I don’t know how long it takes to write a sermon. When someone asks, I usually say something like, “Somewhere between 13 and 50 hours.” I mean this sincerely. When I know I have to preach in the next 5 to 10 days, I am always thinking about the sermon. My mind is constantly moving back and forth between the text, possible illustrations, main points, and ways to apply the sermon. Whether I am in a meeting, driving to the office, working out, or doing yard work, the sermon is always in the background of my thoughts. My wife can tell you plenty of humorous stories of catching me talking to myself or mumbling something under my breath on the weeks I am preparing to preach. If you count all of these hours of thinking about the sermon as official “sermon prep,” then the time it takes to write a sermon is very long, indeed.
While I don’t know how long it takes to write a sermon, I do have a pretty good answer for a person who wants to know the process for writing a sermon. I have been in ministry for 19 years, and I estimate that I have preached somewhere around 1600 sermons. Through lots of trial and error, I have found a method of preparation that works for me. Let walk you through a week of sermon prep and describe what I aim to do each day of the preaching week.
What follows is a normal week of sermon preparation where I am preaching the text our preaching team has determined for that particular Sunday. Space will not allow me to go in-depth into the methods I use for researching the text, looking at the original languages, and the particular commentaries or resources I prefer. All I want to show here is what happens each day and the high-level goals I have for each session in the process. In addition to what I describe below, I start and end each session with prayer.
Monday is the lightest day in terms of preparation. My only goal on Monday is to read the text as many times as possible and make a few notes. I generally do this in two 45-minute sessions on Monday, one in the morning and one in the mid-afternoon. That’s it. Again, I am likely thinking about the text on the way home in the car, listening to podcasts with an eye toward the sermon, and maybe even doing some open-air preaching in my office, but as far as actual study, I am just reading the text.
Tuesday is the heavy lifting day. My goal on this day is the research the text as in-depth as possible. This involves doing word studies, looking at the original languages, reading commentaries and background material, and doing what is called exegesis. Exegesis is the process of seeking to understand, to the best of my ability, what the original author meant when he wrote the text. I am not looking to understand what the text means to us today and how we can apply it to our lives. Rather, I am only wanting to understand what the original author, such as Paul or Matthew, meant when they wrote a particular passage. Once I feel like I have accomplished this, I will write one or two sentences that summarize what the text meant. Most often, this takes me three or four 50-60 minute sessions.
Wednesday is outline and introduction day. Once I have established the meaning of the text and worked through the author’s flow of thought, I then write down what the main point of the sermon (MPS). The MPS takes the original author’s meaning and applies it to today. It takes what was written and intended in the past and seeks to bridge the gap into the present. Once I’ve established this, I make an outline where each of the 3 or 4 points further explains and serves the main point. For example, recently I preached from Matthew 5:6-8. The MPS of that text was: The church must understand the wrong way to pray in order to learn the right way to pray. With my outline I showed three wrong ways to pray:
My intent with each of these points was to establish the claim of the MPS. This work is done on Wednesday in 3 or 4 50-60 minute sessions.
The final session of the day, usually in the afternoon, I will begin writing the sermon by trying to nail down an introduction. My introductions have two simple goals: where and why. I want to establish where we are going in the sermon, and I want to show why it’s important that we go there. Pretty simple. This might involve an illustration, a personal story, or some need or issue in our lives, or in the world, that demands a response. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said the introduction should be like a doctor diagnosing a patient. Before the doctor can cure the patient, he must know what his problem is! Introductions of sermons show the problem and establish why a person should listen to what the preacher has to say.
The goal for Thursday is simple: Get a rough draft done. This might take me 2 hours or 7 hours. I never really know. Sermons tend to have a mind of their own! I simply write until I am done. Now, you might be asking, what does a “done” rough draft look like? For me, it’s two things: balance and word count. I want each outline point to have balance and symmetry. I don’t want to write 1000 words for 2 of the points and 300 words for the other point. I like for each point to carry roughly the same amount of weight in the sermon. Second, because I have preached for almost two decades, I know the correlation between the length of my notes and the length of my sermon. Yes, we preachers do take sermon length into account! My goal is to preach somewhere around 36-42 minutes. Anything longer feels like too much. Anything shorter feels like I’ve left too many things unsaid and you as the hearer didn’t really get their money’s worth that week! This length requires my notes to be somewhere around 3300-3500 words. I stay pretty close to my notes when I preach and rarely deviate. So, the goal for Thursday is to complete a balanced rough draft of 3300 or so words. Once I am done, I send my draft to other members of our preaching team for review and await their verdict.
Friday is my sabbath. I try to get as far away from the sermon as possible. I don’t want to think about it, talk about it, or look at it in any form. There was a time when I would use Friday’s for sermon prep, but those days are long gone. I’d rather work as hard as I can to make the Thursday deadline, and then be able to relax and rest before Sunday.
Saturday involves two main sessions: final edits and memorization. I wake up early on Saturday and work through any feedback I’ve received from our preacher team and bring the sermon to its final form. This might take me 15 minutes or 2 hours depending on how much I need to change.
Later in the evening I’ll begin the process of memorization. This typically involves reading the entire sermon 6-8 times. I’ll also make notes in the margins where I want to emphasize something or potentially mention another passage of Scripture that hits me as I visualize preaching the sermon. Usually these changes are minimal. I am mainly attempting to make the sermon as “preachable” as possible. Once I feel like I have memorized the sermon I put it away for the night and try to get some rest.
While I try to make prayer a priority all throughout the writing and planning process, I spend the most focused time in prayer for the sermon on Sunday morning. I wake up early, read through the sermon one last time, and then I pray for our church, for any unbelievers or seekers who may be present, and for my own heart to love and believe what I am preaching. At this point in the process, I have done all I can do. I then attempt to preach with as much zeal and conviction I as can, and trust that the Lord will attend to the preaching of His Word, and that it will accomplish all that He intends.