In preaching, I believe learning how to write a sermon is more important than being gifted. In the mid 1970’s, Earl Palmer (Sr. Pastor of the 4th Presbyterian Church in Berkley, California) once explained his approach to preparing a sermon that works. He took a blank sheet of paper and drew a solid line from left to right across the middle of the page. The space above the line represented the explanation of the text. The space below the line represented the application for today.
This simple approach helped him separate a 30 minute message into two distinct parts: 15 minutes of diagnosis, followed by 15 minutes of cure. Palmer believed that explaining the text was the relatively easy part. Church people could often diagnose the text on their own. His job as the preacher was to help with the harder part, the application.
I like Earl Palmer’s approach. It showed me the importance of spending as much time curing the problem as diagnosing it. From this perspective, my approach to writing an inspiring sermon is to ask and answer a series questions. Here are the questions and the order in which
13 Key Questions - How to Write a Sermon
What is the main point of the text I am preaching?
I believe a sermon has more power when its foundation is a specific Bible passage rather than a topic. Topical sermons can be effective, but very often the scriptures chosen to support the topic are not presented with the original context in mind.
photo courtesy of George Bannister
What is the main point of my sermon?
When I was beginning to learn how to write a sermon, I often discovered there is little correlation between the text and my sermon. When that is the case, I realize that I had a pre-conceived idea of what I wanted to preach whether the Bible said it or not. There’s an old preaching cliché that goes “If the text has leprosy, your sermon better catch it.”
Why am I preaching this sermon?
This question can stop me cold. I am often stuck until I can write down a concise answer to this question. What are my motives? Am I mad at someone? Who am I trying to impress? "We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord" (II Corinthians 4:5). You can't make Jesus look wonderful and yourself look clever at the same time.
What is at stake? What if the truths of this passage are not obeyed?
If I don’t know what’s at stake, nobody else will. The main difference between preaching and teaching is something more is at stake. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “Preaching is logic on fire.”
Is my sermon preparation focused on the application of the text, or just the text?
I learned this concept from Rick Warren. What one application word would best summarize your sermon? (If you don't know, you can be sure your listeners won't.) Use application phrases or sentences for your main points. A sermon that fails to focus on the application of the text invariably spends too much time centering only on biblical information. A. W. Tozer said that the preacher's job is to give people spiritual truths, not just theological facts.
When I am thinking about how to write a sermon, I entertain this question after the first six questions have been addressed. What made Jesus a great preacher was his ability to tell stories. I am most interested in stories that illustrate the application.
photo courtesy of Steve Evans
How should the sermon end? What’s the best way for people to do business with God and how much time will I allow for this?
A song? An invitation? A prayer? What?
Can I make the sermon shorter?
The goal is to say one thing well. Think rifle not shot-gun. Less is more. I want the entire message to be around 25 minutes long. Look for and eliminate redundancy. Three points are usually better than four. Two points are better than three. In business, there’s a joke about how to get along with your boss: Be bright, be bold, be brief and be gone. That approach would serve many preachers.
If I preached my sermon to Jesus one-on-one, would he say that my life embodied this message?
Ultimately, we influence people out of who we are, not what we say. My best sermons have been birthed through the combination of the revelation of God’s Word and my willingness to cooperate with the grace of God.
Is there an equal emphasis on the Word and the
During the sermon, I want people to sense a simultaneous and equal emphasis on both God's Word and God's Spirit. I want people to read the Scriptures and also hear God’s Voice. I want them to connect what God did in Scripture with what God’s Spirit is doing in their heart today. The apostle Paul said, “Our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit” (I Thess. 1:5). Powerless religion is everywhere. I want to avoid powerless preaching.
photo courtesy of Ian Burt
Is this sermon rooted in grace?
I want people to feel their need for the gospel of God's grace. Does the sermon offer grace and hope? Regardless of the challenge that is presented, I want people to know that God loves them. God is our Creator and Judge. But God is also our Redeemer and Father. I want people to realize that God is for them and that it is possible to cooperate with his grace and please him.
Will I trust the outcome to God?
"I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow" (I Corinthians 3:6-7).
Finally, one very helpful book on how to write a sermon is not even a book about preaching. The book is How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less, by Milo Frank. This book is available on CD through Amazon.
may be helpful in guiding you on how to write a sermon.
Too many sermons only appeal to our intellect. Jesus used stories to reach the hearts of his listeners.
What's Missing Inside You?
combines Biblical truth with over 50 real-life stories. I've gleaned these stories from many books, magazines, and newspapers. As you read through this study, I know you'll find illustrations you'll want to use in your sermons.