The development of a sermon is a very personal matter for a preacher. Like King Saul’s armor, it is designed to fit one person. However, all armor shares a common purpose, and most armor is similar in design. Sometimes only small personal adjustments make it fit another. So it is with preaching. Armor is put on one piece at a time. Likewise, a sermon is developed through a series of steps. The first step is grasping—or being grasped by—an initial idea. The disciplined work of study follows so that the idea can be properly and fully understood. The fact that a sermon is spoken aloud means that some structure, like a plot or an outline, should evolve. Finally, the structure, like a skeleton, must be given flesh, blood, and the breath of life.
The Initial Idea
A sermon does not simply exist; it must be born, it must have a beginning point, an entry, an initial idea. Since my preaching is always from Scripture, the Bible is the ultimate source of my initial ideas. These ideas frequently come from Bible reading, whether devotionally or in professional preparation for teaching and preaching. Sometimes the season of the church year or circumstances in the life of the local congregation send me to specific portions of Scripture. However, a long-range plan for preaching guides my Bible reading in search of the initial idea.
I was taught to keep my devotional reading of Scripture separate from my reading for sermon preparation, but I have never been successful at that. I cannot read the Bible devotionally without also thinking occasionally of the way a verse, a passage, or a phrase of Scripture would contribute toward a sermon. I have not found that reality harmful to my devotional life, however, and it is certainly good for my preaching. When I encounter an idea in my devotional reading, I write it down and file it for future reference. Sometimes it leads quickly to a sermon; sometimes a long period of fertilization and growth is necessary before the idea is ready for sermon development. Some ideas I haven’t yet followed up on.
Several years ago I was reading Mark 10 in my devotions. I noticed that the emphasis in verses 46-52 was not on the healing of blind Bartimaeus but on the conversations. The word call seemed especially prominent, appearing three times in verse 49. I knew that someday I would develop a sermon on the passage around
that insight, but I didn’t know exactly when or how the sermon would develop. I filed the idea. Several months later, circumstances and a sense of direction from the Lord led me to retrieve that idea, and I developed a sermon that still influences my thinking about Bartimaeus and that passage.
Preaching needs a more comprehensive plan for finding sermon ideas than simply devotional reading of the Bible, however. I have found the Revised Common Lectionary a marvelous resource for encountering passages from which to preach on specific dates. When I do not use the lectionary, I develop a longrange
plan with several components to guide me to passages of Scripture that will produce a balanced diet of initial ideas. I usually follow the church year from Advent to Pentecost. In December I read the birth narratives and the Old Testament passages that prophesy about the Messiah. In January and February I read the Gospels looking for initial ideas out of the life and teachings of Jesus. Near Easter I review the passages in the Gospels, in the Epistles, and in the Old Testament that speak of the suffering and death of Jesus. From Easter to Pentecost I study passages dealing with the resurrection of Jesus and with the Holy Spirit. From June through November, I develop a schedule of Bible reading based on a balance of other spiritual and theological needs of the congregation.
Years of study have given me a basic knowledge of the general subject matter of each book of the Bible. If I sense that people need instruction in churchmanship,
in prayer, and in hope, I schedule my Bible reading in Ephesians, in the Psalms, and in the prophetic books. The actual sermon ideas will not come until I have
read those portions of Scripture. However, long-range analysis of needs tells me where to read in the Bible to find the initial ideas.
One other long-range consideration guides my Bible reading for initial ideas: The whole Bible must be the source, not just my favorite parts of Scripture. There should be a balance of Old and New Testament reading and preaching. Presently I am aiming for 40 percent of my sermons to come from the Old Testament. I monitor and plan a balance within each Testament. Law, prophets, psalms, and wisdom literature must be balanced. Gospels, epistles, Acts, and Revelation must be balanced. If I read this year in Deuteronomy and Matthew, then next year it might be in Leviticus and Luke.
Some might think this plan is complicated for generating initial ideas for sermons. However, it works well for me. In my years of preaching, I have never lacked an idea for a sermon. My problem is choosing one idea from many for developing a sermon. This method has enlarged my enthusiasm for
preaching. God’s Word is so rich and diverse yet so practical that I never run dry of ideas or of the desire to communicate His Word. Sometimes I am the first person needing the Word. A Bible-reading plan for initial sermon ideas meets my needs.
The final phase of finding an initial idea is to determine the passage that is to be the text for the sermon. Passage lengths vary according to literary structure. One must determine the unit(s) of thought in that passage. Usually the paragraph is the basic unit of thought, so usually a paragraph will be my text. Sometimes it encompasses a whole chapter, sometimes several chapters. I have preached a sermon with 1 Samuel 4-6 as the text. With the passage limits determined, one is ready for the work of disciplined study.
The work of study takes longer than any other step in developing the sermon, but it is most quickly described. I follow two basic steps in study—translating the passage from the original language and reading as much as I can to learn about the background of the passage.
