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6. Having looked at the text on my own and consulted the commentaries, now I need to tackle the hardest part of sermon preparation: how to organize all this information. This is where a good sermon is won or lost. I must be ruthless, and sometimes am not, about cutting out any nuggets (oh how precious!) that do not serve the overall argument of the sermon. I was taught "big idea preaching," that every sermon should have only one main thought. I don't follow the method closely, but I do think about the 3:00 AM test: "Pastor, sorry to call you in the middle of the night, but quick, in a sentence, tell me what you sermon is about!" If I can't describe the point of my sermon in a sentence I'm not ready to move on in the sermon-making process. This means first knowing the point of the passage and then understanding how I am going to preach it. So Mark 1:40-45 may be about Jesus healing a leper and how this leads to increasing opposition in chapters 2 and 3, but the point of my sermon will be: Jesus can make you clean.

The process of organizing a sermon feels very organic to me. I think and pray and chisel away until the basic outline feels right. But two specific questions are often helpful. (1) Should this sermon be inductive or deductive. An inductive sermon lands at the main point. A deductive sermon states the main point and then offers supporting or explanatory evidence. Inductive often feels more like telling a story. Deductive feels more like making a case. Either approach can work. (2) A second question is: do I start with the text or start with the congregation. Many preaching teachers say you have to start with the congregation and then show how the text speaks to the need you've raised. But starting with the text can work just as well. So I could start a sermon on Mark 1:40-45 with a story of sinful uncleanness or I could start with the placement of this story in Mark's gospel. Personally, I find it best to vary the way I start a sermon. Sometimes I have an illustration, sometimes background information, sometimes I just jump right in.

Danger: beware the sermon that is held together as "five things about…" or "three observations from the text…" Theses sermons can work. I've preached them before. I've heard great sermons like this. But these kinds of outlines usually signify that the preacher doesn't know how all the interesting stuff he learned really fits together.

7. I should write my conclusion last so I know where am I going and make sure that I don't rush at the end. But even if I don't write it out, I almost always have an idea of how I am going to land the plane. I want to finish with a bang (which could be loud, soft, imperative, or indicative). I don't want information overload at the conclusion. This is where I want to really be preachin'. The last five minutes are the most important part of the sermon. For most preachers, because it's at the end, it's the part they give the least attention to. It shows.

8. Once I know the basic outline and where I am going to end up, I start putting flesh on the skeleton. For me this means a combination of detailed outline and written out paragraphs. I usually start by dropping ideas, illustrations, exegetical points under my main headings. I go back to the commentaries one more time to see if I've forgotten any valuable and pertinent information.

9. My outline, at this point, is not quite tohu wabohu, but it is sloppy. So I need to go sharpen the focus, work on transitions, and add illustrations.

10. The outline is done, six pages of shorthand notes and full paragraphs that I may read verbatim. I set it aside and come back to it Saturday evening where I pray through the outline and (hopefully) make some more cuts and tweaks. I don't take one hour of study for each hour in the pulpit. Sermon prep takes 10-15 hours for one sermon, and I preach around 45 minutes. Without one iota of false humility I can say that I am still learning how to be a better preacher-the study, the outline, the delivery, the whole nine yards. Mostly I pray for grace-soaked truth and truth-filled grace. And fresh unction from the Holy Spirit week after week.

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7 thoughts on “How Do You Put Your Sermon Together, part 2”

  1. Colin says:

    Thank you Kevin
    God bless as you preach the Word

  2. David says:

    Good to know there are others who use tohu wabohu in normal conversation. Thanks for the outline of your process. It’s very helpful in refining my own process.

  3. Zac says:

    Thank you for the insights. Could you elaborate maybe a little on illustrations. I struggle with where to find them, wisdom on when to use them etc. Do you keep files of stories etc. Any help would be appreciated.

  4. Kevin DeYoung says:

    I don’t keep a file of illustrations. I don’t use an illustration book. I’m not against these things (the latter does feel a little weird to me), but I just don’t use them. It may sound strange, but I find illustrations by roaming around in my brain. I’ll think of stories I’ve read, or examples in the Bible, or usually just analogies from everyday life. So last week I likened union with Christ to playing red rover, red rover and I used the example of Krispy Kreme doughnuts going under the waterfall of glaze to talk about the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

  5. Danger: beware the sermon that is held together as “five things about…” or “three observations from the text…” Theses sermons can work. I’ve preached them before. I’ve heard great sermons like this. But these kinds of outlines usually signify that the preacher doesn’t know how all the interesting stuff he learned really fits together.

    Could you elaborate on this? Do you mean that you think the plural noun proposition is just a bad way to go? Or are you talking about a subset of that?

  6. Kevin DeYoung says:

    I mean that the preacher, in most instances, should not hold the sermon together as three points about “stuff” or “things” or “observations.” This is vague and does little to orient the hearer. We should press in and figure out what is the “stuff.” Instead of “three points I want to make about Moses” say “three leadership lessons” or “three ways he exemplifies Christ” or “three ways God used him despite his weaknesses.” Or make the sermon connect to us more immediately: “three ways God can use you despite your weaknesses” and then make these points from the test about Moses.

    I love these questions, but I got to get to work now.

  7. Bryant says:

    Several thoughts, one I assume you are preaching to a passive listening audience (congregation) with little or no reaction required from the people. How would you sum up the experiences between actively engaging the congregation (invoking responses) vs. preaching from the pulpit with all eyes and EARS soaking in the sermon? Which is more effective in discipling the congregation intending to reproduce men for taking the gospel to the world?
    And I noticed a lack of the yesteryears preachers of the past such as Spurgeon, Moody, Billy Graham and others incorporated into today’s methodology of getting to the “Truth and consequences”. I am not suggesting an ignoring of the past treasure trove of gems used by preachers of 19th century, but it seems today’s audience is not interested in this sort of fire And brimstone approach to the gospel. How say you, is it out dated and of little effect or should we turn up the burner once in and while?

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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