8 Questions to Ask Before You Preach a Sermon

Preaching is hard work, but it is joyous work. Ask anyone who preaches on a regular basis and you will find someone who loves the process of preaching, prepping a sermon, thinking through a series creatively and then standing up to communicate God’s Word to a group of people. It is an awesome task and responsibility.

In light of that, here are eight questions you should ask yourself before getting up to preach a sermon:

1. Have I studied enough? It is easy to study too much for a sermon, but it is equally easy to study too little. So much happens in a week; so much has to happen. Life happens for you personally as a pastor and in the life of your church. There are meetings, appointments and opportunities that call for your attention. Then there are all the ways you can waste time as a pastor.

You should never step up to preach until you are prepared. This means you will sacrifice some opportunities to give enough time to the task of preaching. How much time that takes and when that happens will depend on the person, the series, the church size and ability. You should not step up to preach and be unprepared. There are weeks you will feel inadequate. In fact, that will be most weeks, but unprepared should not be what you feel.

Yes, you could always study more. You could tweak more. Many times you need to stop studying and spend time with people or take a nap. Pastors are notorious for overdoing it in sermon prep.

2. Have I prayed enough? Have you confessed your sins, prepared your heart to preach, prayed through your notes and for the people who will be there? Have you asked God to move on your behalf? Don’t just ask for a crowd. God is interested more in movement than a crowd (I believe).

3. Do I care about this topic? You won’t feel passionate about every topic to the same degree. Some will come easily, some will be your soap box topics and sometimes you will preach a passage because it is the next thing in the book of the Bible you are preaching through. Sometimes you will preach on a topic because your church needs to hear it.

Another way to think about this is, do I care enough about the people in my church to tell them what they need to hear this week? Not in a mean, berating way, but in a loving, shepherding way.

4. Is this relevant to my church? This can be tricky, but you need to think through how a topic is relevant to your church. What do they think about the topic? What is their pain point as it relates to the topic? Sometimes this is obvious, and sometimes this takes more work on your part as a pastor.

5. Has this passage and topic impacted me personally? This is like #3, sometimes you are impacted deeply by a truth you are going to share, sometimes you aren’t. The Word of God needs to do its work in you before you stand up to preach. You need to preach from the overflow of your time with God, not regurgitate a commentary. One of the best things that can happen in a sermon is when you say, “Let me share how this has worked in my life or heart this week.”

6. Do I know what I am trying to communicate? This seems obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a sermon and it became obvious that outside of a verbal Bible study, the speaker had little idea what he was trying to communicate. Here is one of the most important words in sermon prep: edit.

Do your best to nail down your sermon to one line. That’s all most people will remember. This is hard work because some weeks it isn’t obvious. You owe it to your people to do that hard work.

7. Do I know what I want people to do with what I’m about to say? Going along with having your sermon be about one thing, you aren’t ready to preach until you can articulate, “In light of this truth, here’s how we should live.” This isn’t to put a burden on your church but to show them and help them apply the truth of the Bible. Don’t end with, “I’ll just let the Holy Spirit bring about the application for you from what I just said.” No lie, I heard a guy say that once. Your goal is not a how-to self help talk, but your people need help applying something, seeing through the fog of their life to see how the Bible impacts them.

8. What barriers will keep people from applying this to their life? We all have barriers to the Bible, believing God, believing in God, and applying truth. During the week think through what those barriers will be to what you will preach. What will keep someone from applying this text? Why will someone walk out and disregard what you say? Talk to them, talk to that. Say, “You might be thinking ____.” That person will think, “He is talking to me.” Maybe talk about your struggles to apply something. This will show a human side to you that your people will love.

There are more questions you can and should ask before preaching, but these will hopefully get you started.

The Top 10 Posts of 2016…So Far

Saw this idea on Art Rainer’s blog and had to steal it. What a great way to review the year so far and help catch up new readers. If you’ve been reading my blog and subscribe, thank you. If you are brand new, welcome. Be sure to subscribe to the right so you never miss a post.

Here are the top 10 posts of 2016…so far:

1. 5 Systems Every Church NeedsGrowing churches are not accidental. Yes, Jesus grows His church, but when you look at churches that are growing and healthy, they have a lot of similarities. One of them has to do with the systems they have in place. There are five systems that you need to have in place as a church or church plant to help your church grow and be effective.

