This is Part 2 of my two-part series “My 10 Simple Steps for Moving from Text to Sermon.” Last week, we explored the interpretation (hermeneutics) part of the process, which covered six of the ten steps. Therefore, last week covered most of the technical and tedious, yet necessary, components of preparing and delivering a faithful sermon. You can click here to read part 1.
Now, this week in part 2, we are examining the design or communication (homiletics) portions of sermon development. Below you will find my final four steps for moving from text to sermon. These will lead you from what you discovered in the text – your E.T.S. and Exegetical Outline – to developing your plan of how to communicate what you have discovered to your audience – your E.S.S., Preaching Outline, Functional Elements, and Delivery Components. This is what I am calling the “Developing How to Preach It” portion of my sermon development process. So, here we go!
Seventh, Compose and Craft Your E.S.S from your E.T.S.
Beginning with this phase of sermon prep — step seven all the way through the completion of my sermon development — considering my specific audience is paramount. We often call this process audience analysis. There are two main ways or categories that I engage in audience analysis. First, I believe knowing elements such as the background, education, values, demographics, vocations, and local customs of your audience is invaluable. This is what may be referred to as knowing who your audience is.
Likewise, knowing how your audience’s general disposition toward both the messenger and the message is helpful. This is what I call the temperature of the audience. And, there are three main temperatures that your audience may hold toward you and the content of your sermon: favorable, neutral, or hostile. I know what you are thinking – “Most of the time my audience is primarily made up of my congregation members, so the overwhelming temperature of most audiences that I speak to is favorable.” Maybe so, but I doubt this is the case. I believe the day of assuming that our congregation members are automatically favorable toward the messenger and the biblical message is over. The more likely scenario is that most of our congregations are made up with people who do not really care one way or another. They are neutral. But, trust me, you will at some point find yourself in front of an unfavorable or hostile audience. I have!
Regardless, at least considering the potential temperature of your audience will certainly not hurt you. As a matter of fact, I hold the position that it will help you greatly as you begin to craft how to communicate God’s truth with the particular group of people who you will stand before as you deliver this message. Wrestling with this will guide you not so much in what to preach, but how to preach it. So, what are some areas of sermon development that audience analysis may help with? It will help you with the construction of your sermon body and the functional sermon elements explanation, illustration, argumentation, and application. It can aid you in the composition of your introduction and conclusion, as well as many other delivery decisions. And, it should inform the wording of your E.S.S.
Whereas your E.T.S is the “essence of the text in a sentence,” your E.S.S. is the “essence of the sermon in a sentence.” In some preaching literature, it is called the Proposition, Big Idea, Homiletical Idea, or Sermon Idea. It, much like the E.T.S., is exactly what it says it is – your sermon written in one sentence. The E.S.S. is a summarization of the unifying theme and overall point of your message. It is the “now” foundational element of your sermon. In a previous post, I wrote exclusively on the value of a good E.S.S. or proposition. You can access that article here.
I aim toward my E.S.S. being more concise and succinct than my E.T.S. As I stated last week, most preaching literature says that it should be no more than 15 to 18 words in length. I attempt to keep mine to 10 or less. I love the way my friend and assistant Russell Zwerner describes the E.S.S. “Think about it in terms of a three a.m. fire alarm statement.” If someone woke you up at three in the morning to tell you that there was a fire, what type of statement would communicate with you and would you remember? The answer is one that is short and to the point. If we write our E.S.S. with the same thought process, we almost guarantee understanding and retention from our audiences.
So, here are some “must” principles for a good E.S.S. It will still contain the main teaching of the passage because we are aiming for true expository preaching. However, it will translate this teaching to the terms, context, and language of your audience. It will be a “now” statement – it will be in present or future tense. It will be a complete sentence – it will not be a phrase or a fragment. And, whatever it does, it will derive directly from your E.T.S., which derives directly from your text. This is a safeguard for making sure you are indeed preaching the main idea of the text and achieving direct biblical authority in your sermon.
Sometimes composing your E.S.S. is as simple as taking your E.T.S. and changing the past tense verbs to present or future tense ones, changing the addressees from then to now, and being much more direct. So, for instance, if your E.T.S. is “In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commanded his hearers to enter salvation through the narrow gate,” then your E.S.S. may be “Jesus commands you to enter salvation through the narrow gate.” Or, more simply and directly, it may be “Be saved through Jesus alone!”
Eighth, Convert Your Exegetical Outline into Your Homiletical or Preaching Outline.
Again, knowing your audience can be important here. Specifically, understanding the categories of your hearers and the temperature of your congregation may impact the development of your sermon’s structure and delivery. What I mean by this is there are three main ways a sermon can develop or be communicated. The first way is referred to as Deductive. In this method, the sermon develops from and out of the explicit statement of the sermon’s main idea. The second way is designated as Inductive. In this method, the sermon develops to the statement of the sermon’s main idea. The third way is called Inductive/Deductive. Here, the sermon begins inductively, but once the sermon’s idea has been stated, the sermon proceeds deductively to explain, prove, or apply that idea.
