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Steve Mathewson: How I Prepare a Sermon

Helping you develop your signature method of preparing a message

Editor's note: As preachers develop their signature method of sermon preparation over the years, they often enhance their process by "cherry picking" from the sermon prep schedules and checklists of others. When someone preaches in a way that consistently intrigues and speaks to us, and we wonder how they do it, the answer may well be found in those schedules and checklists.

PreachingToday.com: Are there any key questions you normally answer, or paths of thought you typically take, as you study a text and write the sermon?

Steve Mathewson: I've been mentored by Haddon Robinson, so I am big on asking two questions to determine the main idea. The first is, what is this passage talking about? The second is, what is this passage saying about what it is talking about? These questions help me identify what Haddon calls the subject and complement of the main idea.

Sometimes if I'm struggling to identify the big idea, I will also ask, what is the vision of God? That is, what aspect of God's character is prominent in this text (such as God's power, mercy, vengeance, role as a Father). Then I also ask, what is the depravity factor? That is, what is the sin that works against what God is doing or requiring in this passage? Again, I got these questions from Haddon Robinson. Bryan Chapell also speaks of the second one, calling it the fallen condition focus. Once I have the big idea in place, I ask three questions about the main idea as it relates to the biblical writer and my audience:

a. What does this mean? (explanation)

b. Is it true? (validation)

c. How does this relate to our lives? (application)

With regard to the writer, I am trying to figure out if the writer developed the idea primarily by explaining, validating, or applying—or a combination of these. With regard to my listeners, I am trying to determine what details and ideas from the text need to be explained, which need to be validated, and which need to be applied. This helps me determine what I include in my sermon and what I leave on the cutting room floor.

Another question from Haddon that I will use when wrestling with application is: If someone were sitting in my office discussing a problem, and I turned to this text for the answer, what is the problem that would prompt me to turn to this text to give them spiritual direction?

What schedule routine do you follow in sermon preparation?

Mathewson: Since I take Fridays off, I begin my sermon prep on Monday. I have about three hours before our staff meeting, so I read the passage in its original language and do a mechanical layout if I'm in epistles or legal literature. Then I will make observations about the FACTS:

Form (literary genre)
Art (imagery, literary devices)
Context (literary and historical-cultural)
Terms (key words, repeated words, unfamiliar words)
Structure (how the argument flows).

If I am preaching from a narrative, I look for the ACTS:

Action (plot)
Talking (dialogue, key statements made by the characters)
Setting (literary and historical-cultural).

Finally, I write out a preliminary statement of what I think the main idea is.

On Monday afternoon, I begin reading three or four of the best commentaries.

I continue this on Tuesday morning and refine my understanding of the idea.

By Wednesday morning, I think about how I am going to preach this. I begin working on a preliminary preaching idea. I run this by a preaching planning team (composed of staff members) on Wednesday afternoon.

Then on Thursday I refine the outline and fill in the details. I usually prepare a detailed outline with a few sections manuscripted.

Friday is my day off. On Saturday, I return to the outline and read through it, sometimes making minor revisions. I talk my way through the sermon—either in my office or in a more deliberate rehearsal in our worship center. I do this a couple of times and always on Saturday night to lock it into my mind, since I preach with minimal or no notes.

Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, lllinois. He is also director of the doctor of ministry program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

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