Preparation and organization of sermons
The purpose of sermons
The overall purpose of preaching is to give people the knowledge and understanding of how to change their lives and the motivation to do so. The Bible calls this 'feeding the flock'.
Acts 20:28 "...feed the Church of God..."
1 Peter 5:2 "Feed the flock of God..."
John 21:15-16 "Feed my lambs ... feed my sheep"
Sheep cannot be left on their own without a shepherd to guide, lead, protect and feed them. Sermons should be designed to build up, strengthen and perfect the congregation as a whole and individually.
Ephesians 4:11-12 "For the perfecting of the saints,...for the edifying of the body of Christ."
To edify means to build up. Sermons should in a positive way arm their minds against Satan, the influences of this world and their own human nature. They should instruct, exhort, comfort, inspire and correct.
1 Thessalonians 2:11
A loving father desperately wants to see his children succeed and will spare no effort to help them. He won't harangue, rail or beat on them to show who's in charge. 'Exhort' here means to guide, advise, intreat not to bawl out and rebuke.
1 Thessalonians 3:2 "...to establish you and comfort you."
God has set the ministry to continually encourage us along the way. A sermon should not set the ideals and goals so high that they leave the service discouraged and feeling whipped before they begin. This type of sermon can do more harm than good.
Types of sermon to choose
The sermon topic should always be decided according to what the congregation needs and not according to what the minister would like to talk about. Know your congregation. Find out what they need. Be aware of what they are thinking, their problems, weaknesses and trials.
2 Timothy 4:2 "Preach the word..."
Use the Bible as the basis for all sermons. We must never go to it to get sanction for our own ideas. We must think deeply about the application of God's Word to us personally so we can show members how to apply it to their own lives.
Paul even tells us how to use God's Word in sermons:
2 Timothy 3:16 "All scripture is...profitable for doctrine..."
There are basic doctrinal subjects that need to be covered regularly in sermons.
Hit the ABC's of doctrine hard. Paul listed these for us in Chapter 6:1-2. Protect God's people against false doctrine by positively preaching on these subjects.
2 Peter 1:2
"I will not be negligent to put you always in remembrance of these things though you know them."
Never apologize for preaching on basic doctrine. People need it more than we realize. If we neglect this duty, they will forget.
1 Timothy 4:16
Satan has launched repeated attacks against the doctrine of the Bible. Be sure you are firmly grounded in the doctrine of Law and Grace be able to expound it fully. He has traditionally twisted this one around to undermine the obedience and faith of people.
"I will put you in remembrance, though you once knew this..." Repetition fixes these basic doctrines firmly in our minds.
2 Timothy 3:16 "...for reproof, for correction."
Reproof and correction are different. Correction simply means to straighten up not to rebuke. People often have false concepts about God and His Law that need correcting. This should always be done positively and never in a negative way. Never use ridicule or sarcasm when correcting a misunderstanding about what God's Word teaches.
Reproof is correction that is more pointed. This type of sermon in needed only occasionally when there is a general church problem. Never design a sermon around one or two individuals. Avoid at all costs using the mistakes of one person in such a way that others can identify who you're talking about. If we must use bad examples, use those from another congregation. If we make someone squirm in his seat and afraid to look up because he knows we're talking specifically about him, we'll turn him off. The Bible says go to your brother alone when he needs personal correction.
Don't preach a strongly corrective sermon without giving positive instruction and encouragement. Avoid letting them leave feeling like dirty dogs or angry at you for picking on them either as a whole or personally.
2 Timothy 3:16 "...for instruction in righteousness."
Show them positively how they can live God's way of life. Sermons on the family relationship marriage and child rearing should be given at least once a year. Show them how to pray effectively, how to fast, how to keep the Sabbath, how to get along with one another. Preach about and illustrate the laws upon which God's way of life is based.
Sell them on the concept that God's way is the best way. Evaluate the problems, weaknesses and needs of the people and show them how to overcome and obey God. Look for areas where people are more vulnerable and preach on these.
Matthew 24:45 "to give them meat in due season."
