How to Write Better Sermons
Part 1: Prewriting
David H. Petersen
Here, by request, is the first part of a multi-part series on sermon writing as writing by Fr. Petersen, writing in his regular column, "Commentary on the War." For more of such quality articles in our fine print journal, click here to read about it, or simply here to subscribe. -ed
Seminary education in North America has to assume a number of competencies based upon an earned Bachelor’s degree. One of those assumptions is that men entering the seminary are competent in composition. They almost never are. Thus they muddle their way through seminary, vicarage, and then their weekly duties without ever writing decent outlines or crafting thesis statements. To be sure, it is possible, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, to deliver wandering, nearly incoherent sermons that edify and nurture the flock. The Lord works through His ministers and His Word despite the weaknesses of His ministers. The Truth gets out.
Nonetheless, sermon writing is writing. It is not completely unique or distinct from other forms of writing, even if it is closest to speech writing. Preachers, then, can learn from other writers. They can improve their technique. Improving the writing process improves the sermons themselves. Better written sermons are more focused. They are more easily digested and followed by the hearers. There are, however, other benefits. Getting better at the process also makes the preacher more efficient and makes the task more pleasant, less of a chore for him. My suspicion is that our homiletics classes, for one reason or another, have focused more on how to do the exegetical work and how to deliver a sermon than they have on how to write.
Though the vocabulary varies among textbooks, the writing process, academically considered, is normally broken into four stages: prewriting, writing, revising, and proofing. The first thing to know is that these four stages are meant to describe a creative process. The process is not a list of steps to be mechanically followed. It is a fluid process.
A writer always starts with some sort of prewriting, but he might move very quickly at times into writing and revising; yet, at the same time, he will usually continue to gather ideas and to conduct research right up to the end. The point is that it is a process. All of it needs to be done. When writers try to take shortcuts they normally do more work, in a slower fashion, and produce a weaker product. Some preachers, no doubt, follow the process unaware. When the process is understood, however, and when it is utilized in a deliberate fashion, it will not only make the job easier and the sermons stronger, but it will also free the creative process.
My assumption is that the sermon’s goal is to bring comfort through a particular text. We do preach for conversion, but it is the conversion of the baptized, the daily drowning and rising of Christians, rather than the conversion of the unbaptized. If we were seeking the conversion of the unbaptized we would pick the texts that we felt best spoke to conversion or to that person’s particular struggles. That is the task of evangelism and apologetics, not preaching. The comfort that Christians receive in the sermon is Law and Gospel application. They are slayed and raised through the Word. That brings comfort because they are recast again as God’s children, His afflicted and His baptized. The Gospel absolves them, God loves them, in the preacher’s voice. Still this could sound as though it is indistinct from bedside consolation. Again, what makes it unique is that the preacher is using an assigned text and set of propers. He is bringing light and comfort to the Christian in the specific context of the liturgy and church year.
That makes sermon writing easier than most other writing. Sermons are a response to and an expansion on a specific text in the midst of a specific set of propers. Thus the triumphant entry on the Sunday before He dies reads differently on the First Sunday in Advent than it does on Palm Sunday. That assignment and context means that the preacher doesn’t have to cast about for ideas in the same way that other writers do. Nonetheless, the preacher does need to cast about within the text he has been assigned. He needs to gather and prune ideas. He needs to think about a thesis statement.
Sermons need a central point and focus. Without that, even if they are doctrinally pure and do proclaim the Gospel, they become rambling commentaries or loosely strung-together anecdotes. The thesis statement gives focus and direction to both writer and hearer. It is usually a single sentence and it often has the form of Law and Gospel. Indeed, it is often very helpful, already in the prewriting stage, to think in terms of a Law thesis and a Gospel thesis, that is, to consider or find one problem of man that the text either names or negates or which is suggested in the text, and then to consider its corresponding solution in the cross. What the preacher is after, in any case, is a way to bring light and comfort from a particular text in a pointed and direct way that can be understood by the hearer.
It is important that we emphasize again that the goal of preaching is not to fully expound a single text. The goal is to comfort consciences, to absolve sinners, and to proclaim the love of God in Christ Jesus from an assigned text within the context of the proper and church year.
A thesis statement can take many forms. It can be analytical, breaking down an issue or doctrine in the text. For example, exegesis of St. Matthew 21 for Palm Sunday might cause the preacher to notice that it is highly likely that not all the people who cried “Hosanna” were faithful and understood what they were saying. It is quite possible that at least some of them were simply carried along by the emotion and excitement of the moment and were similarly carried along on Friday to cry out “Crucify.” Thus he might consider preaching about hypocrisy. The sermon would define what hypocrisy is. It would expose the hearers to how they fall into a similar pattern, praising Jesus on Sunday but flinching from confessing Him when it is inconvenient. It would then find comfort for them in the fact that Jesus accepts the praise of hypocrites and is not stopped on His journey by their sin. So also would he demonstrate that the Church has found it wise to put the praise of Palm Sunday on our lips in the Sanctus. We do not fully understand what we say when we sing “Hosanna.” Our lives have been riddled through with failures and we sometimes sing “Hosanna” without even thinking about what we are saying, but Jesus hears and answers our prayer nonetheless. He answers by dying and rising and by then giving us His body and blood to both forgive and strengthen us. Rather than explaining everything that happened to Jesus on the road or tying in all of the intervenient chants and readings, the preacher judiciously picks one point from the text, finds a nice tie to the liturgy, and then applies this to his people. That sort of analysis can be very powerful and helpful for the hearers.
