Sermon Preparation and Structure: After nearly thirty-years of preaching weekly sermons, I have found that a basic sermon structure is fundamental to good sermon preparation. Once you learn and understand the basic sermon structure, you are on the road to enjoying sermon preparation.
I often see the transition in my students when they learn and understand how to apply basic sermon structure to sermon preparation. You can actually see the burden of sermon preparation dissipate.
Sermon Preparation and Structure
There are several ways to mould and shape sermons but ultimately most sermons have a general structure that consists of three main parts. These three parts of the sermon should lead your message down one road toward one destination. As the old saying goes, if there is mist in pulpit, there will be fog in the pews. In other words, if you are wandering all over the place, then your audience will struggle to grasp what you want to say to them.
What are these three main parts to basic sermon structure that will enable you to develop a road map so that you can deliver the message to your audience? These three main parts to basic sermon structure include the introduction, the sermon body and the conclusion.
It is to your advantage to clearly understand these three parts. The introduction introduces the main preaching point. The main preaching point is the topic of the sermon or the big idea of the sermon. The sermon body expands and explains the main preaching point or the topic or big idea of the sermon. The conclusion concludes the sermon by reinforcing the main preaching point with application and response.
The Sermon Introduction
Haddon Robinson wrote, “Not only does an introduction introduce you to the audience, but your introduction should introduce your audience to the subject of your sermon idea.” Therefore, the introduction should reflect four features to be effective.
(1)The introduction commands attention. You need to arouse interest. (2)The introduction uncovers needs. You must motivate the audience to continue to listen. (3)The introduction introduces the main preaching point. The introduction is not the sermon it simply introduces the main preaching point of the sermon. You focus the audience on one topic. It must be clear and concise. (4)The introduction needs personality. It needs to be personal and relevant.
There are four preaching books that are helpful for developing an effective introduction. They are: Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson, Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell, How To Prepare Bible Messages by James Braga and How To Preach Without Notes by Charles Koller. However, I found Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson the best.
The Sermon Body
When I teach my students a basic sermon structure, I make it absolutely clear that the sermon body is first and foremost the sermon outline. It’s not the introduction. It’s not the content to the sermon outline and it’s not the conclusion. I never write the introduction, the content to the sermon outline or the conclusion until I have developed the sermon outline.
Why? The sermon outline is the skeleton of the sermon body and the sermon outline has three parts – the main preaching point, the sub-points and incidental points. The main preaching point is the topic or big idea or subject of the sermon. The sub-points expand and explain the main preaching point. The incidental points expand and explain the sub-points.
The best way to explain what I mean is to show you a simply sermon outline that I developed when I preached through the book of James.
Three ways to resist deadly temptation (James 1:13-18)
- Understand the source of temptation (1:13)
- Understand the steps in temptation (1:14-15)
Three steps in temptation.
- Entertaining Sin
- Yielding to Sin
- Reaping the consequences of sin
The main preaching point is “How To Resist Deadly Temptation.” There are three sub-points that expand and explain the main preaching point and three incidental points that expand and explain the second sub-point.
Once I completed the sermon outline, I added content, application and illustrations to the sermon outline. Then I wrote the introduction and conclusion.
The Sermon Conclusion
The conclusion can take different shapes and forms but ultimately it must land the sermon and bring it to a burning focus. There are different ways to that. The conclusion must be set out well otherwise you will wander around and waffle on.
(1) The conclusion should reinforce the main preaching point with application and response. (2) The conclusion could use an illustration to reinforce the main preaching point with a response. (3) The conclusion could be a well-chosen quote that reinforces the sermon’s point. (4) The conclusion could be a question that moves the audience to a response to the sermon’s main point. Sermon preparation and structure will help you write great sermons.
Some Remarks For Sermon Preparation and Structure
The text book for homiletics while I was in seminary was “Biblical Preaching” by Haddon Robinson. Haddon Robinson was a great teacher and I personally enjoyed his classes. However, I learned much from other preaching books also like “Christ-Centered Preaching” by Bryan Chapell; “How To Prepare Bible Messages” by James Braga; and “How To Preach Without Notes” by Charles Koller.
I never really read these books from cover to cover in one reading. Instead I studied each basic component of sermon structure so that I could understand the development and formation of the sermon from beginning to end.
For example in “How To Preach Without Notes” by Charles Koller, I learned the importance and the necessity of the key word which swings all the sub-points from the main preaching point. I call it the hinge word.
In other words, what I am saying is that I learned much from Haddon Robinson but also I have learned much from other writers also. Even after nearly thirty years of preaching weekly sermons, I still like to refresh my understanding of sermon preparation and structure by studying the books I have mentioned in this post.
Resources For Sermon Preparation And Structure
Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson
Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon by Bryan Chapell
How To Preach Without Notes by Charles Koller
How To Prepare Bible Messages by James Braga
Why I Like These Preaching Books!
Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson helped me understand how to structure a sermon. I have never had any great problems sourcing biblical information (author’s meaning) from passages of Scripture. However, I have struggled to fashion that biblical information into a sermon outline.
Haddon Robinson said, “The outline is for your benefit. Congregations do not hear outlines. They hear a preacher speaking. Your outline, therefore, serves you in a least four ways. First, you view your sermon as a whole, and therefore, you heighten your sense of unity. Second, the outline clarifies in your eye and mind the relationships between the parts of your sermon. Third, your outline also crystallizes the order of ideas so that you will give them to your listeners in the appropriate sequence. Finally, you will recognize the places in your sermon that require additional supporting material that must be used to develop your points.”
In the beginning, I struggled but now I find it very enjoyable and quiet fulfilling to mold and shape sermon outlines to biblical information. Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson helped me in this area of writing sermon outlines and writing content to sermon outlines.
Haddon Robinson said, “Outlines serve as skeletons of thought, and in most sermons, as in most bodies, the skeleton will not be completely hidden. The most effective means of hiding the bare bones of a sermon is not by disposing of the skeleton but by covering it with flesh. Supporting material is to the outline what skin is to bones or walls are to the frame of the house.”
This was the most helpful material in Robinson’s book. I never write a sermon until I have fashioned the sermon outline to the biblical information. Once I have the outline written, I then add content (flesh) to the sermon outline (skeleton).
How To Prepare Bible Messages by James Braga is an older book on preaching but it provides great information about transitioning from the main preaching point to the sub-points with a key word, which must be a plural noun.
In the example above, the sermon outline for James 1:13-18 is about “How to resist deadly temptation?”. I fashioned the transitional sentence by adding the key word “ways”. There are three ways to resist deadly temptation. The first way involves understanding the source of temptation. The second way to resist deadly temptation involves understand the steps in temptation. The third way to resist deadly temptation involves understanding the solution for temptation.
I find the key word to be very effective to develop cohesion and sequence to the sermon outline. I call the key word, the hinge word because it swings all the sub-points from the main preaching point.
James Braga noted, “A smooth transition from the homiletical idea to the main divisions is of special importance to the thought structure of a sermon. An awkward or faulty transition can be misleading and will weaken the effectiveness of a discourse. Because the key word is a vital part of the transitional sentence it is also necessary that great care be taken in the choice of the correct key word. The word “things” is too general a term to be employed as a key word. Instead, the student should aim to use the specific word which accurately characterizes the main divisions.”
Once I understood the function of the key word or hinge word, I found it much easier to fashion the sermon outline. Here are some examples: Four characteristics of Godly Wisdom (James 3:13-18); Four keys for a normal, victorious Christian life (1 Peter 2:4-10); Eight ways to rekindle the spiritual fire within (2 Timothy 1:6-18); Three challenges for Christian today (2 Timothy 4:1-5).
How To Preach Without Notes by Charles Koller presents an exceptional chapter on homiletical devices. Charles Koller stated, “The homiletical devices here presented are used consciously or unconsciously by most preachers much of the time. They become immeasurably more helpful if recognized and understood. They are equally serviceable in developing the thesis of the sermon, or developing its main points; and they help to answer the familiar question, “How do I put flesh on the bones of my outline?”
This chapter also discusses the key word and its function in depth. Charles Koller inferred the importance of the key word when he said, “One of the most helpful of all homiletical devices is the key word. If there is structural unity in a sermon, there is a key word.”
Furthermore, I found his chapter on the structural components of the sermon very informative. He stressed that strong sermons are made up of strong parts. A sermon that is strong in one part and weak in another will be correspondingly lacking in effectiveness. If the structure is strong throughout, the introduction really introduces, the illustrations really illustrate, the conclusion really concludes, and the message is a message indeed.
Finally, this book helped me to rely less on my sermon notes. I still take my notes into the pulpit but I have a freedom to speak for God because I have done the hard work in my sermon preparation and structure of the message itself.
Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell is a scholarly book on sermon preparation and preaching. I have found it to be a remarkable book. Chapter five is exceptional in its presentation of the process of explanation. If you did not learn grammatical outlining at seminary, it has some great information about the traditional mechanical layout method of the text. I found this chapter informing and encouraging. By the way, the traditional mechanical layout method helps the preacher see the relationships between the primary elements of the passage and the subordinate elements. I can grammatical and exegetically outline the Greek text but I never majored in Hebrew. Therefore, the traditional mechanical layout method has been beneficial in understanding and teaching of the Old Testament.
Also, Robertson McQuilkin in his book “Understanding and Applying the Bible” has a great chapter on the traditional mechanical layout method. McQuilkin in conjunction with Chapell presents a good overview of this subject.