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Sermon Writing Tips

The first rule of public speaking: KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. Communicate to them in ways that are culturally appropriate to them- Public Speaking: An Audience-Centered Approach, Steven and Susan Beebe.

Construct the sermon in the form of several 3-5 minute information chunks. Types of chunks may include Scripture explanation, illustrations, application, video clips, stories, historical information, etc. 3-5 minutes is the attention span of 21st century Americans. How you organize the various types of info chunks will largely determine whether you can keep your audience’s attention throughout the entire sermon- Creating Messages That Connect, Alan Nelson.

Do not place two of the same kind of chunks back to back. If you do, it will wear on your audience. An example of good placement of info chunks: Intro, Scripture reading, explanation of Scripture text, point one, video clip illustrating point one, application of point one, point two, illustration of point two, application of point two, point three, testimony that embodies the main point of the sermon, conclusion. Of course, sermons will vary from this style. Just remember to not use the same kinds of info chunks back to back.

3 basic parts to the sermon

Intro- tell them what you’re going to tell themBody- tell themConclusion- tell then what you told them

(Later Correction- Eugene Lowry just blew this apart for me with a little thing called “plot”- see The Homiletical Plot, page 21).

Use humor to provide comedic relief. I prefer more witty and thoughtful humor than canned jokes that are found on the internet. Funny stories about things that have happened to you are probably best. Humor is particularly helpful to provide comedic relief to the congregation after you have told a somber story or after you have given a more “intellectual” info chunk like the history of crucifixion in the Ancient Near East (who wouldn’t need a good laugh after this?)

Know the dramatic flow of the sermon- Story by Robert McKee. Think of the sermon as a movie. How do (good) movies keep someone’s attention for two hours? They keep our attention by employing dramatic flow.

As you write your sermon, ask questions like, “How does the introduction (first scene) provide the setting for the sermon? Where do dramatic turns of events happen? Where does comedic relief fit in?, How do I flesh out the characters?, How can I surprise the audience with a twist?, How do I advance the story line?, How do I raise and alleviate tension?, How can I build suspense and then reveal answers? How do I bring resolution at the end (conclusion)?, etc.”

Ex: In a sermon on why God allows suffering, you explain in the intro that most Christians do not realize how difficult this question is for the Christian faith. You tell them that most pastors provide the “God wanted humans to have freewill” answer but explain that philosophers have shown that this answer does not adequately answer the question of why God allows suffering.

Your honesty surprises the congregation, tips their apple cart, setting up the dramatic element of suspense about how you will deal with the problem of evil in your sermon. By setting up suspense, you guarantee their attention for at least 5 more minutes. Isn’t that comforting? ☺

Know the emotional flow of the entire sermon. You want most sermons to look like a large “U”, to begin up and end up, with more serious info chunks woven throughout the middle of the sermon. Begin happy and end happy, unless you are calling people to a serious decision at the end of the sermon, then you can end on a more somber, urgent note. –The Purpose-Driven Church, Rick Warren

Know what each info chunk is doing to the congregation emotionally and provide contrasting info chunks to balance this. An emotional story will be appreciated by the congregation but will also be emotionally draining. Follow an emotional story with a more “intellectual” info chunk or with a joke that eases them back “up”. Follow jokes with a serious point. Follow a sad story with something more upbeat- The Art of the Sermon, Rob Bell.

Write your sermons far in advance of preaching them. This allows you to “live with” the sermon for a long period of time. It preaches to you, so to speak, so when you deliver the sermon, it will come from a place of authenticity and will be more real to the congregation as well. This also helps you to collect the best illustrations. Always have your antenna up for stories, events, pictures, blogs articles, examples, quotes, statistics, etc. that will match with your sermon- The Art of the Sermon, Rob Bell; Unleashing the Word, Adam Hamilton

Adam Hamilton plans sermon series two years in advance! He has organized trips to the Holy Land and to Africa and then shown videos taken during the trip as illustrations- awesome intentionality!).

