Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sermon Question 3: Why are our Sermons so Carefully Crafted?

While in preaching class in seminary, we were taught in detail how to prepare sermons. One thing that I really liked about the method of sermon prep. that we used was that the main focus was the biblical text. The preaching was "expository," which basically means that we preached directly from the bible. I liked this emphasis and am thankful for it.

The question that I am posing today is not directed at expository preaching in general. Rather, the question is: Why do expository (or any other form) sermons have to be so carefully crafted? Why do they often look and/or sound like something that is so prepared beforehand that the Holy Spirit could not intervene even if He wanted to?

Let me provide an example. In seminary, we were taught to prepare a sermon in the following manner. After analyzing the biblical text, we were to come up with what we might call the main message of the text. This would, then, be the primary thrust of the sermon. We were then to break down the passage into three, four, five, or more main points. Sub-points were to follow.

Each point mentioned above was to have a section for explanation and argumentation. After this came illustration. Finally, we would get to application. This was to occur on every point.

When we completed each manuscript to hand in to the professor, the end result was a very neat looking, organized product. It almost looked like it came from some sort of advertising firm.

But should our sermons be so carefully crafted?

Please let me inject something here before answering the above question. I am not talking about the importance of preparation. Whoever is preaching has a great responsibility to faithfully proclaim the word of God. He should spend time in the original languages (if he is familiar with these), know the context of the passage, read commentaries, get advice on difficult passages, and, if he has time, memorize the text itself. Whoever is the preacher should know his text backwards and forwards. There should be no exception to this.

Now, the question again: Should our sermons be so carefully crafted? Should they have numerous points? Should they follow the explanation, illustration, application model?

What examples do we have in scripture? Let's look at four from the book of Acts.

Peter, in Acts 2:14-39, preaches at Pentecost. He testifies to Jesus Christ as Lord, and says that Jesus has just poured out His Holy Spirit upon believers. Peter does not appear to follow any sort of script, but rather lets the Holy Spirit guide him as he testifies to the Lord. Peter's sermon is organized, and at the end he certainly has application, as he tells the listeners to repent.

Stephen, in Acts 7:1-53, preaches to religious leaders in Israel. Appearing to be guided by the Holy Spirit, he recalls much of the history of Israel, based on what he knows from the OT. At the end, like Peter, he calls for some sort of action by the religious leaders, even though it appears to be implied. Stephen does not follow a script, but rather tells what he knows and lets the Holy Spirit guide him.

In Acts 17:22-34, Paul preaches to philosophers in Athens. Since the OT has little meaning to these men, he does not quote it directly, although he certainly alludes to it. The apostle begins at creation because his listeners do not have knowledge of the biblical account of how the world began. Paul testifies to Christ, relying on his testimony and on general revelation. Paul calls for a response at the end.

Later in Acts, Paul speaks to a Jewish mob in Jerusalem. In 21:37-22:21, Paul testifies to the Lordship of Jesus, tells of his conversion, and makes his calling known. Again, he seems to be relying on the Holy Spirit to guide what he is saying. Quite obviously, he is not using a script.

What can we see from these sermons?
1) The place where the preachers began their sermons was based upon the knowledge of their listeners.
2) The sermons contained much scripture (OT), or were at least based upon scripture.
3) Illustrations were biblical illustrations.
4) The speakers all seemed to be guided by the Holy Spirit. They did not rely on a previously prepared written text.
5) Most of the preachers called for some sort of response from those listening.
6) The focus of the sermons, ultimately, was Jesus Christ.

When we compare what we see in scripture to what we often see in church pulpits today, the differences are quite obvious. So what can we, who have opportunities to preach, do about this? Do we follow the scriptural model or do we not?

This is what I propose, and also what I plan to do from now on when I have the chance to preach: first, after selecting a biblical text, I will prepare in the manner I suggested above. This will not change.

Second, the change will come as I put the sermon itself together. Instead of carefully crafting a manuscript with points, subpoints, and a fully written sermon text, I will go into the pulpit with just an outline in hand. I plan to have a clear idea of what I want to say, but I also desire to be more open to the leading of the Holy Spirit than I have in the past.

Third, other changes include beginning the sermon where I believe the listeners are, quoting more scripture than I have in the past, including primarily biblical illustrations, and calling for some sort of response/behavior change at the conclusion of the sermon.

Finally, I hope that my previous sermons have all been focused on Jesus Christ, but from now on I'll make sure that they are.

I'm curious to hear what you think of this. Should we follow the biblical model as seen in Acts, or is there a better way? If so, what is it?


Corey Reynolds said...

