Preparing to Preach

Some of my classes feature opportunities to preach homilies or sermons. Especially because these can seem out of place in a classroom environment, here are a few pointers to help preachers as well as the rest of us as we take on the responsibilty of preaching as well as hearing and weighing the Word of God.

Preach the Word.

The Church is Christ's custodian of his good news. A sermon communicates that good news.

This does not lock the preacher into any particular sermon format. Preaching can be expository, topical, anecdotal, synthetic, lyrical, casual, formal ... or any other format suitable to the good news. Nor does it lock the preacher into any formulaic rendition of the gospel. You can preach the good news in a sermon restricted to Leviticus! After all, the story that centers on Jesus Christ is a long, deep, convoluted, spread out one. Nevertheless, the story of God canonized in Scripture is to be the substance of your communication.

Try not to be intimidated, but to take your task seriously.

Yes, rightly handling the Word of God is more responsibility than you're likely ready for. Same with me. But Jesus did leave his good news in the hands of all his followers. Trust him, and then strive to be trustworthy. Hear Paul's words to the younger Timothy:

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching (1 Timothy 4:12-13 ESV).

So prepare and exemplify, and you'll be fine.

Do not 'wing it'; prepare a text or at least a prose outline.

There is an old joke about a preacher who likes to begin with a prepared text but "let the Holy Spirit take over" as his sermons progress. One day after church a congregant greets him and says, "You know, we think you preach better than the Holy Spirit."

Spontaneity only works when years of preparation are backing it up. Basically it requires fluency in the subject matter, just as spontaneous speech requires fluency in a language. As recent immigrants usually speak only 'broken English,' so beginning preachers generally speak a 'broken gospel.' In such circumstances, at the very least you should have your major points in front of you as an outline. For those I recommend a prose outline format. You can also prepare and read a full text; if you learn it well enough it will flow with the proper energy and you will be able to deliver it with proper eye contact.

Choose a passage.

The most necessary task for a preacher is also the most elusive: discerning what to preach on. How do you choose a text or a topic? You do it with the Spirit's gift of discernment. This is a matter of prayer, serious exposure to the material (in our case this will often be the topic or the book on which we are concentrating; in others it may be the lectionary text for that day or even the canon as a whole if the format is topical or synthetic), time, and perhaps some false starts.

If you are stuck, take a walk and pray as you go. Meditate on the question as you fall asleep and ask yourself in the morning if you have an answer. Take a shower. Human minds seem to come to life in unusually helpful ways in settings like these. (Just don't do all of them at once.)

If you are choosing a topic, once you light on it you need to identify biblical passages that speak substantively to that topic. I recommend you identify one central one that frames the topic properly in the context of the whole gospel. You might also identify secondary texts that bring their own messages to bear on that central passage; this is called midrash and has a long and distinguished history in Jewish and Christian preaching and teaching. I am hesitant to offer my own work as an example, but you might check my site for sermons I have preached to see what I mean.

Then you need to understand it! This may prove to be hard work. If I expect every student to invest the time and effort he or she needs to engage the Scriptures, this is all the more true of the preacher. Use the reading, syntactic, contextual, critical, and theological tools at your disposal.

Learn what it means and why it matters.

This assignment on a passage of Revelation in my Introduction to the New Testament class stresses two necessary aspects of your task. First, you need to understand the passage(s) on which you are relying. Second, you need to understand why those passages matter in the context in which you will be interpreting them. If you restrict your message to the first point, you are at best teaching rather than preaching the text. If you restrict your passage to the second, you are guessing rather than interpreting it.

Gaining a sense of the first involves techniques such as reading skills, background research, close attention to a passage's context (don't isolate a passage from its immediate context!), and so on.

The second involves all these and more — a judgment that cannot come merely from the text itself, but must also emerge as a result of your discernment into a passage's meanings in their fullness, the lives and needs of your audience, and other intangibles. Judgment can always be informed, but it can never be domesticated; it demands the obedient freedom and responsible maturity that you are only beginning to appropriate as a faithful reader.

Gaining a sense of what a passage means and especially gaining a sense of why it matters is a frustrating, unpredictable, exhilarating experience. This is as true of veterans as it is of beginners!

Against both platitudes and shock is the gift of surprise.

Many of us seem to have been raised on preaching that plays it safe — telling audiences what they already know and expect to hear. At the same time, many of us grow up in a culture that intentionally shocks— violating audiences' senses of propriety not because the propriety is misplaced but because it gets attention.