2. 5 Books Every Pastor & Church Staff Should Read. Leaders are readers, and teams that have strong leaders read books together. While you can read any number of books together as a team, here are five books that I think every pastor should read and re-read.

3. How to Invite Someone to Church. Inviting someone to church can be intimidating and a weird task. How do you know when you should invite someone? Are there triggers to listen for? This post lays out how to know when to invite someone to church and how to do it.

4. 9 Things I Learned From Preaching About HomosexualityThis past year I preached through the book of Romans, and right off the bat in chapter 1 Paul walks through what has become one of the most controversial conversations in our culture: homosexuality and gay marriage. Preparing for that message was eye opening to me personally and then to my church. I learned a lot, was challenged by it and convicted by it. Before you have a conversation on the topic or preach on it, I’d encourage you to read what I learned.

5. How do I Get my Husband to Lead at Home? This is one of the most common questions that Katie gets from women. The idea of men leading at home can often be a fuzzy goal. Most people aren’t sure what it looks like, or if a husband leads at home, what does a wife do then? This post shows you two reasons why men don’t lead in their homes and three practical steps to encourage them to do so.

6. How to Recover from PreachingPreaching is exhausting and exhilarating. There is nothing like preparing a sermon, being able to share from God’s Word and seeing the Holy Spirit use that time, effort, prayer and preparation. Yet come Monday, many pastors are run down, exhausted and wondering if they can move forward and preach again. This post shares five things I’ve learned on how to recover from preaching.

7. How to NOT Have a Big Day at ChurchEvery pastor would love to have a big day at their church, a day that brings in guests, momentum and energy to the church. Yet many churches sabotage themselves and miss a great opportunity. This post shows you six ways to make sure you do NOT have a big day at your church. Ever.

8. Bill Hybels on “The Lenses of Leadership” from Leadership Summit 2016This post shares highlights from what I think was the best session at this year’s leadership summit.

9. How to Grow as a Leader as Your Church GrowsAs a church grows, so must the leader who leads it. It is easy to get caught up in the busyness of church life and find yourself not leading or working on your church, only in it. This post shares five questions for a pastor to ask on a regular basis to make sure they are not only growing as a leader but thinking ahead for their church.

10. How to Stay on the Same Team in Your MarriageIt is easy in the busyness of life to find you and your spouse no longer on the same page. Carting kids around, family gatherings, church, work, hobbies, money, and all of a sudden you and your spouse are running in opposite directions. It happens subtly, and without intentionality a couple won’t get on the same page. This post shares simple ideas to get back on the same page and stay on it.

Here are two bonus posts from 2015 that still get a lot of traffic:

1. 18 Things Every Husband Should Know about His Wife. It is easy for a husband to stop learning about his wife, stop pursuing her and simply exist in his marriage. This post shares 18 things a husband should know, and if you don’t know, these would be great conversation starters on your next date night.

2. 10 Questions You Should Ask Your Spouse RegularlyThis is a post Katie and I shared last year after a relationship series at our church. These questions lead to some very eye opening conversations for a couple and ones that you should return to on a regular basis. Enjoy!

When You’re Stuck in Sermon Prep

sermon prep

At some point in writing a sermon you will get stuck. This also happens when it comes to writing a book. Every pastor and author knows this feeling. We dread it. We pray against it. We do whatever we can to avoid it, and yet on a regular basis, it comes.

We sit in front of a computer watching a blank screen and a cursor that doesn’t move. We look at our Bible and commentaries, read blogs and listen to podcasts in hopes of any inspiration.

And…

Nothing.

So what do you do when you’re stuck?

1. Pray. While you would think every pastor is doing this all throughout their sermon prep, I can say from personal experience we don’t pray as much as we should. There are times when you work from your own ability and ingenuity. So stop and pray. Ask God, plead with God for what He wants to say through the passage. What is He saying to you personally? Not just to your church. A sermon is for the pastor first, then the church.

2. Confess sin. You may have some sin in your heart that is preventing God from speaking to you clearly. Confess that. Think through your heart, your motivations, your desires, your innermost thoughts. Bring those before your Savior. He already knows. Often when I can’t see things clearly in the Bible, whether for sermon prep or my daily devotions, it is because of unconfessed sin.

