Nuts and Bolts of Sermon Preparation Workshop Questions And Answers

Note: I am really looking forward to helping teach the Nuts & Bolts Of Sermon Preparation workshop with Ben Courson and John Hwang this week at the Calvary Global Network pastors' conference in Costa Mesa, CA. Here are my written answers to the questions John graciously generated.

1. How do you define Biblical preaching and teaching?

The Spirit empowered process of proclaiming the message of the Bible. My goal is to have a message that is standing on the authority of the given text, with points and applications that flow from the text, lest I give the impression the authority rest in me.

2. What is your aim in sermon preparation and presentation?

My goal is to find the purest message of the text and then figure out how to best communicate that message to the people I’m teaching. I want them to leave the teaching feeling a strong connection to the Scripture, the individual words, and the overall flow. I realize there will be a personal connection to me if the Spirit is moving, but I want them to feel glad at the Scripture. If they could look into their Bibles, see that passage, and have a connection to it, I rejoice. Otherwise, they need me, rather than the good book.

3. What do you view as being the essential prerequisites to preparing for and presenting God's word?

I believe the man is the message. In other words, people will listen to what you are saying, but they are also listening to you. So our personal godliness and walk with Christ are of utmost importance. I must be personally alive, vital before God. There is power in a life that is on the sanctification train.

I also believe a determination to work hard is also essential. Staying in your seat, reading, thinking, processing. The best insights are often right around the bend.

I also believe prayer is vital. I like to give enough space in my preparation to be able to prayerfully consider the teaching, myself as the teacher, and the congregation.

4. The Bible tells us to "take heed to yourself and to the flock of God"? Before sermon-work, there should be heart-work. Before we preach our sermons to others, we should preach to ourselves. How does this personally and practically look in your life?

For me, I have tried to begin preparing Sunday messages as early as possible in the week. This gives me more time to ruminate on the Word in the “as-we-go” moments of life.

Additionally, my daily morning routine with God is a time of heart surgery before Him. I need His voice speaking to me.

Additionally, I try to find a pastor or two that I listen to on a regular basis, sitting down and listening as if I’m part of his congregation. To sit as a listener, attempting to apply what I’m hearing, is helpful before I preach or teach myself.

Finally, I like to have a little space to pray through my message. Part of praying it through is asking God to apply it to my own life.

5. Can you briefly describe your method and process of preparation: (1) First, for an Expository Sermon, and (2) Second, for a running commentary teaching through the Bible?

No, not briefly. :) Here is a full version of my method.

For an expository sermon, I read myself full, write myself empty, read myself full again, and write myself empty again. Here is what I mean by that statement:

Read myself full: I interact with the text myself. This includes reading and rereading, reading other translations, original language work, finding key words and phrases, and creating a rough outline of the text.

Write myself empty: I write out all my thoughts on the text. Any observation, interpretation, or application gets written down here. I will also write out illustrations or cross references that come to mind.

Read myself full: I read (or listen) to the study aides I’ve selected for this particular book.

Write myself empty: I write out sermon notes for my own use.

For a running commentary teaching through the Bible, I prefer a simpler approach. I paste the text into a document and then break it into manageable chunks. I then peruse the text for main points I know I would like to touch on, developing them right there in the document, under the text. I then focus on study aides, adding pertinent details to the document. When finished, I have a document with the text and notes under the text.

6. What role do other's sermons, books (past and present authors), and Bible software play in your preparation?

Other’s sermons: My guess is that for every four books of the Bible I teach, one of those books will be influenced by the audio or textual sermons of another pastor. If I do find a pastor to listen to on my selected text, I like them to be more intellectual in nature, giving me a deeper understanding of the text. For example, I recently listened to Ray Stedman when teaching through Romans. His style was very text-based, giving me a stronger idea of what the actual passage communicates. If I listen to highly applicational, alliterated, devotional, illustrated teachings I often want to copy them, which never goes well. If I do find a sermon series I would like to follow, I usually put it onto my phone and listen to it at various times throughout the week. It serves me as another way to get more familiar with the text.

Books / Bible Software: I am nearly 100% devoted to resources on the screen within my Logos software.

Here is a screenshot of my typical expository teaching study setup.

7. What role do illustrations play in a sermon? Where do you find your illustrations, and how do you decide how many and which ones are best suited for your message?

My hope is for illustrations to illuminate the text. I want the Scripture to be brighter, more intelligible, because of the illustration.

My favorite illustrations are very short and punchy (i.e. “Like the light of the noonday sun melts the snow, so does the heat of this truth from Paul melt our hearts.”). But I usually like to lead the teaching with an illustration and find myself getting into one illustration per point during the message.

Most of my illustrations are from everyday life. Sometimes they are simply examples of how this truth plays out. Sometimes they are humorous scenes from life that help paint the picture better. I do not like borrowing illustrations from others. Many of my illustrations come to me in the moment, during the teaching, and are not premeditated (as much as I’d like them to be).