The Kingdom of God is not safe, nor is it shocking. The Kingdom is right — searchingly, destructively and constructively, subversively and affirmingly true. In a world inured to sin but never abandoned by its Creator and Redeemer, that means the Kingdom is consistently surprising. Surprise never gets boring as playing it safe and setting out to shock do, because surprise neither purposefully matches our expectations nor purposefully overturns them. After all, either one lets our expectations determine the outcome. Surprise awakens us with truth from beyond our expectations — with a gift we could never have made or even imagined ourselves.

Don't settle for seeing in the text what you always expected to see there. Don't play it safe as you read or as you preach. At the same time, don't just search out what you don't expect to see there either. Don't shock yourself or your audience. Your expectations are not the point. The Word is the point.

Prepare to be surprised as you study. Pray that what you find and pass along in your preaching surprises your audience as well. Seek only the surprise of the unexpected gift of the presence of the Kingdom of God.

Give yourself enough time.

It is hard to rush wisdom! Understanding, analyzing, and preparing a sermon or homily all take time. Give yourself several days at a minimum, and a week or more if possible. You want the material to percolate so your interpretation comes through discernment, not just reaction. Return to the relevant passages and their broader contexts over and over so that major themes emerge, nuances surface, the unclear portions become clear — and so you have time to look up terms and figures you are unfamiliar with.

Make sure individual details serve the primary focus.

Stay focused! I know you could go on for ages about this stuff. But you can't. So prioritize your message and make sure everything you say serves that message. Don't overload it with observations that aren't germane to your rhetorical goal. Be aware as well that because your audience has not spent the time with the material that you have, they will find the twists and turns in your reasoning harder to follow than you do.

Style must serve substance.

"Creative" tricks like drama, props, and the like are not necessarily bad. In fact, done right they can make your preaching truly powerful and memorable. But they are risky: a flop can be pretty devastating. And they must directly teach the main point of your message, since they are likely to be the most vivid moments in your sermon.

Go deep, but don't go long.

Pay attention to the time limit! Don't go over, especially if (as I am) you are used to speaking environments with longer time frames. Our class time is almost always spoken for; this is all the more true for large class sizes.

This is a hard rule for me to stress, since I am so often guilty of violating it. As Jesus says of the Pharisees, you should heed what I say rather than how I behave.

Finish your preparation early.

Preachers should substantially complete your preparations at least a day before the assignment is due. After you write, set it aside for a while. Get some rest. When you come back to it you will notice unimportant points, unclear areas, grammatical errors, outright inaccuracies, awkward transitions, errors in logic, and distractions much more easily than you will if you write it at the last minute and give it only a quick read.

I also recommend you go through the biblical passages you cover again after you have finished your draft. They will probably seem clearer to you than ever before, and that clarity will help you polish and further focus your presentation.

Practice reading aloud.

Your message is a performance, so it deserves a rehearsal. Read your passage aloud over and over until you are fluent with it, know what to stress, know how slowly to go and where to pause, and speak it with the true voice of a preacher. Then go over your text or outline, reading aloud. Spoken English needs to be simpler than written English, because listeners cannot go back and review. Read your material aloud and you will notice mistakes and needless complexities you tend to miss when you read silently. You will also become a more confident performer in class because you will be better at stressing your major points.


When you return to your sermon for your final edit, go through and simplify everything: Your grammar, the ideas, your clarifications, and the flow. Cut material that turns out to be distracting from your main point(s), even if you have grown fond of it.

Make a copy for me.

If you are delivering a message in an upper-division class that reflects serious research, give me a copy of at least your outline so I can follow along and have something on which to record a grade. This doesn't apply to brief homilies in my GE classes.

Preach joyfully.

I don't get to preach very often (unless you count my hobby-horse rides in class), but I love it. Don't misunderstand me: public speaking can be terrifying, and representing the Word of God brings public speaking to a whole new level of intimidation. Such acts carry eternal consequences! But this is why Jesus sent his Spirit — so you can be sure that your faithfulness is in the Spirit a sharing in Christ's faithfulness. Let that assurance give you his peace and grace as you speak.

Before, during, and after your performance, prayerfully ask yourself (and especially others you trust who are wise about such things) whether this is something you should be doing more of.

Not presenting today? Support the presenter.

If you are not preaching, then support the student who is by doing the reading, working to understand it before class, listening closely, supporting the preacher with the expression on your face, and being appreciative of both the presenter's work and other students' questions.

Remember, we are a team, and this is an especially intimidating assignment for many of us.