If there’s one thing you never set out to be as a leader or communicator, it’s boring.
And yet everyone who communicates, preaches, or even tries to persuade someone of an idea has discovered that sinking sense that you’ve lost your audience.
How exactly does that happen?
I’ve been communicating professionally since I was 16 years old in radio and law, and for the last two decades, preaching and speaking. Over the years, I’ve become a student of what engages people and what doesn’t.
Before we dive into frameworks, concepts, and tactics, I want to share two things I’ve noticed about world-class communicators. Every single (effective) communicator I’ve met has two things in common:
- Great communicators have a great preparation system. Having a system in place for how to write sermons and prepare for Sunday morning enhances the message’s quality and impact, allowing preachers to prepare more effectively, communicate more clearly, and connect more deeply with their audience.
- World-class speakers continually learn and work on their communication skills. You’ll find world-class speakers continue to invest their time (and money) in their abilities on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual basis.
Sure, some are more naturally gifted than others. But rarely, if ever, does that type of talent show up naturally. It’s almost always because of continual development and experience.
So, are you ready to transform your preaching and develop the communication skills that world-class speakers use? (And not deliver a boring sermon.)
If your answer is yes, keep on reading!
How to Write a Great Sermon
While it took me a few years to get there, I’ve been in the habit of outlining an entire sermon series before I preach the first message for the last decade. That means choosing the Biblical texts, figuring out the angle, writing the first message or two, and outlining the remainder.
I also boil every message down into a single sentence (the “bottom line”) that clarifies the point of the sermon.
Here’s what I’ve learned: Clarity takes time and practice.
Below, I’ll outline the process I’ve developed over the years. If you follow this process on how to prepare a sermon (or a variation), you’ll discover clarity in your own preaching.
1. Create a Note/File With All Your Sermon (and Series) Ideas
I have a simple note on my laptop and phone where I file all future sermon (and sermon series) ideas. It’s an archive I can store Scripture, thoughts, links, media, and angles to reference at a later date.
If you don’t have something like this, your first step is creating it. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. In fact, it’s best if it isn’t.
This is a dumping ground for anything and everything you might use in the future, and there’s no need for it to be meticulously formatted.
My archive is a simple note that’s shared between all my devices (phone, tablet, and laptop) with headings for each topic and a list of related ideas and materials listed below.
Now that you have a storage place for your ideas, you can leverage it when it’s time to actually create a message or a series.
2. Start with a General Idea
When I’m thinking about a series or talk, I try to come up with a ‘general ballpark’ for it.
For example, let’s say I’m thinking about a sermon series for later this year on worshipping idols.
Right now, that’s literally all I know about it.
Other times, if I’m preaching, I’ll start with something different than an idea, but with a text, I want to teach. I’ve done sermon series in the last few years on Esther and Psalm 101. I didn’t know where to take them, but I knew I wanted to preach them.
Just start with a subject.
As mentioned above, I keep a note on my phone and laptop for sermon ideas and bottom-line ideas.
When I reach the series development stage, I create a new working file for that specific series. I’ll copy and paste any relevant materials from the original file into this working file.
3. Research and Pick an Angle
Can you preach to a room full of churched people and unchurched people at the same time with the same message and help them both take a step in their faith?
Without a doubt, yes.
But it’s all about the angle you choose to approach the topic.
However, the problem with most message series is that they’re focused on what the speaker wants to say, not what the listener wants to hear. This is where the angle becomes everything.
In this stage of the sermon-writing process, the tension every preacher experiences comes down to two factors:
- There’s what people want to know. That can easily drive a topical series on issues like suffering, relationships, or creating a better life.
- But then there’s what people need to know, like specific teachings, doctrines, and even sections of Scripture.
But you can use this tension to your advantage by creating an angle that appeals to both factors.
See, the trick to crafting a compelling sermon angle is taking what people want to know and using that to lead them to what they need to know.
How to pick a sermon angle
So, where can you get ideas to find the angle?
