing prayer. I am not about that. I don't want to add to my teaching time during prayer. During prayer I want to thank God for something He has said to us in His word that day, worship Him, and pray for the people. Perhaps, during this prayer, I will transition a public gospel invitation.
For me, I aim to finish those final notes by Thursday afternoon. That is my "Friday," so finishing them enables me to sit on the message until Sunday morning. There are times the entire message changes during those few days. Most often it is only deepened and steeled. Illustrations often come during this cooling off period.
This is my favorite part of the process. To be honest, it can be agonizing to sit on the message for a few days. If there is any hesitation about the content or a stern rebuke to deliver, it weighs on me. If there is a sensitive subject to address, as is often the case with expositional teaching, I feel it.
Still, I love the chance to let the passage breath in me. I love praying over it. I love praying for individuals in the church that will interact with it. Sometimes I hit "save" on Thursday, thinking nothing of it until I hit "open" on Sunday morning. That is not the norm. It is in me. This is valuable. This is what will make it seem as if I'm teaching without any notes (but not like the guy who obviously is teaching without any notes - it's less awesome than you think, by the way).
Sunday morning I rise early, spend my normal quiet time with the Lord, and then get back to work. I try to give myself another hour to work on the teaching at this point. I might reconstruct the teaching in massive ways, but usually, I only make minor tweaks and cuts. One question I ask here is simple: what can I delete from this teaching? Fluff, rabbit trails, personal fascinations…I try to cut them from the teaching. I want the teaching to unleash the passage, not everything going on in my mind.
Another question I might ask here is this: How vulnerable and authentic am I going to be today? Where might I open up my heart and love the people? How might I give an appropriate glimpse into my own life? How does this become more human today? I know this isn't everyone's thing, but I try to go there.
After hitting save, loading my notes onto my tablet, I head to the church building and get to work loving God's people and teaching His word.
People often ask me if I get nervous when I am teaching. Yes. Definitely. Sometimes during. Sometimes beforehand. Sometimes afterward. Sometimes all three.
I don't usually know when or why I will feel those nerves. Saturday afternoon it often begins, not subsiding until after the final service Sunday night. They aren't puke-level nerves, but they are nerves.
Often, however, once teaching, the nerves evaporate and the aid of the Holy Spirit comes. He emboldens me, making my mind sharp with all He has taught me that week, and beyond.
But this flows from prayerful, Spirit aided preparation. Jesus worked hard for his church, and the Spirit of Christ is now in us. With devotion, let us do the work required to declare God’s word with conviction.