How to Write a Sermon
It is a strange fact that most ministers and clergy rarely listen to any sermons but their own. Many of us who preach regularly are rarely allowed the luxury of sitting down while someone else does it, and, since we don’t get the chance to contrast our sermons with those of others, we develop a style (if it can possibly be called that) that is sometimes more peculiar than unique. There are among preachers such great variations in personality, theological perspective and personal agenda that it is hard to describe sermons as any sort of standardized product. Having said that, I hope these tips may help if you are ever required to preach.
First, allow yourself plenty of time to prepare. An hour is not enough. A day may be, but it’s a good idea to chew things over for several before you sit down to put your thoughts on paper. Think about the way the sermon will be presented. Once you have preached a thousand times you may be happy to deliver a sermon without notes. Until then, it is pretty much essential to type it out on paper that you can easily read from, and then to read it enough times to absorb it so that you don’t have to “read” every word when the time comes to deliver it.
Think about how you will sound and how you will stand. Can you sound like yourself, and not put on a churchy voice? Where are you going to put your hands, and what use will you make of body language? Traditions vary on these things; gymnastics in the pulpit will not disguise poor content but a bit of movement or the odd wave of your arms for emphasis at the right moment may help keep people awake. Ask your family or friends what your annoying mannerisms are, and, if you dare, read your sermon to them before you preach it. Get their comments on your style and manner…. When you have dried your tears you can turn to the following considerations, which absolutely must be addressed before you go any further. The more
information you can gather on these matters, the easier it will be to say something meaningful.
The converted—or not?
What will the Biblical readings be, and above all, if there is a reading from one of the gospels, what is it? If any of the passages are familiar or illustrate a theological point that you are already aware of, this may provide the core of your text. It’s pretty crucial to have an idea of the sort of message you are aiming to deliver. Are you asking people to change the way they think, or the way they act? Are you asking them to reconsider attitudes to outsiders, to the poor, to themselves? Are you getting them on your side for a major appeal, building programme or event? Do you want to encourage them to turn to God for help, understanding or consolation? Do you have to tell them off?
Who will you be preaching to? If you are going to be facing a congregation of retired stockbrokers, you’ll need a different approach from the one you might use with an all-ages congregation in a modest suburban church. The political orientation of the congregation is worth knowing about—not so as to make you change your message (the Gospel is the Gospel, after all, and you’re not delivering this stuff merely in order to avoid giving offense), but to avoid language that may so incense your hearers that they switch off their hearing aids before you have had your say.
If children are in the congregation, will they expect to be involved or will they be playing with toys at the back? If they will be sitting at the front waiting to be entertained, are you ready to get down on the floor and use visual aids? If there are special groups there (Scouts or Brownies, for instance), will what you say make any sense to them at all? If the church is in a farming community, are you aware of the issues they are wrestling with and the challenges that will be on their minds? If it serves a community devastated by a recent disaster (oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, perhaps), are you ready for that?
Humor and church
Cracking a joke or two is often great—just bear in mind that a joke can backfire catastrophically if you get it wrong. At the same time, as with any kind of public speaking, a bit of humor can put people at their ease and need have nothing to do with your theme—if it gets people on your side and makes them take it seriously when you speak seriously, the words are not wasted. Many religious jokes can be safe and innocuous, especially when aimed towards you, the preacher, and away from the congregation. Take the one about the new curate/evangelical/lay reader/visiting Baptist who had to preach in a neighboring church, with a different tradition from the one he was used to, while the incumbent priest was away. The visiting preacher tried very hard to get it right. At the end of the service the verger said to him, “Thanks, you did okay. Father does not usually wear the bookmark, though.”
In some places, particular themes (the Virgin Mary, for instance, is a typically thorny one) are taboo and best avoided. In others, a bit of humor can get under people’s defenses and help prepare them for a more serious point—like the story about the bishop visiting a country parish where he was introduced to the verger, who had served there for 60 years. “You must have seen some changes in all that time,” said the bishop. “Yes, and I’ve resisted every one of them,” came the reply. Few people want to be associated with the negative image of a grumpy old verger, and the message of change will be less likely to fall on deaf ears after this kind of softening up.
How long, O Lord?
You will certainly want to offer something that is appropriate to the age, experience and life situation of your hearers. This will affect not only the message of your sermon, of course, but also the illustrations you use and the complexity or style of your language. I recently preached a sermon in which I asked “Who is responsible when things go wrong?” about our tendency to blame ourselves, God or other people unfairly. I used the illustration of crashing my car into an oncoming Mercedes in a supermarket car park. I was not entirely sure it would work, but I could see immediately that the choirboys were listening attentively—probably wondering what model the Mercedes was and how big an engine it had—while the older listeners had fallen to thinking about their insurance bills… It’s great to hit a few targets at once—in a good way—as long as you can avoid collateral damage at the same time.
Any negative references to types of people or places should be considered very carefully—I once made a disparaging mention of my experience in a dead-end place in Italy, only to be confronted at the door by an Italian visitor who was very proud of his town’s medieval glories, which I had obviously missed.
The most important question of all is, of course, “How long?” Try to get two different opinions about this – what the pastor thinks is appropriate may be twice what the congregation wishes for! A Baptist church may expect a solid 45-minute sermon, while an Anglican church may consider anything over 12 minutes to be offensively self-indulgent. As with almost any speech, err on the side of brevity and everyone will be happy.
What is the theological tradition of the church? Getting this right is very important. The Gospel message is like a Ford car that comes in five colors. It is essentially the same car, but the way it looks can differ greatly. Little things, such as whether you refer to the Son of God as “the Lord Jesus” or “Our Lord,” or something else altogether, are subtle but important verbal cues that indicate which side of the many great gulfs in churchpersonship you stand on. As a rule, it is best to be on the same side as your congregation. Saying “Praise the Lord” is expected in many places, but in some Anglican churches the congregation would think you were being ironic.
There are deep differences in language in the Church—they are the tell-tale cracks in the ice above vast crevasses of difference about sexuality and gender roles. Move with caution in these areas, as some people become very angry if you get it wrong. Gender-inclusive language and references to same-sex relationships are (bizarrely, in my humble opinion) red rags to some Christian bulls. A few years ago, when the liturgy was updated in Britain, many women would apparently have laid down their lives to ensure that they could go on saying “For us men and for our salvation.” Describing the deity as “Mother and Father God,” therefore, can be a step too far for some prisoners of linguistic (and social) patriarchy, and should be used with caution.
Now pray for divine assistance
Once you have considered all these things you should know how long to preach for and who you are speaking to; you should also have a list of things you must or must not refer to and a set of language styles and theological emphases you can work with. You should have an idea of how many jokes you can get away with, and the type of images and
stories that will be interesting and relevant to your listeners. And of course you will also know if you are to preach to a particular theme (“salvation in Romans,” “harvest” or whatever it may be), or will just be using the readings of the day for guidance. Hopefully, you also have an actual message you want to communicate.
The rest is easy—you just have to pray for inspiration about what to say, and write it down. If this seems to be going worryingly slowly and you are running out of time, you can always fall back on my favourite fail-safe sermon theme: find a few ways to illustrate the undeniable fact that God loves us all very much.
The Reverend Ralph Williamson is the college chaplain at Christ Church, Oxford, and editor of its website. He is married, has two daughters and preaches regularly to students, retired professors, Japanese tourists and Anglican nuns. He has been a rural vicar and a curate in London. He is a keen photographer and has had a lifelong interest in India, especially working to support the Saakshar school for slum children in Delhi.