The Four Steps of Sermon Preparation

Preacher, Sunday School teacher, small group leader – have you ever stayed up late the night before you were to give a sermon, lesson, or devotional struggling to understand the Bible passage you were to speak from or to know how to apply it to your hearer’s lives? Probably all of us have.

There is a dual challenge that ministers of God’s Word must master. First, we must accurately teach the principles that are found in God’s Word. In doing so, we must carefully consider such things as the literary style of scripture passage we are studying, the historical context in which the text was written, the culture of the people and how it varies with our culture today, etc. Secondly, we must appropriately apply God’s Word to our hearers. In facing this challenge, we must consider our own culture, our place in history as well as the significance of current events on the people’s lives, etc.

Several years ago, I learned a method of sermon preparation that has greatly helped me in developing sermons, Sunday School lessons, and devotionals. This method is explored in depth by Kenton C. Anderson in Preaching with Conviction, but I will outline the four steps below. The key to intersecting God’s Word with people’s lives is to consider the authority of God’s Word with the apprehension of the readers, explaining the principles of God’s Word in light of our experience of life (Anderson 95).

In doing so, there are four questions that arise:

  1. What’s the Story? In answering this question, you study the historical, contextual, textual, and other considerations of this text and, even if your text is not narrative, find the story behind or in the text.  For example, the story behind the book of Philippians is that the church of Philippi had sent the apostle Paul a gift for which he was now thanking them.  However, while writing this “thank you card”, Paul also was attempting to address a developing problem in the church in which two ladies were involved in some kind of dispute. Understanding this background story may shed light on Paul’s motives in his general appeal to like-mindedness in Philippians 2. By finding the story in the text, you are considering the experience of the biblical figures in light of the authority of God’s Word.
  2. What’s the Point? At this point, you try to boil the story of the text down to the single universal principle it teaches us. This step leads us to the explanation of the authority of God’s Word.
  3. What’s the Problem? This step may be the most overlooked part of sermon preparation. In considering the “problem”, you should honestly try to understand how your readers (especially those who have not yet accepted Christ) will react to your text and why they would react this way. Once you understand the problems readers have in accepting or applying the text in their lives, you will understand their apprehension to the authority of God’s Word.
  4. What’s the Difference? It could be tempting to argue that people should obey God’s Word regardless of any problems that they might have with the text.  However, this approach lacks compassion for one’s hearers as well as disregard for the transforming power of God’s grace. God’s commands are not arbitrary; his Word is reasonable. Even if God’s Word seems to contradict human logic, we can know that there is a good reason why he tells us to live contrary to our human nature. In this step of preparation, you should imagine how your hearers’ lives will changed for the better by conscientiously obeying God’s Word.  In navigating this step of sermon preparation, you consider the apprehension of the reader in light of experience and God’s Word.

Okay, but exactly what does it look like to use this model in sermon preparation?  In the following example, our text will be Mark 11:1-10 which relates the story of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

What’s the Story?

Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem in fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah (see Matthew 21:5 and Zechariah 9:9) in what will become known as the triumphal entry.  This passage marks the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life before his death on Calvary. Jesus told the disciples to go into the city where they would find a donkey which they were to bring back to him. After they returned and Jesus mounted the donkey, the people threw garments and palm branches on the road and proclaimed praise to God as he entered the city.

What’s the Point?

Worship is the appropriate response to the King of kings.

Note: This sentence may easily become the thesis statement of the sermon, with three supporting points…

  1. Worship through obedience (the disciples), Mark 11:1-3.
  2. Worship through giving (the donkey’s owners), Mark 11:4-6.
  3. Worship through praise (the people), Mark 11:7-10.

What’s the Problem?

  • The disciples could have questioned the improbability of finding a donkey like Jesus said they would. In a similar way, we may be tempted to question the wisdom of God’s Word (the Bible) or voice (the Holy Spirit’s special promptings).
  • The owners could have questioned whether they could believe that Christ would return the donkey as the disciples said they would. In a similar way, we may doubt whether our lives will be better after giving to God whatever he is asking of us.
  • The people could have questioned the propriety of their praise (the Pharisees certainly did, Luke 19:39-40). The Pharisees did not like the fact that the people were proclaiming Christ to be the Messiah. Another consideration the people could have made was the reaction of the Roman soldiers to their acknowledgement of a Messiah in contradiction to their rule over Israel. In a similar way, we may be tempted to “tone down” our praise of Christ for fear of what others will think.

What’s the Difference?

Failure to respond may result in missing one’s chance to give Christ the worship he deserves. Jesus’ time before his death was now very limited. What if one of the disciples had refused to obey Christ’s command? Would he have had another opportunity to obey? What if the owners had refused to allow Jesus to use their donkey? They would have missed the opportunity of a lifetime – that of having the King of kings borrow one’s donkey for his triumphal entry into the city of David. Imagine if you were a passerby that saw the commotion, but decided it was a big to-do about nothing. You would have missed the one chance to be involved in Christ’s triumphal entry. Are we in danger of missing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to worship Christ through our obedience, giving, or praise?

I hope this sermon model may be helpful to you in your ministry of God’s Word. We would love if you would post feedback or questions in the comments section to this post!

Works Cited:

Anderson, Kenton C. Preaching with Conviction:  Connecting with Postmodern Listeners.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2001.

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3 Responses to The Four Steps of Sermon Preparation

  1. David,

    I enjoyed reading your article. Anderson’s book is a very important book which I wish all ministers would take the time to read. You have concisely explained the essence of the material and have given a very good example of how it works. This should excite some interest in preachers who read this post.

  2. Pingback: Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary | Book Reviews | Church of God (Holiness)

  3. min. mattie branch says:

    Your Article was really amazing, I enjoyed it very much it was really helpful. Thanks min. Mattie branch

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