Explain the meaning of the seasonal Holy days as they come around. Especially prepare them well in advance for the Passover. People need more than a day or two to really examine themselves and prepare for this. Sometimes three or four sermons may be necessary prior to the Passover.
2 Peter 1:19
Don't neglect prophecy. They need to have their minds positively oriented toward the future. Be mature and balanced in your approach toward prophecy. Don't get people so psyched up that they are packing their bags to flee before the next Sabbath.
1 Corinthians 15:58
Help people see more realistically that they are part of a worldwide work. This is the most important concept to get across to them. Make them realize that this is the reason they are called now in this age and not just to receive personal salvation.
Answer the question: "Is this just the work of men?" Their very salvation will depend upon how well they understand and act upon the realization that God has personally called them to do a job that their financial, moral and spiritual support is essential to fulfilling the greatest commission ever given to a group of human beings.
Help them see that there is one work world-wide. Keep them informed of what's going on.
Help them feel a personal empathy for the entire world.
Avoid ethnic jokes and ridiculing and decrying the popular whipping boys such as doctors, the doctrines of other denominations, ideologies, philosophies and groups. If we allow ourselves to indulge in this type of sarcasm and ridicule, our members will become cynical toward other people and will never have the respect for or attitude of service toward all people. Mr. Armstrong can't afford to take sides in the Arab-Israeli dispute because he knows the moment he does so he'll be prevented from ever serving the other side in the way Jesus wants him to.
Preach the truth in a positive way. We don't have to argue with or demolish, dismember and ridicule the ideas of others in order to feed the flock of God.
Teach them how to approach the world that God's Church has something fantastic to give. Help them come out of the defensive crouch that most of them have been living their lives in so they can begin to serve this world.
Get their minds on the Kingdom of God. People can easily get bogged down in the present and forget about the future. Talk about the Family of God and their part in reshaping, restoring and rebuilding this earth from the ashes of a collapsed civilization.
2 Peter 3:14
Help them see the reason for total obedience and faithfulness to God and now against the backdrop of the World Tomorrow and the Family of God.
Our duty is to give them vision so they will be determined to withstand the wiles of the Devil, the pulls of the world, their human nature and every trial and hardship that may lie ahead. Prepare them in advance for trials by helping them to see the big picture the purpose of human life more clearly.
It can be very effective to preach a series of sermons on a subject over three or four Sabbaths. Such a series can greatly increase the chances of the sermons being of permanent value to the congregation. Be sure to finish the series though.
Sermons should form a vital part of a preventative rather than curative program. Make them practical and teach them how to do it.
Gathering material for the sermon
Give yourself time to adequately prepare. Spending time in preparation gives God the opportunity to work with our minds. Sermons prepared upon the spur of the moment or at the last minute seldom have any lasting value and sometimes may be inaccurate. Good sermons take time to prepare. A well prepared sermon is ninetenths delivered.
Pray for guidance. Ask God to use you to help and serve His people. Ask Him to inspire your mind. Your contact with God is the only source of power from which you may draw. Ask God for the ability to make the subject clear to the congregation.
2 Timothy 2:15
Study the Word of God deeply. Get to know your subject well. Be able to refer to the authority of the Bible for proof and examples.
Keep a note book or idea book in which you write down ideas as they come to you. Some subjects need to be brooded over for weeks or months before they are given. Give concepts time to age and mellow in your mind.
Constantly collect material from many sources from watching people, children, animals, events and conditions. The personal experience of yourself and others will illustrate, emphasize and verbally underline what the Bible is saying.
Very few of us have the capacity to think deeply about problems and conditions in the world. Read widely about the ideas, thoughts and conclusions of the great minds of today. They may not have God's Spirit and may not understand the purpose of human life, but they often have a much deeper understanding of conditions and problems than we do.
Talk to others about your sermon ideas. Get the input of deacons, members, other ministers they can often add experiences, concepts and examples of their own. Many times this is the only defense we have against bad logic and muddled thinking on our part.
Often members have subjects they would like to see covered. It pays to ask them occasionally.
