The Making of a Sermon – Extended
People have asked me about the process of making or writing a sermon. I have taught workshops and entire days about the process of creating sermons. I thought perhaps in this unique time we are in, as part of our “Reflections” section as we seek to communicate with our church family, I would walk through the making of a Sunday sermon. I’ll break this into three different sections, or perspectives. First, I’ll explain my schedule in making a sermon, then, the process of crafting a sermon, and finally, the delivery of a sermon.
I don’t know if this will be interesting or helpful to any, but perhaps if you are one who prays for me (thank you as it is so needed and crucial) this may help you in what to pray for.
The Schedule in Making a Sermon
Sermon prep starts on Monday morning. My assistant, Karen, looks after my calendar, booking appointments and blocking out my time all week. She is in control of my office hours, and she and Cindy, my wife, decide on evening and weekend appointments and scheduling. Karen knows what my priorities are, what issues and projects need my time, and what is urgent and key in any given week, but part of her job is also to ensure I have enough time for sermon prep.
So normally Monday mornings, Tuesday afternoons, and Wednesday mornings are blocked off for sermon prep. The other half of those days are for meetings with staff, congregants, or outside people. I usually have about ten meetings a week on weeks when I am preaching on Sunday. On weeks where Stephen or someone else is preaching, and I’m not preaching elsewhere, Karen will book more meetings as I don’t need study time.
I am an early riser, so am normally up around 5am, sometimes 4am, and sometimes 5:30. After my quiet time, I will work on my sermon until I need to head into the office somewhere around 8ish. There are some weeks where it’s extra busy, or my study time gets taken up with urgent meetings and priorities, or the passage is a particularly difficult one. So on those weeks, since it is just Cindy and I at home now, I will often work on the passage in the evenings as well.
So generally, the goal is for me to be working on my research from Monday to Wednesday, and I need to have my sermon structure (both the exegetical and homiletical) and my understanding of the meaning of the text and all the issues or problems in the text (from an interpretive standpoint) resolved by Wednesday night. Then Thursday is sermon writing day. Normally I only have one meeting on Thursday (a staff meeting or ministry leader meeting). These meetings need to be on Thursdays as that is the one day when all our staff, part-time and full-time are in the office. Other than that, Karen protects my sermon writing day vigilantly, including keeping my door shut and no staff, family, or others interrupting unless it is an emergency. It wasn’t always this way, actually it wasn’t this way at all through about 15-16 years of our church’s 20 years, but this was one of the many reasons and blessings of hiring Karen as my Executive Assistant (EA) as she, in her role, working with Cindy, under the priorities and direction of myself and our elders, has brought some health and balance into my life personally and my family that was missing for all the years prior to that. This is normal when a church is smaller, as one just must wear so many hats and have a part in so many church functions and issues. I am thankful to God, for His kindness and provision of Karen and her unique gifting and training as an EA, for with the never-ceasing demands for my time and attention, I was not healthy for many years, and my family have paid a much higher price than they should have for our ministry. There is no doubt in my mind that with the size of our church, I would not have survived this long without someone both balancing my schedule and protecting my time.
Even with all this help and protection of my schedule, I still find many weeks overwhelming, but that is the nature of the Senior Pastor role in a large church. I know some, over the years, have not understood Karen’s role, and perhaps some of you have been frustrated you could not just walk in to my office, call me directly, or drop in and see me, but I would ask you to understand, if you love me and care for me and my family, to embrace God’s gift in this. Karen gets everyone in to see me as soon as possible, while weighing off the relative need and depth of crisis of each case, while also seeking to help me stay sane, and somewhat healthy.