Obviously, you should talk to unchurched people, but in addition to that, here are five ways you can stay on top of what people in your culture and community are thinking about:
- The Amazon Top 100 Book List
- Social media and media coverage
- Google Trends
- Pew, YouGov, and Barna Research
4. Let It Simmer
Again, this process isn’t happening in one week. It all takes time. If on Thursday morning, you’re still trying to decide what you’re going to say on Sunday morning, what you’re preaching might be true, but it won’t be clear.
Great preaching is like a stew. The longer you let it simmer, the better it gets. Start your sermon prep early – as in weeks or months early.
When you take the time to work, pray, study, write, and find clarity ahead of time, you’ll be amazed at how your messages start to connect.
I’ve never regretted sitting on an idea longer than I needed to.
5. Decide on a Bottom Line
Communicating can be challenging. Communicating effectively is even more difficult.
One of the best ways to do that is to develop a killer bottom line.
The bottom line is the main point of your talk summed up in a single, memorable sentence.
Crafting a great bottom line will:
- Make you a better thinker.
- Help you understand your talk more deeply.
- Force you to simplify complex subjects.
- Make your talk more memorable for your audience.
So, how do you do it?
Make Your First Attempt at a Bottom Line
My first attempts rarely make it to the final iteration.
Don’t get discouraged. Just go back to step 3 and let it simmer. Since you still have a month before the series starts, you have time to wait a week and have another go at it.
Personally, I can’t write the outline for the talk until I have the bottom line, so I often start with the bottom line.
C.R.E.A.M. your bottom line
Rework your bottom line using the tools in the C.R.E.A.M. acrostic:
C – CONTRAST
Combine two contrasting ideas into your bottom line:
- The past and the future
- The light and the dark
- The rich and the poor
- Truth and lies
- Laughter and sorrow
In a sermon series I taught several years ago, I profiled Haman (a politician featured in the book of Esther); I used contrast to come up with this bottom line: “A life devoted to self ultimately leaves you alone.”
R – RHYME
This is one of the oldest memory tricks in the book, which is why you remember one of Benjamin Franklin’s quotes: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
The bottom line for Andy Stanley’s Comparison Trap series was “There’s no win in comparison.” Sticky.
E – ECHO
Repeating a word or phrase is a powerful way to help people remember.
In a recent series on the messages that playback in our minds, I used this bottom line: “Fixing your mind on Christ fixes your mind.”
A – ALLITERATION
Alliteration may be overused by preachers, but don’t entirely abandon this technique – it’s powerful.
“Your boldest moments are your best moments.” (from my Bold series) is memorable because of the double b. Simple, but it works.
M – METAPHOR
Metaphors engage people’s imagination, and when that happens, people remember more. The Bible is actually full of metaphors (like a ring in a pig’s snout).
In a series on the Supernatural, I preached on miracles with this bottom line: “Miracles are signs that point beyond themselves to something greater.”
We actually built road signs that pointed to the beach, to Disney, and more and explained that the sign is not the destination; the sign points to something great in the same way that miracles point to the power of Christ.
Avoid cheese and superficiality
Bottom lines are not your goal. Effectively communicating God’s word is your goal.
I’ve seen a lot of bottom lines in the last few years that follow the C.R.E.A.M. method but are actually just cheesy, simplistic, or superficial.
What’s an example of a cheesy bottom line? How about “God loves prayer because He cares?”
It doesn’t actually mean anything. It turns God into a teddy bear. And it’s schmaltzy enough that you wouldn’t want to repeat it to your friends (assuming you want your friends to listen to you).
It’s actually better to have a slightly less memorable bottom line than it is to settle on a cheesy bottom line because it rhymes.
6. Outline the Sermon
It may not feel like it, but once you’ve chosen the Biblical text you want to focus on, picked an angle, and decided on your bottom line, you’re more than halfway to a complete sermon. So, the next stage of the sermon writing process involves fleshing out an outline and “filling in the gaps.”
An outline is the skeletal framework of your sermon. Don’t feel shackled to an “intro, three points, conclusion” outline, but every effective sermon tends to adhere to a similar structure:
- Teaching (Body)
After creating a broad generalized outline, now it’s time to start filling it in with all of the information you’ve gathered over the past few weeks. You may have too much to fit into a single sermon – and that’s okay.
