How to Write a Sermon: From Outline to Pulpit in 2021
February 20, 2021 |
If you ask a handful of pastors how to write a sermon, you’ll probably find that they each use different techniques, but the basic process is pretty similar:
Some pastors start this process months in advance, and others begin writing the same week they’re planning to preach. There’s a lot to do before you get writing, but your approach can be flexible. You don’t have to lock yourself into some kind of formula (though some find that helpful), but you do want to make sure you develop a process that produces your best work.
A good sermon draws from a variety of sources—Scripture, commentaries, history, ancient Greek and Hebrew, other pastors and authors, your personal Bible study, your life, your church, your culture—to create a cohesive message. It takes prayer and patience to put it all together.
In this guide, we’re going to walk you through the entire process of writing a sermon, starting with how to decide what to preach on. Whether you’re preparing your first sermon or just trying to improve, you’ll find everything you need to get started right here.
Let’s look at how to choose a topic.
1. Choose your sermon topic
Faith should impact every facet of our lives. And that means sermons can explore just about any topic. The challenge is finding one that’s a good fit for your church and helps you produce more mature, healthy followers of Christ. Before you start coming up with ideas, you should consider whether you want to write a topical sermon or an expository sermon.
As the name implies, a topical sermon focuses on a topic—rather than a specific passage of Scripture. The goal is typically to highlight some aspect of life or share how the Bible shapes our understanding of a concept, practice, or belief.
Topical sermon ideas can come from anywhere. Maybe God has already put something on your heart or there’s a cause you care deeply about. Or perhaps you recently discovered something in your own Bible study. Or you’ve come across misunderstandings, questions, or insights in conversations with staff, church members, friends, family, or even strangers. Perhaps there’s something happening in your community or culture that you want to address. Or concepts you would like your congregation to understand or wrestle with, like stewardship, generosity, or family.
Check out these 5 Giving Sermons Just Waiting to Be Preached.
And of course, there are plenty of seasonal topics as well. Holidays and the cycles of culture naturally offer opportunities to preach timely sermons every year. You don’t have to write a sermon for every holiday and every season, but sometimes the calendar can be a source of inspiration.
Check out these 5 Thanksgiving Sermons Just Waiting to Be Preached.
Expository sermons focus on a passage of Scripture—what it says, what it means, and perhaps how to apply it. This passage could be a few verses, a whole chapter, or even several chapters. In this type of sermon, pastors typically try to rely on the process of exegesis to “draw out” the meaning of the text as much as possible.
An expositional sermon may not be based on what your congregation is going through right now or what’s happening in culture. The goal is to help your congregation develop a deeper understanding of the Bible.
But you don’t want to choose a passage out of thin air either. You might decide to preach through a particular book of the Bible because it’s been years since anyone taught on Habakkuk. Or maybe people have expressed a desire to understand a passage better, or focusing on a passage is simply the way you want to approach Christmas or Easter this year.
SermonCentral is an endless source of sermon ideas, whether you’re writing a sermon for a specific occasion, exploring a particular topic, or examining a book of the Bible. It’s full of real sermons by real pastors, so be sure you cite your sources if you find a quote you like.
Whether you’re preaching a topical sermon or an expositional one, writing it starts with study.
2. Study widely
Preaching is a process in which you blend your own insights with the teachings, perspectives, and theology the church has honed over two thousand years. Whatever your topic, there’s plenty of Scripture, history, theology, and cultural context that you can and should draw from.
If you start writing before you start studying, you might miss important ideas, insights, and inspiration that could help you shape a stronger sermon. You want to get invested in your topic before you get invested in something you’ve written.
As you study, take notes of anything that seems important, relevant, or surprising. Pull quotes that you may want to use later (along with where they came from). If you have the time, allow yourself to examine all the major threads and even investigate rabbit trails. These explorations could lead to important discoveries and new insights you’ll want to share.
