In sermon preparation the preacher should utilize all of his intellectual and sensory capabilities to understand and internalize the Word of God and the particular message of the sermon he will preach. I fear that many preachers are too narrow in the way they envision and engage in sermon preparation. Sinclair Ferguson writes to preachers, “We do not relate to God in an affection- and emotion-free context, creaturely cerebellum to creator cerebellum as it were, but as whole persons–mind, will, dispositions, motivations, and affections in varying degrees of integrity or disintegration” (Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 85).
I think that Ferguson is correct, and with that being the case, preachers should engage in sermon preparation as whole persons, engaging every aspect of their being in the pursuit, apprehension, and internalization of biblical truth and its expression in a sermon. With that in mind, I want to explain some approaches that I utilize in sermon preparation that are not usually considered as normal parts of the discussion when one thinks about how to prepare a sermon. I do not offer them as authoritative but rather as illustrative. Every person has a different makeup and personality. Therefore, I believe that, beyond the obvious aspects of study, a person has to discover creative ways to enhance their personal sermon preparation by trial and error. Hopefully, my suggestions will spark something in your thinking that you will flesh out. If so, I would love to hear what works for you.
Hear the Word
The Bible commands us repeatedly to hear the Word of God, yet in my conversations with those who preach, it seems that few prioritize audibly listening to the Word in sermon preparation. Of course, we should and must read the Bible. The scriptural command to meditate on the Word cannot be accomplished without reading, but hearing is another vital way of appropriating the Word (I hope to write a short piece on a theology of hearing the Word at some point) that should not be neglected in preparation.
- Read the Word aloud to yourself.
- Have others read the Bible to you (spouse, children, others).
- Use an audio Bible app to listen in your study, on your commute, as you work out, and so on. For those with a knowledge of the original biblical languages, there are even easily accessible audio Bible’s in Hebrew and Greek.
- Listen to the book, passage, or preaching pericope over and over–hear it.
Doodle the Word
I use the term “doodle” here rather than “draw” because no one could confuse the sketching I do in sermon preparation as legitimate art (you may be a far more capable artist than I am). Doodling helps me attempt to conceptualize the message of the sermon. I usually have the text that I will be preaching printed on a sheet of paper, and if possible, I prefer to have it all on one page so that I can see the entire text. As I think through and study the text, I simply doodle circles, highlights, lines, and a variety of other things, most of which, no other human being would be able to make sense of, on the paper. Sometimes, I also draw pictures that aid me in conceptualizing the imagery or scene of a given text. Other times, I attempt to write a rhyming verse (I am certainly no poet), trying to encapsulate the message of the text. Putting pen to paper helps me internalize my thinking in a way that a keyboard does not. This kind of creativity in sermon preparation was common with John Bunyan, John Newton, Isaac Watts, and others.
- Denote key words, repeated words, unique words, images, verbs, main clauses, subordinate clauses, commands, motivation statements, narrative seams, and whatever else helps you think through the biblical text and helps you to visualize how it works.
- Cultivate your personal system of marking things that your eye becomes trained to notice.
- Produce some schematic, graphic, or picture that helps to conceptualize the message or flow of the text.
- Construct a crude (in my case) poetic representation of the text or something in the text. Suggest song lyrics based on the the text. What would the chorus be?
Converse the Word
This suggestion is very simple, but one that I find often overlooked. Talk to others about the text you are preaching and listen to others as they give you their thoughts. Of course, this would involve family, staff, and close friends, but I think you should also go out of your way to talk to and listen to the thoughts of diverse people regarding the text. Sermons are an oral and communal event. Without other people present there cannot be a sermon because a sermon is what is said to people. These kinds of conversations will keep you from getting trapped in narrow dialogue patterns, interacting exclusively with formally trained students of Scripture (theologians, Bible scholars, other formally trained pastors). The number of formally trained biblical scholars in a typical congregation on the Lord’s Day would probably be statistically insignificant. Hearing the questions that come to mind from an eight-year-old when they read the biblical text or a 95-year-old are extremely helpful in crafting expository sermons.
- Engage your spouse, children, and extended family and get their thoughts about the text. A pastor could gear family devotions around his sermon plan for the next few months.
- Meet with particular groups of people on a regular basis and read the text you will be preaching soon, asking, “What do you think about when you hear that passage?” I have known pastors who do this with a group of older men who drink coffee at the same place every morning.
- Talk about the text with a non-Christian friend or Christian friends who are outside of your particular faith community.
- Face-to-face conversations cannot and should not be replaced, but modern technology can provide some very creative ways to converse the word. With apps like Voxer and other voicemail apps (I am not tech savvy), a pastor can have a group of diverse people (different ages or ethnic backgrounds) who he asks to read a Bible section that he is going to be preaching soon or verses to be preached that week and to leave voice messages about questions that arise in their minds, encouragements, challenges, and just simply their thoughts as they read the text.
No one would or should attempt to do all of these things for every sermon they preach. Treating these suggestions as a rigid and concrete methodology would violate the very essence of what I am advocating regarding creativity in sermon preparation. These proposals, at least in my experience, are additions to what we usually think of regarding the work of sermon preparation. But I do believe they are suggestive of the kinds of things that preachers can do that will aid in engaging their whole person in sermon preparation and help stimulate the different ways in which we learn, embrace, and internalize truth. These suggestions may even help the preacher cultivate expository sermons that better assist listeners to learn, embrace, and internalize biblical truth as whole persons as well.