Essentially, you can think of your sermon development in one of two broad and basic practices. Either you state your case and then prove and argue for it; or you prove and argue for your case and then you state it. So, why or how is Audience Exegesis helpful when it comes to the order you will use when you communicate your position? Your recognition of the favorability or hostility of the audience may go a long way in determining which order you use. A favorable audience will probably be open to a deductive approach. A hostile audience may not. You may not get past your introduction and the statement of your idea with this type of an audience.
Think of Nathan’s confrontations of David in 2 Samuel 12 over his sin with Bathsheba as a test case. Do you think the king would have been favorable to a message on the immorality and effects of adultery had he known it was coming? So, based on the temperature of David, how did Nathan approach him? Did he state his position and then argue for it? Or, did he argue for and prove his position, in this case through a parable about a rich man’s seizer of a poor man’s one and only lamb, and then state it? It is obvious that he did the later – the inductive approach.
This account of Nathan and David is a great example of how audience analysis can inform the construction of our homiletical preaching outline. Now, the amazing thing is God in His Word often addresses the same subject in both deductive and inductive texts. Therefore, if I need to address a subject with an audience that I believe may hold a hostile position toward me as the message or the subject that I am planning to deliver, my default is to attempt to find a text that validly deals with the subject at hand in a inductive manner. Ultimately, I believe unless there is a compelling reason to do so, you should let the development of your text follow the order of the development of the text. In this way, not only is the inerrancy of the text honored, but so is its sufficiency.
Beyond the use of audience analysis, there are a few other considerations that have a role in the formation of your preaching outline. The overall goal is to take the Exegetical Outline that you composed in step six, and turn it into the outline that will guide your delivery. Remember that is the factual outline. It is to be written as closely to the wording of the passage as possible and is stated in past tense “then” language. I argued that step is not the place to get creative, especially with wording. But, this step, the creation of your homiletical preaching outline, is the place to get creative! Much like in the conversion of your E.T.S. to your E.S.S., here you are aiming for concise and clear statements that communicate directly to your audience.
Often my preaching students ask me how many points their sermon should have? The answer we always give in the Preaching Department at NOBTS is, “At least one – have a point!” In Expository Preaching, the serious answer to this question impacts the development of your preaching outline. The reason is because you should have as many points or divisions as you found your text to have when you completed your structural diagram in step three. Essentially, the basic way to accomplish this is to take all of the of points, major divisions, or support information that you identified in your exegetical outline and convert them into points or major ideas stated in terms of your present-day audience. Make sure all of your language, verbs especially, is present tense, future tense, or imperatival (commands) in nature. One exception may be narratives where most of your divisions are scenes or movements rather than points.
There are at least two principles that can guide you in writing the points of your homiletical outline: Parallelism and Unity. By parallelism, I mean that there should be a sense of consistency and a similar flow with each of your major ideas. This does not mean that you must use alliteration, but it does mean that there should be a similar feel in each major statement of your outline. For instance, if you have three points, it is not a good rule of thumb to have one fragment and two complete sentences. If two are stated as complete sentences, then all three should be. Or, if you have four points, one should not be an interrogative and the rest imperatives. If three are imperatives, then all four should be stated that way if possible. Not having parallelism upsets the listening equilibrium of your audience, and it makes it harder for them to follow along and remember what you have said.
Second, your main points or major divisions should have unity. Parallelism can help with unity, but they are not identical. By unity, I mean that all of your points should be about the same subject. A more specific way to say it is that all of your points should be explicitly connected to your E.S.S., and thus each other. If not, essentially you have a loose association of several mini-sermons instead of one united message.
A great and simple way to accomplish this unity is to turn your E.S.S. into a question and see if there is one “unifying word” that captures how your major ideas are answering that question. For instance, if your E.S.S. were “Pursue holiness in your life” and your major ideas or points seem to be describing how a person can accomplish this, you may ask the question, “How do you pursue holiness?” In this scenario, a helpful unifying word may be “ways.” Then you can build your entire preaching outline around this concept: “God calls you to ‘Pursue holiness in your life.’ How do we accomplish this? Our text this morning gives us four ways to do so.”
Obviously, if this template does not work for your particular passage, do not use it. Remember, our ultimate goal is text-driven expository preaching. Regardless, we are aiming to make our preaching outline parallel and unified.
Ninth, Put Meat on the Bones.
Here we are mainly looking at writing the body of the sermon. After you have converted your E.T.S. to your E.S.S. and composed your parallel and unified preaching outline directly from your exegetical outline, what are you going to do in your main points or major ideas? What material will be used to fill in the majority of your outline and will constitute the most of the time you spend delivering your sermon? Really, there is only one of four things that you can and should do with each division in the body of your sermon: Explain, Illustrate, Make Argumentation for, and Make an Application of. Again, knowing your audience generally and some specific characteristics about them particularly is paramount here.
