Anatomy of a sermon: an afterword
I’ve presented a rather idealised view of my week, I know. The truth is, in pastoral ministry, I often was preparing 2 sermons and a Bible study concurrently, so I was doing what I’ve described times 3. Towards the end of my ministry, the evening sermon expanded on something from the morning series, and so I could not start the evening sermon until I was quite a way through the morning prep. There are funerals to fit in, other one-off events. Sometimes I had less time to prepare. Always I tried to front load Day 1 so it came earlier in the calendar, perhaps even one or two weeks previously. So, yes this an idealised timetable, but nonetheless I hope it has provided some food for thought.
Then there’s Day 6 or D Day or whatever you want to call it. My preaching day starts early – almost entirely about prayer and personal devotion. Sermons (for me at least) I amend at the last minute are almost invariably not improved. And prayer afterwards too. It’s too easy to preach and then forget. But I want to commend it to the Lord after it has been preached, as well as before.
And then it all begins again! The mechanics, however, must not detract from the enormous privilege of being called to proclaim Christ to his people. What a task! What a calling! What an honour! What a sobering thought! I cannot think of anything I would rather be doing.
Anatomy of a sermon: Day 5
Today I work on the manuscript. I reduce it to thoughts and ideas and preach from those – that happens to be my style. Years ago I used to do this with a fresh piece of paper. Sometimes I still do. But mostly I do it now by highlighting a key phrase or word per paragraph and preach from that. I also annotate the manuscript, sometimes fairly heavily.
I also preach it through, audibly, at least once, often twice, much to the amusement of my family. We have the most holy tropical fish in the UK, apparently, though I find the fish are remarkably unresponsive to my preaching.
This is the day when application tends to be honed. As a general rule, I find that my application has been too general at this point, and I try to find time to reflect and amend so that it is more pertinent. I also think about whether there is anything in the news that will serve better as an illustration. I don’t want to force the point, but it makes the sermon feel more contemporary if there is something I can relate to that’s happened during the week. I include Christian news in that, because I think it’s a good way for introverted evangelicals to hear a bit more about the world. An “information application” Mrs R calls it.
In my normal pastoral week this day is a Saturday, but as it happens, I made sure that Saturday ended in the study at lunchtime. There is always more I could be doing on the sermon. There is always more room for dotting and crossing. But I figure I am going to be a better preacher, and more use to my people if I have not spent Saturday evening fretting over the sermon and making wholesale changes. I need to leave it with the Lord at some point, and that’s halfway through Day 5 in terms of preparation.
Anatomy of a sermon: Day 4
By the end of today I want a draft finished sermon. That means I work through the value added bits that will turn a dry lecture into a living message – introduction, illustration (where needed, more of that in a moment), application, conclusion.
I think of illustrations as windows. First – and perhaps primarily – they are windows that bring light. Some things are hard to understand and need illumination. A carefully worded illustration (which can be just a sentence) is a real help here. You need to know your people, of course.
But, second, illustrations can also bring fresh air. They can be breather. I don’t think we should use illustrations too much for this purpose, but they allow people listening a little moment to recover, regroup and stay with you. That purpose can be overstated, but I do think it is important. You’re generally more in love with your sermon than your people are – after all, it’s been your week’s work.
I tend, at this stage, to work up a full manuscript, even though I don’t preach from it. And at this stage, I show it to Mrs R. That’s not a stage everyone would want (I don’t think she has the time!). But I find it helpful to get her input; she normally has some wise things to say which are generally communicated by way of faint pencil marks in the margin!! She rarely suggests major things: minor points on application and illustration in the main: but her comments always make the sermons better.
Anatomy of a sermon: Day 3
Today I hope the sermon starts to take shape. It does that in two ways. First I begin to see how the passage can be preached in terms of structure – in other words, what is the best way to tackle this passage? That may be about headings and divisions, or it may be more general thinking, particularly with narrative passages.
Second, I begin to think more about how it applies to us today. How does this passage land in this culture and age – and, more precisely, to the people to whom I will be preaching? This is the day when this thinking looms large and there is a switch in balance between detailed text work and detailed sermon work. Days 1 and 2 are the former, Days 3 onwards become the latter.
Still, at this stage, no particular thought to hook or introduction or illustrations. I want them to serve the whole and I personally find I can only maintain that discipline if I deliberately leave them to late in the day. I am too tempted to build around them. That may not be your temptation, but I’ve learnt to structure my preparation to deal with my proclamational sins.
Anatomy of a sermon: Day 2
Day 2 I get working on the text. This is when my piece of paper is transformed from a blank sheet, to a colourful working board. I use different colours for different ideas – nothing as spectacular as a colour scheme, but when I look back at a sheet, I like to be able to see whole ideas separate from other whole ideas.
I start – or at least I try to – without help. This is the day when I start working on the text in detail. How do ideas flow? How do conjunctions work? Why is something said the way it is? Why is this word used? How do the various components of the text hang together – all those questions you would expect. And I let each of those amend and check my big idea.
If I get stuck, I try to wrestle with it a bit. If I’m still stuck, I get help. I’m not afraid to do that, my temptation is always to do it too early. I avoid books of sermons or devotional commentaries (too many other people have already heard John Stott’s sermons!). So Tyndale over BST, Pillar over Focus. This isn’t the stage for those kinds of commentaries.
By the end of Day 2 I want to know how the passage works and have both an amended big idea and have begun to ask the question – what’s the passage here for, i.e. original intent. That – inevitably – gets me thinking about my own heart and my own congregation. I don’t want to banish those thoughts completely – they need to start. But neither do I want those to take over just yet.
