A sermon preparation worksheet

People occasionally ask how I prepare a sermon. I’m copying below the sermon preparation worksheet I use. I prepare a sermon over seven to ten 75-minute blocks. This is the standard template I follow. I don’t do everything listed every time (i.e. no way to do full translation, lectio divina and Inductive Bible Study detailed observations in one 75-minute block, and I certainly don’t use everything under the “Questions to guide interpretation”), but these provide good options as I go.

I use 75-minute blocks to get myself focused and in the text, and also to give myself a time limit. The work done in each of these blocks could easily consume 10 hours. But it can’t. Many other things to do. So I give myself 75 minutes and then need to press on.

A special offer for you. The worksheet below is how I prepare my sermons. I’ve also created a 12-YEAR PREACHING PLAN. That details what I’m preaching. The whole pastoral team at First UMC Lexington is following it together. In 2019, I finished a 3-year exploration of the Old Testament narrative from patriarchs to rebuilding the Temple after exile. In 2020, we began Year 1 of this plan, a “Year with Jesus.” Click the link below to receive it as a PDF.

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I may provide more commentary at some point. Happy to answer questions if you have them. For now, here’s the worksheet…

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Sermon Prep Worksheet
(exegesis adapted from Fee & Stuart)

1 Block = 75 minutes

Block 1 (4 weeks out) –– Close reading of the text

Goal: deep familiarity with the text

Important note: When I do this block with others (which is much better than alone), they frequently ask by the end of it what I think I’ll preach about. 95% of the time, I have no idea! The goal of this block is not to identify what to preach about. You’ll see that I don’t press that question until block 4. It can be a distraction early on. Too much pressure that leads to tunnel vision. The goal right now needs to simply be deep familiarity with the text.

Resources: Greek or Hebrew lexicon, Metzger

Approach:

  • Read context around the text. Use an outline of the book to see the big picture and where this passage falls. Or read over the headings of the passages leading up to the text. I usually read any material immediately before and after the passage that seems useful for understanding the context (e.g. Where are we? What has just happened? What topics and themes have been prominent leading up to this passage?)
  • Read multiple translations and reflect. I usually read the passage in one translation then reflect on it for 5-10 minutes, noting any aspects that struck me as important, interesting, or confusing. It’s frequently in reading the third or fourth different translation that I start to recognize opportunities for Greek/Hebrew word study or for deeper socio-historical research. I put those in my notes for block 2.

    My standard translations: NIV, NRSV, NAB, TEV (Good News Bible). Those come from different translation traditions with different goals. Lots of variety among them. I occasionally go to the KJV, CEB, NLT, REB, or MESSAGE paraphrase as well, if I think any of them might offer something helpful.
  • Other occasional tools. I don’t use all of these each time. Not enough time. But I frequently identify one that would be useful and spend time on it.
    • Translate the text from Greek/Hebrew. (I favor the Greek and frequently work from the LXX when I’m in the Old Testament. OT quotations and allusions in the NT are more apparent from the LXX, so I think a canonical approach to the Bible can favor the LXX over the BHS for Old Testament usage.)

Block 2 (3 weeks out) — Lexical and socio-historical focus

Goal: socio-historical understanding / treasure hunt

Resources: dictionaries/encyclopedias

Approach:

  • Continue work from above, as needed.
  • Identify key terms and do lexical analysis. For words or phrases that seem especially important to the text, or perhaps have ambiguous meaning, I do a word study or spend more time analyzing the grammar. For words that are used more than once or twice throughout the Bible, my preferred way of understanding a word’s usage and meaning is to look through the various passages where it’s used. This frequently connects me with other important texts that relate to the passage in ways I may not have otherwise noted.
  • Ask questions about historical background and other contextual questions. If the location may have significance, or if the passage references a certain social custom (e.g. weddings), or some other socio-historical information could be relevant, I use Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias to learn more.
  • Find an interesting thread and start exploring it. I can’t track down every lexical or socio-historical piece of information from a passage. If I catch an interesting thread, I keep going with it. This block can be fun because it’s like a treasure hunt.

Block 3 (2 weeks out) –– Others’ work, canonical, theological & contemporary contexts 

Goal: test and refine my understanding of the text, gain well-rounded perspective, connect to contemporary relevance

Resources: commentaries, articles, dictionaries as needed, NT use of OT, pop culture references

Approach:

  • Read commentaries and other literature. How do these understand the text. Are there ways that they challenge, affirm, or add to what I’ve been seeing so far? There’s obviously not enough time to read all of the commentaries. There may not be even enough time to read one commentary’s full section on the passage. If I’ve had particular questions about one or two aspects of the text, I look to the commentaries for help on those questions.
  • Begin to examine canonical, theological and contemporary contexts. How does this text relate to other parts of the canon? Identify other relevant texts. How does it relate to the theological tradition? (I might look at the indices of some systematic theologies to see if they use this passage and where.) Is there a popular usage or understanding of this passage in contemporary culture? Does the exegesis challenge, affirm, or add to that understanding?