Draw up a schedule of sermons you know the congregation needs over the following month or two and work through them. Be sure to keep it flexible though there will always be needs you couldn't foresee. It pays to decide definitely on your subject several days to a week in advance. That is the time to review the material you have in your files so your mind can begin to work on it. Capture on paper any ideas that come to you throughout the week. Write them down or you'll forget them. This will also stimulate your mind with more ideas. Don't worry at this stage about organization.
Use reference works
The most useful reference work for preparing sermons is an ordinary concordance. A Crudens Concordance can become a valuable tool when it is marked up and basic key scriptures have been underlined. Also, learn to use the center reference column in your Bible. Study the notes concerning its use in the beginning of the Bible. Some center reference systems are better than others for general sermon preparation. A handy expanded reference system is the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge. If you have one and find it useful, begin to mark it up as you use it and its value will be greatly increased.
Other translations are undoubtedly the third most valuable tool. Probably the best one to acquire first is the Revised Standard Version. Be careful, however, where a particular translation gives a new twist to a passage and seems to bring out new understanding. Compare the passage with other translations. If none of the others bears out this new twist, the chances are it is subjective judgment on the part of the translator. The December 1973 Good News gives a good run-down on translations and how to use them.
Occasionally you may need to or wish to refer to the meaning of the original Hebrew or Greek. Be conscious of your own limitations and be very careful about drawing dogmatic or sweeping conclusions from a superficial study of a word or text in the original language. Often a study of the Hebrew or Greek adds nothing to what can be found in the standard English translations. Anything special in the original text will usually be found in some English translation.
It's dangerous to look down a list of definitions in a lexicon, pick one that fits your particular theory, and proceed from there. Just because a word 'can mean' something, doesn't prove that it 'does mean' that in the verse you want to use. Many of the original words have as great a variation of meanings as some of our English words and the meaning can only be established by the context. Doctrine must never be decided solely on the meaning of Greek and Hebrew words it is established by context and by clear passages, not be obscure meanings in doubtful passages.
The best reference works on Greek and Hebrew for the average minister would be the Englishman's Greek Concordance of the New Testament and the Englishman's Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament. For those who are so inclined and wish to study more deeply into the Greek, the most authoritative reference work is the Arndt-Gingrich Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian Literature or, perhaps, an abridged version by Gingrich called the Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. A good companion to these is John R. Alsop's Index to the Arndt and Gingrich Lexicon. A similar work for the Old Testament is the Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by Brown, Driver and Briggs. For most of us, however, the two Englishman's concordances would normally suffice. Strong's and Young's concordances are not very good reference works for studying the original language words or texts.
Be super-cautious about saying, "The Greek (or Hebrew) says..." in a sermon. Most times this is unnecessary and serves no great purpose.
Bible commentaries can be helpful at times to stimulate your thinking on a subject or passage and to give background material to individual books of the Bible. Be careful not to rely upon any one single commentary as many are good in some areas of the Bible and not in others. Never preach from a commentary.
Handy one-volume commentaries are The New Bible Commentary, Revised and Peak's Commentary of the Bible. Both Clarke's commentary and Jamieson, Fausset and Brown's commentary are not very reliable because they are very much out of date and of doubtful scholarship.
Bible dictionaries often supply good background to the Bible and the people and conditions it is dealing with. The favorite Halley's Bible Handbook is old, out of date and often very inaccurate don't quote it for authority in a sermon. The most useful Bible dictionaries would include the New Bible Dictionary in one volume, the Interpreters Bible Dictionary in four volumes, and Hastings Dictionary of the Bible in five volumes. A shorter volume of Hastings is Hastings One Volume Dictionary. Ungers Bible Dictionary is not bad, but is not as good as the others mentioned.
Learn to use an ordinary English language dictionary. Many passages especially those concerning Law and Grace in Romans become clearer as we refer to the dictionary definitions of the words the translators have used.
Don't continually use well-worn words. Learn to paint vivid pictures in words by including phrases from books and articles by some of the better modern writers. A Roget's Thesaurus is an invaluable addition to any minister's library provided he uses it.