The presupposition that guides my study is that the original meaning of a biblical passage is the starting point for finding and proclaiming the message from God out of that passage for today. For me, the first step in searching for the original meaning is to translate from either the original Hebrew or Greek into the language in which I will preach (for me, that’s either English or Spanish). The availability of Bible software programs makes keeping up in Hebrew and Greek much easier than it used to be. I use the Logos Bible Software program. To learn about the background of the passage, I read from commentaries, biblical theologies, Bible dictionaries, and works on Bible manners and customs. I use as wide a range of commentaries as I can. I especially study technical commentaries on historical and literary aspects of the text. I look for clues and small details about the original setting and meaning. Similarly, works on Bible manners and customs unlock secrets of the cultural framework of the biblical world and provide clues to original intent. It only takes a few seconds to glance through the Scripture index of a book on Bible manners and customs, but the insights may provide the basis of a whole point of a sermon. A Bible dictionary often provides brief but helpful historical and literary information on the background of the book.
Studying theological commentaries is helpful in identifying key theological concepts that lie under the text. New developments in the past twenty years of biblical studies are producing a growing number of new theological commentaries. These are immensely stimulating in raising the question of the kerygmatic nature of a passage. That kind of theological proclamation helps to shape the central idea that guides the sermon. Word studies of significant theological words like redemption, propitiation, life, apostle, covenant, etc., from theological and biblical dictionaries are also useful.
If I am not discovering helpful ideas in this process, I turn to simple, predigested material like Barclay’s little Daily Study Bible or N. T. Wright’s New Testament for Everyone. Earlier in my preaching career it served as a model for how to digest technical information into sustenance for the person in the pew. Today I am comfortable digesting for myself, but I will read Barclay and similar works when the digestive juices aren’t flowing in my own study of the text.
Usually I do not take notes while reading these materials, though on rare occasions, when I find a particularly pointed phrase or idea, I may jot it down. My purpose in extensive reading is not to write down ideas but to fill up my mind with as much information about the text as possible. I let that information saturate my thinking. I strive to enter into the hearts and minds of the original authors and audiences, to think their thoughts with them as they wrote, spoke, and heard the text. Once the walls between the first and twentieth centuries become transparent, I begin organizing the sermon into a communicable form.
Since my sermons are developed for preaching rather than publication, I must develop a sermon structure that is simple, logical, and easy to remember. I then determine the one basic idea or purpose I wish to communicate. At this point, I return to the biblical text from which the sermon will emerge. I read and reread the text (sometimes ten or even twenty times), making notes of various thoughts and observations that now come to mind as I read.
I pay close attention to the grammar and content of the passage at this stage. I look for parallel grammatical constructions because these are often indicators of the structure. Parallel imperatives or parallel purpose statements may provide an outline for a certain kind of sermon. For example, Hebrews 10:19-25 has three hortatory subjunctive constructions: “Let us draw near” (v. 22), “let us hold unswervingly” (v. 23), and “let us consider . . . one another” (v. 24). The grammar provides a basic outline. Isaiah 40:1-11 contains three references to a voice: “A voice of one calling” (v. 3), “A voice says, ‘cry out’” (v. 6), and “Lift up your voice” (v. 9). Repeated use of a word opens up the structure of the passage.
If the text is narrative, I jot down the plot or narrative flow. I note conflict within the story line. I try to discern whether the biblical author views specific characters favorably or unfavorably. I pay special attention to the words that the characters speak. Their words are the first indicators of what is important to the biblical author. The actions of the characters is a close second source of identifying what is important.
When I have finished reading and rereading and taking notes, I survey my notes. I am looking for the unifying theme and the basic structure of the passage. In some ways, I am waiting for inspiration from the Lord concerning the message of the text. I cannot control how much time must be spent at this point. However, over the years I have become increasingly confident that if I keep reading the text, soaked with all my study, the basic theme and structure will eventually emerge. With the rise of inductive and narrative preaching, there are a variety of sermon forms that are available to use to explicate the structure and message of the text.
Once the passage’s structure has emerged, I begin jotting down an outline or a sermon flow. Sometimes I simply write a single word or phrase from the text that draws my attention to the main points or transitions in the structure. I jot down subpoints or small details and transitions to indicate how the main point or the sermon flow might be developed. Frequently I am still struggling at this juncture to connect these structural elements to the main purpose or theme of the sermon. I
attempt to write the outline or the flow again in a more polished form. As I think about the passage further, I rewrite the outline once again, trying to frame it in simple and easily remembered statements. Or I rewrite the flow to make clear the movements of the plot.
