Preparing your sermon

A sermon, like anything else, is made up of parts. But how can you blend the various parts so that you still have one sermon instead of several separate speeches on unrelated topics? The tenth in our series of twelve articles on preaching suggests construction techniques for building an organized, unified sermon.

Roy Naden is associate professor of religious education in the Theological Seminary and School of Education at Andrews University.

 

A captivating introduction, a convincing body, and a convicting conclusion bring them together, and you have a truly effective sermon. But how can you develop all these elements and blend them effectively week after week? Well examine the elements separately, then note how each fits into the overall pattern that becomes a sermon.

The Introduction

The literature on homiletics is far from harmonious on which is more important, the introduction or the conclusion. 1 And the tension highlights the incredible importance of both. If you don't win your congregation's attention in the first few seconds, you won't likely have it later. So the first few .words need painstaking thought and development. There are at least four appropriate ways to begin.

A quotation. Often you may find it easy to develop an opening sentence that will captivate attention. But if you find yourself having difficulty, you need not despair. An appropriate quotation that someone else labored to bring into existence can often fill your need.

Good books are rich in quotable material. Some time ago I picked up a book by Mort Crim and found a score of excellent sentences like these:

"Only once did Jesus tell of a person going to hell. That person was a rich man who let a beggar starve to death at his front door." 2

"Modern man has discovered lots of answers but not the answer. He knows about how to but very little about what-for. He seems more capable of extending life than enriching it. He is long on pleasure but short on purpose." 3

"If life is not more than a cosmic accident, a mindless joke, a swirl of confusion and color splashed across the black backdrop of meaningless time, then perhaps the discotheque is man's truest expression of reality. There, bathed in the flashing brilliance of psychedelia, rocked by the pulsating rhythms of the electronic beat, stimulated by the sensuous gyrations of the go-go dancers—there, in miniature, is the story and glory of life." 4

A captivating quotation—for which appropriate credit is given—lets the congregation know that the preacher is reading more than weekly newsmagazines. And if the one credited is a well-known figure, his words will lend authority as well as gain attention.

A story. A well-told, brief, pertinent illustration never fails to gain immediate attention. For example you could begin:

"The thirty thousand inhabitants of St. Pierre were doomed to die. Like a castrophe in a ghoulish nightmare in just sixty seconds the lives of the entire population, except for one man confined in a dungeon, were snuffed out. But it was no dream; it was a cruel and indiscriminate reality. And only a single citizen escaped!

"One carefree spring morning in 1902 a sharp underground shock was felt in Martinique, the tiny tropical island in the Carribean . . . " 5

Perhaps the most important fact about stories is that they be true—unless you specify them legend or myth. Specific, correct details such as date, place, and persons involved establish veracity and add interest to a story.

A question. If your sermon is on some difficult or controversial theme, you can grasp attention by declaring the theme in the form of a question. If you are speaking about marriage, you might begin, "It's all very well to say that marriage lasts 'till death do you part,' but is there more than one kind of death?" If the theme is Christian perfection, you could ask, "Is it possible to be perfect? Do we even know what perfection means? Can imperfect, fallen humans ever attain what they cannot even think or imagine?" If your sermon is on the gospel commission and personal responsibility to share one's faith, you might say, "Is there any practical way to preach the gospel to every creature in every country of the world, including the millions in Russia, China, and the Arab countries, where it is a crime to share Christianity?"

A text. It may sound old-fashioned, but to begin by reading your text still has merit, especially if the text holds some unusual or paradoxical thought. For example, "Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:19); or, "Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs" (chap. 15:25); or, "So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do" (Luke 17:10).

Through a carefully chosen quotation, story, question, or text you can develop a captivating introduction.

The body

While well aware of the technical aspects of the literature6 , such as transitions and propositional clauses, we'll go right to the heart of the issue for this brief treatment of the subject. It is in the body of the sermon that the preacher develops his theme, and as often as practical, that should be through the exegesis of a passage of Scripture.

Young preachers, especially, find it difficult to find enough meaningful things to say in the thirty minutes of a weekly sermon. Maybe some of us older preachers should admit to the same problem. But a preacher committed to expounding the meaning of a text be it a single verse, a series of verses, a chapter, or a whole book is hard pressed to keep his sermon within the time allotted! And many congregations are hungry, even starving, for the bread of the Word. Topical preaching has a place, but in my opinion not a frequent place in the pulpit. According to the research in the church growth literature, preachers who have committed them selves to a fruitful pastorate must stay in a church for at least seven to ten years. Topical preaching will wear thin long before you've preached five hundred sermons.

