10 Practices for Good Sermon Prep
Making the Most of Your Time and Your Team
I’m not a preaching expert. And frankly, I don’t know what it would take to be called one. But I’ve been working on the craft of preaching for a long time— I’ve been preaching weekly for almost 14 years (almost weekly; I preach about 40 Sundays a year.) Over the years, I’ve honed a set of practices that have helped make me a better preacher. In the list below, I am synthesizing some insights from others, taking the best from the various contexts I’ve been in, and adding my own systems and structure to all of it.
To give you a snapshot, I’d say I spend on average about 5-7 hours a week on sermon study and sermon writing. Most weeks, I’m done writing the sermon by Wednesday, and I don’t look at my notes again until Saturday evening when I pray over it as I think about the services the next day. For the record— and it’s strange to have to say this— I don't hire out research or have anyone who does research or writing work for me.
Thanks for reading my Substack! Subscribe for free to receive new posts stay up with my work.
I don’t believe a rhythm like that requires some sort of special talent or gifting. I truly believe there are practices— systems and habits—you can use to help you work smarter and more effectively in sermon prep, making the best use of your time and of the team around you. Now, as was the case with Saul’s armor for David, some of these may be not be a good fit for you. Try it on; see what works; keep what’s helpful.
Here are my top ten practices for sermon prep:
1. Cultivate curiosity and give your mind space to wander.
OK, this isn’t a specific practice as much as it is a disposition. But it involves practices like reading broadly or listening to an array of podcasts. For example, I might chase an interest in a particular era of history by choosing an interesting book or a podcast (like “The Rest is History” or “Empire”). Documentaries can also be a fun way to learn about people or events you may not have thought much about.
Of course, I’m generally also always reading some book on Biblical studies or theology. My personal practice is to read books by scholars (even if it isn't a scholarly work). I’m convinced that you should always make your level of input a notch or two above the level of your desired output. In short: don’t just read your heroes; read the people your heroes read.
A big part of cultivating curiousity is giving your brain space to wander. Don’t fill up every drive time or workout with a podcast or audiobook. Take a walk with no headphones in. You’ll be amazed at how the you’ll start making connections between the various input you’ve taken in. I often lay down for a nap and end up with a notebook of new ideas! Of course, “new ideas” are not usually new ideas; they’re typically new connections between ideas in seemingly disparate fields. New ways of thinking about or describing things arise from fostering creative “conversation partners”. This leads to the next practice…
2. Have a good system for your notes and take notes on everything.
I love Evernote. I have notebooks for various aspects of my life. I have a notebook entitled, “Sermon Fodder”. I might “clip” a web article from something I read on Twitter. Or I may scan a portion of a page from a book I’m reading. I might jot down notes from a podcast or outline some thoughts about the parallels between, say, MLK’s non-violent resistance in 1960’s America and Cyprian’s catechism in 3rd century North Africa. (That one is real— it’s in the chapter on formation in The Resilient Pastor.) A good note-taking system makes sermon study so much easier because you can search all your notes— that’s everything you’ve read or learned, so long as you took a few notes. Sermon writing is easier when sermon materials are being sourced in the course of life and learning.
3. Draft a plan for sermon series for the next 12-14 months.
This is the crucial ingredient. Pray with your team. Discern some of the themes and texts the Spirit is saying to your church. Then draft it out. I know the next six sermon series we’re going to be in, and I have outlined each topic of the series (some are just chapters of the book of the Bible we’re working through). Sometimes, when a series is further out, I write down a couple options. For example, I know we’re either going to be studying the “signs” in John’s gospel or doing a six-week series through Galatians in Lent 2024. But having a plan even if it’s in pencil gives you a trajectory to move towards. And it neutralizes the anxiety of the blank page. You aren’t starting from scratch; you’re either revising a plan or re-writing one.
4. Read commentaries or books related to the sermon series 3 months prior to the start of the series.
Once you have a plan of the next few sermon series, you can begin reading on the topic or the text months in advance. There’s nothing worse than cramming before an exam, especially an exam designed to text comprehension not just memorization. Preaching is always better when the text or the topic is really in you. You can’t get it in you by binging on commentaries the week of the sermon. For example, we just wrapped up a series on the Lord’s Prayer. The series began in late February; I began reading three short books on the Prayer in January. Sometimes I work much further ahead. I’ve drafted a series on a theology of the body for January-February, 2024. I began reading broadly on it last summer (2022). Some topics require deep immersion of a long period of time. You don’t want to offer up half-baked thoughts or hot takes on sensitive topics. Give yourself plenty of lead time.
