A couple of my goals from time to time in this blog is to offer some examples of how I actually deal with texts in sermon development and to evaluate my own practice of preaching delivery. Yes, I am clearly a glutton for punishment, because nothing may be more horrifying than watching one of my own sermons with a homiletics professor’s aim. Before I can do so, however, I think it would be wise and necessary for me to describe, with some level of detail, the process I use for moving from text to sermon. This way, you will have the structure that I follow in theory before I show you how I apply it in practice to the actual process of sermon development.
Therefore, I want to give you my 10 simple steps for moving from to text to sermon. Now, you may be thinking, 10 steps for doing anything should never be described by the adjective “simple.” Furthermore, I have already advocated in this blog both implicitly and explicitly that regarding preaching, and good sound biblical text-driven expository preaching at that, NOTHING is simple or easy. Let me address the latter first. This is not to indicate that good and right preaching is easy or that implementing the steps does not take work. Each of them do. Rather, it is meant to indicate that the steps themselves and what is meant in each one about the “text-to-sermon” process is not cumbersome.
Second, if you think the following, you may be correct — 10 steps may seem like a high number for a process of doing anything. And, it may seem like a lot of information to include in one blog. However, these 10 steps include both the interpretation (hermeneutics) and the design (homiletics) portions of sermon development. When you think about everything that by necessity must be included here, 10 steps is not excessively long and covers much ground. Additionally, there is a natural place to divide the process into two separate blogs, which is exactly what I intend to do. Therefore this week, we examine the first six simple steps for moving from text to sermon. This is the interpretation or exegesis portion of the sermon development process – or what I have referred to as “Discovering What to Preach.”
First, Prayerfully and Carefully Select a Text.
There are at least two components assumed in this step of selecting a text. There are both macro and micro levels of identifying the passage you are going to exposit. First, this step must be understood in the larger context of planning your preaching. There are several ways to do this. You can design a preaching calendar around a doctrinal study, addressing biblical “topics,” exploring the mission of the church, or answering concerns or questions that are more specific to the event of your particular context — remember with any of these, you should approach all preaching in a manner that upholds the tenets of true expository preaching. However, I believe that the majority of the time the best preaching plan is built on systematic exposition. By this, I mean chronologically preaching through entire books, or large portions of books, of the Bible. I would suggest at least a three-month preaching calendar with some opportunities for “interruptions” built in.
For our purposes here, however, we do not have time to explore this part of the process in great detail. To some degree, I am assuming your understanding of a plan like the one mentioned above. In other words, I am assuming you are not “flying by the seat of your pants” concerning what you should preach on a week-by-week basis. So, in this step I am not talking as much about helping you determine “what to preach on.” I am referring to the selection or “marking off” of the boundaries of the specific text you are going to expound from the pulpit this week. This is the second part of this first step.
There are several textual clues that can help you determine the natural boundaries of your passage. These include but are not limited to subject change, verb tense changes, rhetorical devices such as repetition (both of specific words and forms) and inclusio, and the recognition of the logical, semantic, and grammatical flow of the author’s thought and argument. David Allen’s chapter in Text-Driven Preaching and Wayne McDill’s textbook 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching offer a discussion of these ideas and are helpful resources in this area. If you are overwhelmed or feel incapable of accomplishing this step at this point, do not panic. The main thing is that you make a commitment to preach on a complete unit of thought. A simple starting place and rule-of-thumb is to make sure you do not stop your preaching unit in the middle of a sentence. Before you think this never happens, in the Greek text of Romans, the sentence that beings in verse one of chapter one does not end until verse seven of chapter one!
When you make this commitment and begin working toward this end, you will be amazed at your ability to identify the natural divisions of the text. Much of this process will become second nature and occur intuitively. You will surprised how God will honor this commitment in your life and how quickly you grow in your competency. So, let me encourage you once more to start your sermon development process with a firm commitment to preach a complete unit of thought. With God’s help, carefully select the text you plan to preach.
Second, Read the Text You Have Chosen Multiple Times.
First, read the entire book your passage is located in multiple times. I believe it was G. Campbell Morgan, the great British preacher, who indicated that he never preached a single passage from any book of the Bible before reading the entire book in which the passage is located completely through at least 50 times! I am not arguing that you have to read it this many times, although it would not be a bad idea. I do believe, however, that you must read the book through enough times that you have confidence that you know both the main idea(s) and flow of its entirety. You are working to get a sense of the whole. If you do not know the whole, you probably will not rightly understand its parts.
There are a few basic questions you can ask and give an initial answer to that will help you accomplish this. What is the genre of the book in which my text is located? Is my particular text a sub-genre of the major genre in the larger context? Who is the author of the book? Who was the original audience? What was the occasion for writing the book? What was the purpose for the original writing of the book? Is there one or more passages in this book in which the author gives the main idea or aim for the book’s composition? You may not know nor be able to locate all the answers to these questions. Or, you may have to revise your answers to them later. But again, any initial information you can provide in these areas will help you get a working knowledge of the whole. This will be invaluable later.