When I’m finalizing my sermon outline – which involves contextualizing everything I want to share with my audience through the lens of the angle and bottom line – I rely on four questions from Andy Stanley and Lane Jones’s book Communicating for a Change to help me decide what to keep and what to discard.
The questions are:
- What do they need to know?
- Why do they need to know it?
- What do they need to do?
- Why do they need to do it?
These questions guide me through the writing process of each key part of my sermon.
7. Write the Sermon
Okay, now we’re down to the nitty gritty – time to turn that outline into a sermon that’s ready to be memorized and delivered.
Remember the structure and questions I shared above? Well, here’s how each one of those informs my writing process. Here’s how to write a sermon:
Introduction (5 – 10 minutes)
This is where you need to decide how to introduce your topic. I’ll often paint a problem, introduce tension, tell a story, or find common ground to draw everyone into the message. It lasts five–ten minutes max, and it’s easy to remember the problem, tension, story, or common ground point you’re trying to establish because the introduction tries to answer the critical question: Why do they need to know this?
That’s all I try to do in the introduction. If I can answer that, it becomes easy to do the introduction without notes, because you’re simply communicating some common ground (drawing everyone into the talk), what’s at stake, why this matters, and why anyone should care.
Teaching (10 minutes)
This is where I dig into the heart of the issue, the problem, the tension, and its relationship to the Biblical text or the main subject of the talk.
I usually jump between the Biblical text and people’s lives today, trying to identify key life issues that arise from the text, point out surprises, highlight tension, and drill down on the main point of the talk. The teaching section answers the question: What do they need to know?
Get yourself a Bible commentary that dives deep into the historical and cultural context of those “setting the scene” details that are often greatly appreciated by the audience and can provide some fresh angles on familiar passages.
Application (5-10 minutes)
Application doesn’t start here. If you’ve done the introduction well, you’ve already shown people why this matters and how it can make their life better/different.
But this is where I drill down. It’s where you get specific and granular, and might tell more stories. Focus on remembering the key application points and your story(ies). The application section answers the question: What do they need to do?
Conclusion (5 minutes)
You’ve got to land this plane at some point. Too often, communicators crash. I’ve done it before, and it’s usually because we don’t think clearly about how to finish.
I try to finish by reiterating the key point and showing people what happens when they apply it in their lives. I help people imagine a different and better future when they put what they’ve heard into practice. The conclusion answers the question: Why do they need to do it?
8. Understand Your Sermon
Yes, you read that correctly: I want you to understand your sermon.
When you’re studying your sermon, the absolute best piece of advice I can give you is this: Don’t memorize your sermon. Understand it.
Freeing yourself from using notes will make you a far more confident speaker and communicator. And, because you won’t constantly be looking down at a piece of paper or iPad on the pulpit, you’ll be able to make eye contact and engage with the audience in a way that feels far more natural and authentic.
If you’ve followed the format I shared above, your sermon should follow a natural logical progression that’ll make it easy to deliver without notes.
Now, I know it sounds difficult. But it’s not. If you can remember:
- How you’re introducing the subject
- What you’re teaching
- How you’re applying it
- How you’re wrapping up
That’s it. You’ve learned your talk. Bingo.
9. Test It With a Team
You should have a core team (3-4 people) to test out your sermon on in the days before you’re set to deliver it. Make sure you trust these people to give you honest feedback, and they should represent a cross-section of your audience (so not all seminary graduates). This is a great way to tell whether you’re ideas are resonating or not and if your bottom line is landing.
I also usually read my message through a few times on Saturday night right before going to bed. And then I’ll get up early on a Sunday and read over it again several times.
Before I finish, I try to be 100% familiar with the key points in each of the big pieces of the talk (see above).
10. Deliver Your Sermon
Just get up there and speak from your heart. If, while delivering your talk, you forget a point, move on. No one knew you were going to make it anyway, so just move on. They’ll thank you for being two minutes shorter.
And if you have a total meltdown seconds before the big moment, just answer four questions on your way up the stairs onto the platform:
- What do they need to know?
- Why do they need to know it?
- What do they need to do?
- Why do they need to do it?
And then start talking. I promise you it’ll be a great talk.