FAQ: How to Prepare a Message- Step by Step Guide

In my 5+ years of ministry I’ve been asked the question, “How do you prepare for a sermon?” a number of times. Today, I’d like to provide a brief step by step guide for your reference. If you’re a pastor, thinking about being a pastor, or you are a Bible study or Life Group or House Church leader at your church then my hope is this will be a resource for you. If you are not a pastor or leader of a Bible Study then maybe you just want to know what your pastor does on a regular basis to prepare messages for you and your congregation; hopefully this is some good insight for you, so you know how to pray for your pastors.

  1. Select a passage to preach. If you are preaching the Bible expositionally then this is a fairly straightforward task, because you simply move onto the next pericope of Scripture that you would like to preach for your congregation. The hard part here is only in determining where the Scripture breaks are, so that you can preach one big idea at a time. If you are preaching a one-off sermon then this is a bit more difficult of a task. My greatest recommendation for this scenario would be to preach whatever is a part of your normal Bible reading at that time. Ask yourself: What is God teaching me right now? What is a passage of Scripture God is really using in my life right now?
  2. Pray… There are some things that should never stop in your sermon preparation and praying is the chief of those things. God will change you as you pray through His Word, and as you pray in reliance on Him for bringing forth His message to the people of your local church. Alistair Begg has said, “How can you expect a fire in the pews when there’s an iceberg in the pulpit?” I like this quote, not only because it’s pithy, but also because it’s true. If you yourself are not being changed by the Holy Spirit through your own preaching and the process leading up to your preaching then there is something going wrong.
  3. Read to preach… Some people get confused by this, because they think their reading is enough to prepare them for preaching. Reading to preach includes more than just your normal Bible reading that you would be doing anyways. It also includes more than just reading your favorite novel. Reading for preaching means reading a broad span of sources, and being up-to-date on news trends, what’s going on in sports, and in entertainment, and in many avenues of culture. Why? Because, you have people coming into your church from all sorts of areas of society, and so you need to be preaching in a way that speaks their language. For example, if your congregation is a NASCAR congregation then you had better read up on NASCAR news, so that you can bring to bear the message of God’s Word into the lives of your congregation. Reading to preach is a never ending task, also if you read to preach then you are constantly preparing yourself for sermon illustrations to help bring home the points you make in your messages.
  4. Sit down with the passage before addressing any other resources and ask as many observational questions you possibly can. Dissect the passage with your questions. When I do this, I do it as a secularist, so that I can be very tough in asking the hard questions of the text. I try to pick apart the passage wondering what my skeptic listeners will be questioning about the text. You want to cover as many bases as possible in this step of preparing your message, and so you want to ask good questions that you can research later.
  5. Translate the passage. If you have knowledge of the languages then use that to translate the passage you will preach. Do this so that you will be diving into the literary context of the passage at the front end of your research.
  6. Load up on research. I can only speak for myself on this step, but when I am at this point, I normally choose about 5 of the best commentaries. I also address other resource books I keep in my office to address any contextual questions… Examples of these resource books would be Dever’s volumes on both the OT and NT, Keener’s NT commentary, Bullinger’s “Figures of Speech” work, Grudem’s “Systematic Theology,” Carson and Beale’s NT use of the OT, and many others. I then check the outlines of each of the 5 commentaries I select in order to see how they separated the passage. Once I have done that, I then read the first few pages to get a feel for the commentary, and then I rank the commentaries 1-5 according to which I find most helpful. Then, I begin with number 1 and I just start reading and writing out as much useful information as I possibly can. By the time I am done with this step I will have normally written about 7,000 words in a document.
  7. Determine your outline. By this point I would normally already have an exegetical outline, but now you will need a preaching outline. Your exegetical outline is more technical and wordy, but your preaching outline needs to be what you will actually use as your points for your congregation, so it should not be nearly as technical. I try to write these outlines as applicational, simply worded, and clear as possible. Normally I will have a big idea, my points, and then a conclusion.
  8. This is the point I usually begin to write my sermon. It’s hard to say how far time-wise along this is in the process, but I’d say on average I will have already worked about 12 hours on steps 1-7 before I even begin to write the sermon I will preach from. If you load up on research, you pray consistently, your read to preach, and you’ve dived deeply into the literary context then it shouldn’t actually take you all that long to write out a sermon. Typically, it takes me about 5 hours to write a 4,500 word sermon at this point. I write as many words as necessary to fill the time block given to me to preach. So, if I have 30 minutes to preach then I write a 4,500 word manuscript. If I have 25 minutes to preach then I knock off about 700 words to cut it down to 3,800. There is no reason why you can’t make the main points necessary in the time frame given to you.
  9. Run through your sermon one time. I do this by going into an empty room and preaching a sermon as if there were people listening. Who cares if you look like an idiot if somebody looks into the room; don’t you think preaching God’s Word should be taken seriously? As you run through your sermon stop and make edits whenever what you’re saying doesn’t seem to make sense, or wherever you sense a need to change something up.
  10. Edit your sermon. Go through the document you typed and make any and all edits you will need to make in order to turn your sermon into the finished manuscript that you will actually preach for your congregation. Once you have edited the work then print it out. I typically print mine out on full sized pages, and I use a portfolio to hold the manuscript. When I actually go into a pulpit, I bring my portfolio and my Bible. Do what works for you! I’ve seen some preachers use Ipads and it works for them, and I’ve seen others use virtually no notes at all from the pulpit (This is a very rare gift and I don’t suggest it for most preachers-I’ve only ever seen 2 preachers do this well- Sinclair Ferguson and Mike Willmer).
  11. Familiarize yourself with your sermon. At this point you should be close to ready to preach the message. The only thing you are really going to need to continue to do is familiarizing yourself with your sermon and praying. Take the leftover time between when you finalized your manuscript, and when you actually preach to run through the sermon on paper and in your mind as often as you can, so that you are freed up to preach when the time comes.
  12. Pray until it’s time to preach. Pray through your sermon, pray through your illustrations, pray through your content, pray about your tone, and your mood, and God will help you to process each of these elements of a sermon to make them as appropriate as a fallible human can before actually delivering God’s Word for His people.
  13. Preach the sermon! When the time comes make sure you are dressed appropriately, so as not to be a distraction for anybody. Make sure you eat a healthy meal, drink water, maybe have some tea, and get a good night’s sleep. When the time comes for you to preach then don’t promote yourself, or even have any self-confidence, but find your hope and your confidence in Christ alone and He will help you recall your studies, He will help you remember your manuscript, and He will help you deliver the message accurately and appropriately for the congregation you are preaching for. Remember- it isn’t YOUR message it’s GOD’s message, so don’t make it about you-make it about Him.

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