So Thursday is sermon writing day, I normally get up at somewhere around 5am, not usually later on Thursdays, and after my quiet time, I start writing around 6am. I need to be done writing my sermon by 1-2pm, then I copy the sermon text (six pages) to a new document formatted into 5.5×8.5 inch paper, and begin marking up the text using various colours of highlighting in Word. This usually takes me a couple of hours. Meanwhile, after I finish my sermon, Karen works several hours on Thursdays to find/create the PowerPoint slides which will be on the screen behind me (or the big screens at the sides) as I preach. She normally gives me multiple options of any image or graphical slides, so I will go through that when she is done to select the final slides. Once the slides are finalized, she has a number of tasks to complete before leaving around 5pm, including printing my notes and getting the slides to Andrew Oldham so that when he is in Thursday night for worship team practice, he can do some work on the booth computer to get the slides ready to be displayed on Sunday. Karen also sends my full manuscript to the Spanish and Cantonese teams for them to prepare for Sunday. She and I leave work around 5pm, with the sermon done and off to those who need it.
Before I move on, I just have to say, God bless our translators! They usually spend about five hours (or more) between receiving the manuscript Thursday night and first service Sunday pouring over the words and working out translations. Then they sit in the 9am service on Sunday, as I often get off my notes or will say things differently than I have in my notes. They have a real challenge, to try to accurately translate what I actually preach, so they make notes on their printed notes. Then in the 11:15 service, they each have a small translation booth in an office off our lobby and they can see and hear me as I preach, and they use their notes, but also have to listen as sometimes I say things differently in the second service from the first. So, they listen, they look at their notes, and then they translate thought by thought. As I said, God bless our translators as this is an exhausting process! I so love and respect everyone on those teams as they have such a passion to get it right, to be accurate and true, not just to my words, but especially to the Word of God!
Back to Thursdays. I head home around 5pm on Thursdays. All our ministry staff and some support staff take Friday as our day off in lieu of Sundays. I don’t touch my sermon on Fridays, and try not to work on Friday, making it a sabbath day. So, our ministry staff have a Friday and Saturday weekend, instead of Saturday and Sunday, like most other people. Before I hired Karen, I still had to work most of my days off or “weekends”, at least partially and often full days, as there were just so many demands on my time. But she has taken so much of the administrative load off me and handles so many tasks and takes on most of our human resources tasks, etc., so now, thank God and Karen, I normally get my Fridays off. Saturday morning, I get up about 5-5:30, and after my quiet time, I will spend a couple of hours walking through my preaching notes with a pen, circling and underlining almost all the text. This helps me look up and down and not lose my spot when I preach (tip to those doing any speaking, notes just printed from a computer are very easy to lose your spot as you read as every line looks the same. You need to make it more like an image, like art, highlighting with colour, with underlines, with circled text so you can easily look up and down and not lose your spot). I will also make edits to my notes, adding thoughts for clarity, removing text (not as often☺), or changing how I say things. Then I set it aside mid-morning, and try to do other things, with Cindy (in the past with the kids) or stuff around the house. All my family has learned, however, that I am not all there on Saturdays. I am in body, but my mind is preoccupied with the sermon. As the hours go by, I am increasingly, preoccupied with the approaching sermon. We have seldom done anything like going out on a Saturday night with friends or to events, as it is not a good time for me to be socializing as I am preoccupied, as most preachers are.
Usually by about 4pm, I have to get back to my notes, so I will sit from then until bed time, usually around 9-10pm, running through my notes, thinking about them. I set them down, pick them up, running through various aspects of my sermon as well as praying about it. I will read through my sermon anywhere from four to eight times before I preach it. All week in my study I have sought to pray throughout the research and writing, but the sense of a need to pray certainly grows more urgent as Sunday morning approaches. I also will usually highlight my notes some more in the evening, usually just an orange highlighter, to help certain things stand out more.
I normally get up at 4am on Sundays. If I am really tired and am comfortable with where my sermon is at, this may be closer to 5am, but I usually wake up before my alarm (same most days), as my mind is consumed with my sermon. I get up, have my quiet time, then back to reviewing the sermon. Then I get showered and dressed and we head to the church for 8am. One of the greatest blessings to me personally when it comes to Sundays and preaching is our elder prayer time. Whatever men are there on a Sunday come to my office at 8:30 and we pray until the service starts at 9am. In addition to this gift, is a very faithful group of prayer warriors who meet in the prayer room from 8-8:30 every Sunday morning to pray for our ministry and services and for me. Cindy joins in that prayer time every week as does John Klassen before he joins us for our elder prayer time. I also know many of you are praying for me and our services throughout the week and on Sundays. Also, during both services, a faithful few are in the prayer room praying though each of our services. Would you consider joining them as this is one of the greatest and most important ministries we have! Thank you to all who pray for me, as it is so needed!! I could not do what I do without the prayers of so many.