I think that probably all of those "preaching" events that you cited were the kind that would be covered under Jesus' statement, "When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour." (Matthew 10:19)

I don't think that this would be Paul's instruction to Timothy when he tells him to "preach the word." When I go to speak to a lost person at the hospital or at his or her home, I don't prepare a message, but I frequently 'preach'. When I stand before God and his people on Sunday morning, though, I bring the fruits of my labor through the week.

I have often felt in my seven months of pastoral experience that sermon preparation needs to be done differently. I am beginning to think that it is the laziness in me talking. Sometimes I downright dread sitting down to write out the sermon after hours of study (that's why I'm here right now). I've tried to figure out why. I think that I've settled on "It's hard!"

I have thought that I need to put less design into the sermon itself and 'wing it' more, but then a guy comes here to preach a 'revival' (I did not schedule this guy) and he runs around the stage screaming with only the barest notion of where he's going and the people eat it up. Everyone thinks that the Holy Spirit is really present, but the guy is making confusing and downright wrong statements all over the place. He is mishandling the text, allegorizing to the point of absurdity...He took the easy road: 'Spirit led'.

What spirit, I wonder?

I think I'm going to try to redouble my efforts to make my sermons the very best, logical, applicable, relevant, and - most of all - biblical messages that they can be. Mine rarely follow any standard pattern, though. Sometimes I go with the Piper-esque question format. Other times I use the Bryan Chapell proposition-imperative format. Sometimes I just get dang weird with it. I don't think there's a problem with changing up the style, but I wouldn't try to go all the way to extemporaneous for fear that I would be 'wussing out'.

Here's hoping that a bunch more people throw their two cents in!

Eric said...


Thanks for putting time into both reading my post and also responding in a well-thoughtout manner.

I have to admit that I do not see a big difference between what the men in Acts were doing, and what Timothy was charged to do. They all had responsibility to preach the word. This suggests being faithful to the biblical text, and that is what they all did. Even Paul's Mars Hill sermon was based on OT truths.

I hope that this post did not imply that I am against spending a great deal of time and effort on the sermon. In most cases, for me at least, a solid sermon requires hours of preparation. I am not gifted or brave enough to "wing" anything.

In the future I may even write out my sermon beforehand, but I do not plan to take it into the pulpit. I have too much of a tendency to look down and not interact with the people.

A well-written, but read manuscript may be edifying to the preacher, but if it does not connect with the people, then I see no purpose. Jonathan Edwards was brilliant so he could do that. I can't.

You mentioned the revival speaker at your church. I think relying on the Holy Spirit gets a bad name because of people like that. What I am referring to here is responsible reliance on the Holy Spirit. For the most part, the Holy Spirit will not bless the preaching of the man who does not prepare.

As far as format goes, I think it is a good idea to vary it. I can't think of too many congregations who would be thrilled with the same thing every week.

Thanks again, Eric

tenjuices said...

i think Heisler rolled over in his early grave. He wrote a book on Spirit led preaching and I have it near me at the library. I am afraid it might burst into flames. I might wonder if you are looking at the event of preaching in Acts as opposed to the text of what is preached. The author/Author (luke/HSpirit) has selected certain things to ihclude in the text but left some things out. Not everything could be included (near infinite # of thoughts and things done in any period of time) but only the relevant events were selected. We don't know what they had been reading in the Bible that week or month. But we do know what Luke wants us to know about what was said in their sermons. I don't think he was trying to make a statement on how to prep a sermon. But I think the exegesis should be followed of the OT with application to the day. That seems obvious to me but I may be alone. So maybe I am half agreeing or three quarters agreeing with you. But yes, so much needless time is put into preparing a sermon that it seems the text is left behind. But you might come out with a sermon like mine at times if not enough time is spent on presentation.

Eric said...


I agree with you that we need strong exegesis of the scriptures. We must focus on the biblical text.

What I am suggesting with this post is that we first rely on the Holy Spirit as we prepare, and that second we rely on the Holy Spirit as we deliver the sermon. A sermon is designed to communicate certain truths from the speaker to the listeners. If the speaker has a great manuscript in front of him, but fails to communicate those truths to the body, then what is the point?

I suggest that we use an outline and go into the pulpit knowing what we are planning to say. However, I am also saying that we should rely on the Holy Spirit to alter the presentation (not, of course, the truths of scripture). Any sermon should be judged based upon both how biblically sound it is, and whether or not the listeners came away understanding what was being said.

If a complete manuscript keeps the Holy Spirit from intervening in the sermon (and in most cases I think it does), then we should wonder about the validity of the sermon manuscript.

Thanks for the comments.

Corey Reynolds said...