For deductive sermons, I try for alliteration and statements with parallel constructions. I don’t force alliteration and parallel construction if they do not truly reflect the structure of the passage. However, I have discovered that if I am patient and think and rethink, write and rewrite, I can often find alliterative and parallel ways of phrasing main points—helps me remember the outline. I’ve discovered that it also helps the congregation remember the outline and, thus, the sermon. It is best if the theme word of the sermon is a prominent part of each statement of the main points in the outline.
Once the outline emerges, the final step in the development of my sermon is to give that skeleton outline flesh, blood, and life. For narrative sermons I try to express the movements and transitions in language that are consistent throughout. I am looking for phrases that connect the text to the application I think the text suggests. I find that a little extra work on consistency and logic in these phrases marking the transition from one movement of the sermon to another helps me remember the logical flow of the sermon as I preach and helps the congregation grasp and remember the sermon and its purpose.
The final stage in sermon development is fleshing out the outline. An introduction and conclusion must be developed. Illustrations must be found. Finally, writing the manuscript and/or internalizing the message prepares me to preach.
The introduction is crucially important since the attention of the congregation is won or lost in the opening minute. For that reason, I frequently draw attention to the main subject or theme of the sermon. For a narrative sermon, the introduction’s purpose is not to introduce content but to draw the congregation into the story. The diversity of inductive forms means there is a great variety of possible, inductive-sermon introductions. Definitions, real- life experiences, tendencies of the modern world, and literature all provide ways to introduce the theme or narrative. In a sermon on Ephesians 2:1-10 dealing with the church as God’s poem, based on the Greek word for “workmanship,” poema (v. 10), I began the introduction by quoting a poem on the work of a poet.
Sometimes I also present background material from historical, cultural, or literary aspects in the introduction, which helps the congregation enter into the mind of the biblical writer. However, introductions are only to introduce. I must fight the temptation to put too much in the introduction. When the introduction is as long as one of the main points of the message, it is too long. It will draw attention only to itself rather than to the sermon’s theme. Usually I summarize the theme of the message,
the flow of thought, and the main points for the conclusion. Sometimes, however, the final point of the outline is climactic, and the conclusion of that final point may quite adequately serve as a sermon conclusion. In addition to summarizing, the conclusion must also challenge the congregation to decision and action. Whether it is an invitation to seek help from the Lord or a call to greater faithfulness or an affirmation of the work of God in the life of an individual or a church, the congregation needs to know how that message can be actualized in their own lives.
Illustrations can give life to the message. I frequently draw illustrations from other passages in the Bible, from different cultural presuppositions of the biblical world, and from different word meanings and word usages in the biblical world. My own experiences as a child, as an adolescent, and as an adult also become a fertile field for illustrations. I never use my successes or accomplishments to illustrate, but I occasionally use my failures, disappointments, and hard times. Positive, loving relationships with my parents, my wife, my children, and friends are also useful for illustrations. Occasionally I use illustrations from history and literature. I must be able to identify personally with the illustrations if I am to preach them genuinely, so I never use books of illustrations.
I try never to use more than one long story illustration in a sermon. However, I usually want at least one short, one- or two- or three-sentence illustration for each main point. Several singlesentence allusions to other biblical characters or passages can illustrate one main point. Fred Craddock, one of the leading homiletical theorists of the final third of the twentieth century, noted that careful use of metaphorical language is often more effective than long story illustrations, and they rarely become the only thing the congregation remembers. I’ve never worried much about illustrations or collected and filed them.
Homiletics teachers used to call illustrations “windows to shed light on the message.” But a sermon should not be a glass house. I concentrate on the message of the
passage and search for natural illustrations. They have come more easily the older and more experienced I have become.
When the outline, introduction, conclusion, and illustrations are in place, writing the sermon manuscript is usually the next step. In my first three years of preaching, I wrote a manuscript for every sermon. The next three years, I preached from detailed sentence outlines. For a while, I’ve tried to balance writing the sermon manuscripts and preaching from the sentence outlines. I need both disciplines. In recent years I have moved almost exclusively to manuscripts, though I write them to be spoken rather than to be read. I have discovered that if I go too long without writing a manuscript, I find myself becoming sloppy and undisciplined in preaching from outlines. So I make the time to write manuscripts most of the time.
When using an outline, I spend up to an hour prior to preaching the sermon internalizing the message. When using a manuscript, I try to practice the sermon two or three times in the twelve hours before delivering it. I do not try to memorize the outline or the manuscript, but I do know it well by the time I’ve gone over and over and over it. Then I am ready to preach.
I have said nothing about prayer up to this point, but prayer is vital in each of the steps of preparation. Prayer is the oil that keeps the pieces of armor from rusting and the polish that keeps them shining. Constantly, regularly, along each step in the process, I pray. Apart from the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, none of these steps will be productive in preparing me to preach—I have discovered that by experience. As I commit my work to the Lord, following the steps I have described allows me to preach with a sense of his presence and power.
ROGER HAHN is Dean of the Faculty and Professor of New Testament at Nazarene Theological Seminary.