In third grade, our teacher assigned us to read a book by the author of our choice, and follow up with a letter to the author. I have no idea what book I read, except that it was part of a series. I have no idea to which author I wrote. I have no idea if anyone else received a response. But I did; I remember my specific question, and his particular response.
I asked the question, where do you get your ideas for the books from? In the response, the author said, I just think real hard.
I guess I remember one other thing — my internal disappointment at this vague response. Looking back, it’s probably the best answer he could have given my young mind, but I was hopeful for something different. Probably something easier.
This question still captures my imagination, I’m realizing, as I interview preachers for Sermonsmith. Perhaps the most varied response out of all of my interviews is to some form of the question: “How do you put your sermon together?” Some follow a particular structure, some don’t — many seem to have not even considered the question until I ask it. Somehow, it just happens. You, too, may not be able to describe how your sermon goes from myriad ideas to a coherent thought, but here are some thoughts and tools to assist in the process.
Mitchell Hurwitz was a director on the cult favorite, Arrested Development. Earlier in his career, he had been a writer for The Golden Girls. The two shows might not seem much alike, but in interviews, Hurwitz points out that both shows followed the same story arc in every episode. Structure matters.
Your church community might not be able to recognize a specific structure in your sermons, but they will know if they are able to follow along or not. Even more important, in my experience, is that I’m not comfortable preaching a sermon unless I’m confident in how it flows. Therse should be clear movement through the content and, hopefully, on to the congregation.
Structure as my primary ally in making sure what I have to say makes sense to those listening.
Here are a few common structures to consider:
- Of late, the most fashionable thing about a three point outline is maligning it, especially if it alliterates. But there is still a case to be made for this simple way of organizing the parts of a sermon for the sake of preacher and audience alike. And as Gideon Tsang mentions in his Sermonsmith interview, the structure of a good three point outline might not even be recognized by the listeners, much like the narrative structure of a sit-com.
- Some like to stick with a defined structure for every sermon, though not a specific three point outline. My favorite example of this comes from my friends at Life on the Vine near Chicago. Though they have a team of preachers that regularly rotates on Sundays, they all use the same four part structure for their sermons. JR Woodward blogged some notes about this structure from a presentation by David Fitch several years ago, or you can hear it described more in depth in this SermonSmith interview with Cyd Holsclaw.
- Others, myself included, like to think in terms of movements. I find myself wanting to break down the parts of a sermon into significant concepts that build on one another and move through them. No matter how good I feel about my study in the text and overall content, a sermon doesn’t come together for me until I can break it into these simple movements.
I’ve settled in to enough of a routine for putting my sermons together that I use a repeating to-do list for each one to help me work through it. It does vary from time to time, but I find the overall rhythm of the process helpful for getting the pieces to come together.
As I sit to develop, I have three primary forms of content that are ultimately going to mingle together to form the movements of my sermon:
- The Text and it’s Direction — As I’ve described before, it is key to have a method studying the text and capturing ideas. Along the way, you discover the text’s “direction,” or where it is going.
- The Catalog — In an earlier article in this series, I wrote about the ongoing practice of cataloging articles, ideas and the like. With study complete, I can move on to my library to find quotes, stories or general cultural artifacts that further engage the text with the contemporary ideas. For example, a month or so ago, I found a New Yorker article I had filed away and tagged about how busy we are and opened a sermon with a few quotes from it.
- The Ephemera — For each upcoming sermon, I have a note on my phone called Ephemera where I grab any idea that comes to me. When it’s time to start developing a sermon, I might have 10-25 lines of phrases that came to mind on how I want to say things or movies/books/articles to look up.
On Wednesday(ish) of the week I am preaching, I lay all of these pieces out in a mindmap (I use an iOS and Mac app called MindNode Pro) and then start dragging together those that illustrate or connect well with others. It’s only been in the last year or so that I started mindmapping, but it’s super helpful for visualizing all the pieces in a way an outline doesn’t afford. As I’m dragging up, down, and across, the trains of thought begin to collate into the individual movements. (And a fair amount get outright deleted!)
Once I have a recognizable structure of movements, I export it from a mindmap to OmniOutliner, my outlining software of choice to build in the longer quotes, scriptures, and parts I think need to be written out. I preach from an outline, so I’m in pretty good shape from there. For the manuscripters among us, a mind map can also export to a simple text outline that can be loaded in your favorite word processor to write it all out.
But Wait…There’s More
It may sound like we’re finished, because the sermon is put together. But there is one final step to come — and I don’t mean rehearsing, though that’s good too! In the next, and final article, I’ll share from what I’ve learned in my interviews about how preachers review and evaluate their sermon before they deliver it.
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