Help them understand and remember
Analyze the human mind and its reactions by putting yourself in their shoes. They don't like dull, boring concordance-type sermons that lack any interest or originality of thought or ideas. Any right and proper method we can use to help them understand and remember principles is good.
Use analogies to illustrate the truth.
The Bible is full of physical analogies that help us understand spiritual things:
- Character is like gold purified in the furnace of affliction.
- Character is like clay that is beaten, moulded and formed into a beautiful vase and then fired.
- The Holy Spirit is like water it flows and cleanses.
- The Holy Spirit is like a fire that needs to be stirred up and not quenched.
- The Holy Spirit is like the olive oil used to light the candles in the temple that never went out. It is a soothing and healing agent.
- The Holy Spirit is like wind invisible, but we can see its effects.
- The Holy Spirit is like a seed that begets us as God's sons.
Other analogies that have been used to help us to understand include:
- Satan broadcasts on a wavelength and the spirit in man turns the human mind into a receiver.
- Human nature is like the force of gravity we must resist it and it can never be turned off.
- Human nature is like a garbage can we get a brief look inside at baptism. After that we must sift through it and find out what's making all that smell.
Be on the lookout for any analogy or illustration that can help. Remember, though, analogies should never be used to prove anything. Nor should they be carried to the point where they break down.
Also, popular expressions or song titles can be used to help people remember spiritual principles by hanging the concept on a hook that is already in their minds. Use quotations and examples from the lives and writings of great men and women to illustrate and clarify.
2 Corinthians 11:13
Do everything you can to make the truth simple and easy to understand. Intelligent people are not offended when difficult-to-understand concepts are explained in such a way that everyone can grasp them.
Ask God to help you understand the meaty principles of the Bible more deeply. Study them in depth. Study for understanding.
It takes a great deal of effort to gain deep insight and understanding of the principles upon which God's Law and His way of life are based. Some ministers have studied through the whole or great portions of the Bible just to gain understanding of one concept. Be willing to put forth the effort.
The fruit of their lives will depend not upon the knowledge they receive, but on the understanding you are able to impart to them. Ask God for the ability to teach and explain these things to them.
A common teaching principle
Realize people generally have great difficulty drawing principles out of Biblical examples and applying Biblical principles to their lives. One method used successfully by teachers to get principles across to people is to give one or two examples, then draw the principle out of the examples in such a way that it is obvious to everyone. They must be able to see the same principle in each of the illustrating examples. Next, take the same principle, after carefully stating it or rewording it so they grasp it, and show how it applies in practical, every-day situations. Learn to illustrate principles in this way for them and they'll understand a lot more easily.
Leave the final organization for as late in the week as you comfortably can. This will ensure your subject is fresh in your mind and not just down in your notes. It's difficult to preach a successful sermon from old notes it must come from within and be a part of us. If you are repeating an old sermon given elsewhere, then it pays to make it a set of fresh notes Friday evening or Sabbath morning.
The S.P.S. (Specific Purpose Statement)
Preparation for a sermon should follow the same step-by-step sequence described for a sermonette, beginning with the S.P.S. When people know where the subject is going, they feel more secure and can follow the train of thought much easier. Do not, however, give the answer or solution at the outset of your sermon.
As with a sermonette, the bulk of the material gathered needs to be pruned down to fit the S.P.S. Avoid trying to squeeze too mjuch into one sermon.
Develop the sermon in order to create suspense and hold interest. Wherever possible, create a story flow so there is a logical connecting theme throughout the sermon. Each point must have a definite connection to the previous one. Avoid enumerating the points, though: i.e. "point one ... point two ... point three" as this is not the way to create the interest and suspense a sermon needs in order to build up to a climax at the end.
Don't just read scripture after scripture/ Weave the scriptures together with an obvious theme. Expound them. Show the full meaning as it applies to yours sermon. This helps the congregation understand and shows them how to study their own Bibles. Complete the train of thought don't digress and leave them hanging in midair.