Block 4 (1 week out) — Themes, Focus & Function 

Goal: from broad exegetical understanding to narrower sermon focus

Approach:

  • Identify major themes from exegesis. What keeps coming up? I write these themes down and begin to make connections between them.
  • Develop one or more of these themes. How does it relate to other biblical, historical, topical, and cultural material? How does it relate to experience––mine and others’? See “Questions to guide interpretation” below for help.
  • Create focus and function statements.

    The focus statement: If I put the focal message of this sermon in a tweet (old Twitter length: 140 characters), what would it be?

    Function statement: If I named how people could respond to this sermon, what would it be? (again, tweet length)

    See “Questions to guide interpretation” below for important questions I have to ask of every focus and function statement.
  • With time: outline / story board / mind map. 

Block 5 (1 week out) — Outlining, Story boarding, Mind mapping, and/or Writing

Goal: structure and flavor

Approach:

  • Continue refining focus & function statements.
  • Outline, story board, mind map and/or begin writing. I’ve found that each of these approaches leads to a very different kind of sermon. A manuscript is especially careful about wording and nuance. A story board tends to produce a sermon with a more natural narrative arc. A mind map keeps one theme central. When I get stuck or especially when I begin to feel like my preaching is getting repetitive or stale, I switch formats and it tends to provide the change I need.
  • With time: write intro, conclusion.

Blocks 6-7 (week of) — Finish 

Goal: clarity of thought and organization; engaging, clear gospel proclamation

Approach:

  • Refine outline, storyboard or mind map, or finish manuscript.
  • To recognize flow – highlight:
    • where does it inform / educate? (black)
    • where does it engage / amuse? (blue)
    • where does it inspire / invite response? (purple)
    • Avoid too much black without a break.
  • With time: create slides, outline for preaching

Blocks 8-9 (Sat – Sun) — Rehearse & Refine 

Goal: present with clarity, fluidity and conviction

Approach:

  • 5 short blocks of rehearsal
  • Ideal (from manuscript): 
    • read 
    • work from outline, reference manuscript when needed
    • work from outline, no manuscript
    • no notes, reference outline when needed
    • no notes

Questions to guide Interpretation:

  1. For focus statement:
    1. Where is the person of Christ, the cross & resurrection essential to this sermon? (If Jesus was not crucified and raised, could I still preach this sermon, and would it still be good news?)
    2. What is the gift of God (grace) on offer?
  2. For function statement: How do we respond to the gift of God on offer?
  3. Where has this been true (or negative examples) in:
    1. the Bible?
    2. history?
    3. my life?
    4. others’ lives?
    5. media / culture?
  4. Topics:
    1. Doctrinal: What doctrine from Echo or a creed most relates to this?
    2. Liturgical: What from our baptismal covenant, confession & pardon, Great Thanksgiving, or Lord’s Prayer most relates? Or from other liturgies (Social Creed, marriage and funeral rites, songs, etc.)?
    3. Moral: Which of the capital vices or virtues, beatitudes, or fruits of the spirit relates here?
      1. Vices and opposing virtues: 
        • Vainglory – Humility 
        • Greed – Liberality (Generosity)
        • Lust – Chastity
        • Envy – Kindness (brotherly love)
        • Sloth – Diligence (persistence, perseverance)
        • Anger – Meekness (patience)
        • Gluttony – Temperance (abstinence)
      2. Beatitudes: 
        • Poor in spirit – full of genuine humility; recognize our sinfulness (against pride)
        • Mourn – serious; mourn over sinfulness (against sloth)
        • Meek – mild and gentle; even-tempered; gentle with sinners; yielding to God’s will; patient and content with ourselves and our circumstances (against wrath, impatience, discontent)
        • Hunger and thirst for righteousness – free from selfish intentions; seeking perfect holiness (against unholy desires)
        • Merciful – compassionate and tender-hearted; loving neighbors as ourselves (against indifference or cruelty to others)
        • Pure in heart – devoted to God; sanctified; holiness of desires / inward purity (against outward holiness only)
        • Peacemakers – active lovers of people; doing good to all people, as we have opportunity (against passive or inward religion)
        • Persecuted because of righteousness – enduring persecution, insults and slander for any of the above (against moral compromise)

Sermon Prep (topical — changes in first 4 blocks)

Block 1 (4 weeks out) –– Literature survey

  • Read any relevant articles, book segments, etc. on topic

Block 2 (3 weeks out) –– Literature survey

  • Continue reading, especially refine to key Scripture passage(s)

Block 3 (2 weeks out) –– Text & Interpretation

  • Translation, structure, observation, key terms, and historical background for key texts

Block 4 (1 week out) –– Text & Interpretation

  • Context work, create focus and function. With time: tasks, steps, intro and conclusion.

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