After working through the heart issues, you can try something else, but don’t skip to #3.

3. Read the passage in different versions. Most pastors preach from a certain version. I preach from the ESV and love it. Reading the passage through in the NIV or The Message always brings out something I didn’t see before or triggers an idea that I couldn’t think of. Simply changing it up brings a new perspective.

4. Do something active. While doing sermon prep, I get up and walk around every 52 minutes. That simple break gets my blood moving, helps me feel better, and the fresh air brings new energy and ideas. I also have some of my best blog and sermon ideas while doing Crossfit. When I run I’ll have great sermon ideas as well. Doing something active helps reinvigorate an idea. This is also a great time to go back to #1 and pray.

5. Talk to someone else about it. Another thing that is helpful is to talk through the passage with someone else. Katie will often read what I am preaching through and give me her ideas on it. I’m also thinking through how to better include younger communicators and other pastors in what I’m preaching and working through the passage as a team. I have a friend that meets every Wednesday with four other men in his church to talk through the passage he’s preaching on. This brings all kinds of perspectives and ideas you didn’t have before.

6. Just preach what you have. Finally, you might be done with your sermon prep. Yes, I know, a sermon is never done. You could spend 80 hours on a sermon. You could also have all that you need, and reading one more commentary, looking for one more thing might not be what you need. You might just need to preach what you have and say, “God, I did the best that I could; You do the rest.”

How we Distort the Gospel & God’s Love for Us

gospel

I shared this on Sunday in my sermon on Romans 5:3 – 11 from The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters by Sinclair Ferguson:

This comes to expression when the gospel is preached in these terms: God loves you because Christ died for you!

How do those words distort the gospel? They imply that the death of Christ is the reason for the love of God for me.

By contrast the Scriptures affirm that the love of God for us is the reason for the death of Christ. That is the emphasis of John 3:16. God (i.e. the Father, since here “God” is the antecedent of “his…Son”) so loved the world that he gave his Son for us. The Son does not need to do anything to persuade the Father to love us; he already does!

The subtle danger here should be obvious: if we speak of the cross of Christ as the cause of the love of the Father, we imply that behind the cross and apart from it he may not actually love us at all. He needs to be “paid” a ransom price in order to love us. But if it has required the death of Christ to persuade him to love us (“Father, if I die, will you begin to love them?”), how can we ever be sure the Father himself loves us – “deep down” with an everlasting love? True, the Father does not love us because we are sinners; but he does love us even though we are sinners. He loved us before Christ died for us. It is because he loves us that Christ died for us!

How to Prepare a Sermon

sermon

I’m often asked by other pastors or church planters about how I prep a sermon. While these aren’t so much things you should do, these are things that are principles for me and shape how a sermon goes from nothing to something.

1. Plan ahead. My goal is to know 18 months in advance what I plan to preach on. This is crucial to my process. I’m a big believer that the Holy Spirit is just as likely to talk to me about a sermon 18 months before I preach it as He is the day before I preach it.

I start by getting away and praying through what am I learning right now, how God is challenging or convicting me personally, and if there is anything in that for my church or is it just for me. I also keep a list of questions I get asked by people in our church through emails and conversations and look to see if there are any common themes to them. During this time I also look back to see what we’ve preached on, what books we’ve covered, how long has it been since we preached through an Old Testament book or a gospel, and when was the last relationships series. I’ll ask leaders in our church about conversations they are having, questions they have, and books they think we should preach through.

Then I take all of these notes and pray over them, seeing what jumps out. I’ll read through certain books of the Bible to get a sense of what God might want to say to our church. After spending several weeks praying and thinking through this, I’ll share with our team what I’m thinking. At this point it is between penciled in and permanent marker.

We’ve changed series at the last minute and tossed something we had been planning to do for over a year. That happens, and you have to be flexible.

I’ll be honest; this step is by far the hardest part of sermon prep. It takes the most time and has the least amount of immediate payoff, which is why most guys don’t do it. I meet so many guys who are just week-to-week or month-to-month.

