A few years back, Pastor John was asked how he writes his sermons. This is what he said:
My pattern is not to be followed by anybody except those who are wired exactly like I am, which is probably no one. We are all so different. So, when I teach preaching to the guys I really stress please, please, please look how I do it, take that into account, but don’t try to imitate me because it might not work for you.
In the Text
So, my approach is if I know my text fairly well, then I am not on it until Friday. I just pick it out either weeks or days ahead of time. I have to get a text and title to the worship guys by Tuesday. But I am not studying it, writing, or working on the sermon until Friday morning.
“As I write out the text I am just praying, ‘God, show me. Show me what is here for my people.’”
Then I devote all Friday to sermon preparation. And if I need to, I will stay up all night. I have never stayed up all night on Friday, but I have stayed up until two. That is when the text really blocked me: “Oh, man, I don’t know what I am going to say about this. I need to study this a little more.” Or I get an interruption in the day. Suddenly an unexpected ministry crisis or whatever comes up. But the nights are always there as buffers. I almost never do that though.
So, I am starting on Friday. I put on my computer, English and Greek or English and Hebrew, and I read through the original language getting all the help I need, using my little mouse. I have got a half sheet of paper in front of me on the desk, and I am writing out the text, and I am making comments as I go.
Write to See
As I write out the text I am just praying, “God, show me. Show me what is here for my people. Show me what is really here, not what is in my head that I am going to make be here, but is really here. Let me see new things that I have never seen before.” And as I write, for whatever reason, this works for me, I see things.
The pen, the computer, the Greek, the Hebrew, the writing it out, all help me see. So, I am circling things and making little comments in the margin. This little half sheet looks like an absolute jumble when I am done. And when I am done, I have generally got a whole slug of questions that can be answered. I have got lines drawn all over the place.
Focusing the Sermon
As I step back I say, “Now, Lord, what am I going to do with all that? I could talk on that for three hours. I have got thirty-five or forty-five minutes to do this.” In prayer and thought, some of those circles just come together and I say, “Ok, I am going to make those three points or those two points or those four points.”
So, I take out another sheet of paper and try to figure out how might that fit together. “Should I go backwards, forwards, start in the middle and go this way?” And once I am there—and that may happen by lunch—I go eat lunch.
“And as I write, I see things.”
Then I put up my Word document up, and I just start writing. Here I put my thoughts in Word based on this little doodling. And I compose straight on to the computer. I am editing as I go, and I am thinking out loud. Sometimes I'm preaching out loud as I go, feeling it as I go, praying as I go.
That takes four, five, six, seven, or eight hours to get that written. When it is written, I print it out and I go to bed or go to be with Noël. Then Saturday, after lunch — after Talitha and I go to Leeann Chin or Jimmy Johns — then I come home and I really go to work on getting it from there to here and here with all my little markings and so on. So, what I take into the pulpit on Sunday is about ten double-spaced pages, about ten thousand to eleven thousand bytes, and they are so marked up they look like chicken scratch. They function as my outline while I am talking.
That works for me. Most of the people when they hear that I do it that way say, “No way. No way could I start on Friday, or no way could I take a manuscript into the pulpit and not have it be canned and so on.” Absolutely, not a problem. Do it, fine. You know, wear your armor, not my armor.