Sermon preparation is hard work, no matter how long you’ve been doing it, and no matter how good you are at it. It simply requires work. Many preachers have a hard time finding a rhythm for sermon prep. What works for some might not work for others, and I think this is generally okay. However, I do think there are certain practices that should be common to all who want to faithfully and powerfully preach God’s Word to God’s people. I can think of at least 5.
1) Know well the text you will preach. Read over it repeatedly in the original text if you can and in various translations.
This ought to go without saying, but sadly it cannot. It is possible to preach a sermon without really preaching a text. But may this never be said of us! When we step into the pulpit, it should be God’s Word that we preach, not our own thoughts, insights, or even studies. This requires that we know the specific text we are preaching. We should immerse ourselves in the text itself, knowing it’s nooks and crannies, it’s logical development or its surprising narrative twists and turns. When prepare to preach from a text, we should be more than casually familiar with it (“It says something like…”); we should be deeply intimate with it. One of the best ways to do this is to study in multiple translations, as well as in the original languages. Looking at the same text from different angles helps us know exactly what the nuances and particularities are. No amount of study can make up for this level of familiarity with the text itself.
2) Pray over your study time consecrating it to the Lord as much as the sermon itself.
I am a firm believer that the success of the sermon is ultimately dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit working in the hearts of men and women, boys and girls. But this dependence doesn’t start when I ascend to the pulpit; rather, it starts when I sit down for the very first time and start reading and studying my text. Just as the audience needs the Spirit to open their hearts to receive the Word of the God preached, I need the Spirit to open my heart to understand, receive, and obey the Word. I doubly need his help to speak it clearly. So, before you crack open the books, pray that the Lord would start working even in the study time, starting with your own heart.
3) Make sure to block off adequate time to prepare the sermon. 8-12 hours is essential.
While certain situations might provide less-than-ideal time constraints, the preacher should prioritize making the necessary time to prepare well. We must prepare to prepare! Endless books and blogs have been written about how to short-cut the sermon prep process, and much can be learned from them. However, I am hesitant to endorse any approach that suggests that the work of sermon prep can happen quickly. It simply takes time. So make the time to do it well.
4) Think through how much time you will give to each of the essential components of faithful preaching: introduction, exposition, illustration, application, conclusion & invitation.
While studying the biblical text and preparing the sermon cannot be divorced, we must keep in mind that they cannot be collapsed into one another either. What I mean by that it this: It is possible to study a text well, know it inside out, and not be ready to preach a sermon. To do the latter, we must take the time to plan out the essential elements that make for a complete and coherent sermon, fit them together, and apportion them appropriately. Knowing the text is a necessary condition for a faithful sermon, but it is not sufficient. We must also prepare the sermon components.
5) Preach the sermon to yourself. It needs to do a work in you before it does a work in others.
How easy it is to skip this step! If we are to preach the text to those wanting to hear from God, we must do so as those who have heard from God ourselves. This means applying the truths of the text to our own hearts, lives, and relationships. This means submitting ourselves to be shaped by God’s Word, even as we pray our audience will likewise be shaped. Failure to apply the text to ourselves very simply and hauntingly means this: we are performers, not preachers. May it never be!