Once you've selected your scripture, use it not just as a starting point for an aimless stroll, but to dictate the specific path and direction of the study. Formulate a theme from the passage you wish to present, and then break that theme into an appropriate number of points.

Andrew Blackwood showed an inclination for two points. Harry Emerson Fosdick spoke of "not more than four points." Callaway leaned toward three points. John A. Broadus recalled the proverb, "three heads like a sermon," and led his students in that direction. There is no need to be rigid; as Parker once observed, "everyone must have his own way." But the more points you choose, the less likely that they will be remembered!

In my seminary homiletics classes I suggest three guidelines for selecting the main points or headings of a sermon. They should always be exegetical, sequential, and memorable. The points become the skeleton. Some bones, cheekbones, for example, can be most attractive when only barely covered. The same can be true with the points of a sermon. Without any covering they would claim little fame. But if you present them prominently, in good taste, surrounded with explanatory material, your framework of points will abide in memories for a long while.

W. E. Sangster, the master preacher of Westminster Hall, preached on the prodigal son in a way that one could never forget. Just three points:

Sick of home

Homesick

Home

To encourage those of us who will never mount the steps of such eminent pulpits, let me quote structure examples from some young seminarians in my homiletics class in the fall of 1983—with their permission.

Preaching a biographical sermon contrasting the characters of Peter and John, Janet Esh produced this outline: Two fishermen Two fiery fishermen Two fishermen on fire A sermon on the slaying of the giant Goliath led Skip Johnson to progress through these points:

Unkind brother

Unencouraging king

Unconquerable giant

Telling the story of the woman taken in adultery, Osmond Lesis explained:

Her condemnation

Their frustration

His solution

Llewellyn Williams' sermon on the glory of the resurrection had just two well-chosen points:

Skepticism reviewed

Faith renewed

Whenever possible, your development of the theme of the text should be exegetical rather than homiletical. Then there should be some logical sequence in the way the theme develops. Each point should be related to the others so there are not three little sermons, but rather one sermon in three steps. And there should be some memorableness about the way it develops so that when the hour is over something has been implanted in each worshiper's mind that the Holy Spirit can use to continue to speak in the secular hours of the week ahead.

If you have, say, thirty minutes for your sermon and you take four minutes for the introduction and reserve five for the conclusion, you will have only about 21 minutes for the body. If you have three points, that leaves only about seven minutes per point!

Some of the greatest preachers—Spurgeon, for example—didn't stop at the development of main points, but he carried their systematic development of the theme into subheads as well. 7 But let's use youthful preachers again to illustrate. Janet Esh divided her three main points as follows:

I. Two fishermen

   A. Alike good

   B. Alike bad

II. Two fiery fishermen

   A. Son of thunder

   B. Son of blunder

III. Two fishermen on fire

   A. John made it

  B. Peter makes it

Roy McGarrell showed a real mastery of development in the sermon he prepared on the subject of pain. After telling a story from his own pastorate of a small passenger boat on its way upstream from Georgetown, Guyana, being destroyed by a time bomb, killing several of his members, he constructed his sermon this way:

I. Suffering pain

   A. Piercing in its reality

   B. Nagging in its continuity

   C. Excrutiating in its intensity

II. Pain of suffering

   A. The problem of suffering

   B. The polarities of suffering

   C. The purpose of suffering

III. Suffering with the pained

   A. The Father's love is limitless

   B. The Father's grace is measure less

   C. The Father's power is boundless Before concluding this brief section on the development of the body of the sermon, we should mention two other essential observations. Your sermon—every sermon, no matter when it is preached—should be soteriological. If Jesus Christ is not lifted up, how can He draw all men to Himself? If Jesus Christ is not seen, how can people be attracted to Him? If Jesus Christ is not heard, what word of life is there to hear? No message, no matter how persuasive, organized, or important, has a place in a Christian pulpit if Jesus Christ is not the basis and focus of it all.

To preach the Second Advent with out the Christ of the Second Advent is to miss the point of it all. To preach the Sabbath without the Lord of the Sabbath is to miss the focus of it all. To preach the sanctuary without the great High Priest of the sanctuary is to miss the blessing of it all. To preach the cross without the Christ on the cross is to miss the power of it all.

And to this I must add that the body of the sermon must speak to people where they are. It must address their needs, their hurts, their fears, their problems, their anxieties, their apprehensions. As you visit with your congregation you must make it your business to know where the people are in their thinking, where they are in their belief system, where they are in their devotions, where they are in their community relations. Preaching to felt needs in the context of exegesis with the focus on the Lord Jesus is what the art of preaching is all about.

The conclusion

What the body of the sermon is to the theme, the conclusion is to the aim. At the beginning of the preparation of the sermon one must establish first the text, second the theme, and third the aim. The aim answers the question, "What do I wish each member to do after listening to this presentation?" The conclusion seeks to activate that aim.