8. How important is it for pastors to know their flock in the preparation and presentation of God's word?

It is important to know the flock corporately. What is the education level of the people you’re addressing? What are the issues they are facing on a day-to-day basis? What objections and arguments against their faith are they dealing with?

It is important to know the flock individually. While I do not know every person in our fellowship, I do know many. I like to think of a handful of them while I prepare the teaching, asking myself questions like these — What would that new mother think of this point? How would that doctor apply this truth? What might that teenager with the rough parents receive this passage?

It is important to know the community flock as well, especially for the Sunday teaching. I hope and pray for visitors, especially in our large public gatherings on Sundays. Therefore, I like to think through the cultural and societal objections and questions that might come up as I teach through a particular text.

9. What is the look and feel of your sermon outlines? How long has it taken you to arrive to where you are with your outlines? How tethered are you to them when you're preaching?

Here is a link to a typical sermon outline for a Sunday expository message. This style took me about seven years to develop but has been tweaked for the past ten years. I am not tethered to them, in the sense I barely need them by the time I teach the text. But I am tethered to them, in the sense that I usually communicate most of what is in contained in them.

10. There is a tendency among some preachers to become "someone else", instead of being who they are. How do you stay true to being the person God made and saved you to be when preaching?

Time and experience are invaluable in being true to who God has made you to be. The repetitive nature of pastoral teaching allows for a slow development of your personal style and flow. I have made a habit of repenting whenever I feel I have mimed someone. I have also listened to a wide variety of pastors, which enables me to be exposed to a wide variety of styles. Somehow, this helps keep me from slipping into copying others. Additionally, I believe allowing the text to saturate your heart will always make you more “real” in the sermon.

11. There are times we "nurture as mothers" and "instruct as fathers" (see 1 Thessalonians 2). One is comforting, the other can be corrective and challenging. How do you proclaim God's truth in a way that you are both.

Directly. I try hard to refrain from generalizations which leave the people thinking I must be talking about someone, but they don’t know who. If I have a direct challenge, I give it personally. But when in the pulpit, I try to offer specific examples. When the corrective or challenging moments come, I try to do it with humility and gentleness, but in a straightforward way. I do not want to be passive aggressive at all. For instance, if I were trying to make the point that the corporate Sunday gathering should be more highly valued by many believers, I would not want to say, “Some people don’t think much of Sundays,” but would instead want to say, “I believe some of you should attend on Sunday more regularly…and here’s why.”

12. Do you bring Christ and the Gospel into your messages? How do you do that? What does it look like?

Yes, of course. Christ and the Gospel are the way in which I view the world and the Bible, so it ought to come out constantly. But how it comes out depends on the passages I am in.

Take Proverbs, for example. Rather than allowing teachings on Proverbs to devolve into a tirade against the ways of modern culture, I try to present them as what “Christ in you, the hope of glory” can produce in us.

Take Old Testament narratives, for example. You often confront the depravity of man there, the need for the gospel, so I try to present the darkness with the hope of the light of Christ.

13. What do you see as the problems and dangers of people who preach without calling, gifting, and Christ-becoming character?

To preach without a calling is dangerous because you will be self-willed in the process. To do the work of preaching because you want to, but not because God wants you to, makes a preacher responsible to himself alone. I cannot see a way through the difficult words a preacher must be willing to speak if he does it without a calling from God. If you’ve called yourself, you will likely only speak what you feel called to speak. If God has called you, you’ll speak what He’s said to speak.

To preach without gifting is dangerous because you will be self-trusting in the process. You will lean upon the flesh to get the job done. But knowing your gifts — whether they are teaching, prophecy, exhortation, evangelism — will help you lean into those gifts when preaching. Knowing how your gifts operate is also important, lest you become a parrot of the style of others.

To preach without Christ-becoming character is dangerous because you will become self-hiding in the process. You’ll be forced to act the part of godliness. Eventually, the facade will break, and people will become disheartened in their walks. But to continue in your sanctification process is healthy for the preacher, the preaching, and the congregation because it demonstrates a what a growing person looks like. I would encourage you — in appropriate ways — to open your heart and life up before those you teach so they can see how you are growing in Christ. It will help them as they pursue their own sanctification.

14. What is your theology of the Holy Spirit in preaching? What is Spirit-anointing? How do you define it? How do you describe it? What do your prayers look and sound like in both preparation and presentation?

I sensed a direct call and gifting from the Spirit to do the work of teaching many years ago — a literal “I have called you to teach my word” moment. I received this as a moment in time where He began to gift me for the task. My thought at that time was that I would have to work hard to prepare and study, but that He would have to carry me along in the study and in the pulpit. I believe the same today. I believe the Spirit must give me illumination as I prepare, but also help as I preach or teach.

15. How can we become better in reaching past, present, and future generations with the unchanging, always relevant Word of God?

We never change the word of God, but we do need to wonder which questions our audience might be asking about the Word of God. Additionally, if you have a heart for the future generations, begin researching their objections and questions. Even if they aren’t attending your church or teachings yet, they soon will as you regularly address the Word in a way that answers their questions and objections.