I love teaching; a classroom is where I am most comfortable. I will be honest; preaching has near wrecked me over these 20 years. I love the research, but I find sermon writing on Thursdays very exhausting and difficult, and I always have. It is my second hardest day. By the time my sermon is written and Thursday at 5pm has arrived, my head feels so heavy and I feel exhausted, for I am trying to take lots of research (we were taught to preach from the overflow of our study) down to six pages, or 45 minutes. You all know I tend to be longwinded, but if you only knew all that I wanted to say! It is hard for me to discern and determine what to include and what not to include. I love the research part, but writing is an exhausting process, and I don’t like it. It is necessary, however, and I must apply myself fully. This is why I am in lock down on Thursdays as it is a very difficult process for me, as is preaching. It is a privilege and blessing, and I love opening God’s Word to help God’s people, but every Sunday is a very difficult process for me personally.
The Process of Making a Sermon
Let me start back at Monday morning now and walk through the process from my first minutes in a text, right through to the final “amen” in our 11:15 service. I will say it again, I love research! I start my research on Monday morning, always, with what is known as exegesis (understanding and explaining a text in its context). In expository preaching, the primary goal is to go back in time, over what is called the “gap”, the language gap, the culture gap, the geography gap, the time gap, seeking to go back into the New Testament time or the Old Testament time, depending on what passage we are in. The meaning of the text is always king in preaching. What did the original author mean when he wrote to the original readers? That is the one and only meaning of the text and to understand accurately the meaning of the text, we need to read and interpret it in the setting it was written in. It does not matter what the text means to me or to you, that is not the actual meaning of it. The meaning is rooted in the text, in the time, language, culture, context, etc. Why does this matter so much? Well because the meaning is what is inspired by the Holy Spirit, it is where the power of God’s Word resides.
In passages that are narrative (story based) such as the gospels, Acts, or a lot of the Old Testament, this includes a study of the flow of the narrative, often seeking to understand the plot line, who the protagonist is, the antagonist, what is the plot twist, how the story is resolved, etc. In passages that are more didactic in nature (more direct teaching) like the rest of the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament, the key in the exegesis stage is structure. There is no story, but there is a larger context (which testament the book is in), the context of the book, the context of the portion of the book, and the context of the passage. This is also where grammar is crucial, for not only are the words inspired by the Holy Spirit, but the sentence structure and formatting are as well, for this provides emphasis, focus, importance, flow of the argument of the author, and this is crucial in preaching. Our sermons should be structured exactly (normally) as the structure of the passage is, for then the sermon has the emphasis and propositions that the text has and thus has the power of the text!
This process of exegesis must involve hermeneutics, the rules for interpreting Scripture. We believe in and use what is called a Historical, Grammatical (and some would add “Literal”) hermeneutic, which has been the hermeneutic of the faithful segment of the Christian church, I would argue right back to Bible times, but reaffirmed and refocused in the reformation period.