READ THE BIBLE
For an expositional sermon, you’ll be spending a lot of time in the same passage, but it will be important to explore the context surrounding that passage. What happened or what was said before and after? How does this fit into the larger message of the entire book of the Bible you’re studying?
Topical sermons won’t necessarily focus on one particular passage and may take you through several books of the Bible. It’s certainly worth exploring every key passage that addresses or relates to your topic, but be sure you take the time to understand each one in context—both what it meant to the original audience and how it fits into the overarching message of the Bible.
While you probably have a favorite Bible translation (or a few of them), keep in mind that every translation reflects the philosophy and interpretive choices of a team of original language experts, so it helps to use a variety of translations. Some translations strive to be more literal, word-for-word conversions from ancient Greek and Hebrew to English (such as the KJV and ESV), while others focus on providing the “dynamic equivalence,” which brings the meaning of the literal words into modern English terms (such as the NLT or CEV).
Most translations fall somewhere on the spectrum between literal or “formal” equivalence and dynamic or “functional” equivalence, and it will probably be helpful to use some from each end of the range.
DRAW FROM COMMENTARIES
Commentaries are an excellent tool for exploring what scholars and theologians have to say about the passages you’re digging into. Every commentary approaches Scripture from a different perspective and with a specific agenda, so as with translations, it’s good to use a variety of them.
Some commentaries focus more on fleshing out the historical or cultural context of each passage, helping you examine how the words came across to the original audience and fleshing out some of the cultural nuances you might miss on your own.
Others wrestle with the original languages, giving you insight into the choices Bible translators have to make and providing a more holistic understanding of what a passage is communicating.
Commentaries may also focus on how to teach through a passage or how to apply it to your life.
Even if you don’t quote from every commentary or draw from its insights, using a range of them will bolster your familiarity with the passage(s) you’re preaching through and help you identify the main ideas you’ll need to communicate.
EXPLORE THE ORIGINAL LANGUAGES
There’s only so much you can get out of a translation. You certainly don’t have to be a Greek and Hebrew scholar to preach, but if you want to effectively communicate what the Bible says and what it means, you should at least investigate the ancient languages it was written in.
If you can’t read Greek and Hebrew, there’s no need to run out and buy a copy of the Septuagint or Masoretic Text. You can still start with English translations and the notes you’ve taken so far. Any time the meaning or big idea of a passage hinges on a particular word or phrase, that’s a valuable place to look at the original text and study where that word or phrase comes from.
The goal here isn’t to come up with your own Bible translation and outdo the Bible scholars who have spent decades studying the original languages. It’s to better understand the choices they made, the things that had to be sacrificed to bring the text into English, and any ambiguities in the passage. Some ancient Greek and Hebrew words rarely appear in the Bible or in other works of literature, which makes translation extremely difficult. These words rarely have a significant impact on interpretation, but the point is that if you only ever look at English translations, you may find yourself overly confident in the meaning of a passage.
Concordances, Bible dictionaries, interlinear Bibles, and other tools can help you explore the original languages of the Bible.
SEE WHAT OTHERS HAVE SAID
Beyond commentaries and original language tools, you should take some time to research what other pastors, scholars, and theologians have said about your passage or topic through the centuries. This is perhaps most valuable for topical sermons, where it will help to see how others have assembled various disconnected passages and principles into a cohesive message.
Since you’re going to be preaching on this topic or passage, it can also be helpful to listen to sermons from other pastors. If there are famous pastors you admire and aspire to emulate, start by seeing if they’ve preached on the same topic. The point isn’t to get content and illustrations. It’s to help you get a sense of how much ground you can cover and find aspects of your topic you hadn’t thought to cover.
If you have the time, you could plan to listen to a sermon each day on the topic you’re preparing to write about.
Whatever your topic or passage, remember that you could study it for the rest of your life and still not know everything about it. At some point, you’ll have to decide it’s time to stop studying and start writing. If you feel like you have a solid grasp of what Scripture, scholars, and others have to say about your topic, and you think you have enough notes, set your study materials aside and prepare to write.
