Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content

Skill Builders

Home > Skill Builders


Justin Buzzard: How I Prepare a Sermon

My three-stage plan for writing a message in 15 hours

Several years ago as a staff pastor, I developed the following process for writing my sermons in three stages, requiring a total of 15 hours. I'm a church planter now, so this has become the ideal, subject to real-world demands.

I. Tilling the Soil: Study the Text, and Structure the Sermon

This stage requires 5 hours, and I do it on the Monday 13 days before I preach.

Study the text. Pause to pray over this sermon, then enjoy the creation process with a heart of faith. In recent weeks I've been jotting down ideas for this sermon on a prep sheet, but now is the official start of sermon prep. Record notes on a prep sheet. View sermon prep as a vital piece of my discipleship—Jesus has called me to preach for my own sanctification and joy. Beware of idolatry in my heart: What's ruling me as I prepare this sermon—Jesus and his gospel, or some idol of performance?

Note the immediate context of the text. Determine the text's genre and begin pestering the text with historical and literary questions. All knowledge is covenantal—meant for obedience—what is this text meant to do? Read the text many times to determine its flow; read other translations; examine the text in its original language. Are there any significant differences? Is there unusual or significant grammar? Are there words worthy of study? Are there any important historical or cultural matters to explain? What stands out to me? Consider memorizing the text over the next two weeks.

Write a complete-sentence exegetical outline of the text.

Think through the biblical theology connections. How does this text fit in with the overall storyline of the Bible? What gaps does it fill? What hinges on this passage? Consider using a crucial cross-reference or two. Determine the text's relation to Jesus: Is it predictive, preparatory, resultant, or reflective of Jesus? Identify the gospel pointers. What does the text say about man's redemptive need or problem and God's redemptive provision?

Get to the gospel and Jesus via

  • theme resolution (every biblical theme finds its resolution in the gospel),
  • law fulfillment (every biblical law finds its fulfillment in Jesus),
  • story completion (every biblical story finds its climax in Jesus),
  • need met (every human need finds its answer in the gospel),
  • problem solved (every human problem finds its ultimate solution in the gospel),
  • contrast (many biblical passages can be contrasted with the good news found in Jesus),
  • symbol/type fulfillment (the many symbols and "types" in Scripture are fulfilled in Jesus).

Think through the systematic theology connections in the text. How can I use this passage to make people more theologically alert?

Write out the exegetical thesis of the text in a single sentence. Test the sentence subject to see if it's too narrow or too broad.Sentence complements (predicates) could later serve as main points in the sermon.

Study about three of the best commentaries. Aim for a mix of technical, preaching, and devotional commentaries. Read or listen to at least one sermon on the text. Less is more; don't take in too much input.

Determine the purpose, application aims, and thesis of the sermon. Why is this text here? So what? How can this text nourish my sheep?

Solve people's problems with the text or the gospel. Climb the abstraction ladder. How has this text been addressing my life? What do I want people to know, feel, do from this text? Write a purpose statement for the sermon.

Write a sharp, 21st-century-worded sermon thesis, of 15 words or less. Try including both doctrine and application in this sentence. Say it in a sentence. What is the burden, the claim, of the text that's beginning to burn in me? This sentence doesn't always have to surface in the sermon, but most of the time it will.

Outline the sermon. Question the text about the thesis to help erect a focused outline. Have a clear plotline for the sermon; think of the sermon as a story. A three point outline often works best. Decide on the approach of the outline: deductive (thesis stated up front) or inductive (question/ problem/tension/mystery presented in the beginning that moves toward the thesis/resolution near the ending). Vary between deductive and inductive text reading. Vary where to place prayer in the sermon. Sometimes hide the outline when preaching. Be a sticky communicator; make sermons simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, storied (Success, as taught in Made to Stick by Heath).

Write my sermon outline using complete sentences and 21st-century language for main points/movements and subpoints/movements.

Write an engaging introduction that surfaces need, that makes people say, I need to hear this. Use a provocative question, human-interest story, simple assertion, startling statement, a catalog of information, or create a conflict/ problem. Depending on the approach of the outline, the introduction could set up the whole thesis, just the subject of the thesis, or just the first point. Go after people's sweet spot with the introduction.