In this phase of my study, I am using lexicons and grammar sources, doing syntactical and lexical study. Thankfully today there are so many tools available to any of us to use in this research – tools helping you and me to be experts on language, grammar, etc. Frankly I am a novice when it comes to Greek and Hebrew, having taken numerous classes in seminary, but I have always struggled in languages (including English), so I rely on experts and their books, or online or software tools. One of the greatest gifts to me has been what is called “line diagrams” of the Greek New Testament. I was taught to diagram the text in Hebrew or Greek in my preaching classes in seminary, and I saw the immense value in this, as these diagrams show the structure of a passage (other than a narrative passage) so clearly. Cindy taught our kids line diagramming in their English classes using the Abeka homeschool materials, as line diagramming is a common tool to understand grammar, sentence, and paragraph structure. I have had a love/hate relationship with line diagramming. I love it, for it is so helpful to understand the author’s flow of thought, argument, and emphasis, and it’s also helpful to structure my sermon according to the text. However, I hated it as I was (and am) so bad in English, as well as in Greek and Hebrew. Therefore, I could never be certain that I had the diagram correct, hence I lacked trust that my sermon was correctly structured. In God’s grace, I found a Greek professor here in Canada who gave himself to diagramming the New Testament in Greek, and many years ago I purchased Greek line diagrams of many of the books of the NT. It is too long of a story to tell here, but I could not find him again to see if he had diagrammed more of the NT, until one day his daughter and her family started attending our church and she asked if I was interested in Greek NT diagrams as her father had the entire NT done! This was the same prof I had found years before, but lost contact with. My prayers were answered as she gave me all the New Testament diagramed in the Greek. This was like finding gold to me, and every week, when I am in a passage that is not a narrative section, I thank God for Dr. Raske and for Sandi and this great gift helping my research.
(See following sample diagram)
Anyway, back to sermon prep. At this point, I usually have a sermon structure – called an exegetical structure – and I have my study of the words and meanings completed, and therefore am confident that I have a proper understanding of the author’s meaning in what he wrote. I also will use commentaries in this phase. When preaching a book of the Bible, I will buy commentaries on that book if I haven’t preached it before, as I usually like about 8-10 different commentaries. Some are more technical and some are more devotional. I like to have a range. Most I buy in an electronic format as then they go with me on my laptop, but I am old enough that I still like some books in my hands, so I always buy a few in hard copy format as well. I will read through what the commentators say about the passage as they help a lot with structure, meanings of words, grammar, culture, language issues, textual issues, context, and at times application.
So, at this point I have a sermon, but it is still back there – back in that period of time. I have what I would call an exegetical outline, with wording and focus directly on the text. Some would say this is what we preach, like those in the John MacArthur camp and what I was trained in at seminary. However I have learned over the years that in preaching, we need to add a step to this process, and take that exegetical outline and the textual details and the meaning of the text, back over that gap, keeping the structure, emphasis, flow, and argument of the text, and for sure keeping the meaning, but come back to our time, language, culture, people, and actually, to our congregation. This is one of the reasons I sought to do my Doctor of Ministry at Southern Seminary, as they teach this. So, I will reword the exegetical outline (my sermon points, my main or big idea of the sermon) into words that are aimed at our congregation and where we are all at.
This keeps the meaning, flow, and emphasis of the author, but does not lose any of the inspired nature of the words, grammar, argument, etc. It rewords this into what is called a “homiletical outline”, meaning a preaching outline. Those who stop with the “back there” sermon structure and wording, often seem to be preaching more of a commentary – great content, but it makes it more work for the listener to do the work of tracking with and having to apply what they are hearing to their life and time. Some, like John MacArthur, are so gifted, uniquely gifted that they are easy to listen to and understand with this approach. However it has been my experience that many others, like myself and most of my classmates and graduates over the years, and from other schools that follow this approach, have content in their sermons that is Biblical and accurate, but tends to be a bit dry, making the listener work hard to stay connected and do the application. Whereas, when we bring the exegetical sermon back across, making a homiletical sermon, with language and focus on the listener, we still have the inspired meaning, structure, focus, etc., but now it is targeted at the listener, and our culture and time and understanding, making it easier for the congregant to track with you, to understand, and to see how the text applies to them and their life.