A thesis can also be expository. A sermon can seek to explain something. The preacher might take the same text and decide to explain to his congregation what the word Hosanna means and how that words ties into the name Jesus. He might track various cries for help or saving in the Scriptures and how God answers them. He could find a good deal of help in the intervenient chants and hymns for Palm Sunday. His Law idea could simply be that we are dying and in the hands of the devil and need rescue and his Gospel idea could be how Jesus even gives us the right prayers to pray and is steadfast in His march toward the cross to save us.
Yet another possibility is to make an argument. The sermon can make a claim and then provide evidence. In the Palm Sunday reading the preacher could argue that Jesus enters into
in humility not in power. Here he could find evidence also in the Epistle and
Collect. He could unwrap what the Humiliation is and how the Exaltation is so
essential to our doctrine of the bodily presence. Again, the
sermon would have a very tight focus and real application as constrained by the
Whatever the thesis is, and whether it fits neatly into one of the patterns above, it should be specific. It should cover only what the sermon is going to deal with, prove, or explain. It should then be supported with specific evidence and examples. It normally appears in the first paragraph of the sermon, usually as the last sentence. It should likewise be repeated in some fashion, maybe not word for word, in the last paragraph.
There should not be any content in the sermon that is not directly related to the thesis. If, as the preacher writes or revises, he discovers something more interesting or relevant, something he hadn’t first considered, he should modify his thesis to include it or change his thesis and delete what doesn’t match. Sometimes the process leads the preacher to change his topic. The danger then is not in changing, but in keeping everything. In any case, the process is meant to be fluid.
Prewriting and Exegesis
Exegesis is the foundation of preaching. The preacher’s first step is to seek an intellectual understanding of a specific text. He wants to take in its context and nuance within the Bible and also within the propers. But the preacher must know that he will uncover more material and meaning than he will ever use in a single sermon. Sermon exegesis is distinct from Bible class preparation and from research that is done for academic papers. The preacher’s eventual goal is a single idea or theme leading to a thesis statement that can be developed into a sermon. Solid exegesis and study will find many ideas. At this stage, during prewriting, the point isn’t to pick one. It is to develop possibilities and to become fluent with the text.
It is important that the preacher does not settle on the first idea that occurs to him. He should spend time contemplating what the text says, what the state of his people and the world is, and consider many ideas and possibilities. It is very helpful to take notes as a text is being read or translated. If the preacher does not write these things down he will probably forget them or he will focus so hard on remembering them that he will not do any further real exegesis.
Prewriting is the time for gathering ideas. But, again, if the first idea or insight that a preacher encounters is so exciting that he can’t wait to begin writing, he certainly may. He should, however, check with his work from previous years first to make sure he hasn’t simply been drawn to the same early conclusion over and over again.
It is wasteful and vain to think that exegesis can be completed in a vacuum or that after it is finished the preacher can then start thinking about what to say in a sermon. First of all, exegesis can never really be completed. There is always more to know. Secondly, the preacher should contemplate the persons and events of Holy Scripture with his people in mind. He is reading the text for the sake of preaching. The Bible was meant to be preached and applied. It is not a book about other people. Thus the preacher should always be thinking of how the text applies, of what doctrines it presents, and how it presents both Law and Gospel. Nor is the context within the propers artificial to the meaning of the text. In the first place, the Scriptures were written for worship, but so also, the arrangement and setting of texts side-by-side demonstrates the thinking of our fathers. Again, notes, whether they be on paper or a voice recording on a phone or in some other format, are always helpful.
If the preacher skips prewriting, he will usually find that he doesn’t have enough material to actually write. He will probably be immediately bored with the sermon or he will feel as though there isn’t anything of interest to say about a particular text that hasn’t already been covered by Sunday school. If a preacher finds himself staring at a blank screen with nothing to say, he probably has not done his prewriting. Staring at a blank screen is a waste of time. Prepare to write and when it is time, write.
This is not meant to deny that the Holy Spirit inspires His preachers. He does. But the Spirit works through means. If you are dragged by violence, with threat of death, before kings, then don’t worry. The Spirit will provide what you need to say. Yet, preachers need to know that
tells St. Timothy to continue in the study of the
Scripture (2 Tim. 3:14) and to be prepared to preach (2 Tim. 4:2). The first
step for preachers preparing to preach is the study of Holy Scripture. St.
Any writing textbook or a quick Google search will reveal loads of prewriting exercises for college students. Of particular value is the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/). That whole site is valuable and includes prewriting exercises that should be tried. Some preachers might feel as though this is beneath them, as though these are exercises for amateurs: they are not. Successful, professional writers all use them. Why then wouldn’t preachers?
There are some exercises that I find particularly useful. I like to find the negatives in a text. This is obvious when the text says something like “don’t worry” but it is often the most fruitful when the text only states things positively. I try to imagine what the opposite is or what the positive statements reject. I then try to imagine how we are guilty of the opposite. Another technique I like is to search the Book of Concord for citations of the text in question to see how the text is used dogmatically. The same thing can be done with the Bible reference index for the synodical questions. A favorite technique of mine is to imagine leaving a note in a Bible for posterity. It is a bit vain, perhaps, and silly, but I try to imagine what I would write about a text if I had only a half sheet of paper to stick into a Bible, knowing that my children would find the note after I died.