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How Do You Write Your Sermons?

This one’s for pastors/teachers only…and it’s super-nerdy. But sometimes in my coaching other pastors, they’ll ask, “So how did you write your sermons?” First, I had the luxury of a teaching team that I met with a couple of weeks before who threw lots of ideas and resources to whatever the topic was. After that, I was on my own. So here's where it gets weird... I'd get in my car on Friday morning, go for a long drive away from the office, listen to a podcast that typically had nothing to do with my topic, grab a lunch while reading, then begin to write furiously after looking at the notes from the teaching team meeting, oftentimes in a park. Drive home about 5:30pm or so. The next morning I would go to my office, lock the door and write for the next seven hours, reading my talk out loud as I go, send the word-for-word transcript (with slides highlighted) to the tech team, walk over to the auditorium and speak at the Saturday celebration at 5:30. After meeting with new people after the service, I’d drive home and typically edit for another hour or two. It may not have drastically needed it, but it made me feel better and more confident. Then Sunday morning I’d speak at the three celebrations: 9, 10:30am and noon. For a number of years, I’d also connect with someone that I trusted with a different personality than me who would critique my message. I started transcripting years earlier when we were doing seven identical services each weekend and I would space out and couldn’t remember if I made a particular point. Plus, I’m pathetic at memorization, so I felt more comfortable with it transcripted. Additionally, I worked very hard on specific phrases I want to use; wordsmithing is important to me—words are powerful and I never wanted to take them for granted. So here are the details…and a few tips:

  • 12-14 hours uninterrupted think/writing time; 7 pages of 12pt / 1.5 line spacing allows for a 30-35 minute message.

  • 8-10 of those hours were writing on my MacBook, researching the internet, perusing my online library, using my Wordsearch bibles/commentaries, wordsmithing, etc.

  • Another 1-2 hours editing Saturday night.

  • I transcript the entire talk word-for-word and have learned to write like I talk.

  • I read it aloud as I write it, and usually once before I give it.

  • I format the talk to a Word template that I created for my iPad, save it as a pdf in Dropbox, download it to my iPad and open it up in iBooks where it lives in perpetuity.

  • I often try to work on the finish first; this is what people tend to remember…and especially when it leads into a time of prayer or ministry. Be careful of spending too much time on the opening setup and miss the critical close.

  • Be aware of the need for a “commercial break” every 5-7 minutes (personal story, humor element, a chance to exhale, etc…).

  • Find the one thing you really want listeners to walk away with.

  • While you’re writing, stop periodically, take a deep breath, and ask God, “What do You want to say, Father?”

  • Typically, new preachers use too many scripture texts. It’s overload for the listener and dangerously close to cherry-picking.

  • If you’re a good storyteller, exploit it. But make sure there’s a very clear connecting point. Jesus was the master.

  • Find a critic…but not your spouse…unless you’re really, really secure. (Wounds from a friend can be trusted… Proverbs 27:6)

  • Be authentically transparent; people will apply the message if they trust the messenger.

  • Study other good speakers. Watch for context and continuity.

Other teachers on my team had radically different approaches. Some only used an outline, others sketched it out with simple doodles on one page, some mind-mapped it, others had near photographic memories after reading it once, and on and on. The great evangelist Jonathan Edwards dispassionately read his sermons word-for-word, close to his face since he was so nearsighted. George Whitefield was the opposite—he presented his sermons extemporaneously with no notes. It’s estimated he preached easily 18,000 times to millions of people (and I’m sure there were a lot of repeats…). The point is: Whatever your style, work at your craft. Or as Paul writes, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart…” Remember, it’s an honor. And your people deserve the best you have.



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