5. Read, think, and sketch notes on your text or topic 10 days prior to preaching.
Once again, I use Evernote to begin drafting the sermon. In this phase, I’m putting all the research or stories or illustrations that I think might relate in a note. I’m loosely organizing content, but the wording is far from final. For me, my tendency is for the content to feel far more classroom-ish in this phase. If I were teaching a seminar, this could be my actual notes. But since it’s a sermon, there’s more work to be done. Think of this as the summary or synthesis of your study. It’s the end of phase one of the craft of sermon prep: sermon study. Phase 2, sermon writing, is coming.
6. Draft an outline 5 days before preaching (Tuesday before the Sunday).
I have a general three-part template that provide the shape for about 90% of the sermons I write. The first movement is what I call “Connection and Tension”. This is where I work to establish a connection with the congregation, often through a personal story— the more self-deprecating and humorous, the better. But the connecting story is meant to lead to a larger tension related to the sermon. The key to setting the tension is to identify a longing people can’t name or a fear they can’t face or a question they can’t shake.
The second movement of the sermon is the “Text and Participation”. This is the exegesis of the Scripture and the application of it to our lives. The goal is to let the Bible speak today. We help people enter the world of the text, and then help the text enter their worlds too.
The third and final movement of the sermon is what I call “Gospel and Invitation”. This is not a “salvation call”. Rather, what I mean here is the moment where the message turns to become good news for the hearer. I challenge myself to think of how I can point to the originating work of the Father, the finished work of the Son, and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.
7. Form a “sermon circle”.
This was a practice I learned at New Life and have modified and adapted based on insights from Pixar’s “brain trust” as described in Creativity, Inc., and the academic practice of research seminars and peer review which I experienced in my doctoral studies at Durham University in the UK. Here’s how it works. Anyone who preaches on the weekend is required to come. Others who want to grow as preachers are welcome to attend. We call it a “circle” instead of a “team” because circles can expand or contract; teams tend to be set. Everyone who comes must have listened to the sermon from the previous Sunday.
We spend the first 15-minutes reviewing the previous Sunday’s sermon (more on that below). Then we spend about 30-minutes previewing the upcoming Sunday’s sermon. Here the preacher gets to talk through their outline and receive feedback from the group. The more diverse the group can be— age, gender, perspectives— while still reflecting the congregation, the better the feedback will be.
We have three simple rules: Be honest (this isn’t the time or place to hold back); be kind (preachers are tender about their preaching); and be open-handed (no one has to take your input; at the end of the day, it is their sermon).
8. Finalize your notes by Thursday.
This gives you a firm deadline to be done adding to or editing or tweaking the sermon. Every artist knows the power of a deadline to make you finish the thing. As one of my doctoral examiners said to me, “Done is better than perfect.” Indeed. What sermon could not be improved upon by more time and work? Set it down. Call it done. Your tech team will thank you.
9. Pray through the sermon on Saturday evening.
This is where you shift from phase 2— sermon writing— to phase 3, sermon delivery. In prayer, I imagine myself delivering these words. I think of the faces and the names and the stories of the people in our church. I think of my conversations and meals with them, and the times I’ve prayed with them. I think of things they’ve shared with me or posted on social media. I pray for them now as I think through my sermon. I wait on the Lord, asking Him to show me what He wants to say on Sunday. What from this message is the thing He wants the people to hear? If we are to be carriers of the word of God, we must carry not just the content but the very pathos of God— as Abraham Heschel said of the Hebrew prophets.
10. Review your sermon in the sermon circle to see what could have been “even better”.
If you’re like me, you get your best thoughts about the sermon after you’ve preached it. Take heart, if you stay at it long enough, you’ll get a chance to preach from that text or on that topic again! That’s why the sermon circle meeting is so helpful. We start the review by sharing positives about the sermon. Often the preacher is encouraged by the way the Lord used her words even when she thought she had fallen short of her desired outcome. Then, the sermon circle shares “EBI”s— “even better if”s. What would have made the sermon even better? These are notes that sometimes relate to the organization of thought; but more often, they are about the delivery of the message or the call to respond at the end. This step is crucial in growing in the third phase of sermon prep, planning the delivery itself.
Well, I hope that’s helpful to you. Keep on doing the good and faithful work of studying the Scriptures, writing sermons, and preaching the good news to the people of God.
Thanks for reading my Substack! Subscribe for free to receive new posts stay up with my work.