Final Sermon Prep Checklist

As a pastor, I have the joy of preparing sermons to preach every week. That means 15-20 hours for each sermon, studying a passage of Scripture, thinking through how to communicate it, and finally writing a sermon. When I near the finish line of this process, I do one final check. I call it, uncreatively, the Final Sermon Prep Checklist. I basically go through the sermon, point by point and line by line asking the following questions:

  1. Is the main idea of the sermon the main idea of the text?
  2. How does the sermon demonstrate that this is the main idea of the text?
  3. How does the sermon show people how to know that this is the main idea?
  4. In what ways does this sermon exult in Christ and show ties to Christ?
  5. How clear is the gospel in this sermon?
  6. Is there material in the sermon that isn’t necessary? Cut this material.
  7. Is there material in the sermon that points more to the speaker than the Author? Cut this material.
  8. Does the sermon show the congregation how to apply this passage?
  9. Is the application specific enough?
  10. Is the application general enough?

This process has been great for me and has probably saved many sermons from being ineffective and a waste of the hearers’ time.  One of the huge benefits of expository preaching is that the preacher is ALWAYS aiming (or should always be aiming) to put the text before the congregation, and preaching in such a way that the text can be understood, cherished, and applied by God’s people.

To that end, this step has been crucial to my sermon prep process.

My Weekly Wrestling Match

Bible study is very much like a wrestling match. Every week, I go onto the mat with the heavy-weight champion and dare to put myself against him.

Of course, I would never win, except for the grace of God.

So we hit it, me and the text – and I try to make it capitulate. In the course of the match I will throw every move I know at the text. I will ask it questions and consider its context. I will compare it with other texts and think deeply about the words chosen and sentence structure. Late in the match, I will try to get it in a hold – to pin down the main idea.

It is a huge struggle. I know from the outset that I am outmatched. But I still have to try. It would be way easier to give up and just go watch other people wrestle (I could go hit the commentaries or listen to sermons, etc.) but I know that a better reward awaits if I will just keep trying. And so on we go, round and round.

Until, at some point, the text simple yields its meaning to me. Unlike a real wrestling match, the text willingly pounds the mat to let me know I have won. God opens my mind, connects the dots, and it becomes so clear and obvious to me that I wonder why I could not see it in the first hour of the match.

This is the first phase of sermon preparation – the exegesis. It isn’t everything, but there is nothing more foundational than this. This is the hard work of a preacher’s Monday and Tuesday (at least) and without this crucial part, the sermon will have little life on Sunday.

There are so many reasons why I love preaching. The early-week wrestling match is chief among them.

Open my eyes that I may see the wonderful things in your word.” Psalm 119.18

How to Keep the Spring a Bubbl’in

Preaching week in and week out is the most wonderful job on the planet. In fact, it is not a job. It is something way more than that. In every sense of the word it is a calling; and a joyous one at that.

Even so, it is not easy. I am working right now on a pretty big project: preaching through the book of 1 Corinthians. It is a very practical letter, but it is still really hard to preach through verse-by-verse. I am about 15 sermons into it, which places me at 1 Corinthians 4. One of the pressures I acutely feel is how to not sound the same every week, especially when working several weeks through a long passage. If the big theme of the text is the same, then sometimes the sermons sound the same. The tone, the emphasis, and even the kind of illustrations can sound the same. That is dangerous because the preacher can lose his people and the urgency of the message if he doesn’t break up the monotony (and being monotonous with glorious things has to be a sin!). So the question is, how do we keep things fresh?

The answer for me is to keep the spring bubbling in my heart. If each new nook and cranny of truth is exciting and fresh to me, I couldn’t make it monotonous if I tried. So I have to read the text each week with fresh eyes and a longing heart, asking God to continue showing me the wonderful things from his Word. The spring of my preaching does not flow from me (which is a good thing, because if it did, it would make the Gobi look tropical). So I have to keep seeing the glorious things as they are, and not let my ministry of preaching (or other things) get in the way of personally seeing and feeling the message of God’s Word.

Besides reading the passage closely and carefully and even devotionally, here are five other things I do to keep the spring bubbling.

1. I have developed a habit of listening to other preachers’ sermons. We expect our people to listen to sermons to help them in their spiritual lives (usually our sermons). We should expect no less from ourselves. This is actually pretty important to me, because I dry up so quickly. As an added benefit, listening to others helps me gain a fresh perspective on ways to say stuff, and helps me get better at illustrating concepts, etc. I think it’s best to listen to several different preachers (if I listen to just one I will sound just like him after a while.) I listen to mostly reformed guys like Piper, Keller, DeYoung, Chandler, Carson and also Begg, McArthur and a few lesser known pastors with podcasts. I find the time by listening while I walk to my study each morning (20 minute walk, so the round trip is one full sermon), and while I run, mow, walk the dog, cook breakfast and as I do odd mindless jobs around the house.

2. I work at developing and maintaining strong reading habits. I try to keep a non-fiction (biography or theology) and a fiction book going all the time, and I work to finish the books I begin (unless they’re awful). I try to read at least one book a year on preaching, pastoral ministry, and missions. This helps me to stay fresh, and also helps me collect material for illustrating theo-concepts. And, of course, it helps me grow in many other ways. Spurgeon was right, the man who doesn’t read has no one to quote and will himself be quoted by none.

3. I try to get good feedback. This is the most difficult because people who 1) know what good preaching is and are 2) willing to give constructive feedback are rare. But it is important. I look for people who are willing to be lovingly brutal.

4. From time to time, I try to shake up my preaching schedule. I see the value in taking breaks from the big project and either hitting a topic (which I try to do expositionally ) or a “mini-series” on a different type of text (like a Minor Prophet, for example). I do this especially with special annual events (e.g., Advent, Thanksgiving, and even Labor Day). Currently, I go on 6 to 10-sermon stretches on 1 Corinthians, and then take a one to three-week detour. Your mileage may vary.

5. I get good help from my church. A church and a pastor develop together, so if the church wants me to improve in my preaching they have to put forth effort too. Mine does, and I love that. They benefit and so do I.  They give me a generous book budget for my use, and fully fund at least one pastors’ conference a year. They also give me no grief about the amount of time I spend in my study; they want me to study. They want me to do other things too, like counseling, follow up, administration, vision forming, elder retreat planning, ministry oversight, community representation and visiting people in the hospital, etc., but they see (and hear) the value of my study time.

Those are ways that I have found helpful to keep the spring bubbling and, consequently, the sermons fresh. I hope sharing that helps someone out there.