I've carried a full seven or eight page manuscript into the pulpit for all but two sermons since I have been preaching. I read every word off the paper, but I still make significant eye contact with the congregation. I have watched the videos of my sermons to see if my manner is engaging or flat and it almost seems to me as if I'm speaking most of it extemporaneously.

I am trying to get away from the full manuscript just to save time in sermon prep, but I still think that a person can preach from a manuscript and do it well. You just have to know your manuscript well and organize the information in a way that lends itself to 'interactive reading'.

Eric said...


I think the key here is that we all be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit as we both prepare and deliver the sermon. I am not against the manuscript per se, but rather against the idea of being tied to it when we feel the Holy Spirit leading us to say something else.

Since you make eye contact and are engaging with the congregation, then you are probably getting your message across to the body, which is the reason for the sermon in the first place.


Dan said...


I am not a preacher. I'm only 23 so I don't know much, but I do question much (as you already know from some of my comments on another post). Having said that please suffer me these few random thoughts/questions:

Is it possible that we are equivocating between what happens in modern evangelical pulpits, which seems more like professional motivational speaking, and what the Bible calls preaching? I wonder if we are trying to make prepared speeches LOOK like Spirit Led Proclamations rather than them actually BEING that.

Is it possible that we are equivocating between the movement of the Holy Spirit and engaging the congregation? Throughout the comments I have noticed that as long as the audience is engaged then we are doing the right thing. That seems to miss the point of your post, or maybe not; I may have missed it.

Wouldn't it be better if we studied to become more mature believers, not so we could prepare a speech? Obviously the more mature and educated we are in the faith the more our proclamations will express that. Think about whatever else you are really good at. If I asked you X about it you could tell me the answer right on the spot because you are really good at this thing and it is important to you. You can speak about it because you care about it, you don't care about so that you can speak about it.

I totally agree with you about corey reynolds comments on the evangelist. Just because someone wants to use the idea of "Spirit led" to cover his failures doesn't mean that someone who is truly led by the Spirit is doing the same thing. Seems a bit like throwing the baby out with the bad evangelist.

Also, in response to tenjuices, I am in a communications class With Dr. Heisler and he is not a fan of the ol’ manuscript. I had to deliver a speech and I did so from a manuscript. It wasn’t even a sermon and he hated it. He hated it A LOT. I think he would be right on with the point of this post. What you said you will do from now on, with the outline and all, he told our class is what he does and suggests we do.

Thanks for this post. I have really been trying to figure out where I stand on these issues. In some ways I respect a guy who stands up and reads a manuscript. I trust that he is giving me deep and thorough information. On the other hand I don’t like when someone wants to look free or conversational and is doing so having prepared all his jokes and little quips. I love sitting down with guys who know their stuff well and can go on and on about it, guys who didn’t prepare to talk to me, they just know the subject in and out. Personally, as a listener, I respect all or nothing.

I hope that was not all too random and nonsensical.

Eric said...


Thanks for your thoughts and comments. It appears to me that although you are "only 23," that you already know quite a bit. Questions are good.

This whole "sermon thing" is a difficult one. I think we all want to be as biblical as possible. This leads us, I hope, to carefully study and prepare by looking in depth at a biblical text. Not wanting to make any mistakes, we then often write out a manuscript based on what we have studied.

The problem I see is that some preachers are tied to this manuscript. This causes SOME preachers to A) fail to engage with the congregation, and/or B) fail to alter some of what they are saying even if the Holy Spirit is prompting them to do so.

Let me be clear, the Holy Spirit will not cause them to change any sort of biblical truth. However, the Spirit may alter what was on the manuscript by prompting the preacher to emphasize things in a different order, use different illustrations, call for a different type of response, etc.

As for a person becoming a more mature believer, I certainly think that is important. I would hope that anyone who has the chance to proclaim the word would also be growing in the Lord. I think both of these should be happening at the same time: growing in Christ, and also preparing to preach by studying a certain text.

These are difficult issues. We need to all rely on the Spirit, and also be as prepared as possible when we enter the pulpit.

Thanks again.

Richard Boyce said...

Eric, the more I get to know the mind behind the man, the more I like ya. Sure, we disagree on a few things, but you're not that bad. I don't care what everyone else says about you.

Granted, I've not read all of your articles, but I'm starting to get a 'read' on you (something we undergrad psych majors do for our amusement), and you seem to be in the place I'm at, which is this:

If the apostles could see our church services, they would either laugh themselves silly, or leave weeping.

What are we doing?

"God, speak through me as I read this pre-rehearsed motivational speech to my congregation."