The next generation is one of the most knowledgeable and immature generations in history. They are often knowledgeable because they can learn about anything and everything. They are a well-informed generation. They are often immature because they struggle developing real human connections. They are well-connected, but not yet good at the human side of those connections.

If this next generation is both knowledgeable yet immature, our teaching must line up. When speaking of doctrine and Scriptural arguments, they can handle the cookies on the top shelf. When speaking of marriage, family, and relationships, the arguments must be top shelf, but we must open up our lives so they can see a real and easy-to-grab-ahold of example. This puts the cookies on the bottom shelf.

16. How do you maintain a humble heart in a potentially puffing-up position and privilege?

I think pastoral work, if done appropriately, is one of the most humbling works a person can engage in. So, a humble heart, for me, is often developed through continual repetition in the work. It is in the work I face many of my limitations.

For example, when I study, I learn how little I know. When I meditate on God, I learn how much I need to grow. When I teach the Bible, I learn how much I must improve. When I interact with people, I learn how unlike Christ I can be. When I counsel, I learn how much experience and wisdom I am lacking.

Pastoral work is like climbing a mountain. When you run downhill, you feel great. But when you run uphill — and much pastoral work is uphill running — you realize your limitations real quick.

17. Besides spiritual disciplines, do you see an importance to maintaining physical health and mental alertness? If so, what do you do to be fit in these areas?

Yes, absolutely, for two main reasons. One, much of pastoral work is sedentary work, so I need to physical exercise to counteract that. Two, much of pastoral work is cerebral work, so I need time to process and give my brain a break.

I have become a runner over the last decade. Running works for me because it is always an option. I can run day or night, alone or with another, in nice gear or cheap gear, and in any place ministry work might take me. To compliment that, I also do light strenth work, but mostly because runners get hurt when they only run.

18. How is preaching an opportunity to exercise faith in God?

We must walk by faith when we preach the message of the gospel of God. His Word is sharp and dividing. The truth of it confronts every culture in one way or another. It is a stumbling block to some, an offense to others. Sight would dictate we massage the message, changing it for modern sensibilities. But faith leans into it, teaching and declaring it unapologetically. Faith believes the message is good medicine for the listener. We ought to think through who we are talking to so we can best answer their objections and help them understand God’s Word. But faith requires us to keep on preaching.

Preaching the message of the gospel itself requires faith. I remember praying over our church and my role in it one day. “Lord,” I prayed, “I don’t want to be a limiter on what You are doing. I feel so weak. I don’t want to get in the way. I don’t want to hinder the work.” Now, I know I am more than capable of being a hindrance to the work. He works through me in spite of me, not because of me. But on this day, I sensed the Lord say, “Nate, remember, my message is a limiter. The gospel can be offensive. It can stumble. You preach it. I will take care of the results.” It takes faith, especially if you live in a community the gospel has not saturated, to preach the message.

19. What fruit should we be looking for as assurances that we are serving God's truth to God's people God's way?

  • Conversions.
  • Long-time church attenders having the truth shock them.
  • Occasional anger from those who do not agree with God’s word.

20. If you could recommend only 3 books that every preacher should read, what would they be?

I usually recommend books based on who I am talking to. Since all I have to go on here is that I’m recommending books for preachers (or teachers), here are a few recommendations (with explanations). If I were talking to you in person, I would adjust the list after hearing more from you.

  • Lectures In Systematic Theology by Thiessen — I put this one down because I love this systematic theology and I think good teachers will find ways to insert much of this material into the flow of regular Bible teaching.
  • The Preacher — His Life And Work by J.H. Jowett — This is a collection of essays/lectures aimed at the art of Bible teaching.
  • Center Church by Tim Keller — This work helps you put a proper focus on the centrality of the cross (gospel) in your ministry and teaching.
  • Logos Exegetical Summaries: Not available for every book of the Bible, these summaries offer a synopsis of a wide range of commentaries and linguistic aids on various Bible books.
  • Word Biblical Commentary: My favorite complete set Bible commentary.
  • The Shallows by Nicholas Carr: Since your brain is one of the greatest assets you’ll use in Bible study and teaching, it is worth protecting. The sporadic nature of the internet is attacking our brains. This book helps bring understanding to how.
  • Deep Work by Cal Newport: An academic takes a look at the importance of deep work (sermon preparation falls into the deep work category). Thought work takes discipline. Newport talks about how to get it done.
  • Margin by Richard Swenson: Bible teaching requires a constant choice of the best over good. It also requires a mind at peace, rather than stressed and frazzled. This book has helped me refocus and reprioritize my life dozens of times, enabling a better flow and focus on the most important things of life and ministry.

21. What things would you like to share with us on this topic that we haven't addressed thus far?

I wrote more on this subject at my blog, including a massive 4K word post detailing exactly how I get a sermon ready for Sunday.