Organizing and writing a sermon does not have to be rocket science. Yes, it is an art–and not everyone may master it–but very a many clergy and laity alike can preach given the opportunity to learn how to organize a sermon.
Here’s an insider’s hint: If you can write a decent sermon, then you’ve won half the battle. Delivery depends on your practice and public speaking ability; it’s the writing that makes the difference.
So, here is an outline for how to design a sermon*:
Sermon Outline for Dummies
By Joe LaGuardia
1. Choose a biblical text.
Always start with the Bible. All too often, preachers start with an idea and try to force the Bible to speak to that idea or topic. This is risky and tends to make the Bible say what the preacher wants it to say rather than allow the Holy Spirit to determine what God needs to say to the community, preacher and parishioners alike.
Another temptation is for preachers to either preach what they know–and the texts they know–or preach what is comfortable or easy. Listening to the Holy Spirit means preaching texts even if you don’t like them or don’t come easy. The harder the text, the more work you need to do. But that’s why you are in the ministry in the first place, to dig deep and get at the root of God’s Word for the community.
If you find yourself preaching what is familiar, use outside sources for text ideas. The lectionary is a tried and true method for preaching ideas. You can find the lectionary texts on the internet; of all the sites, Textweek is my favorite because it includes commentaries and liturgical helps for each lectionary text.
2. Pray about the Biblical text and let it “rest” in your mind and imagination for a few days.
Don’t jump right into sermon prep. If you preach every week, read the text at the beginning of the week and let it sit with you for a few days before hitting the commentaries. This will allow you to get things from the text from God’s point of view, rather than from someone else.
Be sure to jot down ideas along the way…If you’re like me, you tend to forget the things God brings to mind by the time I sit down to write the sermon. (It’s amazing how many ideas come to mind when I am driving, so I got into the habit of keeping a little notepad in the car to jot down notes at red lights!)
When you get a text in mind, don’t look to make your sermon elaborate–one point will do. In fact, most congregations will appreciate it if you make one or two points per sermon. It’s what people will remember anyway, so why work thrice as hard?
3. Begin with a story that illustrates the single point you want to make in the sermon.
Once you have a biblical text in mind and you let the text sit with you, then think of an “ice breaker” to introduce the sermon and sermon idea. A great introduction includes a story that should be your “own.” In other words, you “own” it to the point that you rely very little on a manuscript to tell it.
The introductory story can be humorous or from your own life; it can be moving and inspiring and bring your listeners to a point of reflection. Or it may intend to draw out a certain issue, struggle, conflict, theological puzzle, etc. It can include facts or statistics–but don’t linger too long here–this is just to present an issue that your sermon will soon resolve.
Thus, the story should end within a brief amount of time (say 3 minutes) and include a pithy “pitch” for readers to hold onto for the rest of the sermon. (Ever hear a joke in which the beginning is too long and you rush the person to get to the point or to the punchline? Yeah, an introductory story that is too long can feel this way too!)
The pitch can be a question or challenge, a statement of inquiry or conflict. It should focus the audience on a thought, conflict, or question that summarizes the single point you want people to walk away with.
Obviously, this moves your audience from story (narrative) to biblical text. If you haven’t gotten to the Bible at this point in the sermon, than it becomes a speech or mere entertainment.
Here is an example of an introductory story and pitch:
(For a sermon on God’s glory. The Biblical text is John 2:1-11; but notice how I start with Ex. 33. Again, this is only an introductory story, something to grab the congregation’s attention.)
A story is told in Exodus 33 in which there is an intimate and powerful interaction between God and Moses. The Israelites just finished sinning against God by fashioning and worshiping a golden calf. God was ready to wipe them from the face of the earth, when Moses interceded on their behalf.
“They are a stubborn, stiff-necked people,” God said of Israel. But Moses persisted: “If you find favor with me, then show me your ways, and let me see your glory.”
You may have heard of this story before: God told Moses that he, Moses, can’t look at God lest it kill Moses. Instead, God promised to put Moses in the cleft of a rock, cover his eyes, and then let Moses see the back of God’s glory. The event is so powerful, so majestic, Moses’ face and skin shine like the sun. After that point, he needed a veil to cover his face whenever he met with the people of Israel.
(…and now the pitch:) Perhaps there was a time in your life when you sought God’s glory and experienced God in such a profound way that you too changed forever. Other times, perhaps you sought God’s glory, but nothing happened.
Truth is, God’s glory is always there–its just a matter of paying attention. God’s glory shows up when we least expect it. Our skin may not shine, but we know it when we see it!
4. Move from story and the “pitch” to heart of biblical text—start broad and then start to narrow your focus as you go on.