When I have finished the research for that week, or just run out of time to do my research (I need to be done my research by Wednesday night) I transition into sermon writing. That starts Thursday morning, around 5-6am. I need to have my sermon written by about 12-1pm, 2pm at the latest on Thursday. A full sermon for me, is written in 12pt font, and takes about six pages. I then copy this text to a different document which is formatted into 5.5” x 8.5” sized paper. After copying my sermon to this format, I spend most of the rest of Thursday afternoon highlighting the text in my Word document, with various colours, to help me keep my place as I look up and down during preaching. When I’m done, this document is printed on card stock, hole punched, and fits in a soft cover binder I have which is the same size as my Bible. Karen starts, when I begin marking up my preaching notes, to create the PowerPoint slides, walking through my notes, creating text or image slides to go behind me on the screen. I go through what she has created late Thursday afternoon, as she normally gives me three different options for each of the slides with images or graphics and I pick which ones I want. When I am done this, and she has completed the slides, she sends this off to Andrew Oldham to get ready for Sundays. My manuscript is also sent to the Spanish and Cantonese translation teams on Thursday, so they can do their weekend work to get ready to translate my 11:15 sermon.
The Delivery of the Sermon
Preaching is a crucible for me! I am not nervous, but the energy building up in me, starting Saturday morning, is incredible. It is not nerves, but is an overwhelming sense of inadequacy, of responsibility, a weight of what I am about to do, to stand before God’s people, to seek to explain God’s Word, to teach Holy Scripture, is such a weight and such an almost terrifying responsibility, while at the same time being such a privilege and joy. It is the most exhausting thing I do in my life. Weekends exhaust me. By the end of Sunday, on the drive home, I am usually extremely spent. My family has known for 20 years, for most of some of our kid’s lives, dad was pretty useless to us on Saturdays and so exhausted Sundays, that we just don’t expect much from him. Sundays, when I walk up to the pulpit, by God’s grace and provision, it is an all-in endeavour, and the most crucial thing I do, but it also wipes me out. I have what I can only call sermon brain, as I am not that smart, nor gifted. Some can preach and do so many other things, but not me. I have a bad memory at the best of times, but it would be surprising to many how little other than my sermon is in my mind on Sundays. Before I preach, I am dominated by it. After I preach and after talking with and praying with people, when I head home, I am done. It is a strange mix, for the adrenaline is still flowing, yet you are exhausted. One of my biggest struggles over these 20 years has been the replaying my sermon in my head. When we had three services, I would replay three sermons. Now it’s just two, but stuff like I run over in my mind are things like: Why did I say that the way I did? Why did I get off my notes,? I should have explained that better. Did I actually have that part right? I should have studied that part more than I did. I seemed to be losing the people at that point. It can be so hard to turn it off! I usually try to come home and watch sports or a movie as I have to get something to distract my mind, or I will continue to replay it over and over. Not all preachers do this, but I know many who do.
For the first 12-14 years of our church, I had a massive headache every Sunday, it would start about an hour after finishing preaching, and would last, in the early years, into Monday morning. I am not exaggerating; I could count on one hand the number of Sundays in our first 12 years where I did not suffer from this. Over the years the headache started to go away sooner. It started to go away Sunday night instead of Monday morning, then was late Sunday afternoon, then only was for an hour or two. Then in God’s grace, it didn’t happen anymore. Over these past 5-6 years, I haven’t hardly ever had that headache again. However Sundays and the actual act of preaching is a crucible in which God has and continues to wreck me and remake me. Often people will say to me before a Sunday service, “are you ready?” I just want to scream out – NO! I never feel ready, no matter how much study I do, no matter how good (or often not so good) my week of preparation has been. For me personally, and I know many other preachers who have this same struggle, I never “feel” ready. I never think – I have studied enough, I know all there is to know about this passage. By God’s grace, I can honestly say I have never got up and preached something I didn’t think was accurate or true to the text, but I also see how deep and wonderful and amazing the Word is and I although we can ALL know it and know what it means and what God is saying to us through His Word, I don’t think any of us should ever feel we have it all down and have in any way mastered it.