Second, read the specific text you are going to preach multiple times in multiple translations. If you feel confident looking at your passage in its original biblical language, I would encourage you to do so. But at a minimum, read it and examine it in more than one reliable English translation. As you do this, try to determine the general subject of your passage (i.e. God’s love, God’s providence, sin, godly living, service, etc.). Pay attention to how this paragraph unit connects to the paragraph before and after it. How does it fit into the overall context of the book?
Again, all of this will help you get an initial familiarity with your text.
Third, Complete a Structural or Phrase Diagram of Your Text.
I discussed this briefly in my previous post “4 Ways to Make Sure You Get the Text Right in Your Preaching.” By way of reminder, in that post I explained that you are looking for all the independent clauses contrasted with the dependent clauses of the passage and the main verbs of your text. So, analyze your text on a paragraph and sentence level. Primarily, you are looking for how each sentence and clause fits into the larger whole. In other words, you are looking for main and support information.
The best way to accomplish this is to line all of your independent clauses up on the left of your page and indent all of your dependent clauses, going further right based on levels of subordination. If possible, complete this step in the original biblical languages keeping word order the same as it was in the original composition. However, if you are not able to do so, there is still value in walking through this process with a good English translation. Essentially, you should make special note of 1) Main or Independent Clauses (which are often identified by coordinating conjunctions such as “and,” “but,” “now,” “therefore,” “so then,” etc.); 2) Support or Dependent Clauses (which are often identified by subordinating conjunctions such as “for,” “because,” “so that,” “in order that” etc. or relative pronouns); 3) Subject, Verbs (especially commands), and Modifiers; and 4) Repeated and Word Study Words (and perhaps the syntactical/rhetorical functions of the words).
You will discover that words not only mean something; they also do something. Try to determine not only what the words and phrases in your passage mean but also what they are doing. The reason why diagramming or structuring is important is because linguistically independent clauses and imperative verbs carry more weight than their counterparts do. This is not to say that there is not good or even important material in the dependent clauses and indicative verbs in your text, but they are not usually the main thrust that your author is communicating and thus God through His Word is emphasizing. Once I have completed this, I like to stop and ask some more detailed investigation and interpretation questions of my text. At this point, I make notes of all my observations and may review the background sections of commentaries and other biblical resources to confirm or adjust my initial observations.
Also, discover the development of the passage. There are two general ways that your passage will develop — from the main idea to the supporting major ideas or sub-points (deductive) or from the supporting major ideas or sub-points to the main idea (inductive). From your structural diagram, you should be able to determine which development your text follows. Consider patterning the development of your sermon after the development of your text. Usually deduction is more common in Epistles whereas induction is more common in Narratives, although this is not a hard and fast rule. All of this becomes very important and invaluable when you are completing steps four and six.
Fourth, Find and Write Your Text’s E.T.S.
An E.T.S. stands for the Essence of the Text in a Sentence. In some preaching literature, it is designated by the terms CIT or Exegetical Idea, but it carries the same idea. Essentially, it is exactly what it says it is – your passage written in one sentence. The E.T.S. is a summarization of the unifying theme and overall meaning of your text. A good E.T.S. will contain several key characteristics. It will be clear – the meaning of the text should be captured and understandable from this sentence. It will be concise – most preaching literature says that it should be no more than 15 to 18 words in length. It will capture the main teaching and context of the passage. It will be a “then” statement – it will be in past tense. And, it will be a complete sentence – it will not be a phrase or a fragment.
So, how do you go about locating your E.T.S.? I believe the best way to do so is to refer back to the structural diagram, which you completed in step three. As a matter of fact, if you have put in the needed time and work that is required there, your E.T.S. almost finds itself. At a minimum, the textual information that produces it becomes obvious most of the time. Here’s why. Your E.T.S. will almost always derive from the information that is on the far left of your diagram. Again, this is true because, if you have done your diagram correctly, your main independent material will be located on the left of your diagram. And, this is the most important information in your text.
Once you understand this, there are several textual hints that will aid you in locating your E.T.S. Search for any recurring truths in the text. Search for major truths more than minor ones. Often your E.T.S. is a direct statement of the independent clause on the left of your diagram. Sometimes, if there is more than one independent clause on the left margin, the E.T.S. will be a summary of all of this information. You will have to state in your own words a theme sentence that you believe catches the essence of all of the statements. At other times, you will discover the statement is not stated directly in the text but is an overall theme that is implied by the author. Regardless, the work you have done in diagramming your text will help you see your potential E.T.S. much more clearly and easily.
