On writing sermons: this old dog can learn a new trick!

Nick and Jess from New Girl.

There was a scene in the show New Girl a couple of seasons ago in which Nick and his then-girlfriend Jess were confessing their deepest fears to one another. At one point, Nick said, “I’m not sure if I can actually read, or if I’ve just memorized a lot of words.”

I know what Nick means. A part of me has felt that way about preaching. Although I feel secure about my preaching now, there were many times in the past when I wondered if I really knew how to do it—especially when I considered how much longer it seemed to take me (and still does) to prepare a sermon than many of my friends who also preach.

I didn’t want to think about the art or craft of preaching too much because I was afraid I would be exposed as a fraud or lose the knack for doing what had previously come naturally to me. Inasmuch as I was a good preacher—I used to think—it came naturally to me. So why mess with it?

I still believe that we preachers have to be true to our own voice and style. I’ve never read or heard a sermon, for instance, by Fred Craddock, a former professor and homiletical hero at the seminary I attended, but apparently his “narrative style” of preaching, at which he excelled, has been aped by many preachers who don’t share his gift for it. Let’s please not try to be someone else.

Speaking of style, I now feel completely secure with the fact that I preach from a manuscript. There is currently a bias against this in preaching circles. We preachers are being more “authentic,” many say, when we preach extemporaneously, without notes, “from the heart.” Oh, please! I pour my heart into writing my manuscript, and I can preach from it without merely “reading” from it. This takes a lot of rehearsal time on Sunday morning. I saw Billy Graham preaching in a televised Crusade from the ’70s, and he was preaching from a manuscript. If it’s good enough for him…

My favorite contemporary preacher—no surprise, if you read this blog—is Tim Keller. I listen to sermons by him nearly every week. In many ways, he’s a classic three-point expository preacher (although he sometimes has more than three points). Whereas I’m always happy to share an insight or two from him, I’m surprised and pleased, given his influence on me, how little my sermons resemble his—at least structurally. I’m sure that’s for the best: if God wanted me to be Tim Keller, after all, he would have made me Tim Keller, not Brent White.

Having said all that, I have learned a few things about preaching over the years. This is probably why, when I read the sermons I wrote prior to about 2010, I mostly think they’re horrible. My wife tells me I’m wrong about that, but I’m not so sure. As I’ve discussed on this blog, I had an evangelical re-conversion some time before my ordination, around 2010. Among other things, this experience included falling in love with the Bible again—and falling in love with the gospel again.

In this regard, Tim Keller did show me how to be far more Christocentric in my preaching. As with Keller, every sermon I preach these days—on any part of the Bible, Old or New Testament—is ultimately about Jesus. I proclaim the gospel through every text. I talk about the cross in every sermon. Like Paul, I resolve to know nothing except Christ and him crucified. This has made sermon preparation easier: at least now I know how my sermon will end—with my relating my sermon text to Jesus and the cross.

How the sermon begins… that’s still the tricky part for me!

Here’s something else I’ve been doing for the first time recently: I’ve been writing a complete outline of my sermon before writing my manuscript. This may seem like an obviously good thing to do prior to any kind of writing, but I’ve always resisted it—both in school and in sermon-writing. I told myself that the sermon would take shape on its own once I started writing. And it always did—just not before I took a couple of wrong turns along the way. This was inefficient, stressful, and impractical—especially if I wanted to have a life on Saturday and not work all day on writing a sermon.

And I do want to have a life on Saturday. This fall, for instance, I got season tickets to Georgia Tech football games for me and my son Townshend. I simply didn’t have the time for all the false starts, dead ends, and rabbit trails. I needed to have a pretty good idea of what I was going write before I started writing it.

And here’s what I’ve learned: whereas I used to tell myself that outlining sermons was a good way to “quench the Spirit,” the truth is I didn’t want to do it because it’s hard. It takes discipline. It takes great mental effort to organize my thoughts—to plan my main points, illustrations, and transitions in advance.

But what a difference it makes! I spend many hours researching the scripture, doing exegetical and interpretive work—which includes reading commentaries, studying words, jotting down ideas, thinking about how the text relates to current events or contemporary issues. Once I’ve done all of this work, I spend about two hours writing an outline.

My outlines tend to be very detailed. I could preach directly from them, except the sermons would be long and rambling. I say this because when I actually write the sermon, I always find that I have to omit a few things in the interest of time. But that’s a good problem to have. The benefit of preaching to the same congregation week after week is that I don’t have to say everything in one sermon.

The good news is that once I have an outline, the hard part is done. Writing the sermon becomes the easy and fun part.

This is what works for me. Any preachers out there care to add anything?

4 thoughts on “On writing sermons: this old dog can learn a new trick!”

  1. In hopes of getting back to work part-time, as well as for the spiritual exercise & discipline, I have recently started writing a sermon and a Word and Table worship service for each Sunday. I find my preparation and writing is pretty much being done the same way as when I was last preaching regularly, which would have been over 10 years ago.

    I don’t outline my sermons, though I did years ago. Sometimes the sermon naturally has points, but often there is just one main point. Now I study and pray over the text, and just start writing. My sermons are expository, expanded with examples and illustrations and lots of related Scriptures. I write out a full manuscript, though I don’t read it or follow it precisely.

    Like you Brent, I pour my heart and soul into preparation and writing a manuscript, and I believe The Holy Spirit can work in that process as well as in preaching without a manuscript.

    For some, a manuscript may seem too restrictive, but you don’t have to be bound to it. To me, not using a manuscript can also be restrictive, binding us to our whims and emotions, especially if we don’t prepare first, which would also be just plain lazy and careless about God’s word in my opinion.

    At least a manuscript forces you to do some kind of preparation, at least if it has anything at all to do with the text, which I know is by no means a given.

    Good sermon preparation, including lots of prayer, takes lots of time. Our members and attenders need this, and we must make it a top priority. Our calling is the ministry of the word of God and prayer.

    1. That’s right, Victor. Preaching is our top priority. There’s no other thing that we do as pastors on a regular basis that’s more important than preaching the Word. Our schedule should reflect that priority.

      1. Thanks for asking Brent. I’ll keep it short, as I’ll be posting about this on my blog soon.

        Having been on medical leave the last 12 years, my health has shown gradual and more recently radical and sustained improvement. I would not be under appointment, which is not allowed on medical leave. I would fill pulpits, preach special services like revivals, and/or work directly for a church as an associate/assistant.

        The goal is to become full-time again. I especially miss preaching, leading worship, teaching and small groups, and look forward to getting back to it on a more regular basis.

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