"It's the final struggle that determines the conflict," the Greeks said about oratory. And it is your conclusion that will make or break the prayer-saturated effort that you have put into preparing your sermon. After you have declared your theme in the introduction and developed it in the body of the sermon, it is time to apply that theme in a very personal way—to lead each worshiper to some specific action. Too many preachers have about five standard conclusions: to love God, to love each other, to pray, to study, to witness. All are laudable aims, but they by no means exhaust the aims of all sermons. Worse yet, they are not as specific as a good aim should be.

Aims are best expressed in terms of the listener's post-sermonic action: what do you want him or her to do? The action may be cognitive, affective, or psychomotor, but it must be action of some kind.

Enough for theory; let's illustrate. At the end of a sermon on Goliath, Skip Johnson wanted all worshipers to see Jesus as the strength of their Christian lives. So he concluded in these words:

"Everyone must start winning some where or he'll be beaten everywhere. What in particular do you need to conquer today? Identify your enemy. Then cry to God, and in His strength go out and slay it.

"Before me I see the spectacle of a headless giant lying on the ground. May the Son of David be your unconquerable, all-powerful hero today!" 8

Llewellyn Williams, in concluding his evangelistic sermon on the resurrection, said in part:

"Years ago a man found a Spanish coin in Florida. It bore the date 1496 and the Latin words plus ultra. He knew that at one time the coins of Spain had borne one more word—ne plus ultra. Why the change? In the early sixteenth century Spain controlled both sides of the Straits of Gibraltar, and the two promontories, one on the African shore and the other on the European shore were called the Pillars of Hercules. Spanish coins were stamped with a representation of these two great outposts of the western world, the last known habitable part of the earth toward the west. On the maps of the Pillars of Hercules appeared the words ne plus ultra (no more beyond). When Columbus sailed through the pillars and into the western horizon and discovered the new world everything changed. Spain became a mighty empire with lands beyond the pillars—the mines of Peru and Mexico, and the sun drenched hills of California. And the legend of the coins was changed to plus ultra (more beyond).

"Before Christ came to this world, despair cast its shadow over the graves of men, 'ne plus ultra—no more beyond.' But through the gospel, He brought immortality to light. From Joseph's new tomb the Light of life shone forth, so today, on the memorial of every child of God, faith writes, 'plus ultra—more beyond.

"For you, through Jesus Christ, hope has been rekindled and faith renewed. Together, parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and loved ones, all who have been separated by the cruel hand of death will be resurrected to life immortal. What a glorious hope! What.a joy!

"What difference does the Resurrection make? All the difference in the world. I want to rededicate and recommit my life, my lifestyle, my thought, and ideals, to a resurrected, living Christ and ensure I'll meet Jesus and my loved ones at the great white throne. Will you do that with me too, now?" 9

Sermon preparation is hard work. I know no effective preacher for whom the development of a sermon is a short or easy task. But to this thrilling work we have been called.

Prayerfully prepared, a worship sermon with a captivating introduction, a convincing body, and a convicting conclusion will be used by the Holy Spirit to bless and nurture your members.

Notes:

1 Andrew Blackwood, The Preparation of Sermons (New York: Abingdori-Cokesbury Press,1948); John Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (New York: Harper & Row, 1979); H. G. Davis, Design for Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958); Donald Demaray, An Introduction to Homiletics (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974); William Evans, How to Prepare Sermons (Chicago: Moody Press, 1964); W. M. Kroll, Prescription for Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980); R. Montgomery, Preparing Preachers to Preach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1939); M. Reu, Homiletics: A Manual of the Theory and Practice of
Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967); R. E. White, A Guide to Preaching (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973).

2 Mort Grim, Like It Is (Anderson, Ind.: Warner Press, 1970), p. 51.

3 Ibid., p. 27.

4 Ibid, p. 31.

5 Unpublished manuscript by the author.

6 Blackwood, op. cit.; Walter Russell Bowie, Preaching (New York: Abingdon Press, 1954); Davis, op. cit.; Dernaray, op. cit.; D. Demaray, Proclaiming the Truth (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979); Evans, op. cit.; T. H. Pattison, The Making of the Sermon (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1902).

7 Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David (New York: Association Press, 1913); , The Treasury of the New Testament (New York: Association Press, 1913); , The Treasury of the Old Testament (New York: Association Press, 1913).

8 Skip Johnson, unpublished sermon.

9 Llewelyn Williams, unpublished sermon.


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Roy Naden is associate professor of religious education in the Theological Seminary and School of Education at Andrews University.

October 1984

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