By Shane Kastler
This article details how I typically prepare and deliver sermons. Not that anybody particularly cares; but I thought it might be helpful for some people to know anyway. Maybe some of these things will be helpful to other preachers. Or maybe it will be helpful to congregants to know a little bit about the process.
Most weeks I preach three sermons (Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening); and they typically last from 45 to 90 minutes depending on the venue. Wednesday nights are sometimes longer because it is more of an informal, “give and take” setting. Some preachers like to boast about how long they can preach; but I find this counterproductive and arrogant. Preaching for 2 hours means nothing if the congregation has checked out after 30 minutes. It might boost the preachers ego but it does nothing to build up the saints. On the flip side, other preachers boast in their brevity but this can also be counterproductive. A 15 minute sermonette simply won't give you the time to explain the context of a passage or adequately expound a text. Rather than focus on the time issue, preachers should primarily seek to explain the text adequately and tell the people why they should care about it. Long ago I was told that a good sermon will do three things. It will explain what the text says (in context). It will explain what the text means (to us). And it will tell the people how to apply it. A preacher should work to set these things up in his introduction so the people aren't waiting 40 minutes for him to “get to the point.” Tell the people up front why this text is so important. Then explain it to them in words they can understand.
The picture above shows my notes from a recent Wednesday night sermon. Every preacher is different; but I typically preach from “notes” that I've prepared. Some preachers type out a complete manuscript but I never do. When I've tried that in the past I ended up getting too bogged down in “keeping my place” in the delivery. It works for some and if so, they should do it. But it doesn't work for me. Other preachers memorize their sermons and use no notes at all. I have found that my memory isn't good enough to do that; and if I try I end up leaving out vital points that came to me in the preparation time. Once again, if this works for other preachers then they should do it. It doesn't work for me.
My notes are typically four pages long. After 20 years of preaching I've found that for me, four pages of notes usually ends up being about an hour's worth of sermon. I also type up an outline which I give to the congregation so they can follow my train of thought. This isn't always required, but I think it is helpful to provide some structure for the people and to give them something tangible to look back on after the sermon, if they so desire.
I often say things in the sermon that aren't in my notes (which I think a preacher needs to be willing to do). And I often skip things which I have in my notes. I think a preacher needs to operate as a “spiritual quarterback” who “calls audibles” when the Lord instructs him to. Sometimes I sense that I have made a particular point adequately and another reference or illustration will be redundant. At other times, I do the opposite. A particular passage or an illustration might come to mind that I had not planned. Again, I see this as God's provision and I try to be sensitive to His leading at all times. As a fallible man, I might get it wrong. Maybe I should have used another reference; but sooner or later you have to “move on” from a point and trust in God to apply it to the listener's heart.
I use a system of “color coding” my notes with highlighters. This is a system that works for me, but might not work for everyone. In my case, I always highlight the main points in blue. Why blue? No reason, other than it is my favorite color and that's how I've trained myself to do it. I highlight Biblical passages that I plan to quote in pink. Why pink? Because it's close to red; and when I see something written in red it reminds me of Bibles that print the words of Christ in red. So when I see “pink highlight” in my notes it immediately jars my brain into realizing it's a scripture text. I use orange to highlight points of application or illustration. I also use exclamation points (!) and the letters “APP” in all caps when it's a point of application. I use an asterisk (*) when it is a sermon illustration. For my “pre-planned” illustrations I typically just use one or two words that will remind me of the illustration. I don't type them out. Once again, I would get bogged down if I did. I use yellow highlighters for quotes. The final color I use is green, to highlight places in the sermon where I plan to explain a particular doctrine in greater detail; or dig deeper into a particular point.
In addition to these things, I usually indent progressively under the main point so that my mind can see the flow of where I'm trying to go. If I want to present a question for the people to consider I will write in a large question mark in the margin. Then sometimes I will write the word “ANSWER” in all caps, highlighted in orange so I can adequately answer the question I just presented. This is called “dialogue and argumentation” and it is vital to the sermon process in my opinion. When I've finished a sermon I always try to “preach it to myself” first. Not only so I can attempt to “practice what I preach.” But also, so I can anticipate questions the listeners might have and attempt to answer them in the sermon.
After I've finished all of this “prep” work for the sermon and made the notes; I go back over them and jot some hand written notes in the margin where needed. I also draw arrows to help me move from one subpoint to another and to help me build an argument and drive it home. After all of the notes are completed, I look over them repeatedly (as time permits). On Saturday nights and early Sunday mornings I look over my Sunday morning sermon notes. On Sunday and Wednesday afternoons I look over the evening notes. This doesn't always work out because family and ministry needs often arise. But that's OK. A pastor's job is more than preaching and when he puts the notes aside to address an issue he is still doing his job. Sometimes that means he must preach a funeral. Or visit the ill. Or have a tea party with his 9 year old daughter. All of these events are important. If a preacher consistently blows off sermon prep so he can play golf or goof off; it will eventually show up in the pulpit. But if he genuinely must address spiritual needs, then God will honor what he does. Real life happens everyday, and the preacher who doesn't “live life” will pay the price for it. The church will suffer, his family will suffer, and he will soon find himself in another line of work.
In my opinion, a good preacher will play the roles of expositor, theologian, lawyer, counselor, and quarterback. He presents the text only after doing the heavy lifting of private study. As he preaches the text he also explains and teaches the theology it presents, being careful not to “force” a doctrine that the text itself isn't proclaiming. He will be like a prosecuting attorney presenting the case from scripture and excoriating Satan in the process. He will point out why heresies are wrong and why accurate doctrine is right. And just as he attempts to “lower the boom” on the spiritual opposition, with power; he will also seek to counsel the saints, with tenderness. People don't need brow-beaten; they need fed. Sometimes the tone must be powerful. Sometimes it must be soft. A good preacher will exhibit a wide range of emotions that are appropriate to the point he's making. You shouldn't be jovial when speaking of eternal torment. And you don't have to act like a zombie for every illustration or point of application. Preachers shouldn't act like robots. In fact they shouldn't “act” at all; they should be natural and trust in the Holy Spirit to speak through them. Which leads to my final point.
All of the preparation in the world is worthless if God is not the center of the whole process. Some might think that all of this preparation removes reliance on the Holy Spirit; but this would be a grave mistake. God blesses hard work. It's true of farmers and it's true of shepherds. Even spiritual ones. Preachers shouldn't try to copy other preachers. But they might benefit from seeing how others do the work of preaching. With that said, if any of my suggestions are helpful then by all means use them. If they don't work for you, then don't force them. All preachers should be alike in that they should seek to accurately proclaim God's Word with due reverence and rigor. But all preachers are different, just as all people are different. This is in accordance with God's plan and by God's design. At the end of the day we are all merely “chosen instruments” who are tools in the hands of the Lord. We can seek to be used by Him and prepare. Or we can be lax and flippant and thus be unprepared. As for me, a healthy fear motivates me to study and prepare. I know I'll give an account to God for what I've taught and I want to get it right. Then I want to present it to the people in an understandable fashion. This is my goal and I hope and pray the Lord is glorified; both in the process and in the presentation.
(NOTE: I have two of my seminary professors to thank for some of these methods. Dr. Don Whitney taught me the importance of color coding notes. Dr. Ben Awbrey taught me how to prepare and preach sermons. Numerous other professors taught me various aspects of ministry, but these two most greatly affected how I present the message).