Tuesday, July 22, 2008

From Reading and Prayer to Expository Message

Every preacher will of necessity have to come up with his own system of expository preparation moving from the reading of the Bible to the actual outlining/writing of the message to be preached. I share some of my system here, not to show that my way is right or best, but hopefully to display some ideas or concepts that will be helpful to all.

As a general practice, not an absolute rule, I am projecting and working on sermons about 18 months in advance, and have a file folder set up for each one a year in advance. This is accomplished through the repeated reading of the Bible book I will be preaching. For example, I currently am preaching through Hebrews on Sunday mornings and am in chapter six. My last three messages have been "Enlightenment, Tasting, and Partaking" (Heb.6:4-5), "When It's Impossible To Start Over" (Heb.6:4-8), and "Full Assurance of Hope to the End" (Heb.6:9-12). The preparation for those was started well over a year ago. I have file folders started already for where I project I will be in Hebrews a year from now, which will be (in the providence of God, of course) at the beginning of chapter twelve. So I have a folder for the message "Run The Race: We Have Witnesses!" (Heb.12:1-3) and one for "Run The Race: Fixing Our Eyes On Jesus" (Heb.12:1-3), and so on. Or, on Sunday evenings I am currently preaching through Ezekiel. I just preached "The Judgment and Future Restoration of Israel" (Ezekiel 20:1-44), for which I had a folder over a year ago. By this time a year from now, again providentially speaking, I should be finishing Ezekiel so I have a folder for each of twelve messages on the Millenial Kingdom, ending with "The Millenial Jerusalem"(Ezekiel 48:30-35). This flows from reading and rereading the book, the accumulation of previous study, and prayerful meditation on the text of the book to get the flow, the sense, the logic, the spirit of the text that helps me divide it into workably sized preaching units.

What goes into the folder? Notes on past work I may have done on this text: thoughts that come as I read and reread the text; notes from my reading and rereading of the Greek or Hebrew text, which I realize not everyone will do or be able to do - my Greek reading is fairly good, my Hebrew is really a struggle, but I keep at it through pure discipline and hard work; notes on all the exegetical spade work and theological study I constantly try to keep going as a lifelong learner; notes from reading commentaries, articles,research, archaeology, science, history, other books, blogs, etc.; notes from things I see or hear or experience that I think might relate to the text; notes on prayers I pray related to the text; in short, anything and everything I can possibly accumulate that might help !! The key - write it down and put it in the folder!! Jonathan Edwards used to do this by pinning papers to his clothing even when he was out on horseback ! No, I don't even have a horse, but if you saw my office you would realize that that I keep writing things down and copying them so I have them for future message preparation. I always keep preparing a collection of messages in my head.

About three weeks before the message is to be preached, I take out the folder and begin to start trying to organize everything in it into some kind of form which begins to sound like a sermon in my mind - this then begins to take the form of an outline. I desire the outline to be formed by the scripture text itself - I still use a lot of the technique found in Lee Kantenwein's book on Diagrammatical Analysis (BMH Books) so it starts out fairly rigid. As I keep working on it the outline gradually emerges into a more flowing, usable preaching outline. Illustrations often come from things I have put in the folder over the year, or things that come to mind as I am putting the preaching outline together. I do not go out of my way to find or force illustrations. Some of you may disagree, but I feel that not using an illustration is superior to forcing one. An illustration should actually illustrate the point that the text is trying to make, rather than bending the text to fit some great story or illustration you think you might have. If you have a really good one, hold on to it and some day it might really work as a good illustration! Then the week of the message I form sermon notes that we put in our church bulletin. The sermon notes are a strategic condensation of the preaching outline from which I preach. I do not write out my sermons word for word in a manuscript, but I do write out key phrases or words I want to use. I do preach through the sermon in my head, so I am hearing what I want to say, and of course there is a constant editing process going on even up until the the preaching of the message itself. In that sense, every sermon has taken an entire lifetime to prepare !! I do not practice preaching the sermon out loud by myself because that makes me feel really weird, although I realize many have found that to be a helpful exercise. I do try to imagine how various kinds of people who will be listening will hear and understand what I'm trying to say and be sensitive to that - although I'll have to admit I often guess wrong on that one. Better to let that up to the Holy Spirit.

Yes, the Lord can and does sovereignly direct that what I planned a year ago gets changed. He does what He wills. But, frankly, it is relatively rare that the schedule gets changed. In reality, I am continually amazed at the mercy and grace of God to his Church in causing even world events to line up with what I had been preparing to preach. He does that in all true, expositional churches. It is the Word that created the Church, and still creates Her by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Oh, what a supernatural privilege to be an expositor of the Word of God !!


  1. it's very helpful to get into your head a bit and see the process. thank you.

  2. Read your blog and happened across Kantenwein's book just today. Read through some of it. My initial take was that a diagramatical approach such as Kantenwein's would be helpful in dealing with more complex epistles (Pauline, Petrine, letter to the Hebrews) but seems that it would be somewhat inadequate when interpreting other genres (poetry, apocalypses, and even narrative). What's your approach when it comes to these genres?