2. Research. Once I have a sermon outlined, meaning I create what passages I’ll do on which week, how I’ll break up a book of the Bible, I go to work on researching it. I’ll create a notebook in Evernote and then a notebook in that folder for each week of the series. When I come across an article, a podcast or a blog, I simply hit the shortcut button on my chrome bar and put it into the folder. This is incredibly helpful when you are preaching on a controversial topic like homosexuality. At this point I might read the article, but I’m just gathering things. This is one of the biggest advantages to planning ahead in preaching.

For example, in the summer of 2017 I’m planning to do a series on spiritual practices or disciplines. So right now I’m pulling stuff on how habits are formed, looking at spiritual disciplines and how to best communicate and practice things like reading your Bible, fixed hour prayer, silence and solitude, fasting, etc.

3. A few months out. At this point, I start reading books that cover some of the topics I’ll be preaching on. I started preaching through Romans in March 2016, and so towards the end of 2015 I began reading books by John Piper and others on the book of Romans and some of what is covered in the book.

4. The week of. The week of a sermon is what most people think of when they think about preparing a sermon. And while I spend about 20 hours a week on sermon prep, as you can see, it is not all dedicated to the current sermon.

On Monday morning I spend a couple of hours preparing my heart by listening to worship music, reading some soul reading (John Piper or someone who has been dead for centuries) and reading through the passage I’ll preach on. I write out what stands out, what God is saying to me through the passage, etc. I think the most powerful part of a sermon is when the pastor says, “And here’s how this passage has been working on me this week.”

Monday or Tuesday I’ll start working through commentaries. When I started out I would read 8 – 10 commentaries and gather so much information that I never used it all. Most commentaries say the same things. Go to www.bestcommentaries.com and buy the top ones. My favorites are the NICNT or NICOT, The Message series by John Stott and the NIV Application Commentary. I’ll veer from that depending on reviews, but those are typically the ones I use.

I’ll also pull up the Evernote folder at this point and look through it. What is helpful, what can I use, etc.

My goal is to have all of my sermon stuff largely done by Wednesday at noon. This gives our team time to edit what goes in the program, what is on the screen and to make sure our next steps stuff is all ready to go.

At this point the sermon isn’t done, but is cooking.

5. Saturday. Every week I make a playlist on Spotify of the songs that the band is going to be doing. On Saturday afternoon I’ll take a run, listen to that playlist and pray through my sermon, the people who will be there, the things on my heart. This is such a crucial time for me and what God is doing in my heart as I prepare.

6. Sunday morning. I try to be sitting at my computer by 5:30 on Sunday morning. This is a final time to prepare for the day. I look at my heart, confess sin, and listen to worship music, go over my notes and edit them down. I also do my best to memorize my intro and conclusion. How will I present the gospel? How will I lay out the challenge? While I try to not look at my notes, I want the beginning and the end to be as solid as possible.

Then like all pastors, I drive home on Sunday with things I wished I had said or said differently.

But then I get to do it all over again the next Sunday!

9 Things I Learned From Preaching About Homosexuality

homosexuality

Recently I preached on the topic of sexuality, specifically homosexuality, and what the Bible says about it. I’ll be honest, for me this sermon felt like a dark cloud waiting for me as I thought about our series through Romans. While I love preaching and don’t mind when people disagree with me, this topic feels different in our culture.

Let me be vulnerable for a minute. This topic is one reason it took me so long to preach through Romans. Sadly, one reason is because of fear of what people would think of me and our church. The other is because I didn’t know if I could talk about it in a way that didn’t make me sound like a jerk. I’m convinced if I had preached this sermon two years ago, the tone would have been radically different, and that grieves my heart to think about what I used to sound like, but also grateful for the work of God in my heart.

Now that I’m done with that confession, I hope you’re still reading.

If you are a pastor, you should preach on this topic. If you will, here are nine things I learned that you should keep in mind:

1. Your people are curious. If you’re a pastor, you get the question, “What do you believe about homosexuality or gay marriage?” on a weekly basis. I know I do. People are curious. Most people think they know what Christians think, but most Christians aren’t even sure what they think. Why is there so much hate around this topic? Why do Christians treat this sin differently than others? Is that right? Did God make someone that way? Do I attend a gay wedding? How do I respond to a friend or child who says, “I’m gay”? All of these are questions they have.