"God, convict our hearts, but be done by 12:00 because we all get hungry then."

"God, bring us revival, but do it according to our Sunday Morning routine of 1 song, a welcome, the choir, 1 song, offering, special, sermon."

"Lord, speak to us now through our music...that we selected last month."

"God, be in your house today, but BE THERE LIKE WE WANT YOU THERE."

I am SO stinking frustrated with the complete lack of GOD in our churches today. Where does the relationship end and the religion begin? What are we doing? Where is the body of unified believers found in the 1st century?


Don't get me started.

Anyways, I say all that to say this: When God lays a burden on the person He's called to preach, it ought not be taken lightly.

I don't think anyone should attempt to preach a sermon that has not been adequately prepared for. While preaching is a gift and calling, it still needed to be developed.

This does not mean, however, that it's entirely necessary for the preacher to know 100% of what he'll say because it was pre-written. I think that the preacher should have key points to address, but the 'filler' material, the explanatory illustration 'stuff' should have enough flexibility in it to allow the Holy Spirit's interjection. There should be a balance of knowledge and preparation along with the realization that as we speak for God, we should still be open to allow God to speak through us.

Do you have any idea how much I hate hearing this: "I'm not out of message, but I'm out of time..."

Anyways, I'm rambling now. Sorry, Eric.

Eric said...


I think a lot of us are just tired of what seems to happen in most American churches. Much of it seems to be foreign to the bible.

I'm guessing that we would all like authenticity in the gathering of the church. I believe this will occur when we try to model ourselves after what we see in scripture. This includes the sermon.

I am in strong agreement with you that we need to prepare very well before preaching. I actually think that going into the pulpit with only a outline requires more preparation than using a manuscript does. After all, you REALLY have to know your passage if you plan to preach from an outline.

We can't change all churches, but we can make a difference by influencing the churches where we serve.

Thanks again Richard,


tenjuices said...

I agree with you mostly. I think you assume it is ok to ask questions and discuss and the like, which I think is good. It would be awesome if the whole body studied the Word thru the week and got together to work thru it and study and hear someone lead the discussion and preach it but in a communal setting. But I still say Heisler would just have a massive coronary and revoke your grade

Eric said...


What you describe is exactly what I wish would and could happen in our churches. Unfortunately, it just isn't going to occur in existing churches. In a new church plant, especially if you were dealing with a lot of un-churched people, it might work really well.

As far as Dr. Heisler goes, I just bought his book a few days ago. After I read it I'll have to see if I agree with you about the grade thing. HA HA.

tenjuices said...

ever think of starting a church where this happens or is expected. i would move to be a part of it. no joke

Eric said...


At this point we are open to pretty much anything. If we feel led to stay in this area (Savannah, GA), and I get some sort of normal job (non-pastoral), then maybe it could happen.

Right now we are waiting for Bobby's next PET scan before we can make any other decisions. His next scan will be in about a month. If he is relapsing, then we enter back into the life of chemotherapy. If his scan is clear, then we have to make a bunch of decisions very quickly.

tenjuices said...

more hypothetical, somewhat serious offer

Eric said...

Let's keep in touch. We'll let you know what happens with Bobby.

Dan said...


Just wanted to let you know that your post inspired this comic in my head and then on my blog.



Eric said...


I like the comic, and I also think it is right on.

Good work.

Alan Knox said...


I'm sorry that I'm late coming to this discussion. I noticed that your preaching was different a few weeks ago. I've changed the way I preach as well - for many of the reasons that you list here. Thank for this series, and I hope you keep 'em comin'!


Eric said...


The biblical model of the church in general, and of preaching in particular, has been challenging me of late. Maybe it is because we are not really attached to the way any church in particular does things. I'm trying to use this time to step back, look at the bible, then then ask why we do the things we do.

Your posts continue to challenge me. Thanks for them.


Corey Reynolds said...

I think it's amusing to see what kind of things should be 'Spirit led' according to some of the posters. Boyce made a comment about music being prepared a month beforehand. As a person who spent a lot of time moving a small country church from picking the song right before it is sung (I get a little tired of singing "Tell it to Jesus" and "In the Garden" every Sunday) to putting a little more 'Spirit led' forethought into song choice, I would like to say that the idea that the Spirit is not at work in forethought and planning is preposterous. Our services have been much more worshipful as we have been more intentional about song choices.

Also, Richard says (sorry to pick on you, Richard) that the preacher ought to know his main points, but be flexible in his "filler" material. Hehe, I'll take the biblical stuff. Holy Spirit, you can have the filler!

