What are the most important elements to consider in sermon writing?
By Josh Breslaw
The Yucatan Peninsula
In the early 16th century, conquistadors from Spain landed in what we know today as the Yucatan peninsula. When they arrived in this southeastern part of Mexico, they asked the Mayans who lived there the name of this place. The Mayans responded with a word or phrase that sounded like “Yucatan” to the Spanish. So the Spanish named the place “the Yucatan.” In reality, the Mayans were probably telling the Spanish “I don’t understand.” But the Spanish did not know that. So, to this day, we have the “I don’t understand” peninsula.
A Relevant Sermon
There are so many ways to answer the question “what are the most important elements to consider in sermon writing?” Karl Barth famously told students to “preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” That is excellent advice. Sermons are for a particular time and space. A sermon must take the text and show its relevance within the circumstances we live.
I was in a workshop at a CBF General Assembly many years ago, and Brett Younger, now minister at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, told us to prepare sermons with two chairs in front of you. He said to imagine one chair with the author of the text and the other with a person in your congregation. Ask the author “is this what you meant?” Then ask the congregant “is this what you need to hear?” Younger emphasized in that session that if both of those questions are not yes, then you are not ready to preach your sermon. This is one angle on answering the above question and is great advice. I have regularly thought about this analogy while preparing sermons.
An Articulated Sermon
But there is another step pastors must take. Sermon preparation is the foundation for a good sermon. But preparation is not the thing. The sermon is the thing. If you are not prepared to articulate the sermon to the audience, you are not ready to deliver the sermon. You are in danger of miscommunication, and you might have a “Yucatan issue” on your hands.
Miscommunication is a major danger in sermon delivery. The question for this article is “what are the most important elements to consider in sermon writing?” When you are writing a sermon, you must consistently think about the delivery. I believe that the most important element to consider in sermon writing is delivery. After all, that is the end result of any sermon preparation. Sermon writing leads to sermon delivery.
To that end, when you are writing your sermon, you must consider how your words will be understood by the congregation. In other words, when it comes to your sermon, you must mean what you say. In the end, it’s not about what words come out of your mouth. It’s about what words go into the congregation’s ear. You must be clear in your delivery so that the congregation hears what you want them to hear.
An Understood Sermon
I had a valuable learning experience in the first church I pastored. We were discussing ways to reach the community in our rural Central Texas area, and I suggested that we have a barbecue. I kept talking about other activities we could have on that night, but the church members did not hear anything else I said. When I said barbecue, their eyes got wide and their hearts got anxious. When I said barbecue, I meant hamburgers and hot dogs. When they heard barbecue, they thought brisket. What I learned that day was that what people hear is more important than what I say. And I also learned the difference between a barbecue and a cookout.
Making what you say and what the people hear the same thing begins by knowing your congregation. You obviously continue to only preach the Bible, but you put the message of the Bible into the vocabulary of the congregation. This need is why Eugene Peterson began to write The Message. In the 1960s, as a minister in Maryland, Peterson realized that the people who Paul was writing to would have understood his words immediately. So, Peterson set out to write a Bible paraphrase with the same premise.
Recognition of the congregation’s needs is not a new revelation in the world of preaching. Paul gives us examples of this in his sermons in Acts. Paul’s delivery and language changes based on whom he is speaking to. In Acts 13, when Paul delivers a message to the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, he begins his message from the place of the Old Testament. He understood his audience and preached the gospel in a way they would understand. Then, a few chapters later, in Acts 17, Paul preaches in Athens. In that sermon, he does not begin with the Old Testament but begins with his observations of Athens and the gods to which they have altars. Paul quotes a Greek poet as well. He speaks in a manner that the Athenians would understand.
Essentially, what each of us need to do in our sermon preparation is focus on preaching the gospel in a way that the people will understand. We may be able to parse Greek words and know the history of certain theological traditions, but if we cannot communicate that knowledge in a language that the people understand, then all that work is for naught.
A Shared Sermon
To communicate most effectively, you should concern yourself with the shared consciousness of the congregation. Every person in your congregation is different. They have different knowledge of the Bible, different life experiences, and different levels of vocabulary. No matter these differences, the congregation has gathered in order to listen to a sermon which draws them closer to God. In light of that, do not focus on those at one spectrum or the other. Do not even focus your efforts on the people in the middle. But speak in a way and craft your sermon in a way that speaks to everyone at some point. Give everyone something to take away. Prepare and write the sermon in a way that when delivered, every person has heard the voice of God and is changed because of it. Your congregation likely includes people who are not Christians and people who are more saintly than Mother Teresa. Give everyone something to take home and think about.
A Spirit-led Sermon
How do I do that? Prepare the best you can, and then let the Spirit do its work. There’s something about sermon writing, preparation, and delivery that none of us understand. That is the work of the Spirit. There are weeks I think this is the best sermon ever. And I get no response. Then, there are other weeks when I just want to quit in the middle of delivery because I think the sermon is so awful. It’s those weeks when people say the message was timely in their lives. In the end, as pastors, we need to be faithful to be the mouthpieces God has called us to be. We need to be faithful to put the time and effort into writing the sermon. Then, once the words leave our lips, we must let the Spirit do its work before the words hit the congregation’s ears.
*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common