1. Remember One Thing.
A sermon is really about one thing. This one thing is known by several different names. It is often called the “main idea,” “main point,” thesis statement,” or “big idea.” This one main idea is the glue that holds everything together in a sermon. It is the aim of the entire message spelled out in a single sentence. Everything in a sermon should be directed by the main idea. This is what makes sermons clear. Your audience will get lost if you don’t have a clear main idea.
Your main idea should come from the text you are preaching. Start by finding a unit of scripture that can serve as your preaching text. If you are preaching from an epistle or letter, focus on a complete paragraph. A paragraph almost always contains a complete unit of thought. If you are preaching from a narrative text, you will need to focus on the entire narrative (usually several paragraphs). The main idea of a narrative text is the goal (or point) of the story. Remember, every unit of Scripture (paragraph or narrative) has a main idea. The main idea of the passage should be the main idea of your sermon.
It is not always easy to see the main idea in a passage. Start by reading and re-reading your text. Ask questions and take notes. Why is this in the Bible? What was going on when Moses or Paul wrote these words? What happened right before this passage? What truth is being communicated? Questions like these help identify the main idea of the passage. Remember the main idea is not a small detail from the text, the point the text is driving home. The main idea of the text should be the main idea of your sermon.
2. Make Your Study Time Count.
How much time should you study? Preachers are not in agreement on this subject. However, we can all benefit from some time in the study. I’ve found that 9-12 hours is ideal. I usually spend a few hours each day to reach my study goal. Below is a suggested approach:
Spend 3-4 hours reading your passage, taking notes, and asking questions. Start early and relax. Ask God to speak to you. Listen. Read. Don’t rush the process. Don’t try to create a sermon outline too early. Start slow. As you read and marinate on a text, the main idea of the passage will become more clear.
Spend 3-4 hours with good commentaries or other works that shed light on your text. A good commentary is like salt, it only brings out a flavor that is already there. You should already have a good handle on the idea, structure, and content of a text before you pick up a commentary. Good commentaries can help you add depth and perspective to your study.
Spend 3-4 hours crafting your sermon. This is the final phase of preparation. Your previous study should give you all the ingredients needed for a sermon. Now is the time to put what you studied together. Structure your sermon, add illustrations, and bringing out specific points of application. Create an introduction and conclusion that guides your audience into and out of the message. End by writing your entire sermon manuscript. Don’t use shorthand; write every word you plan on saying. This approach will help you think through the message and commit the main parts to memory.
3. Simple is Best.
Complicated sermons lose people in a fog of details. Instead, strive for simplicity in your sermon. Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.” This is true for preaching. Make it clear. Make it simple. Ask yourself the question: could a fourth-grade student understand this message? If not, it is time to go back to the study. People remember what is simple and clear.
4. Shorter is Better.
Attention spans are getting shorter. Technology has made it harder for people to pay attention to long sermons. There may be a few preachers out there who keep people captivated for hours on end. However, most preachers need to focus on being concise. Early on, I found myself preaching well over 40 minutes. Now, I work hard to preach within 30 minutes. It is not easy. Make it a goal to be well prepared, clear, and focused. You can maximize (and shorten) the time you spend on stage.
5. Tell a Good Story.
People love stories. Stories are memorable. Stories engage your audience and keep their attention. Good preaching makes use of good stories. Every skilled communicator knows how to tell a good story. The good news is that storytelling is a skill you can learn. Study other storytellers. Learn everything you can about what makes a story good. Start your own list of great stories. Add new material any time you hear a great story. A story is a great way to capture the attention of your audience or end on a memorable note.
6. Speak, Write, and Speak Again.
A good sermon is different from a good lecture. Learn the art of speaking naturally. Your best communication comes from speaking naturally. There is a simple way to ensure your sermon is written in a form consistent with your natural speaking. Start by speaking your sermon out loud one paragraph at a time. Write each paragraph down after you speak. This will give you a written manuscript in the same style as your natural speech. Take the completed manuscript and go over it several times. This will help your communication flow smoothly and naturally. You don’t need to memorize your entire sermon word-for-word. However, you should be able to speak it naturally with little guidance from notes.
7. Be Yourself.
Don’t try to be someone else in the pulpit. Your best preaching comes from the use of your natural personality. Phillip Brooks once stated preaching is “truth through personality.” Don’t try to be someone else. Strive to be the best you can be. One way to improve is to critique your own sermons. I review every sermon I preach. The best way is to watch a video of your sermon and note any bad habits. Take this a step further by asking a friend you trust to watch your sermon. Feedback from someone you trust can be invaluable. The next time you step onto the platform, make a conscious effort to avoid anything distracting.
8. Memorize your Introduction and Conclusion.
Sermon introductions and conclusions are really important. If you fumble the introduction, you will have to fight to regain people’s attention. A bad conclusion is like a hard landing on a plane, it leaves people anxious to find the exit. Instead, plan your introduction and conclusion carefully. This should be one of the final steps in your sermon preparation. Once the body of your message is clear you are ready to craft an introduction and conclusion that sheds light on the body of the message. A good introduction is like a spotlight, it illuminates the path into your message. A good conclusion is like a laser light, it brings the message to a focused point of application. It takes time to create good introductions and conclusions. Don’t skimp on this important step. Finish by memorizing your entire introduction and conclusion; this is really important. You may use notes in other parts of your sermon, but not here. Your audience will be grateful for an introduction and conclusion that really works.
9. Trust God can Always do More.
Good preaching depends on the Spirit of God to speak. Remember the goal of preaching is for people to hear a word from God. Your church does not need a message from you; they need to hear from the living God. You are responsible to pray, study, and prepare. However, the effectiveness of a sermon does not stop there. Biblical preaching is built upon the conviction that God speaks to his people through the Word. Never doubt the fact that God can use you to speak a powerful word. He can do more through you than you can imagine. The results are always in his hands. We are simply the ones who carry the message. The message (aka the Gospel) is powerful. Trust he can speak through you. I remind myself of this truth every time I step onto the platform. Then, before I speak a word, I pray the ancient words of Psalm 19:14. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” God can use you more than you can imagine.