I've been preaching for over 20 years. Over those two decades my approach to preparation and and my preaching has changed, and I continue to work on it. Continued growth is needed in this area since it is such a major part of my calling. But my basic method at this point have been in play for a while now and enough of you have asked me to share how I prepare a sermon. So, here it is.
You can see by the title of this post that this is not the way to prepare a sermon, but a way. It is my method. If you find anything here that is helpful, take it! You can leave the rest.
Determine Your Time
Many preachers struggle with how much time to put into sermon preparation, and are further confused by the stories of Pastor So-and-so who somehow puts in over 20 hours of sermon preparation a week. Whatever.
10 hours. That’s it. Most pastors do a lot more than preach and do not have several staff members to whom they can hand off other responsibilities. 10 hours. That's what I give myself and what I recommend other pastors and church planters to allot for themselves each week. If you can't prepare a good sermon in 10 hours you're definitely doing it wrong.
When I say 10 hours, I'm speaking of "desk time." I'm not counting all the time I spend on the sermon in my head and in prayer away from the desk. I’m thinking about it while driving, mowing the lawn, and just going about my everyday business. So the 10 hours is filled with what I describe below.
Know Your Text
You have to have a text before you can have a sermon. You can give a nice talk without a text, but if you want to preach and see the power of God breathe life into the dead, you need a text. I map our series and sermons 6-12months in advance. Scheduling sermons that far out allows me to not only see what's coming, but also gives me more chances of finding relevant material for future sermons that I can file away until I need them. I'd rather start with a text than a topic. The former will give me the latter.
Once you have your text, read the passage multiple times. Become familiar with it. Study the passage in its immediate and broader contexts to understand where it falls in the book and the history of Redemption. Develop an outline of the passage that clarifies the story, the argument, the poetry, or whatever it is you are reading. Distill the text to its main idea or central theme.
Highlight the specific doctrines taught and emphasized in the passage.
Throughout your sermon development you can use helps like commentaries, systematic theology, etc. (I use Logos Bible Software) to assist you. I usually wait until I have done as much as possible on my own before cracking open other books, articles, other sermons, confessions, catechisms, etc.
Reflect on the Passage
Now that you know the text on a deeper level, you can continue to work on it through the discipline of meditation. I mean it's time to preach this text to yourself. What is God confronting in your heart and life through those verses? What promises does he hold out to you? Seek to be convicted and encouraged. You must feel the power of the Scripture if you want to preach earnestly.
A help for me in this process is journaling. I write out thoughts, prayers, questions, and ideas to dig deeper into the Bible and my heart. Once you have preached this to yourself and have come to see God working in you, then transition to the application and implications of the text for the congregation to whom you are preaching.
I like to close my eyes and visualize the people in their seats, or I work through our Community Group rosters, and take note of the condition of the people. Is our church in a period of joy or sorrow? Who is lonely, frightened, frustrated, and struggling? Who is rebelling and who is rebuilding? You want to preach more then generalities to the people. Be specific in how the Scripture addresses the people in calling them to repent and believe, to mourn and rejoice, to hear and obey.
Clarify Your Main Idea
I believe that every sermon should have one, central idea that drives the whole message. This is the one thing what you want the people to know and experience. This is what they should remember from the sermon, and then be able to unpack it a bit for themselves and others. This may not be the main point of the passage itself, as you may want to focus on a minor point being made by the original author. For help on determining the main idea of a sermon see Haddon Robinson's, Biblical Preaching, or my favorite, Bryan Chapell's Christ-Centered Preaching.
The sermon notes in the photo above is from a recent sermon I preached on Psalm 115:1 called, "Soli Deo Gloria." The "sermon summary" for that message was, "The Purpose of God is the Glory of God." That was the idea unpacked throughout the sermon.
Build the sermon
All that you have done up to this point is the material you will use to build the actual sermon. Using the passage studied and applied, and the central idea you want to emphasize, you can now develop the structure (homiletic outline) of the sermon itself: introduction, main idea, supporting points, conclusion. Don't worry about alliteration. Don't waste time on making sure the points rhyme. People aren't going to remember all the points in your sermon, but they are likely to remember the main idea and various aspects of the sermon the Holy Spirit impresses upon them.
People have different approaches to sermon notes: full manuscript, detailed outlines, no notes at all. And a lot of people are a big dogmatic about why their way is best. The reality is preachers are all different and you want to use the notes that helps you preach to the best of our abilities. I've tried every method, but for the last 10 years I have been preaching from one sheet of notes that I tuck into my Bible.
Whatever your approach to notes is, if you use them, get the finalized form together close to the day of preaching. I start preparing on Monday and by Thursday my sermon is pretty much done. On Saturday morning I put everything I am using onto one sheet, and I am finished. The notes to the right are from last week's sermon, "The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ."
This is the big picture of how I prepare a sermon, and as I said this is only one approach. It's simple and experiential, feeding me before I seek to feed others.