Thoughts on writing transformative sermons
By Terran Williams
Preaching Pastor Common Ground Church
This post is by no means an exhaustive guide to sermon creation, but a brief overview of some things I always keep in mind whilst preparing a message. If you share the unique and priviliged role of sermon writing, have a look and see if any of my thoughts resonate with your own…
Three kinds of content
I try have a balance of these 3 kinds of content throughout a message. These don’t all have to show up in every point, but in my opinion, they should all appear in every sermon.
- There-and-then. Dig into the bible text at hand and unpack it well. Don’t assume people know the ancient and textual context as well as you might. Help your hearers to really understand its relevance to the context, culture and audience it was originally written in and for.
- Always-and-all-over. Draw out the timeless theological truth in the text that applies to all people, at all times. This will usually be the main point itself – a very crisp articulation of theology.
- Here-and-now. Contextually apply the theology to your congregation, city and culture, both in a way that engages the seeker and edifies the believer.
Making your point loud and clear
In my experience, an effective, memorable point in a message most often looks like this:
- Start by stating your point – in the simplest, most concise way you can.
- Then show your audience why and how you can substantiate this point. You could transition to this by saying something along the lines of, “Let me show you where I get this idea from…”
- Read the relevant Scripture underpinning the point and then explain it in a way that shows clearly how you arrived at the above point.
- Apply the point contextually – to your audience’s unique range of contexts and circumstances.
It’s always a good idea to have the central point, as well as the relevant Scriptures, on a slide for your audience to see, not just hear.
A single unit of thought
In our age of imformation-overload, clarity cannot be overrated. It is a gift to our weary audience – a balm to their ears. A practical way to ensure you are communicating in such a manner, is to ensure that every paragraph of your sermon contains one (and only one) unit of thought.
When I write a message, I write it with a fair amount of free-flow, where one unit of thought could be communicated in 2 paragraphs, or 2 units of thought could be squeezed in an interweaving way into just one paragraph. But when I edit it, I ruthlessly prune away and reshuffle.
In order to push myself to maximum clarity, I will then italicize or embolden the main idea in each paragraph. Ideally this is the first sentence in the paragraph, but it may not always be. Then I ask myself, “Does everything else in this paragraph elucidate or restate that simple idea?” If it doesn’t, I cull it.
Clarity trumps complexity
Some world-renowned preachers are adept at creating complicated thought-flows and arguments that keep their audience on their metaphoric toes until they beautifully tie it all together in the last few minutes. This is an exceptionally rare gift, and let me be blunt: you (like me) probably don’t have it! Even if you do, you are more than likely not preaching to an audience that is soley made up of intellectuals with PhD’s.
For this reason, may I urge you to abide by this structure in your message:
- Tell them what you are going to tell them (intro).
- Tell them (body).
- Tell them what you have told them (conclusion).
This kind of ruthless pursuit for clarity in our communication may not at first seem very impressive, but it is surprisingly difficult to master, and sadly, few do.
But master it we must – not only because clarity is a gift to our hearers, but because it is a gift to ourselves as preachers too. Let’s push ourselves to mine out the essence of our messages – to work and grapple and whittle them down until they possess that most prized of gifts: simplicity on the other side of complexity. I have found this discipline to be a wondeful tonic for my own soul. And the clearer my messages, the less cluttered and fragmented they are, the more room there is for the Holy Spirit to do what only He can – and cut to the heart.