Illustrate every point in your sermon. Points without illustrations will not be taken seriously by the congregation. They will believe that if it isn’t important enough for you to illustrate it, then it isn’t important enough for them to remember it.

Make one point in your sermon. Even if you preach a three point sermon, every point should support the one MAIN point. You should have written and refined that one main point in one clear, concise, powerfully worded sentence. This is your thesis statement. This should be stated in your introduction clearly and concisely. This communicates to the audience that you know what you’re going to talk about and that you’re not going to take them down some long winding path to nowhere.

Only use material in your sermon that supports the main point. If it doesn’t support the main point, cut it out of the sermon. Don’t delete it, however. Save it in another file, and use it in a later sermon when it does support the main point.

Make it your goal in every sermon to move the congregation emotionally, teach them excellently, and give them some piece of interesting information they have ever heard before- Leadership Institute 2009, Adam Hamilton.

Know when to end the sermon. Don’t circle the airport three times before you land the plane by winding down your delivery as through you are ending and then making another point. Your delivery should slow down a little right before the end as you are dramatically reminding the congregation of your main point in the conclusion of your sermon.

Be a learner, a reader, so that your illustrations, vocabulary, and conversation can appeal to a wide range of people. You will be able to vary your illustrations from week to week to include the interests of your diverse congregation- men, women, sports fans, artists, businesspersons, students, the young and old. This will make your preaching more relevant to more people. Don’t get stuck in a rut of talking about only what interests you. –Community of Kindness, Steve Sjogren

You will probably title your sermons according to the culture of your church and your own style. If your style and church’s culture match Rick Warren’s, then make your sermon titles reflect the actual application of your sermon’s main point. Ex. If your sermon’s main point is “Trust God to guide you even when you can’t see what God is doing”, then your title might be, “How to Trust God When You Can’t See What God is Doing”.

It seems simplistic, but how many sermons have we heard with bizarre, meaningless titles? Use sermon titles that make a person want to hear what you have to say- Purpose-Driven Church, Rick Warren. Rob Bell uses more artistic, witty titles because that fits his style and culture, but I think his titles still accomplish the goal of making his congregation want to hear the sermon.

I write out my sermons in full manuscript form, but I do not read it when I deliver the sermon! I find that when I preach after writing a manuscript, I have automatically committed it to memory. I write my sermons in manuscript form for several reasons:

  • Writing several drafts of the sermon enables me to consolidate and organize my ideas.
  • Writing several drafts of the sermon enables me to refine my language for maximum clarity, conciseness, and impact.
  • Writing several drafts of the sermon enables me to have the manuscript on the platform with me in case I forget something.
  • Writing several drafts of the sermon helps me to not forget something.
  • Writing several drafts of the sermon enables me to know how long my sermon is. With my delivery speed, 1 page of Times New Roman font, 12 pt., single spaced = 5 minutes of preaching time. I usually write 5-6 pages per sermon. I number each page on the bottom right hand corner, so I can see the next page number as I pick up the bottom right hand corner of the page to turn it. I don’t staple the pages together, so I can turn them easily. Details. Details.
  • Writing several drafts of the sermon provides extra material that I cut from that sermon but save for later sermons… and it is already written.
  • Writing several drafts of the sermon helps me to live with the sermon, let it speak to me, and form me before I preach it.
  • Writing several drafts of the sermon enables me to email it to trusted friends to critique it and suggest ideas before I deliver it.
  • Writing several drafts of the sermon enables me to… write several drafts of the sermon. In other words, what the congregation hears has been thought through, and I am not inflicting my unedited ideas on them straight from the hip.

Train other less experienced preachers by giving them the topic on which you are preaching and allowing them to write their own sermons on that topic. Then, share your sermons with each other and critique them the Friday before you preach yours.

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3 thoughts on “Sermon Writing Tips

  1. Pingback: Sermon Delivery Tips « ryan gear

  2. Pingback: Preaching and Leadership Websites « ryan gear

  3. Pingback: Church Planting Tips- Continually Improve Your Preaching | ryan gear

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