10 Pastors Share How They Tackle the Sermon Writing Process

The beauty of sermon writing is that there’s no set methodology. True, many pastors use similar tried-and-true techniques, but ultimately, the process is unique to each pastor. Some preachers start the process at the beginning of the week and tackle their message bit by bit until they preach it on the weekend. Others wait until Thursday or Friday and set aside large chunks of time to focus only on the task at hand. Some hold fast to outlines, while others write full manuscripts or use more free-flowing, thought-after-thought techniques.

Regardless of the method, the sermon writing process is a beautiful picture of the Holy Spirit working in and through the pastor to communicate the message God wants preached to a particular group of people.

Below are 10 quotes from pastors about their sermon writing process. Each gives a glimpse into the heart of the pastor and their journey with God as they prepare their sermon each week and do their best to present themselves to God “as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).

Ray Ortlund

Founding pastor of Immanuel Church Nashville, Canon Theologian of the ACNA

There are two things outside prayer and exegesis that help me in sermon prep. One is just being with people. Really listening. I’m really struck at how candid people are. I really appreciate that. I respect that. I get all of those. It’s so helpful for me to know what’s going on in people’s lives. . . . being with people is tremendous sermon preparation. And the other one is a very . . . intimate and sharp, personal discipline—and that is, honesty with myself. As I’m in this passage for Sunday morning . . . do I really believe this? I mean, honestly. Have I really stepped inside this reality myself? Have I been comforted by this? Have I been confronted by this? I don’t trust idealism—I embrace realism, starting with myself.1

Rev. Dr. Teresa Fry Brown

Bandy professor of preaching, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

When I’m writing a sermon, I think of the persons with whom I’m preaching. I’m thinking of the context with whom I’m preaching. I’m thinking of the social milieu that I believe many people exist in from time to time. I’m thinking about what impacts us all and [trying] to find language to lift up different concerns—all in one sermon—so we can pull people in at different times, but never losing the text. I think it’s critical that we never lose the text. . . . I can lace, or weave in, contemporary kinds of things in an ancient text because I think that’s what the ancient text did. I have to “earth” the sermon as best I can. . . . I want to use language that people can remember and repetition so people can remember. But I also want [people] who are listening to understand that God is in the center of everything in a text that may be thousands of years old—but the text is still very new, that God never leaves us.

So my intentionality is the ongoing presence of God “in spite of.” And that the words that we preach should break barriers, not build them up. . . . I want to find a space for everybody, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, and political parties—I want them all to be able to find God in the sermon, someplace.2

H. B. Charles

Pastor-teacher at Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida

Start your sermon preparation with prayer. Pray that the Lord would open [your] eyes (Ps 119:18) and give [you] understanding (Ps 119:34). But do not let this become a perfunctory act. Prayer needs to pervade every aspect of the process. Pray that Christ would oversee your study. Trust the Holy Spirit to lead you to the truth. Seek the mind of God in the text. Repent as the text confronts you with sin in your life. Pray for wisdom as you read. Ask for clarity as you write.3

Matthew D. Kim

Pastor, teacher, and author of  Preaching with Cultural Intelligence

Find a common language with your listeners. Whichever language is spoken in our preaching, the goal is to use vocabulary, images, cultural references, idioms, cognates in other languages, and definitions of terms that our diverse listeners will comprehend. In his book Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons, Richard Cox contends,

The vocabulary of the listener determines whether the sermon will be accepted or rejected. An immediate response is required and always given. However, since many times the language of the sermon is foreign to the listener, it is like a package being refused because the recipient can’t understand the delivery person. Language determines if the message is simply delivered by the speaker or heard by the listener.4

A helpful way to assess whether your language is understood by your listeners is to write out a complete manuscript of the sermon. As you read it over, consider the various cultural groups represented in your church and fill in any question marks by locating words, phrases, idioms, and images that will not make sense to them.5

Paul Chappell

Senior pastor of Lancaster Baptist Church, president of West Coast Baptist College

Twice a year, I block off a full week (or as much of it as I can) for prayer and planning of upcoming sermon series. I spend time seeking God’s face, praying for the needs of our church family, and filtering through the ideas I’ve previously jotted down regarding upcoming preaching series. My goal is to leave this week with series titles (or a book of the Bible) assigned to each of our three main service times for the upcoming months. I also place a text on the calendar for each service. Having a definite passage and topic already determined gives me a tremendous head start on my weekly sermon preparation—not to mention the benefit to our church family of having prayerfully developed series, rather than ad hoc messages from week to week.6

Tony Evans

Speaker, author, radio and television broadcaster, and senior pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, Dallas, TX

The goal of biblical exposition is to usher your listeners into a greater and deeper relationship with God himself through the Word. It is not merely for them to become acquainted with God’s Word.

