Preaching Today: Tell us about your planning process for preaching?
Timothy Keller: Every June I flesh out all of my sermon topics, titles, and texts for the coming year, and then I send them off to my music director and other associate preachers. During vacation and study time in the summer, I read books on the themes I'll be treating in the sermons during the coming year. At the end of the summer, my reading leads me to revise the list of topics and texts, and then we are good to go.
The main way to become a good preacher is to preach a lot, and to spend tons of time in people work. That's how you become something more than a Bible commentator; you become a flesh-and-blood preacher.
What does your weekly sermon preparation look like?
Ten days before the Sunday that I will preach a sermon, I spend three hours doing basic exegesis and outlining. The Friday morning before I preach the sermon, I spend five hours writing a first draft of the sermon. On Saturday morning I spend four hours writing a second draft. That Saturday night I spend another two to three hours writing a third draft. With each draft I shorten and streamline the message. I then get up very early on Sunday morning and spend two hours reading it through several times, essentially memorizing all the basic points and sub-points.
I pastor a large church and have a large staff, so I give special prominence to preparing the sermon. I give it 15-18 hours a week. I would not advise younger ministers to spend that much time on sermon preparation, however. The main way to become a good preacher is to preach a lot, and to spend tons of time in people work. That's how you become something more than a Bible commentator; you become a flesh-and-blood preacher. When I was without a large staff, I spent 6-8 hours in sermon preparation.
Which tools do you find most helpful?
I use BibleWorks software and lots of commentaries.
How do you generate sermon ideas?
It's a great mistake to pit pastoral care and leadership against preaching preparation. Many of my preaching ideas come to me as I am talking to, exhorting, counseling, evangelizing, and shepherding people. It is only through working with people that you become the preacher you need to be—someone who knows sin, how the heart works, what people's struggles are, and so on. To some degree, pastoral care and leadership are sermon preparation! They prepare the preacher and not just the sermon.
What devotional material do you use for your personal growth?
I use a version of M'Cheyne's reading calendar, reading the Bible in its entirety every year. I also follow the traditional daily office, and I read and pray all the Psalms every month. I use older versions of the Book of Common Prayer for many of my prayers.
Finally, what are your goals as you shape a sermon?
Preaching should be biblical, clear for the mind, practical for the will, vivid for the heart, warm, forceful, and Christocentric. You should always preach Christ and the gospel from every text!
Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. He is also the Chairman & Co-Founder of Redeemer City to City, which starts new churches in New York and other global cities, and publishes books and resources for ministry in an urban environment.