End with a conclusion that either serves as the last main point, reviews, returns full circle to the introduction, creates a climax, sounds a call to mission or new possibilities, exalts Christ, or demonstrates the sermon in action. Seek the natural stopping place.

II. Planting the Seed: Make a Hybrid Draft of the Sermon

My second stage of preparation requires 4 hours, and I do this on Wednesday 11 days out from the day I will preach.

Make a hybrid draft of the sermon, which is more than a detailed outline and less than a manuscript rough draft. It fills out, details, and sharpens the movement of the sermon, preparing for the final draft next week.

Provide supporting material to the outline and plug in material from the prep sheet that serves the thesis of the sermon. Less is more; disregard notes that don't serve where God is leading me with this sermon.

Use complete sentences throughout most of the draft. Use humor. Determine whether I need to explain, illustrate, or apply the main points.

Explain: Preach to Christians and non-Christians every week. Explain and prove the points by fleshing out unspoken premises. Give as much biblical information as the people need to understand the passage, and no more, then move on to illustration or application. Explain to believers and unbelievers. Anticipate listeners' questions (use questions to transition and set up points). Consider addressing a "defeater belief." Expose and challenge people's idols—personal, cultural, religious. Show how true resolution, perhaps a third way, is found only in your text. Unless a quote is excellent, put it in my own words. As I explain, make it my greater focus to proclaim.

Illustrate: Plug in illustrations that tap the five senses. Make biblical principles immediately tangible. Freshly incarnate biblical truth each week. Aim to illustrate each main point. Preach images. Entice with illustrations. Restore wonder in people. Live on the lookout for sermon illustrations; turn life into a workshop for preaching.

Apply: Add application under each main point or near the sermon's close. Make biblical principles immediately practical. Personally counsel the people with the text. Motivate by grace—feed people's faith; show that God is for them. Write out applications that are concrete and specific. Is there a command to obey? A promise to claim? A sin to avoid? A warning to heed? A fact to believe? A truth to ponder? What does this text say to the Christian, non-Christian, and immature Christian in the church? Consider setting up an application trajectory in the introduction. Reveal my own life and how it intersects with this text.

Look at the world through the lens of the sermon. Believe the truth and practice the behavior I will preach. Talk to other people about the message; give mini-sermons that test out the message. Let these conversations edit the sermon. Transform procrastination into rehearsal.

Get away from the sermon. Do other things, and more sermon clarity will come. Add good ideas to the draft.

III. Germination: Write a Final Draft of the Sermon

The third stage requires 6 hours on the Thursday 3 days out.

Rewrite the whole sermon in one sitting using a printout of the hybrid draft. Writing in one sitting ingrains in me the flow of the sermon. Write like it's an emergency. Make believe I have to preach it once six hours is up. Keep moving. Kill perfectionism. Trust my instincts. Write like I talk; talk the message out loud as I write. Don't manuscript everything; keep many portions of the draft in bullet-point form (when I know it, use bullet points; when the idea is fuzzy, write it out—I can reduce later if needed). Repeat key words; employ repetition. Be clear. Be simple. Be colorful and memorable. Underline one key phrase or sentence per paragraph as a visual cue. Pray as I write. Enjoy the process.

Know the ideal length of the draft for comfortable pace and timing, which for me is 9 pages, 1.5 spacing, Times font size 14, totaling 2,350 words (biblical text included). That results in a 35 to 40 minute sermon.

Keep looking at life via the sermon, preaching the sermon to myself, talking the sermon out with others, but stay away from the manuscript until Saturday night. Internalize the sermon. Visualize the sermon.

Read the sermon Saturday night before bed and Sunday morning immediately after waking up. Read it repeatedly and rapidly—reading to get the flow and main movements, not the sentences. Make last minute adjustments. Consider doing a rough, fast forward run-through of the sermon in the pulpit on Sunday morning to get a sense of pace, gesturing, movement. Don't spend much time on any of this. Give the sermon to God. Trust God and his Word.

Justin Buzzard is founder and lead pastor of Garden City Church in Silicon Valley, California.

Related articles

Preparation: Introduction

How should I invest my limited study time so that I am ready to preach?

Preparation: Part 1: Workshops

How should I invest my limited study time so that I am ready to preach?

Preparation: Part 2: Self-Evaluation

How should I invest my limited study time so that I am ready to preach?