You are part of the process God uses to confront your hearers. Don’t deny or negate that. Many times in days gone by, pastors prayed something like, “Lord, hide me behind the cross as I proclaim your Word.” But God doesn’t want you hidden. He wants your personality to come through. He made you the way He wants you so that your gifts, nuances, and passions can strengthen, not diminish, the speaking and preaching of His Word.

When you read Scripture, you will notice that Peter writes differently from the way Paul does. Paul writes differently from how James writes. You will always know a Pauline letter by his didactic style and very logical argumentation, while James gets up in your face and talks about all of your business, leaving all as fair game. On the other hand, John is the relational writer. He writes about what he does best: abiding. God didn’t hide any of the authors’ personalities. Rather, He used them.

That is why you must be you. Don’t try to be Billy Graham. If God wanted two Billy Grahams, He would have made two Billy Grahams. God needs one. And He needs one of you too. He wants you to express yourself as you prepare and preach, and He will use you and your uniqueness to confront others through the preaching of the Word.7

Bryan Chapell

Pastor emeritus of Grace Presbyterian Church, president emeritus of Covenant Theological Seminary

When I think about beyond prayer and exegetical study, which are vital for sermon preparation, what have I learned, it’s what I call “going in the ‘Who’ door, which is, “Who needs to hear this?” I’m so often thinking about “what” do they need to hear, which puts me in that doctrinal, exegetical mode, instead of thinking, alright: Who needs to hear what this passage says that I know from the pastoral interaction with them, and that changes my message often to becoming—I’m going to say, simpler and deeper at the same time. . . . so I’m going out of my theological jargon or my exegetical acrobatics and I’m actually thinking about, Wow. If I were in the position of these people in my church, what difference would this make. So I’m not talking academically—I think I’m talking more spiritually, as a consequence.8

Rev. Dr. Claudette Anderson Copeland

Pastor/founder of New Creation Christian Church, San Antonio, TX

If I had to describe how I have entered preaching moments my whole life, I think it would be the imagery of casting a net into the ocean before every preaching moment in every preparatory hour. I would be casting a wide net into the deep and then plumbing, plumbing the Spirit. This is not something that I can explain theologically perhaps, but . . . for me, the preaching is not difficult, it’s the preparation to preach. To take the net and plumb it down into the deep. And then to see . . . what the Spirit is saying about this context, this waiting congregation. What is the Spirit saying about what is necessary for this time and this unduplicatable moment?”

Preaching for me is the difficulty to hear. I’m not pentecostal in the small way, but pentecostal in the large way—in that, I am “shopping” the Spirit. And for me then, when we have “shopped” the Spirit, preaching for me then, is incarnational. That I’m able to operate doing business with this congregation or this waiting group of people because there has been an incarnation of what the Spirit has been so kind and gracious to drop into my soul, to my mind. . . .

I think when I preach I’m usually looking at disarming the audience—disarming the argument first. Admitting the antithesis about what I’m about to say, that there is an argument against what I’m getting ready to say. “I know this cuts across the grain of your own truth. And I get that. But let me tell you now what Jesus says. Let me tell you now what possibility there is that there’s a higher truth in your own argument, or your own injury, or your own resistance. I get it because incarnationally, I’ve been there too. I’m hurt too. I’m disappointed too—the world has disappointed me. All of that. But now . . . let’s listen to the Spirit and the text that predates our own injuries. Let’s listen for the possibilities that there is good news.”9

