A friend who teaches seminary students the art and craft of sermon-building and delivery sent out an SOS the other day to a lot of his pastor friends. “What is the single most important piece of advice you would give to beginning preachers?”
What I said was important, but certainly not “the most important piece of advice.” What I said was that once he gets the sermon, he should go for a walk or a drive and preach it to himself. And not one time, but several times over several days.
The advantage of this is that by preaching it aloud, he is able to see where the message is weak, where it dies, where it needs strengthening, and where he has to close an exit because he was about to chase a rabbit down that dead-end lane.
The reason I chose that piece of advice, it should be clear, is that I wish someone had told me that when I was beginning to preach.
Instead, what I would do is labor over a scripture, hammer out an outline, work some subpoints into it, and then hope for the best. However “the best” never came along. It was always mediocre.
In the weeks since my friend asked and I gave that piece of advice, I’ve thought of something far more urgent in preparing a sermon. In fact, what I’m going to suggest comes before the sermon even begins to be prepared.
Simply stated, before one begins to prepare a sermon, he should get well acquainted with that scripture.
The great British pastor and Bible scholar G. Campbell Morgan, author of numerous Bible study books, said that before he began to teach a book of the Bible, he would read it through over 40 times.
I’m definitely in favor of reading the larger text–the chapters in and around the sermon text–several times. But one thing more.
I read it out loud.
Shut the door to your study and read the text as though you were recording an audio book or reading to your hard-of-hearing aunt who doesn’t know much Bible.
Read the text slowly. Deliberately. Meaningfully. Clearly.
The first time through, you will stumble over words and sentences. You will finish a sentence before you realize you read it wrong with the emphasis in the wrong place.
Now, read it again. The whole thing.
Every time you come to work on that sermon, begin by reading the entire chapter(s) out loud in this manner.
You are accomplishing a number of important goals:
1) You are curing yourself of the tendency to rush through the reading of the Word. When we speed-read Scripture, the message we convey to the congregation is that if we hurry through this, we can soon get to the good stuff–my sermon!
2) You are burning the truth of this Word into your heart. Nothing does that like speaking it out and hearing yourself speak it out. I don’t know why this is so; I just know it is.
3) You are magnifying the Word in a way you wouldn’t if you simply scanned it silently.
4) You are slowing down your impatient spirit which “wants to get on with this business of sermon preparation!” Cool it, buster. This work is best done in quietness and stillness.
John “Bud” Traylor is the interim pastor of the First Baptist Church of Baker, Louisiana, where I’ll be preaching a brief revival early in September. He and I have been friends forty years, going back to his pastoring Calvary in Tupelo while I was at Emmanuel in Greenville, MS. Over the years, he served FBC of Gulfport and FBC of Monroe, LA. In his retirement, he was interim president of Louisiana College in Pineville. He is the author of a number of Bible study books and as sharp as any blade in the drawer.
This morning, as I write, he and I were chatting by phone about the upcoming meeting. Somehow we got off talking about sermon preparation. When he asked, I told him when his call came, I had been reading the Scripture for tomorrow’s sermon aloud.
Bud said, “What I do is write it out.”
When he is preparing to preach a chapter or chapters, he writes that portion of Scripture out in longhand. There’s something about laboring over each word that fixes it in his mind.
He laughed, “Some of those Isaiah passages can be pretty tedious.” I told him I’m in Isaiah right now on my read-through-the-Bible trek and can believe that.
That’s how we do it.
How do you do it?
The object of our doing this–I hope this is clear–is that before you begin the actual hard work of sermon preparation, you should spend time acquainting yourself with the actual Scripture.
The worst thing you can do very early in the process is to read what the commentaries have to say.
You’re not ready to see what anyone else says about a text until you have become familiar with the text itself. By that, I mean the English version of that Scripture.
Just read it and think about it.
Listen to it. Listen to yourself speak it. Let it soak in.
You can’t rush this.
Proper sermon-building is more about marinating than microwaving.