Sunday is coming. Every pastor reading this article knows exactly what I mean. To be a preacher is to live perpetually in final exam week. There’s an ever-present, impending deadline hanging over you. It’s a glorious deadline but a real one, nonetheless. Sunday is coming.
Your impending deadline necessitates moving from interpreting the text to assembling the sermon. At this point the hard work of interpretation is largely done. You understand the text, you know how it fits into its immediate context, and you know where it’s situated in redemptive history.
You’re now ready to organize, review, and cull your notes. The ingredients are ready to be incorporated in a way that produces a sumptuous feast for God’s people. You’re ready to assemble your sermon. During this stage your focus turns to condensing, refining, and ordering your notes. Your goal is to pull together these disparate parts into a coherent and compelling sermon whole. This involves several stages, but they all flow together naturally. I label this stage assembly because sermons aren’t to be a loose collection of disjointed parts; rather, they should present the text in a unified, coherent way.
Draft the Sermon Body
Now that the lion’s share of the exegetical work is done, you must transition to the actual drafting of the sermon manuscript. Depending on your style (notes or no notes, manuscript or outline), this process will vary widely. Though I do not read my sermon notes, over the years I’ve generally drafted an entire manuscript for sermons I preach.
If you are a newcomer to preaching, let me encourage you to do the same. There is no substitute for being forced to attain clarity of thought. As you write your sermons, imagine yourself behind the pulpit proclaiming the words that are being penned. As you draft the body of the sermon, you can follow a simple three-step approach to each major point—explain, amplify, and apply the text, in that order of importance. While these steps are fluid, morphing with each sermon and each sermon point, they should be your default grid.
What is more, if while drafting the manuscript you find that you reach a saturation level with one sermon point, you can shift to another—even if it is not in sequence—and gain a fresh wind and renewed sense of focus. I encourage you to draft your sermon manuscript before turning your attention to the introduction or the conclusion. If a potential introduction or conclusion comes to mind, write something on a notepad as a reminder to consider it later.
For me it is important that I follow this sequence because it prevents me from allowing the tail to wag the dog. This is more a matter of preference than conviction, but it’s worth encouraging you toward ordering your work with intentionality. John Stott makes this point, writing,
“It seems essential to prepare the body of the sermon first. If we were to begin with a predetermined introduction or conclusion, we would be almost bound to twist the text to fit. So instead, we start with the body. Only then shall we ‘top and tail’ the body, that is, supply it with a head and a tail end, an introduction and a conclusion.”1
Draft the Conclusion
Again, this is more a matter of preference, but I encourage you to draft your conclusion immediately after you’ve written the main body. This is the most natural workflow because you’re already in the “wind down the sermon” frame of mind. That is to say, you know where the sermon is going, and in your heart you should have an idea as to the parting thrust you want to leave with your audience.
Let me encourage you to plan your conclusion. If you fail to do so, you will have the tendency to preach until you “fizzle out.” Such conclusions make for weak sermon endings, and they may jeopardize the entire worship service by not rightly encouraging the audience’s response.
Draft the Introduction
Next, after the sermon’s body and conclusion are complete, you should turn your attention to the introduction. I save this step for last not because it is the least important aspect of your sermon but because it is the most important—at least when it comes to engaging and retaining your audience.
You should give thought to the introduction throughout the sermon preparation process. What is more, by now you will likely have a list of potential introductions and a healthy supply of introductory remarks—including the text’s context—and a brief, simple overview of the passage.
The goal for the sermon’s introduction is simple. You should desire the introduction to be so compelling that if you were to stop speaking after introducing the sermon, your listeners would insist that you resume it. Week to week the style of your introduction will vary because there are various acceptable ways to introduce your sermon. The style of introduction you develop is inconsequential if the desired result is accomplished.
Weave in Transition Phrases
At this point the sermon is present both in skeletal and muscular form. Nonetheless, your aim is to preach a sermon, not merely a collection of sermon points. What likely is now needed is the support structure and connections. What we might think of as the sermon’s tendons and ligaments. Therefore, you should comb through your sermon looking for awkward locutions, dislodged thoughts, non-sequiturs, and turgid transitions.
Carefully consider how the sermon will move from point to point. Intentionally employ phrases and words that help carry your listeners along with you throughout your sermon. A good rule to remember here is to tell the audience where you’ve been, then tell them where you’re going. This ensures seamlessness, keeps them aware that you’re moving between points, and helps them remain engaged.
Additionally, try not to be too bony in your presentation. Thus, don’t say, “Point number one is Jesus loves you.” Such phrases tend to be too abrupt. Rather, smoothly and seamlessly transition the listener to the next point without their feeling like you have just slammed on the brakes, and now you’re pressing down on the accelerator.
Learning to assemble your study notes into a cohesive sermon is a must for pastors. This process is one of culling, ordering, refining, and strengthening the sermon. Your congregation does not need to know everything that went into preparing your sermon. They’re not all that much concerned about Greek and Hebrew parsing and verb tenses.
Furthermore, they should not have to interpret you as you explain the text to them; they trust that you’ve done the interpretive work. This process is vital, as it will determine how well your sermon is understood and received. While most pastors rightly devote much time to interpretation, not as many are as concerned with assembly. For the sake of your audience, be diligent in this crucial aspect of sermon preparation as well.
*This article is an excerpt from Letters to My Students, Vol. 1, On Preaching, by Jason K. Allen.
1. John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1982), 243–44.