3. Prepare to write
If you leap straight from studying your topic to writing your sermon, you’re probably going to run into some problems. You may wind up with something that’s too long, too short, or too hard to follow. Taking additional time to prepare could save you a lot of time and frustration down the road.
Every church is a little different. Some congregations may be used to sitting through 40-minute sermons. Others are accustomed to something closer to 20. It’s OK to go a little outside the norm, but if you go way over or under time, you may have a harder time holding their interest or satisfying their appetite for solid teaching.
So once you’ve decided what you’re preaching on and thoroughly studied your topic, give yourself some expectations for how much you should write and what you can reasonably cover in the normal time frame. If you’re preaching through several chapters in 20 minutes, you’re really only going to be able to cover the big ideas, and you’ll probably have to skip a lot of great material (which you can save for another sermon).
Not sure how much you should write? Words to Time is a super helpful calculator to estimate how long it will take to read your sermon out loud. You just enter the word count, choose from three possible reading speeds, and it spits out an estimate of how much time your sermon will take. The site also has a handy table with conversions based on their average reading speed, so you can see right off the bat that 3,000 words typically takes a little over 23 minutes to read.
If you do this before you start writing, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how much you should write.
CREATE AN OUTLINE
Not everyone uses outlines. Some people feel like they don’t need them. But if you write sermons often, creating an outline is one of the most valuable steps of the process. Without an outline, it’s a lot harder to organize your thoughts, see the big picture of your sermon, and use your time efficiently.
There are lots of ways to write an outline, but a good outline should:
- Establish guardrails for your writing process
- Organize the key ideas you want to focus on
- Break your sermon into more manageable pieces
- Provide space for any quotes and notes
- Help you create useful sermon slides
If it’s helpful, you can start with a title. But if you don’t share sermon titles with your congregation or publish your sermons online, this is really just an exercise to help you identify the premise of your sermon. Don’t spend too much time on the title. You may find that as you outline your key points and get into the writing process, the main idea will be more clear to you. The topic or passage will always work just fine as a placeholder title.
The two most helpful ways to outline your sermon is to either identify the main points you want to get across or divide it up into the verses you’re going to talk through. Hopefully through your studies you’ve landed on a few key insights you want to share with your congregation. They may just be different facets of your topic—a series of points that don’t necessarily lead from one to the other. Or they may be like links in a chain or building blocks, where each point adds to the previous ones. You could also think of it as a sort of legal argument, where you’re gradually making a case for your one big conclusion.
You don’t need to worry too much about where all the pieces fit just yet. Right now, focus on getting your main ideas on paper. Seeing them together may help you see that some are just subsets of the same point, or that some are related enough that they will lead into each other well. When your ideas are in the outline stage, it’s very easy to reorganize them.
If you’re preaching through a specific passage, you’re not going to spend an equal amount of time on every verse. Some verses are obviously a lot more important to the overall message of the passage and what you’re trying to communicate. As you break the passage into its main units, you’ll probably see that you already have a lot more to say about some verses than others. The outline stage is a good time to identify passages that you’ll just want to summarize or skim over.
As the writer of your sermon, you get to decide how thoroughly you want to outline your message. You can use this prep time to jot down every idea and every subpoint, or you may just want to get the big points down and start writing. The goal here is just to get organized and establish the guardrails you need to power through your sermon.
Once you have those, it’s time to start writing.
4. Write your sermon
With a solid outline in place and a deep well of insights from your study, the actual writing is fairly straightforward. There are no rules about how you have to start, so if you’re having trouble coming up with a good introduction, skip it. Some people prefer to start with the conclusion, or just dive right into the main points. That’s fine! For the sake of this guide though, we’re going to start at the beginning.
But first, a big tip.
WRITE HOW YOU TALK
Obviously, a sermon isn’t just words people read silently on a page. You’re not writing an essay. These are things you’re going to say out loud. But a lot of times when you sit down to write—especially after you’ve been reading all those academic works, which are usually written for scholarly audiences—it’s easy to write your sermon as though it’s a scholarly paper.