John Henry (J. H.) Jowett

British author, pastor, and preacher

I have a conviction that no sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as a crystal. I find the “getting” of that sentence is the hardest, the most exacting, and the most fruitful labor in my study. To compel oneself to fashion that sentence, to dismiss every word that is vague, ragged, ambiguous, to think oneself through to a form of words which defines the theme with scrupulous exactness—this is surely one of the most vital and essential factors in the making of a sermon: and I do not think any sermon ought to be preached or even written until that sentence has emerged, clear and lucid as a cloudless moon.10

John Piper

Theologian, author, teacher, and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary

If I know my text fairly well, it’s familiar to me, then I’m not on it [each week] until Friday. I pick it out weeks or days ahead of time . . . and I’m not studying, and I’m not writing a sermon till Friday morning, and I devote all of Friday to sermon preparation. And if I need to, I’ll stay up all night. (I’ve never stayed up all night, but I’ve stayed up till 2:00.) . . . I put on my computer English/Greek, or English/Hebrew, and I read through the original language, getting all the help I need, with my little mouse, and I’ve got a little half-sheet of paper in front of me on the desk, and I’m writing out the text, and I’m making comments as I go. And as I’m writing out the text, I’m just praying: “God, show me! Show me what’s here for my people. Show me what’s really here. Not what’s in my head that I’m going to make be here, but what is really here. Let me see new things that I’ve never seen before.” And as I write—for whatever reason—I see things! The pen, the computer, the Greek, the Hebrew, the writing it out—and so I’m circling things. I’m making little comments in the margins. This little half-sheet looks like an absolute jumble. . . .

And when I’m done, I’ve generally got a whole slug of questions that can be answered. I’ve got lines drawn all over the place. And as I step back and say, “Now Lord, what am I going to do with all that? I could talk on that for three hours!” . . . And in prayer and thought, some of those circles just come together, and I say, “Okay, I’m going to make those three points, or those two points, or those four points.” And I take out another sheet of paper and try to figure out now how [that might] fit together. And once I’m there, I put up my word document and start writing . . . my thoughts, based on that little doodling here. I compose straight onto the computer, and I’m editing as I go, and thinking out loud as I go, and sometimes preaching out loud as I go, feeling it as I go, praying as I go. . . . and when it’s written, I print it out, and then Saturday, after lunch . . . I come home and really go to work.11

***

The sermon writing and preparation process doesn’t happen overnight—it takes time, marinating in God’s Word, and an attentive ear toward the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The Logos Preaching Suite has all the tools you need for the practical side of preaching, from planning and studying to sermon writing, preaching, and publishing.

Learn more about what’s included, and get yours today!

Related Posts

Related resources

  1. “Most Helpful Practice in Sermon Preparation,” The Gospel Coalition, Sept 12, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9UDS8G7JmU
  2. Frank Thomas, A Conversation with Rev. Dr. Teresta Fry Brown, Oct 16, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BYRmRaHjo4
  3. H. B. Charles, “On Sermon Preparation,” H. B. Charles Jr., Nov. 19, 2012, https://hbcharlesjr.com/resource-library/articles/on-sermon-preparation/
  4. Richard Cox, Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons, 2012.
  5. Matthew D. Kim, Preaching with Cultural Intelligence
  6. Paul Chappell, “5 Ways to make Sermon Study More Productive,” Paul Chappell, Feb. 20, 2017, https://paulchappell.com/2017/02/20/5-ways-to-make-sermon-study-more-productive/
  7. Tony Evans, The Power of Preaching: Crafting a Creative Expository Sermon (Moody Publishers, 2019), Introduction.
  8. “Most Helpful Practice in Sermon Preparation,” The Gospel Coalition, Sept 12, 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9UDS8G7JmU.
  9. Frank Thomas, “A Conversation with Rev. Dr. Claudette Anderson Copeland,” Sept 4, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHToFCfolEY
  10. J. H. Jowett, The Preacher: His Life and Work, 133.
  11. “How Do You Prepare Your Sermons?” Desiring God, July 23, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZYpj3gI2eY
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Written by
Karen Engle

Karen Engle is a copy editor for Faithlife. She has a master's in biblical studies and theology from Western Seminary and frequently takes groups to Israel.

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Written by Karen Engle