Believe it or not, I am actually experimenting with a more extemporaneous method this Sunday as a result of these discussions, and so far - in my practice - I like it! I don't necessarily think that what we are really talking about here is "can the Spirit interject or not?" God has control over the thing whether we wrote out 100% (why can't he speak to me as I write?) or whether we wrote out none of it. I think that the real question is, how can I be most like me?

One of the previous posters said something about people who know what they're talking about can just talk about it (I think Dan said that). Amen. That is what led me to change my thinking this week. I notice that I go to see all kinds of people and they ask me questions about the Bible and I talk for hours sometimes about it. Why can't I do that with a passage that I have studied for 20+ hours?

When I talk to someone, I regularly use illustrations, etc., but when I preach, I use few. That means I preach differently than I speak. This is exactly the problem that I have with hoopin' hollerin' preachers. They don't preach like they speak. If you talk to them about sports or something else that they are passionate about, they speak one way, then they preach another. Well, I'm starting to see that I do the same thing, only in the other (more boring) direction.

Eric said...


In reading through the post comments, I am encouraged that we all want to be as biblical as possible. One thing we are all dealing with is trying to determine how to best be led by the Holy Spirit.

I believe, as I think we probably all do, that the Holy Spirit blesses preparation both in studying for the sermon and in choosing the appropriate music. I would be appalled by any church that went into a service unprepared, hoping to just "follow the Spirit." God doesn't bless laziness on our part.

As we enter the service, I also think the Holy Spirit may choose, in His wisdom and pleasure, to alter some of what we have planned. If this occurs, we need to be open to it. I am not suggesting disorganization, but rather an openness to some change when appropriate.

As far as what Richard said: "that the preacher ought to know his main points, but be flexible in his 'filler' material." That is actually what I plan to do also. Let me clarify. I will not alter any biblical truth (I don't think Richard would either). The Holy Spirit would never lead anyone to contradict the Word of God. However, I hope that I would change illustrations or application if appropriate.

In many churches, I honestly believe that preparation leads to imprisonment in the service. Is an order of worship OK? You bet. Do we have to follow it? No.

The same can be said for the sermon. It seems that preachers tend to fault on one side or the other. Either they fail to prepare adequately, and then "rely on the Spirit," or the prepare a great deal and then are slaves to their manuscript.

As for trying to preach like you normally would speak, I think that is an awesome idea. I need to do that myself.

Thanks again, Eric

Brian F. said...

this may not get read but I am a new pastor of a small church in the grand canyon area. i also have an mdiv. I am a big fan of expositional preaching and feel it is much safer than topical sermons - most of us do not have enough biblical theology to do them right anyways - however I feel burdened to preach for now on knowing God and will be covering some of his attributes - this is not the standard expositional style but I believe they are part me and part spirit led.

on exegesis I have been struggling to make sure that in my preparation and preaching I don't do too much exegesis so as to not "exit Jesus" from my sermons - he is the center of it all (check out Christ Centered Preaching by Chapell) and I want to be sure to be heavy on application - well at least make sure each point of exegesis has a corresponsing point of application (e.g., God is Love so be a loving person, God's love is missional so be missional people, etc). I want people to walk away about how they are to respond to the Bible.

As to your post - one big push in some seminaries such as DTS (and the one I attended) - is preaching without notes (iow: memorizing the sermon) - they believe this allows the preacher to better connect with the congregation and the preaching will come across more powerfully and with more impact.

Eric said...


I'm glad to hear that you are a big fan of expository preaching. As for preaching God's attributes, that sounds like an excellent idea to me. That can be done in an expositional manner by preaching through passages that deal with the attribute you are focusing on.

As for exegesis, I think most pastors fault of the side of too little exegesis, not too much. If you are concerned about it, then you are probably doing a good job of it.

As for how I preach, I like to take a middle ground approach in how much I take into the pulpit. Tomorrow I will be preaching, and I'm going to be taking a detailed outline with my bible. This will give me freedom when prompted by the Spirit, but will also keep me tied to the exegesis I have done.

Thanks, Eric

Brian F. said...

Last week I did a sermon on God's love from 1 John 4:7-12, my exegetical points were that God is love; God's love is missional; and then God's love focuses on people with application points being: be loving people (love one another); be missional people (God took initative so must we); and be people focused.

I am like you, I need a detalied outline at the very least - for me structure allows freedom of movement - without that I get lost...

(since I am new here) I am sorry too to hear about your son. How are things going with him?


Eric said...


It sounds like you are on the right path as far as preaching goes. We probably think a lot alike on this topic.

As far as my son goes, let me refer you to the top post on my blog. That should give you a lot of info. on how he is doing.

Thanks, Eric