My Sermon Prep Idea

September 26, 2014

In my 40 years of preaching, I am fairly sure that I have never came up with any distinctively new approaches to sermonizing. However, somewhere along the way I developed one practice that, as often as I used it, always served me well. Before I describe it, I should say that it rests upon two assumptions:

A. We don’t know on Tuesday what we will need on Sunday.
B. God knows what we will on Sunday, and he will give it to us when we need it.

I’m assuming that you know what you plan to preach next Sunday and that you have a basic method for doing sermon preparation–study of the text, forming a theme, developing an outline, and so on. My idea doesn’t fit into those categories. It really has to do with the broad category of sermon illustration. By that I don’t simply mean stories or poems or quotes, although they are all included. I’m talking about the things you work into the sermon that give it life, clarity, relevance and passion. Sometimes just one sentence well-spoken can transform an entire sermon. It might be an allusion or an apt contemporary quotation or it might be a fragment from a conversation or a statistic that drives a point home. It could be anything at all that takes the truth of the Word and illuminates it for your hearers.

As with all other parts of sermon preparation, you generally can’t wait until Saturday night to start illustrating and illuminating. The time is too short, the pressure is too great, you’ve got too much on your mind, and most of all, you can’t quite remember that amazing thing you heard Bill O’Reilly (or was it Britney Spears, though you wouldn’t think you’d get them confused) say the other night. So you need a way to keep track of the insights you run across during the week.

Here’s my solution. Take a yellow legal pad and put it on your desk. Write the title and text of next Sunday’s sermon at the top. Put the date of the sermon next to it. Now you’ve got the rest of the page to work with. What do you put on that page? Anything that comes to your mind. Anything you see, hear, overhear, watch, observe, anything that happens to you or is said to you, any interesting event, comment, quote, song, poem, anything at all. That sounds a little broad, doesn’t it? Well, it is broad, as broad as life itself. Each day–at least once a day, but sometime several times a day–you write down what has been on your mind or what has been happening. Jot down a phrase that helps you remember. This is not a journal or a diary. It’s a way to recall the passing parade of life. When I did this, I didn’t try to categorize things. I just jotted them down as they happened or came to me. And I tried to write down at least ten things every day. That gave me 60-75 items by the end of the week.

But note this. You don’t write down only those things that you think will relate to your sermon. Remember, you don’t know on Monday what you will need on Sunday so it’s all fair game. And the list is for your eyes only.

So if I were doing it this week, my list would look something like this:

Josh, Hong Kong, iPhone6
“Cut it Straight!”
Mac Brunson: “When someone dies for you, you say, ‘Thank you.'”
Mac Brunson: “Something is about to happen.”
Al Mohler /Rev. Ike /“Spiritual metaphysicians don’t know how to tangibilitate.”
Deepak Chopra–”We’re all on death row.”
Churchill: “He was England.”
Derek Jeter’s last at-bat!
Hemingway: “We’re all broken people. Many of us are stronger in the broken places.”
“You’re nothing without me.”
Knox and my shadow.
Charles Barkley on spanking.
Immigration at all-time high: 41.3 million!
Jim W: “What’s behind Door # 2?”
Oil and gas: 10 Million: Small deal; 100 million: Medium deal; 1 billion: large deal.
“We’ll get the results in 10 days.”
Steve W: “Give me four things about you, and I can find out everything about you”
Jeanie: “4th quarter, 1st and 10”
That quote from Martyn Lloyd-Jones on preaching.
“Most billionaires 2013: 1. Moscow 2. NYC 3. Hong Kong 4. London 5. Istanbul 6. Sao Paulo 7. Mumbai 8. Seoul 9. Beijing”
“Her Battery is running down.”
Hattiesburg MS Terrorist threat: Sheriff says no.
“It’s like we keep finding, ‘I know a guy who knew a guy, and we can never find that guy.”
Some things you only learn the hard way.
My birthday!
“Shipwreck Men”
The king of all dogs–the mighty basset hound
“Happy Birthday, St. Ray”
“There is healing power in your hands”</div>
Earthquake in Santa Rosa!
Letter to the guy in the Hong Kong prison.
Tracey in New Zealand–”Why are you waiting?”
“D’oh” now in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Bart Simpson: “This is the worst day of my life.” Homer Simpson: “The worst day of your life so far.”
“Anything can happen. Anything happens all the time.”
Terry Black: “It’s a young man’s game!”

That list comes from this week. Most of it makes sense only to me. A list like this serves as a memory aid later in the week. When I am making this list, I will jot it down in two columns. Sometimes I will underline something or highlight it or I will draw lines connecting various items.

The goal is to come to the end of the week with 60-75 items. If I have 15, that’s not enough. If I have 200, that’s too many. As I’m putting my sermon in final form, I’ll glance over the list of 60-75 items. Invariably I will find ways to use 6-8 items in my sermon. I might use as many as 10 but probably not more than that. Remember, these aren’t always full-blown illustrations but they could be. It depends on my sermon, the other material I have prepared, and the need of the moment. By definition most of what I write down won’t be used. But the part that I use wouldn’t have come to me without this list.

When I was using this system every week, I usually ended up with a page or two of brief notes. After Sunday, I would put the list in a big pile and start all over again. I would only carry over particularly good quotes or stories that stayed in my mind. That way the list becomes new every week. If I were to go back and look at the lists that I made five years ago, most of it wouldn’t make sense to me. It’s not meant to be a long-term thing. Those little phrases are meant to jog my mind this week as I prepare the sermon for this Sunday.

Why does this work? It works because in the providence of God, he supplies around us every day the things we’re going to need later in the week.

If only we had eyes to see them.
If only we wrote them down.

Try this idea for a few weeks and see if it doesn’t add some freshness to your preaching.

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