Ah, this is where it all comes together. Depending on the passage, the research time might be difficult and strenuous, or it will fit together perfectly. You never know. I have a pretty standard process that I work through:
- I begin by reading the context around the passage. I read the entire chapter, and sometimes the chapter before and after to get a sense of how this story fits into the overall narrative.
- I also read the text in a few different translations and note any big differences. I tend to start with the TNIV and then gravitate to the NAS, NLT, ESV, Message, and sometimes the King James.
- From there I move to Logos – an awesome computer bible study program.
- In Logos, I find the passage in a Greek/English interlinear text. This takes the greek version and roughly translates each word below the Greek word. For the major words, I look them up in a couple of different resources: The Theological Dictionary of The New Testament, Strongs Concordance, and the Dictionary of Biblical Languages. Side Note-I’m no greek scholar, and I probably only know enough to make me dangerous. I try not to rely too heavily on anything I pull from the Greek because I’m simply not skilled enough. If I have a serious question, I’ll call one of my smart friends.
- The commentaries are pretty limited on Logos, but I’ll use what is there. My favorite commentary series are the NIV Application Commentary and Interpretation. Sometimes I’ll borrow The New Interpreter’s Bible or the Ancient Practices commentary from Kyle.
- Once I’ve gotten an idea of the major themes of the passage, I’ll scan through my Google Reader and see if any blogs I follow have touched on the subject, or I’ll look through my Kindle notes and see if I have a highlight that lines up with the text.
- Honestly, I spend a long time standing in front of my bookshelf scanning the books that I’ve read, trying to remember if I have read anything on the subject.
- By now, I should have a couple of pages of notes scattered throughout notepads, sticky notes, a Google Doc, and any other piece of paper that was laying around my desk.
In a good week, I can usually spend a solid day or two gathering up resources, reading, re-reading, and meditating on the passage. On a bad week, this gets compressed which usually makes the next part (forming the talk) much more difficult.
Yesterday, I started a series of posts about how I arrive at a sermon for Sunday morning. I normally have 3-5 times a year that I preach on a Sunday, and this weekend happens to be one of those occasions. Today I thought I would share some of my tips for choosing a passage of Scripture.
There are two choices right at the very beginning: will I be using an assigned passage or choosing one on my own? I have had opportunities for both. Last year, Kyle preached thorough the Gospels and so when it was my turn to fill-in, I continued the pattern. That meant that I had 7 readings from the Dayword blog to choose from. There was one other pre-Athens sermon that I used a pre-chosen passage from the Lectionary. The Lectionary is a calendar of readings that is used by Episcopal, Catholic, Anglican, and some other faith traditions. While having to use an assigned passage might seem limiting at first, there is a freedom to knowing well in advance what you will be studying.
When I have the ability to choose whatever Scripture I would like, I usually first ask myself two questions:
- What have I been reading lately?
- What has God been teaching me?
Most of the time, I preach on the answer to one or both of these questions. In fact, if I can’t come up with a satisfactory answer to either of these, then I probably need to ask myself if I should stand up in front of a group and try to teach at all. I believe that the best sermons are born well in advance of when they are delivered; this is why personal study is so important. Teaching what I’m learning also raises my personal passion and engagement in the sermon. If I have to teach on a prescribed topic, there is the chance that a sermon might seem forced and not from the heart.
Other sources of inspiration might include:
- Books I’ve been reading
- Other Sermons (not to copy or plagiarize – but sometimes hearing someone else illuminate Scripture can lead me to new thoughts and ideas)
- News and Current Events
- Blogs (check my blogroll – lots of good thinkers there)
Once you’ve settled on a text, next it’s time to do some research and study. We’ll talk about that tomorrow.
Craig Groeschel at LifeChurch.tv does a great job of tackling a practical subject over a series of blog posts. Seeing as how I have spent most of this week getting ready to teach at the college bible study on Thursday and in big church on Sunday, I thought it might be fun to show you how I actually arrive at something to say. So over the next few days I’m going to post how I choose a passage, study that part of scripture, and then ultimately craft it into a sermon.
- I don’t have to do this every week. I can’t state that enough. When you only preach in this setting 3-5 times a year, there is a certain freedom and excitement that I experience. It’s not a grind for me. I usually have a couple of weeks notice to prepare for one sunday. While I do teach within our student ministry, most of that is based on a curriculum that we are using for a semester and so a lot of the initial legwork is already done for me. It doesn’t mean that I’m not studying or spending time preparing, but it is a different process than this.
- The practice of study isn’t only limited to preparing a sermon. Just the other day, I pulled out my commentaries for Genesis and Exodus and read through them for a while. I had been re-reading those stories at the beginning of Israel’s history and I simply wanted to better understand them. It wasn’t so I could craft a study around Joseph or a 10 week series on the 10 Commandments. Personal Study and Sermon Prep go hand-in-hand for me. In fact, each one makes the other better. Without personal study, my sermon skills would be seriously flawed, and likewise, without some outlet to share the knowledge, I would probably not be as disciplined in studying on my own. All that said: preparing for a sermon will never replace personal time studying the Bible.
- I am a hardcore novice at this. Over my four years at FBC, I have preached 10 or 11 times on a Sunday morning. In that same span, Kyle has spoken nearly 200 times. Repetition can seriously help you work out the kinks. As one enouraging/backhanded-compliment postcard I received said: “Your sermon this Sunday was so much better than your first one!”
And finally, this is the process that helps me best. I try and start with a broad view and then focus in until the truth becomes clear and tangible. Sometimes it works and other times I get to Saturday night wondering if I have anything worth saying the next day. Take what’s helpful, and leave the rest.
Aaron and his wife Jamie have adopted two children from Haiti, Amos and Story. Story has been with them in the US for 3 months, while Amos is still living in Haiti. This song is from Aaron’s latest album.