This complete, clear, concise, past tense statement that summarizes your preaching text is foundational for the remainder of your sermon preparation process. Your outline will closely relate to your E.T.S. if you have discovered it properly. It will also be the tool that you will use to measure the unity and cohesiveness of your outline. Your E.S.S. will derive directly from your E.T.S., as will your entire sermon because we believe in text-driven expository preaching. Therefore, the main point of your sermon will issue forth directly from the main point and emphasis of your passage. If you do not know what your passage meant, you will never be able to build for and deliver to your people a genuine expository message based on God’ direct authority. Yes, finding and composing the E.T.S. from the natural design of the text is a foundational step in sermon development.
Fifth, Consider the Main Truth You Have Discovered in Light of Biblical Context.
By this, I am referring to both the immediate and broader context surrounding your passage. In your process, you now have what you believe to be one statement that captures the main teaching of your text. So, one way to safeguard your work is to compare what you have found in this text to what you believe to be the main thrust of the whole book, which you became familiar with in step two, the larger context of the Testament in which your text is located, and what you know to as the unified testimony of all of Scripture. Essentially, you are looking for consistency or inconsistency from your understanding of this text and the plain meaning of all of God’s Word.
The reason why this step is important is that the Bible will never contradict itself at any point. If there is a problem, it is with our interpretation, not the Word of God. The Bible is infallible; we and our interpretations are not. There are several contextual questions you can ask to make this determination.
How does what I discovered as the main idea(s) of this passage fit in with the argument of the paragraphs immediately before and immediately following my passage? How does what I discovered as the main idea(s) of this passage fit in with the argument of the entire chapter in which my passage is located? How does what I discovered as the main idea(s) of this passage fit within the context of the book my passage is in as a whole? How does what I discovered as the main idea(s) of this passage fit within the context of the Testament (Old or New) in which my passage is located? How does what I discovered as the main idea(s) of this passage fit within the context of the entirety of the canon of Scripture?
Why is all or any of this helpful? There is at least one major reason. If you find any contradiction or inconsistency with your interpretation and the message of the Bible, you can stop, adjust, go back through the process, edit, and shift gears. This step gives you the opportunity to do so before you are either so far into the process that you do not have the time that is needed or are too invested personally that you do not want to fix your mistake.
Finally, Discover and Compose Your Exegetical Outline.
This is not your preaching outline. It is the factual outline that attempts to represent your text as closely and accurately as possible. Much like your E.T.S., it develops from the arrangement of the main developments and major ideas of the text, is based as closely on the wording of the passage as possible, and is stated in past tense “then” language. Here you are trying to compose the wording of the outline as “woodenly” as possible.
In order to write your Exegetical Outline, I would once again suggest referencing and using the structural diagram that you completed in step three. A strong Exegetical Outline in the text-driven preaching process should derive directly from and follow as closely as possible what you have discovered to be the structure of your preaching passage — main and independent material from your text, the thought development of the original author, and the line of reasoning or argumentation embedded in the text. It should have the same number of main points, supporting material and grounds, and major ideas as the text does. I also would suggest developing your outline in the identical sequence that is displayed in the structure of the text.
This is not the place to get creative, especially with wording! There will be time for that later. Here you are simply trying to make sure you have understood the text and that you can compose and communicate what you have found. You are not ready to preach it yet! Remember again, this is not your preaching outline, but your Exegetical Outline will be invaluable building this Preaching Outline.
You will notice that to this point I have not yet once mentioned opening a commentary other than researching the background material of the book in which my passage is located. I believe in the use of commentaries, but I am committed to doing my exegetical and sermon development work first. After I have completed my process, I do check and use multiple types of commentaries to help confirm or correct my interpretation, give me ideas for wording in my communication of the text, and provide actual illustrations or applications I may use in my delivery. I do this near the end of the week in my sermon preparation process, not the beginning.
Okay, so maybe “simple” was the wrong term to use for this 10 step process! Maybe the term “foundational” is a more accurate descriptor. Regardless of what we call it or how we describe it, however, hopefully at this point you know and have confirmed what your text is about. You have completed the “Discovering What to Preach” portion of your sermon prep and development. I hope this is helpful and gives you some things to consider.
But, you are not yet ready to preach! Now you have to figure out how to phrase it, communicate it, and apply it to your particular audience – “Discovering How to Preach It.” This is what we will work on together next week.
Click here to read the second part of this series.
See David L. Allen, “Preparing a Text-Driven Sermon” in Text-Driven Preaching: God’s Word at the Heart of Every Sermon, ed. Daniel L. Akin, David L. Allen, and Ned L. Mathews (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 115–16, 130–31 and Wayne McDill, 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006), 17–18, respectively.
See http://www.nobts.edu/rogerscenter/documents/PreachingGuide_Jude.pdf for several examples in both Greek and English of structuring a text in this manner from my prep work on the book of Jude. Preached in chapel at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Spring 2017.