Sermon Writing: Tappin Into Niagara
By David B. Smith
Count ‘em – 4,800 words. That’s what it takes to fill up 30 minutes.
Sabbath morning looms . . . and for the preacher, it looms every single week. At 11:30 a.m., he or she will stand in the pulpit and deliver God’s message to God’s people. What will come out of the mouth? And how will it get from the Bible . . . to the mind . . . down to the paper . . . and then again to the mind and mouth of God’s servant? For a full decade, I faced the exciting challenge of creating and shaping sermons for the Adventist Church’s foremost radio ministry. These were shorter sermons – approximately 1,600 words each – but they were needed daily. Christian media is a script-gobbling machine, and it was like writing for a sanctified soap!
Fortunately, the Word of God is a never-exhausted rich resource. It is a veritable Niagara Falls, which surges ceaselessly past the tourist crowds at the steady rate of 194,940 gallons per minute. I once had a young intern confess to me, “David, I just . . . can’t think of anything. What shall I preach about?” And while I was sympathetic with him, I recall thinking to myself: “Man, you’re in the wrong business.” A preacher who reads just the Bible would find many things to fill up sermons; a diligent, voracious reader who is in tune with the awesome world around him will discover sermon opportunities everywhere.
Fill Yourself Up
A Christian wife named Ruth once advised her husband Bill, “Honey, your job as a preacher is to simply read and study and ‘fill yourself up.’” And Pastor Graham confesses in his autobiography, Just As I Am: “The most effective preaching [comes from] the overflow of a heart and mind filled not only with the Spirit but with much reading. Hence, I picked each sermon topic carefully, read myself full, wrote myself empty, and read myself full again on the subject.”
When I read the Bible and other classic Christian books, sermonic ideas are everywhere. Both the possibilities and the passion begin to overflow – a nice feeling! Still, how does one harness Niagara and get it onto the manuscript pages that tuck into our Bibles?
Preaching Sermon Series
When I was on the radio sermon treadmill, I found it vital, first of all, to be preaching extended series. That took away the fatigue of “What next?” If I was doing ten radio sermons on that Prodigal Son, that was next. I once dove into First Corinthians – a Monday-Friday radio series per chapter – and found it very easy (and rewarding) to write 80 sermons from its 16 chapters.
First things first: a full “barrel” of ideas and notes. I always prepared one computer file before launching into a sermon series. If preaching from a Bible passage, I found it helpful to simply type in every single verse from the chosen chapter, perhaps in as many as 3-4 versions: my favorite NIV, the King James for its rich and familiar expressions here and there – [the horn] whose look was more stout than his fellows – and also a contemporary paraphrase like The Message. Just the side-by-side comparing would often yield fascinating tidbits and insights that were worth weaving into the sermon.
Then to a couple of Bible commentaries. Borrow “insider” perspectives the average lay person wouldn’t know, a slice here and there of “in-the-original-Greek” wisdom, historical facts provided by the experts.
Then I like to simply sit and stare at the ceiling until sermon illustrations come. What books have I read (and underlined) that have a bearing on this topic? Is there a dynamic story that I could use as a lead-in? (This is especially important for a radio sermon where one has to hook the listener almost immediately.) What’s happening on CNN or Fox News or in Time magazine that dovetails with this week’s topic? I aim for “five and five” – illustrations and Bible references.
Where do the very best sermon ideas come from? Your own life. Your hurts and joys, ups and down, childhood stories, adventures and anecdotes, mistakes and miracles that happened personally to YOU. Nothing is as memorable as when a preacher steps out from behind the pulpit and says earnestly, “Listen now, and let me tell you, church family, what Jesus has personally done for me.”
One sermon prop that is either wonderfully effective or painfully corny is to use a resource like Chase’s Calender of Events. If you can tell your church family that “One hundred years ago today, this exact moment, such-and-such happened,” that can stamp an indelible lesson in their minds. I was writing a radio sermon slated for broadcast a couple of months later, and said to myself wistfully, “Sure would be good if this tied into some anniversary ‘tragedy’ I could borrow.” I dug into Chase’s, and found that the bombing of Hiroshima was just one day off from our chosen air date. Close enough! We made it work, going with “Tomorrow as the world reflects . . .”
Warning: this use of “datebook trivia” is only effective if the tie-in or application is clear-cut and appropriate. Telling your church family, out of the blue and stand-alone, that this is “National Eat-a-Cookie Week” may be fascinating, but probably not particularly edifying. (Plus you’ll look desperate!)
Lastly, I search my memory and my favorite books for one or two compelling “Quotable Quotes” that might really lend punch to a key point. Even if your library contains just five or ten well-chosen and often-studied classic books – Mere Christianity, The Purpose-Driven Life, Steps to Christ, Pilgrim’s Progress – embedded in your mind and sparingly shared in sermons, this will help give your messages an extra measure of heft and gravitas. I am not particularly an avid fan of Shakespeare, but my wife is . . . and I also know how to use the Internet to find out exactly what the Bard said about shuffling “off this mortal coil.” [Act III, Scene I]
Then comes the grind: prayerfully shaping the half-hour of words that will take your listeners to God’s throne, remind them of His goodness, teach them of His kingdom and will, and leave them inspired to discover and live the “purpose-driven life.”Your heart and “prep file” are now flowing over; it’s time to pour the best of your collection into an organized whole.
In my ten years of radio sermon-writing, of course, our sermons were word-for-word manuscripts. And there can be such power in well-crafted lines! Alliteration, cadence, timing, rhyme – all are tools that can make a sermon sparkle and stir a hearer’s heart. Even now that I am standing in the pulpit myself every weekend, I love the completeness of having a full manuscript, of knowing that I have before me the very words I’ve chosen to use.
However, most minister don’t find it practical to take all 4,800 words with them to church (A full manuscript with a laptop’s “word count” will keep your sermon length under control). In that case, work with whatever level of “outline” is most effective for you. I’ve seen my own, and my three brothers’, manuscripts, and none of us have the same style. Some use a free-flowing outline that is little short of a full manuscript, with colored highlights here and there to catch their eye. Others have the fine precision of carefully designated A-B-C points, subpoints, bullets, etc. Gifted ministers with a passion for detail and a keen memory can often boil entire sections, stories, and extended themes into just a word or two. My cousin, Morris Venden, routinely would stand in the pulpit with one-half of a handwritten sheet of paper.
My personal preference is to begin with a word-for-word sermon, if time and energy permits. Then work down from that, creating a more spare outline that abbreviates and trims, but still has some chosen richness of language and elegant flow in the places where you feel the congregation most needs the inspiration. Working as I currently am from my own personal Everest of more than one thousand radio sermons, this is a luxury I can afford for a long time!
In 2003 I delivered ten sermons in the Philippines using full word-for-word sermons. With the intense heat and gale-force fans blowing my notes hither and yon, it was a tough week-and-a-half. So on a more recent Thailand mission trip to the land of my childhood, I loaded five word-for-word manuscripts into PowerPoint files, putting just a couple of sentences on each “screen.” Then, using a remote mouse, instead of being tied to notes, I still had the best of both worlds: a full sermon and also the hands-free liberty to move around and deviate from the script as the Spirit moved. It was a bootleg setup, but it worked! Especially in evangelistic settings, if you have the software and personnel to do it right, that would be ideal preaching.
In the end, simply love and read the Bible. Bob Edwards tells how H. M. S. Richards is said to have remarked to his friend, Wilbur Alexander: “The Bible is a vast and infinite source of sermons. If you become a Bible preacher, you are never out of sermon material.”
David B. Smith wrote this while pastoring the Upper Room Fellowship in Temple City, CA.