The definition of Explanation in the sermon is “to tell the meaning of or to make clear.” There are many different components of explaining a text. However, everything the preacher does in the explanation process should be used to aid understanding. Some of the types of explanation include definitions of concepts or word studies, a discussion of the history or context of what is being said in the text, background information pertinent to the point, contextualization of the passage, description of the passage’s function within the overall purpose of the book, and aspects and syntax of the passage’s construction. I believe explanation is the foundational or most important functional element of the sermon. If you do not provide an adequate explanation of your passage, you do not have anything to illustrate, argue for, or apply. I will, however, offer one word of warning regarding explanations – only take into the pulpit and explain to your people what they must know in order to understand the point!
Illustrations “throw light on” the point that you have just made and explained. It may be used to aid understanding and bring clarity, gain acceptance, and help the audience make a personal identification with the biblical truth. There are almost as many different types of illustrations or ways to illustrate a point as there are experiences in and categories of life. Previously, I posted a two-part series on the illustration in sermon construction. Click here to access part one in which I discussed my favorite kinds of illustrations. And, click here to access part two in which I gave several suggestions on how to find compelling illustrations.
The definition of argumentation is “to reason based on truth and judgment.” After we explain and illustrate a biblical truth, we may need to validate it to our audience if we desire them to acquiesce to its authority in their lives. Therefore, argumentation is used to gain acceptance. This may be done by citing other Scripture references, reasoning from life or other disciplines, making logical deduction, or providing related statistics. One question worth considering at this point is do you have to use argumentation in every sermon or in every point. Finally, after we have proven our point, we want to apply it to the lives of our congregation. The technical definition of application may be “to relate or show how for personal insight and response.” Ultimately, we are helping our hearers understand why this truth matters to them and calling them to put it into action in their lives now. Therefore, its use is to aid personal identification and action.
You are now ready to move onto the final stages of developing a text-driven sermon and preparing yourself to deliver it.
Finally, Finish the Sermon for Preaching.
Here we are focusing predominately on writing your conclusions and introductions. I have a quick question for you to consider. Why do you think I did not say introductions and conclusions? In other words, why do I list conclusions before introductions? This would seem to be the natural way to write your sermon, right? It seems a little backwards and unnatural to write the introduction last. Chronologically, the introduction is the first component that our audience hears, so should this not be the first thing we write?
Typically, the introduction is the last part of the sermon that I write. I usually do so even after I have composed my conclusion. The reason is simple. I cannot introduce something that I do not yet know. I think of it this way. I am the Dean of Chapel at NOBTS. This means on occasion I preside in our chapel services. Introducing our preacher is one of the jobs of this role. How silly would it be for me to write an introduction for a speaker for a date next October before I even know who will be preaching on campus that day? I have to know who the speaker is before I can know the proper and appropriate way to introduce him. This principle holds true with your sermons as well. The best introductions usually are composed after you have seen the whole.
As you write both your conclusions and introductions, remember a couple of helpful tips. In your conclusion, make sure you conclude. Do not preach “another sermon” as you are wrapping up this sermon. Also, in some way, bring a summary and a reminder of what the entire sermon was about to your people. This may be a good place to restate your E.S.S. and communicate a final application. In your introduction, introduce your sermon. There are many ways that you can do this, but in some capacity, you want to make sure you gain attention and orient your congregation to the main point of the text. In most deductive sermons, you will want to explicitly state your E.S.S. and explain what you will deliver in the sermon body. In an inductive sermon, it is usually a better practice to introduce the need that your sermon will address or raise the question that the text raises and then lead into the first major division or scene. Often with these types of sermons, I save the explicit statement of my E.S.S. until near the end of the message for obvious reasons.
Finally, in this step you should think through any key delivery issues you feel will be germane to your sermon. These issues may include but are not limited to the use of notes, the employment of movement and gestures, your use of vocal variables, and minimizing any of your distracting tendencies. I would not overthink this, especially if you are relatively new to preaching. You will have enough to worry about making sure you correctly communicate your content. And, I would never use the sermon itself as the time to practice your delivery ideas and to attempt to enhance the effective use of your voice. However, there may be a point or two — a certain sentence, an illustration, an application, or a specific emphasis — that a certain gesture or a specific sentence construction may be worth planning intentionally for the benefit of your audience’s attention and understanding.
Allow me to point out briefly that I did not mention anything regarding the use of humor. I am not against the use of humor outright, if you have a personality that can pull it off. However, I would warn you to proceed with extreme caution and make sure that you do not overuse it or do so in the wrong way. I believe there is a significant danger in beginning your sermon with a joke, especially in a setting where you do not know the audience well and they do not know you. Some people think this may ease tension and calm nerves. I have also witnessed, first hand, it going the other way. When a joke to calm nerves falls flat, not only can it cause a sense of unease and awkwardness for the audience, but it can also elevate rather than reduce the nervousness of the preacher. So again, proceed with extreme caution!
My prayer at this point is that you now both know and have confirmed what your text is about and the best way to communicate it to your given audience. You have completed the “Discovering What to Preach” and the “Developing How to Preach It” portions of your sermon preparation and development. Again, I hope this is helpful and gives you some valuable insights to consider. May this serve you well and aid you in your weekly pursuit of faithfully and accurately preaching God’s Word in an impactful way.
You are now ready to preach! Next week, I will show you how I put several of these steps into practice in one of my recent sermons. Until then, Preach the Word!