The way you talk should affect the rhythm of your writing, the words you choose, and the way you work from one idea to the next. You could read your sermon out loud as you go, but the main thing is to make sure it sounds the way you would like to talk to your congregation.
There are two main goals for your introduction:
- Hook your audience
- Get them oriented
You want to catch your listeners’ attention from the very beginning. But a good sermon may also start with a little housekeeping. In a large church, it may be important to introduce yourself and your role—especially if you’re not the usual preacher, if you have an online audience, or if there are a lot of visitors in the room. You might also want to acknowledge things that are different, or—if you’re not the teaching pastor—touch on why you’re the one preaching this weekend. Is someone on sabbatical? Visiting another campus? Attending a conference?
Some pastors simply prefer to hit the ground running and jump into an engaging story or introduce the passage they’re preaching on. That’s fine if people are used to hearing from you, but this is also a valuable time to set expectations for your congregation. You don’t want them to spend the first several minutes thinking, “Where is this going?” or “What’s the point of this?”
Relevant stories from your own life, your congregation, the Bible, hypothetical situations, the news, or things you’ve been reading can all make great hooks. So can intriguing questions or surprising, declarative statements. But you should move quickly from your hook to your big idea.
Orient your audience by giving them a glimpse of where you’re going and what you’re going to show them. You might spend some time talking about misconceptions about your topic, questions people ask, or what makes your topic important to the life of a Christ follower.
For an expository sermon, you’ll probably want to start by providing some context about the key people, any important events and conversations that happened before the passage you’re looking at, or how it fits into the Bible’s overarching narrative.
Give people all the information they need to keep up as you get into your points.
FLESH OUT YOUR MAIN POINTS
Hopefully your outline identified all the key points you want to make. This is where you’ll take the time to find the most compelling way to phrase each big idea. You may want to use alliteration or make them rhyme so that they’re easier for people to remember, but you certainly don’t have to. It’s often better to focus on being clear than being clever.
Each main point should probably be a sermon slide and/or fill-in-the-blank, so that as you expand on it, your congregation can still keep the big idea in mind and chew on it.
Before you get too far into your own thoughts on each point, be sure to add any notes and quotes that came up in your studies (if you didn’t put them in during the outlining phase). If you think they cover all the subpoints you want to get into, then your focus here will be on connecting them to your main point and providing the context people need to understand them.
Are there things your congregation needs to be familiar with before a quote or insight makes sense to them? Set it up and walk them through it.
Remember, you’re working with a word limit here. It will be really helpful if you estimate how many words you think you’ll spend on each section. If you read relatively slowly, you should expect every 100 words or so to represent roughly one minute of preaching. If you’re a fast talker though, it could be more like 150 words per minute of preaching.
Each point doesn’t have to be the same length—it’s fine to spend more time on the things that matter more—but if one big idea takes up most of your sermon, maybe your topic was too broad, and that’s what your sermon should be on. Or you might need to break it into multiple points.
MAKE CLEAR TRANSITIONS
In writing, it’s easy to jump right from one point to the next with little or no transition. But when your audience is listening to you, those rough transitions become a lot more jarring. As you finish each point, be sure you take the time to reorient your congregation before you make your next point. If one big idea flows naturally into the next, the connection will be clear and simple. But if your big ideas are really only connected by your topic, you may have to zoom out again and revisit the premise of your sermon before leading into your next key point.
WRAP IT UP
There are lots of ways to write a good ending. You can tie all your points together under the umbrella of your main idea. Or you could use your earlier points as scaffolding for one final idea that builds on everything you’ve talked about so far. You might revisit your introduction—maybe even bring back your hook.
The important thing is to know when to “land the plane.”
Your congregation can often sense when you’re nearing the end of your sermon—or when you should be. They can see the landing strip, and so can you. This is not the time to cram in everything you didn’t have time to get into and circle the landing strip. It’s time to get the landing gear in place, descend, and touch down smoothly.
