How To Write Effective Sermons

By Naomi Washburn

            Writing a sermon can be a daunting task, especially if you’ve never done it before.  For two years, I was a pastoral ministry major at Northwest Nazarene University (NNU) in Nampa, Idaho.  During that time, a learned a lot about the art of leading a congregation through acts of service and leadership, but I also learned a lot about what it means to lead a congregation through the act of preaching.

            The root of the term “preach” comes from the Greek word kerygma, which means to proclaim.  Over the centuries, a lot of other meanings have been piled on top of the word.  When most people think of preaching, they don’t immediately think of someone proclaiming the resurrection of Christ.  In fact, most people think of a preacher as someone who constantly tries to strong-arm people, whether through words or other forms of manipulation, in order to get them to a) stop sinning, and b) give the church money.  In some cases, this picture of pastoral preaching is unfortunately accurate.  But thankfully, there are preachers out there who are committed to a new and different attitude towards kerygma.


The Purpose of a Sermon or Homily


            When it comes right down to it, every minister has a different idea about the purpose of a sermon or homily.  My mentor in this area was Dr. Diane Leclerc, an NNU professor.  Dr. Leclerc is a big believer in liturgical practices, and as such, she believes that the sole purpose of a homily is to explicate scripture and, through that process, to inspire people to grow closer to God.  This is her passion and it is the technique she teaches to all of her preaching students.


Learning About Kerygma

            There are two ways to write a sermon or speech.  One is called the deductive method and the other is called the inductive method.

            The deductive method is the one most everyone is used to.  Diagrams of deductive thinking or speaking usually take the form of an inverted cone.  This represents the principle of moving from a specific story or example to a broader general application.  Most of the sermons you’ve heard, especially in Evangelical Protestant churches, follow this pattern.  Basically it means moving from a specific situation, such as a passage of scripture, to general principles that can apply to anyone.  It is a very easy way to write a sermon.  Dr. Leclerc hates this method.


The Inductive Approach

            Inductive thinking is the opposite of deductive.  It involves moving from general principles that apply to everyone to specific actions that apply to individuals.  A really good inductive sermon is difficult to forget.  It has a way of stirring the individual and inspiring them to action, which is, of course, the whole purpose of preaching this way.

            Now, all of this sounds pretty abstract, which is why I have chosen to use my own writing as a more concrete example.  The following will be an analysis of the sermon I wrote for Dr. Leclerc’s class and a description of the process I went through writing it.  Hopefully this will enable those who have never written a sermon to feel less intimidated by the task.

Step #1: Choosing a Passage of Scripture

            The difficulty of choosing a passage of scripture to preach on depends on what denomination you’re in.  In many Evangelical denominations, the choice is left up to the individual preacher.  However, the more “traditional” churches, the passage is often already chosen by means of the Church Calendar. 

The Church Calendar, in all its variations, contains a set structure of readings for every Sunday of the year.  In the Catholic liturgy, the calendar also dictates the readings for every Mass during the week.  These include a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a passage from an Epistle of the New Testament, and a passage from one of the Gospels.  The readings of the calendar follow the various seasons of the church year, including Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ordinary Time, and so on.  This particular calendar is also set up in three-year cycles, so that in three years’ time the entire Bible will be read.

Dr. Leclerc highly recommends using a liturgical calendar even in cases where the preacher doesn’t have to.  It gives the preacher a sense of stability and takes some of the guesswork and stress out of having to prepare weekly sermons.

For our class assignment, however, she allowed us each to choose a favorite passage of our own to speak on.  I chose Luke 6:36-50.


Step #2: Getting a Feel for the Passage

            The passage I chose has always fascinated me, but before I wrote this sermon, I had no idea why.  The first thing a sermon writer must always do is read and reread the passage until they are deeply familiar with it.  This step also includes any outside research on the passage (through commentaries, historical research, Bible atlases, etc.).

            Unfortunately, after completing this step, I was still at a loss for what to say.  So, I went to Dr. Leclerc for help.


Step #3: Narrowing the Focus

            After listening to my dilemma, Dr. Leclerc told me to look at the predominant emotions present in the passage.  She told me to look close and see what I thought the woman was feeling.  We talked it over for a while, and one thread appeared: shame.  One of the functions of a sermon, she told me, is to find emotions that all people can identify with.  Shame is universal.  Build on that, she told me.  For me, it was easy from then on out.


Step #4: Structuring the Message

            One of the main techniques that was stressed throughout the class was the use of narrative to make a message memorable.  People remember and respond to stories a lot more than to abstract concepts.  So, I began by writing the woman’s story, doing my best to focus on her emotion and inner dialogue.

            Beyond that, I needed to find an application that was both universal and specific.  Luckily, my interpretation lent itself easily to this task.  Everyone deals with negative feelings about themselves, and while this pain is indeed universal, it is also deeply personal and private for each person who experiences it.

            The eventual purpose of any inductively structured sermon is to inspire some sort of action.  In my case, I was hoping to inspire my listeners to make a concerted effort to stop listening to the negative inner voices that plague every person’s life.  Once that was worked in, my sermon was ready.


Step #5: Delivery

            From here, the rules of public speaking take over.  Eye contact, vocal variance, timing, and all the other factors that make a good public speaker are what make a good preacher.  This is an area where I am very weak, so I had to practice a lot.  Different preachers have different ways of delivering their sermons.  Some do it from pure memory, others keep an outline to follow, and some, like me, write their sermons word for word ahead of time and read them to the congregation (all the while, of course, being careful not to look like they’re reading).

            In the end, I fell short in this category: I was nervous and didn’t look up from the page much.  But I learned from the experience.

            And I hope you have learned something from me.