5 Stages of Sermon Preparation

I am writing a series of posts on preaching. This is the third one, and a follow-up to the last one, The Preaching Process. The first one is The Preaching Challenge.

In the last post, I began writing about sermon preparation and mentioned that I have developed five words to help guide me through my own process.

Cultivate. This phase isn’t specifically sermon preparation, but it’s a prerequisite for good sermon prep. I may spend several days working on a sermon, but effective sermons develop out a heart that has been cultivated. See my earlier post: It Takes 20 Years to Make a Sermon.

This is the ongoing work of cultivating the heart. We cultivate our hearts through consistent practice of spiritual disciplines. Heart cultivation also happens through ongoing personal growth, including listening to and learning from other communicators and reading books about preaching/communication.

Immerse. I begin the week of sermon prep simply reading the Scripture text. But immersing myself in the text goes beyond a cursory reading. I normally print out my sermon text in about five different translations (from biblegateway.com). On Monday, I read through each of the translations a few times, sometimes highlighting words/phrases that particularly strike me.

After settling on a translation (usually the New Living Translation or the Contemporary English Version for their readability) I spend the rest of my immersion time in that translation. Basically, I want to spend time reading the text before I go to the reference works.

I probably spend at least as much time in this phase as any of the others. Monday is a lighter day (I’m still recovering from my pastor’s hangover), simply getting acclimated to the text, reading it in multiple translations.

There’s a tendency to say, after the first few minutes of reading the text (especially if I’m familiar with it), “Okay, I got it.” But the discipline is saying, “Wait, not so fast.” In my experience, it’s usually the second day that the text really starts to come alive.

Also, during this time I have to watch that I don’t jump too far ahead and short-circuit the process (i.e., mapping out my message before I’ve done enough preparation).

In recent weeks, I’ve been devoting Mondays and Tuesdays to this phase. This week, I’m going to experiment by immersing myself in the text on Monday and Wednesday and devoting Tuesday to study (the next phase). The idea will be to immerse myself in the text on Monday, follow it up with textual study on Tuesday, then on Wednesday, meditate on the text in light of what I’ve studied the day before. I’ll adjust as necessary.

Study. I try to do all my study in one day, if possible. That may not be as much as some preaching professors suggest for this segment, but if I’ve immersed myself in the text, processing the information during this part seems to go faster.

I generally start out on the lighter side with three study Bibles (Life Application Study Bible, Archeological Study Bible, and the The Life with God Bible, formerly Spiritual Formation Study Bible; actually, I would have bought the Wesley Study Bible, published last year, but I noticed that they were given as gifts to those being ordained at annual conference last year, so I’ll have to wait till 2011 to add this one :-)).

I try to refer to a couple different commentaries as well as The Idiot’s Guide to the Bible. 🙂 I like to do as much as I can online (see my post on Online Bible Study Tools; my favorite it is the extensive translation notes at nextbible.org).

My study time is primarily devoted to the text. Some people collect and file illustrations for future use. I use to search for illustrations, but I don’t really use too many third-party illustrations anymore (unless I happen to come across one or remember one, in which case I use Google to find it).

Craft. This is the phase when the sermon begins to take shape. If I’m still on track at this point, it’s Thursday. After immersing myself in the text and doing textual study, I’m ready to map out the message. This part of the process involves picking a point and then building everything around it. My post on One Point Preaching (based on Stanley and Jones’ book, Communicating for a Change), which offers a “relational outline” — ME-WE-GOD-YOU-WE — deals with this phase more in-depth.

I want to write a separate post on sermon notes, but for now, I’ll simply say that your style — manuscript, detailed outline, brief outline, or little or no notes — may determine what you write during this phase.

Having pretty much worked my way through all those phases, I’ve found that using little or no notes, that I don’t like to write out too much in advance because I seem to work too hard to try to remember what I wrote during the presentation. Instead, I try to think in terms of a map/outline, and if I’ve done a good job in the other phases (especially the last one), this works pretty well.

Internalize. Internalizing the message is the final stage of the process. This is time spent reviewing the message I’ve crafted making certain that the message is part of me. Stanley and Jones have a chapter on internalizing the message. They write, “Until you can stand up and tell a story, you’re not ready to preach.” (53).

Part of internalization is rehearsing the message — not so much saying it out loud (not that that would be a bad idea) as much as thinking through it mentally. Sometimes, I run out of time to do this step … and sometimes I regret that! 🙂

Well, that’s a breakdown of my sermon prep process, as it is now: Cultivate (ongoing), Immerse, Study, Craft, and Internalize.

It doesn’t always go smoothly. Every week is different, and occasionally, there are weeks where I have to be away for part/all of one or more days during a particular week and I have to find a way to make up for the lost time. Some weeks, I do better in some stages than in others (last week, Immerse and Study went pretty well while Craft and Internalize could have been better).

Oh well, it’s Monday. Time to start the process all over again!

What about you? What works? What doesn’t? What are you learning in the process?

(Edited to say that I’ve since written a follow-up to this post: The 4 Ss of Sermon Preparation.)

2 thoughts on “5 Stages of Sermon Preparation”

  1. So the power of documentation accessible online is seen here today. Nearly one year later and here I am reading you post.
    Thank you, Randy. Your thoughts and process are of great value. Thank you for taking the time to articulate and share.


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