2. Your tone matters as much as, if not more than, your content. Your content matters, so before you email me about that, it matters. A lot. You need to be clear and say, “This is what I think the Bible says.” In fact, as one friend told me, “Your church will remember your tone more than your content after this sermon”, and I believe that is true.

3. Your language and tone tells your church how to communicate it. Not only are you training your church what to believe about homosexuality, but you are also training them how to talk about it, what they will sound like. You are teaching them how to treat people in our culture that they disagree with. Christians are notoriously terrible at this. We post stuff on social media on a whole host of topics without ever asking, “How will a friend of mine who disagrees with me take this?” If you don’t have a friend who disagrees with you on homosexuality or some other closely held belief, that is a problem.

4. Your language and tone tell people who struggle with same sex attraction what kind of reaction they can expect from your church. This to me is one of the most important things about this entire topic and how to preach on it. Sitting in your church every week are people who love your church and are trying to love, or trying to figure out who God is, and they are wondering, “What do I do with these feelings? Do I talk about them in my small group? Can I ask my pastor about it?” You are telling them, “If you bring this up, here’s the reaction you can expect.” My hope is that my church will be a safe place to bring up this or any other struggle. It helped me to talk with friends who are gay and ask them about their story. How did people react? I also asked, “If you walked into a church and this topic was being talked about, what would you want to hear or not hear? How can I communicate what I think and not sound like a jerk?” These were incredibly helpful conversations.

5. It helps to preach through a book of the Bible. I don’t know if I would choose to preach on this topic if it wasn’t in a book of the Bible I was preaching through. In fact, I wouldn’t choose to preach on most topics, because like all pastors I have the topics I like to talk about, and those are usually ones that aren’t uncomfortable or things I’ve conquered in my life. That’s why preaching through a book of the Bible is so important. It makes you unable to skip things. I couldn’t just breeze over these verses. Also, it helps in prep. I knew for over a year that this topic was coming, so I was able to get articles, books and other resources to work through in preparation.

6. This is a gospel and worship issue. This topic is incredibly divisive for a number of reasons. It is a political battlefield as it relates to rights. (I think that’s a different topic, so when I preached on homosexuality, I stayed away from that.) It is also incredibly personal because most people are related to someone or are friends with someone who is gay. This is all about the gospel and worship. Here’s why: Is Jesus Lord and King? If so, then it matters what he says about this. If not, then we are back to exploring the gospel and what Jesus said. (And yes, Jesus talked about homosexuality, so don’t let someone tell you, “Jesus never mentioned homosexuality.”) Additionally, marriage is connected with the gospel throughout the Bible. Whenever we talk about it, we are talking about the gospel.

7. As passionate as you are about homosexuality being a sin, be that passionate about greed, gossip and adultery being a sin. Yes, I believe that the Bible calls a homosexual relationship a sin. I don’t think struggling with same sex attraction is a sin, just like being tempted isn’t a sin. Acting on that temptation is a sin. Getting drunk, ruling your life, trying to control your world, gossip, letting the opinion of others drive your life, being a workaholic, finding your identity in anything other than Jesus, the Bible calls all of those sins that Jesus died for. Yet Christians don’t put up a sign about that when they protest. If you are going to talk about this and be passionate, as so many are, be just as passionate about those committing adultery and being greedy as well. The Bible puts them all together. In fact, when Paul lists homosexuality in Romans 1, he also lists more than 10 other sins with it.

8. Think through redemption for someone in light of this topic. I’d love to say I have a clean answer on this, but I don’t yet as I’m still thinking and praying through it. Now that gay marriage is legal and happening more and more, what does redemption look like? What happens for the lesbian couple who has kids and they are rescued by Jesus? But if you are a pastor, you need to start wrestling through that and thinking about what gospel redemption looks like for those in gay marriages. In the same way that this conversation in our culture is becoming more and more complex (as letters continue to be added to LGBTQIA), this idea of redemption will become more complex.

9. Get over your fear. Maybe you aren’t afraid. If you aren’t afraid when you step into the pulpit to preach on homosexuality, you are probably going to sound like a jerk. Maybe not, but probably. If you are afraid, get over it. Pray through it, talk with friends, your elders, study up and get on stage and preach.