Find a succinct way to get your main idea across, and land the plane.
DON’T FORGET TO CITE YOUR SOURCES
It’s easy to overlook this part, but it’s extremely important. Over the course of your studies, you’ve read a lot of similar ideas and pulled from a lot of sources. It’s easy to lose track of what came from where or even what ideas you actually came up with yourself!
And that’s why a lot of preachers accidentally commit plagiarism. It’s good practice to always give credit to any person you quoted from or who came up with a unique line of thinking you built on. Not only does this help your congregation find good resources and expertise, but it also prevents them from assuming an idea or quote was yours, and more importantly, it’s not stealing.
This might seem nitpicky, but if you plan on publishing your sermon online in any format, you should be especially cautious about even accidentally committing plagiarism. If someone discovers that you’ve plagiarized their writing or ideas and post it online, the very least that will happen is that the platform will likely pull your sermon from their archives, so you’ll have to find another way to share it online. The worst case scenario? You could lose your job.
5. Revise your sermon
Once you’ve written your sermon, it’s still not done. Revision is a vital part of the writing process, and it ensures that you produce your best work. The more time you have for this stage, the better. But you can always shape your revision process to fit your timeline.
SET IT ASIDE
When you finish writing, the first thing you should do is set it aside. Don’t look at it anymore. Close the document. Put it away. You’ve poured a lot of time and energy into this, and if you try and edit it right now, after you’ve just finished putting your ideas into words, you’re going to miss a lot of really obvious mistakes.
Ideally, you want to get away from your sermon for enough time that you can look at it with fresh eyes. This could take days, weeks, or even a month or more before you stop dreaming about it, thinking about it while you’re doing other ministry tasks and things around the house. You can speed up the process by getting invested in something else, like a good book, an unrelated article, an activity with your family, or even a movie or a show.
You want to get to the point where when you look at your sermon again, it feels like someone else wrote it. That’s when you can be truly, brutally honest with yourself and cut that sentence you thought was so clever before, or you can see that one of your big ideas is really clunky and unclear. You might also discover something brilliant that you glazed over during the writing, and by cutting away some of the fluff, you can make new sections really shine.
LISTEN TO YOUR SERMON OUT LOUD
When you read your writing out loud, it almost always sounds different than what you imagined in your head. You might notice mistakes, but the main thing you’re listening for is the rhythm. How does it sound? How does each sentence flow into the next? If you feel good about your sermon, record yourself, and play it back. And if you’re still convinced that it sounds good, it’s time to practice in front of someone else.
PRACTICE IN FRONT OF SOMEONE ELSE
In an ideal world, you’d practice your sermon in front of someone who has more preaching experience than you.
But that’s not always possible, and a lot of church leaders don’t have mentors or even peers they can turn to. That’s OK. If your church has elders or other staff you feel comfortable being vulnerable with, invite them into the process. Think of your sermon as a message God has given to you, but which the leaders of your church can refine together to share with your congregation.
The goal here is to get an outside perspective—thoughts that don’t come from your own head. A spouse, family member, or good friend always works, too.
Find the process that works best for you
Ultimately you should write a sermon in whatever way produces your best work. Maybe you write better without an outline. Or you prefer to outline before you study. Or maybe another preacher has some techniques you can add to your process. Great!
The important thing is to intentionally, prayerfully approach your sermon so that you can avoid developing bad habits and give this responsibility the attention it deserves.
Extend the Life of Your Sermon
Extend the life of your sermon by making it available anytime, anywhere. With a church app, your congregation can access your services right from their phones. A streamlined media experience makes it easy for your congregation to stay connected and engaged with your church throughout the week. They can listen to sermons, music, and podcasts with the audio player or watch videos. They’ll also have the ability to save a sermon and listen to it later.
As you add new content to your church app, there’s also a way to send push notifications to app users, so your people always know what’s available.
Click here to learn more about the Pushpay Church App.