Anatomy of a sermon: Day 1
Today (Monday for the purposes of this blog, but normally for me Day 1 is Tuesday), I just want to let the text sink in. I print it out onto a piece of paper in two or three versions, Greek too if it’s NT (sorry, no Hebrew or Aramaic for this muppet). I then read it through again and again. My aim on Day 1 is to let the text speak without doing any detailed exegetical work. So, no commentaries. I try to discipline myself (not always successfully) to avoid thinking of headings and splits and bookends and all that stuff.
I might listen to it being read (using an Audio Bible) or even, if the passage is relatively short, try to memorise it. I might break the morning with a walk or some other activity and perhaps even take my sheet with me.
I am not so narrow that I don’t make notes. If things come to me or surprise me or excite me, I might note them on my sheet. But I try to keep these top level – I don’t get into the place of a particular preposition at this stage.
By the end of Day 1 I try to write down a big idea. I might be able to do that at this stage, I might not. But I want the passage to be in my bloodstream so that when Day 2 and the more detailed work begins, I have a context to work within. My temptation is always to get into the detail too quickly. For example I’m always tempted to start analysing sentence 1 before even reading the passage enough. So Day 1 is a disciplined introduction to the passage.
I try to pray it for me on this Day. I’m not at this stage working out illustrations, applications and so on. I’m simply trying to let the word of Christ dwell in me richly. I guess to most of us bookish people, this sounds a bit touchy feely. But it’s important, I believe, to preach a passage well, to get the sense of it well, tone, pace – all that sort of thing.
Anatomy of a sermon
Next week on the blog I’m going to walk through my sermon preparation process. I’m doing this simply because I often get asked how I go about it. There’s going to be nothing prescriptive in it – there are four of us on staff here who preach regularly, and as far as I know, we all follow different patterns. None is more correct than another. Nevertheless, it sometimes helps us to listen to how other people go about things.
In part, this helps us understand how best we can individually approach sermon preparation. For each of this needs to be different because we have different levels and skills and find some things easier than others. You may be better at original languages than me (I always think about them – but find it very hard). You have struggle with applications or illustrations more than I, and so on.
But there are two constants – one is the text in front of us. It does not change and it requires the preachers hard work to preach it faithfully. The other is a dependent spirit that is reflected in the preacher’s praying. I will not say a huge amount about this next week, but want to say up front that each of my five days is spent at least in part in prayer. Whether physically or metaphorically, each preacher must lay his sermon before the Lord as Hezekiah lay the letter before him (Is 37:14).
Republication and all that
You may have been following the republication debate in the US. Or not. Essentially this is a question of whether the Mosaic Covenant is a republication of the covenant of works with Adam or something entirely different. This is more than an academic exercise for preachers as it gets to the heart of the question of how we preach law books (not just “the Law” in its totality). I’ve been greatly helped by Michael Brown’s little book Christ and the Condition. It is an assessment of Samuel Petto (1624-1711) and his views on the subject. Garry Williams first put me onto Samuel Petto but I confess to finding him a bit impenetrable. This book is a great help, not least because it surveys many of the Reformers and Puritans with a paragraph on each and their views: a really useful overview.
What becomes clear is that even amongst the Westminster Divines, for example, there were a variety of views within Reformed thinking – interesting given that some of those views are now dismissed rather abruptly with pejorative names. Samuel Bolton does a good job of summarising the five views on the law of Moses:
- A covenant of works, yet not opposed to the covenant of grace
- A covenant of grace, more legally dispensed
- A mixed covenant, mixed of nature and of grace
- A subservient covenant given to Israel
- No covenant in itself but a republication of the covenant of works with Adam
I was away last week at a hugely encouraging Cornhill+ conference. I love these residential stays with 10 or so guys: really good conversations, prayers and so on. We did a session of book reviews and I thought it would be good to list the books that guys were reading:
Expositional preaching, David Helm
True Friendship, Vaughan Roberts
Whiter than snow, Paul Tripp
The good God, Mike Reeves
The greatest fight in the world, CH Spurgeon
What is the mission of the church, Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert
The creative gift, Hans Rookmaaker
Serving without sinking, John Hindley
Streets paved with gold, Irene Howat
The Holy War, John Bunyan
One or two observations:
– These are all good books, and contain useful truths. I’ve read most (though have never tackled Rookmaaker, but would like to). I would commend any of higher happily
– They are all, for the most part, relatively simple books. There’s a place for those in ministry reading such books, but I’m a firm believer that we should read such books alongside those that stretch us. What are you reading that’s stretching you. Some of that stretching needs to be reading outside our comfort zone, even things we might disagree with. I find the discipline of reading something I don’t know if I will agree with more useful than the latest book from a conservative stable.
Go on! Let’s ignore history. Not.
When I’m studying a passage, I try to work things through on my own first of all. I don’t read a commentary before I’ve done any study. But I do read them. I am not certain enough of my own understanding and spirituality not to listen to other voices. I do so critically and thoughtfully. But to ignore the past is to ignore the giants God has given me.
The argument that something has been understood historically carries some weight with me. Some weight, I say. Just because something has been held, doesn’t mean it is right. The Reformation would never have happened otherwise. Such an approach is Catholicism which gives the Magisterium great authority. But even Calvin did not ignore the Scholastics – they are some help, he said.
I’m nervous of Evangelicals who don’t want to engage with the past. Let’s just see what the Bible says, is the mantra. Well, yes. I see that. I believe that – but to try to understand what the Bible says ignoring the interpretative past that God has given us seems to me to be the height of arrogance and a complete ignoring of God’s providential care of the church.
So, after studying the passage, I do open my commentaries – old and new. I want to know what they say precisely because I want to know what the text says.