Moving the text is important. There should be time for people to “take a breath” between the story, the pitch, and this section, so start broad. For instance: “Our text for today discusses X.” Then narrow your focus:
- Provide historical background or nuances in one or two paragraphs.
- Provide context of the book in the Bible and its place in the immediate story.
- Ask questions of the text; put people in the text; allow them to take ownership of the text. What words in the text need to be “fleshed out” or parsed? What historical nuances need to be cleared up/corrected/focused upon?
(So, continuing on the sermon of God’s glory, the next move goes thusly…)
There is another story in the Bible that tells of God’s glory, but it isn’t as profound. In fact, it doesn’t even take place in church or at the temple. It isn’t on a mountain top; nor is it in some majestic venue.
Rather, the story is of Jesus and his family attending a wedding in Cana. Folks are celebrating, the meal is great, and drinks are flowing. Half-way through the whole ordeal, the wine runs out. Mary looks to Jesus to do a miracle.
This is no healing. It’s not an exorcism. It’s a miracle in which Jesus turns something as mundane as water (at a mundane event as a wedding) into a sacrament of wine. It’s not a very outstanding miracle, but the Bible attests that “this was Jesus’ first sign, and revealed God’s glory” (v. 11).
5. …Take a breath and…Make connections between the text and current situations/life events/current events.
Stories and illustrations should be pithy and to the point, but help your audience move from history of the text (past) to their present situation. Barbara Brown Taylor once stated in so many words: “Don’t tell a story and invite people to take that trip with you [through the telling of the story] if people are unable to relate to the story and take the trip in the first place.” (In other words, don’t be esoteric; this part of the sermon has to make the Bible relevant for the majority of the audience.)
So, to continue our sermon…
When I read about Moses story in Exodus 33 and Jesus’ miracle in John 2, I can’t help but think about how we go back and forth between a God of majesty and a God of the mundane.
On the one hand, God confronts us as one who is majestic–we experience God in profound ways: on the mountain top, on the mission field, in a moment in which ministry is reaching a climactic peak. We experience God and have grand visions, soaring testimony, and transformative results.
On the other hand, God confronts us in the midst of the mundane–when listening to the unique song and rustling of a brown thrasher searching for her food in the morning hours outside of our window; or, in a chance meeting with an old friend on the grocery check-out line.
Frankly, we don’t know where we will meet God next, but we know that we all long to see God’s glory one way or another. Like the psalter of Psalm 42, we too wonder when we will see God’s face:
“As the deer panteth for flowing streams, so my soul longs after thee…When shall we see the glory of the Lord?”
When? is a question we ask from time to time…
6. Draw conclusions and communicate what one or two points—or questions—you want your audience to ponder, reflect on, take home and discuss, etc.
This is commonly called the “application” of the sermon. It has to make a difference in some way: Why should we care about this text when we go to lunch after church? Why is it important? What does it have to do with my Monday-through-Saturday life? What is the Bible/God/Jesus/the Spirit asking from me? What is the challenge of the week?
Whereas # 5 above connected the past (biblical history/text) with the present (circumstances of your audience), this part must give some trajectory, hope, and victory in the future. This insures that history–God’s past, present, and future–intertwine to shape, form, and inspire a “new world” or reality for your audience once they’ve left the sacred confines of the church.
In this way, the pulpit is a place of confrontation and death–putting to death the things of this world–and life, a womb that births new ways of seeing God and living a Christ-shaped life.
Here’s how our ongoing sermon about God’s glory concludes:
I remember when I was younger I asked all the time when I was going to see God’s glory. At first, God’s glory was everywhere–especially in college when I came to a vibrant life of faith, when I experienced God in the mission field of Ghana, and I received my call to ministry.
Then life hit: I got a job (boring!).
I got married (exciting, but expected!).
I went to seminary (fun, but routine after a while.).
I started to wonder if God’s glory had left me. Then, in the midst of the routine of life, I realized that I had to balance the mundane with the majestic, that God shows up when I least expect it and in ways that I could no longer predict.
It was during the routine of life that God’s glory did show up after all. I remember the time–I was about 26 years of age. I still worked (boring!). I had been married five years by that time (still exciting, but still expected!). I was in ministry (routine!).
And then it hit me–It was 5:30 AM in the morning. My wife had the nerve to wake me up at the crack of dawn, rustle me awake, and then there it was–bam!–the power and the glory and the majesty of God:
“Honey,” my wife said, “I’m pregnant.”
At this point, I end the sermon with a prayer. It’s an odd ending, but it gets the point across: There is no grand explanation of where God was in that whole ordeal of my wife telling me she was pregnant with our first child. Just the statement itself communicated, embodied, and emboldened God’s glory.
Godspeed, and happy writing.
(*This outline lends itself to the style of preaching known as narrative preaching. If you prefer expository preaching, you may have to seek an outline elsewhere.)