In my role as associate Ministerial Secretary in charge of elders, deacons, deaconesses, and editor of Elder’s Digest, I travel the globe visiting church members and leaders. Wherever I go, elders and company directors say to me, “Elder Arrais, thank you for the good sermons that are being published in Elder’s Digest, but, please, help us learn how to prepare good sermons ourselves.” I don’t want to argue about the art of preparing a sermon, much less include in these few lines all the concepts involved in the creation of a sermon; however, I would like to share some practical and simple ideas that have helped me throughout my pastoral ministry.
Preparing a sermon is not as complicated or difficult as many think. It is very important, though, that each preacher finds his or her own style. If you still haven’t found your personal style, try to learn from the example of good preachers who are similar to you in personality and style. The truth is that a good sermon comes from the heart, from the preacher’s experience, and from his or her personal relationship with God. Besides that, its effect will be completed when the message meets the listener’s needs. However, there are certain principles that a preacher needs to know and consider when preparing a sermon.
• Know your listeners. Who is going to hear the sermon? What are their needs? Some of your listeners may be unemployed or have physical, financial, spiritual, or health issues. You can’t simply preach for preaching’s sake. Your message has to reach these people with their varying needs. Your listeners are young, old, women, men, Christian, non-Christian—all hoping for something that touches their hearts. It is important to know your audience.
• Choose the subject. The subject needs to interest those listening to the sermon. The subject also needs to be one that motivates you to preach. The subject should be clear in your mind so that it won’t sound confusing to your listeners. The message also needs to be adapted to the occasion and place. Is the subject proper for Sabbath worship? For a Wednesday prayer meeting? Is it doctrinal, evangelistic, or pastoral?
• Find a Bible text. I have heard some sermons where the preacher does not open the Bible, not even once. This is a tragedy. A key text gives the proper biblical and spiritual basis for the message, and it will remind the preacher and the listeners that the message comes not from man but from God. Closeness with the Bible also contributes to our proper spiritual preparation, considering that we should always pray before reading it.
• Gather information and research materials. It is good when the preacher enjoys research and seeks something more to complement the message. The congregation knows the difference between a “canned” or improvised sermon and one that has been properly prepared. Use Bible commentaries or other appropriate resources, different Bible versions, older devotional books, and good magazines. These supplemental materials will enlighten your mind with concepts and ideas that will enrich your message.
• Write the theme. The sermon theme or title should be simple but interesting. Summarize in one word or a short phrase everything you want to say in the sermon. Many people will be drawn into the sermon simply because of the theme. What do you expect as a result of your sermon? Try to communicate that in the theme.
• Make an outline. An outline helps the preacher to schematize and systematize the message in the mind and gives balance to the body of the message. Every sermon should have a basic structure: introduction, body, conclusion. Each part should have a specific length: five minutes for the introduction, 20 minutes for the body, and five minutes for the conclusion is a good guide. All parts are important because one builds on the other.
• Write the entire sermon. To have a detailed view of the entire message and to register ideas that may be forgotten, it is important to literally write the entire sermon. This prevents the preacher from forgetting information when preaching and from going around in circles. Besides, the sermon may be saved and used again some other time.
• Practice your sermon. After writing the entire sermon, preach it out loud for an imaginary congregation. (This may seem like madness, but it is not.) This practice will help you articulate the words, memorize the concepts, strengthen your performance, eliminate parts that are not as important, and help you not to be captive to an outline when presenting the message. It will also help you to make the all-important eye contact with your listeners. Sometimes I ask my wife to listen to the main points of my message. Her opinion is important, because if she as my wife doesn’t like my sermon, the church certainly will not like it either.
• Pay attention to content and style. Many sermons are like certain types of food—undigestable, bland, and nutritionally empty. If a sermon does not have the nutrients necessary to feed and challenge the listeners for a purpose, the sermon’s objective is not reached. Sermons without content or purpose may result in a generation of anemic or spiritually-starved Christians. Aggressive sermons may cause people to feel publicly offended or ashamed. Never forget that Christ is the center of our message, and the presentation should be done with the love of the Holy Spirit.
• Make appeals. I have heard beautiful sermons with wonderful introductions, content, and illustrations; however, no appeal was made at the end. This is a great problem in today’s preaching. Without an appeal, decisions are not made, and if there are no decisions, there are no baptisms. Those who were prepared by the Holy Spirit to answer positively to the message may feel frustrated because they were not given the opportunity to express a public decision. Let us make appeals with energy, trust, clarity, and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Preaching is a science that may be developed and improved by those who make appropriate preparations. It is our privilege to be instruments of God’s blessings when we open His Word before His people. The prophet Isaiah was correct when he said, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation” (Isa. 52:7). May God bless and guide you as you prepare your next sermon.
Jonas Arrais is a General Conference Associate Ministerial Secretary