Sermon writing is similar to building a house. There are 7 stages that a sermon needs to go through from start to finish.
Let’s recap. The first five steps are:
Step 1: Pray – Connect to the Power Source.
Step 2: Scripture – Lay the Foundation.
Step 3: Big Idea – Build the Frame.
Step 4: Design Center – Illustrations (Pick the carpet).
Step 5: Finish the Build – Your Outline
When you build a house and everything is finished, there is still one more step before you are allowed to move in. If your builder is any good, they will have someone walk through the house and inspect everything.
They are checking electrical outlets, hvac units, locks on doors, lights, the foundation, the finishing touches on paint… you get the idea.
Usually the final inspection will uncover a few things that were missed or built poorly. These issues are noted and fixed before the house officially closes, ensuring that everything is up to code and the construction company’s standards.
When writing a sermon, although you may feel like you are finished after Step 5, editing (Step 6) is essential. There are things that you may have overlooked. There are things that you wrote that looked good at the time, but upon further inspection don’t fit.
The benefits of editing your sermon are huge:
- Your sermon will be clearer. How many times have you listened to a sermon and thought, “I have no idea where this guy is going right now.”
- Your illustrations will be sharper. You will be able to cut all the unnecessary details and fluff that you don’t need to make a strong point.
- Your message will be shorter. You may find that 1/3 of what you originally wrote is unnecessary to your message. You can delete it and it still makes sense.
- Your preaching will be better. Editing your sermon not only helps you polish what you want to say, but the process is also beneficial for internalizing the message before you deliver it.
How to Edit a Sermon:
1. Walk Away.
Before you begin the editing phase, let your message sit for a while. When you are able to walk away from a message for a few hours or days, you will find that you will be able to look at the message again with a fresh set of eyes.
Clear your head. Take a break. Go for a walk. Sleep on it. Pray. Go for a lunch/coffee break. Do whatever you need to do to get out of sermon writing mode for a while so you can come back fresh and ready to go.
You will be less attached to the words you wrote, and be able to be more focused and objective about what stays and what goes.
2. Mark It Up.
When I am ready to edit, I print out my full manuscript, pull out a sharpie, and begin marking it up like a madman. You may be fine editing just the word document, but I find that there is just something magical about holding the manuscript in your hand and using a physical marker/pen to edit it. I feel like I am able to look at it differently than on a screen. But this is just a personal preference.
As I read through my manuscript I am ruthlessly trying to cut out everything that is unnecessary. Every run-on sentence. Every tangent. Every thought, fact, or idea that does not contribute to the Big Idea. Every illustration or example that is unnecessary or confusing.
I am making sure that the Big Idea is clear. I am checking to ensure I am staying true to the Scripture. I am imagining myself preaching the message on stage and rewording things more like I would actually say them. I am evaluating the application points.
I also try to put myself in the shoes of people in the congregation. I am asking what would Phil think about this? How might Jane object to this thought?
I am crossing out entire paragraphs and circling others and drawing arrows to where they need to be moved. I am filling the margins with thoughts, ideas, sentences that I want to add, or facts I need to research further.
Being admittedly too detail oriented, I am also editing for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Grammar mistakes and typos drive me crazy, and in the rush to finish the message my manuscript is always full of them.
By the time I am done, my manuscript is destroyed. Where I may have started with 8 pages, I am usually down to 3-4 pages by the time I am finished.
Delete everything you crossed out. Make all the changes you marked up. I typically catch a few more things in this stage that I missed earlier.
By this point everything is polished. The message is clear. The points are refined. I am usually feeling pretty good.
Optional: Check Your Word Count.
A great tip I learned from a friend is to find the average words per minute that you typically preach. Once you have calculated this, you know roughly how many words you need to write to fit your given time slot and, more importantly, when you have way too much content.
Listen to a recording of yourself preaching, get out a stopwatch and count every word for 60 seconds. I recommend doing this at least 3 times at different spots in the message so you can get a better average. Many people tend to speak faster in an Introduction because of nerves, and slower in the middle as they get comfortable.
I roughly speak 100 words per minutes, so for a 30 minute sermon I want a manuscript of around 3,000 words. This isn’t an exact science. Sometimes I speed up, slow down, or go off script and say something that the Holy Spirit prompts me to say.
In fact, I don’t ever preach my manuscript word-for-word. It is more of a guideline for me. But checking my word count has been a huge help to me, and is more often true than not.
Don’t get too caught up in word count, but try it out.
Calculate your average number of words per minutes, set a word count goal for your message, and stick to it within a hundred words or so.
Hold Up, We Aren’t Finished Yet…
You might be thinking, “Wait, isn’t the sermon finally done now? I wrote everything. I edited ruthlessly. My outline is perfect. My manuscript is polished. I have put in a lot of work on this thing. What else could I possibly do?” Many pastors are tempted to stop here. But I firmly believe that Step 7 in the process makes the biggest difference between an average preacher and a great one.
Step 7 – Move In – Practice… coming next month.
[Dale Flynn and his wife, Liz, are Word of Life Local Church Ministries missionaries in Eastern MD. Dale is a Local Church Ministries curriculum editor and is the editor of this Ministering to the Minister E-Transfer national electronic Pastor’s newsletter. The Flynns make their home in Elkton, MD. Questions or comments about this article may be addressed to Dale at: DFlynn@wol.org. ]