Watch your logic. Make sure the sermon is logical that the facts presented are really facts, the proof you offer is really proof and that you're not breaking the basic laws of logic. The two most common errors of logic in sermons are: 1) reasoning from a false premise; and 2) making sweeping generalizations. Both of these result from a failure to get the facts. In the first instance, the facts are ignored. In the second, we start from one or two facts and go from there. An excellent book to own and study is Guides to Straight Thinking, by Stuart Chase (Published by Harper and Row, New York, 1956).
Prove your points and subject fully. Show the importance of the subject throughout the entire sermon and make it apply to their lives personally. Make sure they get the connection with their lives. It often pays to repeat your S.P.S. at least two or three times throughout the sermon in the form of a question or reworded differently each time to remind them of where they are going and to hold their interest in the subject.
Build a forceful conclusion
The conclusion is the most important part of the entire sermon. Build up to a natural climax with the material that has the greatest impact on them. The whole organization of the sermon should lead and build up to this final point which should normally contain and emotional appeal for them to do something about what they'll be listening to.
There may be a number of places in the sermon where you will have used greater intensity and power to stress a point, but the conclusion must have the greatest impact in thought and in intensity. This is the only time you should use sustained intensity and power. They should know you are concluding. Then once you have hit the concluding climax, don't ruin it by continuing to talk. Finish and sit down!
Prepare an interest-grabbing introduction
Again, the introduction is the last part of the sermon you should prepare. Make sure it fits the general theme of the sermon. Remember, we may have captive audiences, but we don't have captive minds. Never take the audience for granted. Capture their interest right from the start. Arouse suspicion. Pose a question. Preset a challenge. Use an interesting illustration. Have something that makes them want to listen from the very start. Be sure the introduction leads logically into the S.P.S. and the rest of the sermon. The introduction should attract attention to the subject never to itself.
Some points on sermon delivery
The delivery of a sermon should always be natural. Never try to imitate the personality or delivery style of another minister or your audience will think you're phony. Develop your own style after the general pattern of Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong's example.
Start out calmly. Warm up to your audience and give them the time to get used to you and warm up to you. Be friendly. Use humor, but be sparing. The purpose of a sermon is not to entertain. Never use sarcasm there's no faster way of turning an audience off. Sarcasm humiliates it attacks the ego and human beings can't take it. Sarcasm directed toward outside groups or individuals is also wrong don't resort to it.
Become excited about your subject. Use intensity naturally.
If we are excited then they will be excited too. Our audience will never be more excited about our subject than we are.
There should be high and low levels in the sermon. Learn to fluctuate the voice and delivery. There are times when increased power and intensity are necessary to emphasize and verbally underscore a point. Don't, however, resort to shouting or being bombastic thinking that volume and loudness represent sincerity, the power of the Spirit and authority from God. An audience will usually be able to tell when lots of volume is being used as a compensation for lack of substance. There's no need to terrify the janitor down the hallway every time we speak. Speak to the congregation, not at them.
We must avoid putting ourselves on a pedestal by using the pronoun 'you' all the time e.g. "You people must have this problem and YOU had better change!" Include yourself. Use 'we' instead of 'you'. Let them know that we are all fighting the same battles.
Be sure to emphasize scripture whenever it is being read from the Bible. That is the sole source of our authority. It's not the best normally to wade through half a chapter of verses to get the background or context. Fill it in for them by paraphrasing it in modern English so you can really emphasize the verse or passage you want. Then place emphasis on the correct words in each passage. Pause for 3 to 5 seconds after long impressive statements to let the full meaning sink into their minds. This latter applies to both scripture readings and our own delivery.
If possible, have another minister, your wife or a close friend evaluate your delivery and message. They can watch for things that should and can be improved like slurring words, speaking too fast, etc.
Above all, pray for God to use you in delivering your sermon.
Unless God is working through us, we can't accomplish anything worthwhile and permanent. This is more important than anything else we do.
A sermon should normally be planned to go 1 hour to 1 hour 5 minutes. We are deceiving ourselves if we feel we can hold an audience for any longer than this.
Except in very rare circumstances, 1 hour 15 minutes is the absolute maximum.