I feel my inadequacy every single Sunday and that builds the closer I get to preaching. I normally sit during worship before the sermon. I love our worship and am so thankful for Steve and the services he puts together and for our team at the front and in the booth who serve us so well. However I find with my age and preaching twice, the way we preach, I have to manage my energy level, so sitting helps me with that. I preach for 45-60 minutes, standing, and an all-in commitment, then I usually stand and talk/pray with people for normally up to 30 minutes after a service. So, all that standing and exertion of energy, then doing it a second time – well at my age, I need to manage my reserves to get through both of those services. In addition, my not so great knees and a bad lower back, coupled with the standing while preaching, then standing talking, often causes me pain. So as I sit during the worship time, I often am singing in my head, or out loud, but I also spend a lot of my time going back and forth between singing and praying, sometimes desperately, for God’s grace, God’s clarity as I preach. I’m often praying that what I say is accurate and true to the text. Praying for the hearts and minds of those listening, praying for the lost to be saved, praying for God’s Spirit to take God’s Word and apply it to each heart. If God does not move, the preacher’s work and words are useless. I feel that building non-stop until I walk up the stairs to the pulpit, then honestly God is so kind and gives me such a peace as I open my mouth. I am not nervous or anxious normally at that point, just excited and thankful for the privilege of feeding God’s people. It is such a joy to see all our people, Bibles open, pens out, heads going up and down, looking at their text (a preacher loves seeing that), taking notes, receiving God’s Word, loving God’s Word. There is such a symphony between the preacher and the congregants when preaching expository sermons. Each has their part in it, all empowered and illuminated by God’s Spirit, for His glory. I don’t get nervous preaching elsewhere, even in larger settings, which still shocks me as I used to be petrified to get up in front of half a dozen people, but it is God’s kindness, as a part of my calling.
Preaching has been perhaps the hardest thing I have done in my life. Leading and preaching have been my greatest joys and blessing from God, but also my greatest burden and weight. Honestly, most days, far, far more than any would believe, I don’t know if I can go on. That started in our early years, yet God never disappoints, He never lets me down. When I don’t think I can, He enables me to. It is His kindness, knowing how proud and self-sufficient my sinful heart is, to constantly, weekly, wreck me and show me I so am not up to what He has called me to, but He who is at work within me, and the wonderful book He allows me to study and preach are more than enough for what He has called me to. If not for God’s calling, there are so many days I would have run from this. I prayed at times for God to release me, I yearned to not carry this weight. I don’t want to be the leader, I love following good leadership, and I am very happy not to preach, as I love sitting under good preaching and am extremely content to be taught, not to be the teacher.
I believe one day God will release me from this, Lord willing, when we have found the man that God has to carry this role in the future. Until then, I am so thankful not that I am staying strong or doing this in my own strength, but that He, in His grace, carries me, every day, every week, every Sunday I need to preach. He has not released me from my call, He still enables me to do what I do. I am still, to this day, dumbfounded that I get to do this and that God gifts and enables me to do this. I still, almost every Sunday, as we worship and I sit there, am absolutely dumbfounded, shocked that all these people have gathered and that I will get up and teach them and they will stay awake or stay in the room through it. Some weeks I almost chuckle at God’s shocking call for if you knew me and how unlikely it is that He would call me to preach, you would laugh as well. Scripture tells us He gives gifts as He, the Spirit wills. I am a living testimony that this was and is all Him, zero of me. This is why I kneel and pray before jumping into the exposition of the text, as I need to remind my own heart, that this is none of me, and ALL of Him and if He doesn’t move, all that happens will be not only a waste of everyone’s time, but actually harmful to the people of God. When praying right before I preach, as I’m walking up the stairs, I often pray what I read that Spurgeon used to pray as he walked up the stairs to his pulpit. He would pray with every step he would take, “I believe in the Holy Spirit”, “I believe in the Holy Spirit”. This is my heart and prayer as I go up to preach, for unless He brings His Word to light in the hearts and minds of the listeners, all that happens is useless.
If you have made it this far in your reading, bless you. You deserve a reward for your perseverance! I am not sure if this, in any way, is helpful to anyone, but if it does anything I hope it just causes those who read it to pray two things: First, a prayer of gratitude to God for His kindness and grace in using a broken vessel, to use Biblical terms, a cracked clay pot like me, and second, to pray for sustaining strength, faithfulness, and provision for as long as He continues to call me to preach His Word. Thank you!