The great preachers who have influenced their generation have all borne witness to the need for conscientious preparation. Stott identifies 6 steps most preachers must pass through to prepare a sermon. I just read a brief biography of Stott by Jon Bolin which is helpful in understanding Stott’s writings and his preaching.
1. Choose Your Text
Stott suggests four main factors that can help us choose our text.
The first is the liturgical or Christian calendar. Even if you are in a series on Romans, when Christmas morning rolls around don’t go ahead and preach on election out of Romans 9, break out of the series and preach on the Incarnation or the Hypostatic Union of Christ or his great Kenosis (just use laymen’s terms).
The second is external or some some event in the life of the nation such as an election, the death of a public figure, national scandal, flood or plane crash.
The third is pastoral or some event in the congregation. The best preachers are always good pastors. Stott recommends the church staff assist in choosing series.
The fourth is personal. The best sermons we ever preach to others are those we have first preached to ourselves. G. Campbell tells how he was in Dr. Joseph Parker’s vestry at the City Temple one day when a man came in and said to him, “I want to thank your for that sermon. It did me good.” Dr. Parker looked at him and replied: ‘Sir, I preacher it because it had done me good.’
2. Meditate On It
In meditating on a text we answer first the question, “What did it mean when first written.” E. D. Hirsch said, “a text means what it’s author meant.” The second question is, “What does it say? “ or what is its contemporary message.
As we exegete the text we are also crying out to God, “Open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous thing from thy law.”
3. Isolate the Dominant Thought
As we meditate and pray and exegete we should be looking for the main theme, first, because every text has a dominant thought. J. H. Jowett wisely explains the importance of finding the proposition: “I have a conviction that no sermon is ready for preaching . . . until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as a crystal. I find the getting of that sentence is the hardest, the most exacting and the most fruitful labor in my study . . . I do not think any sermon ought to be preached, or even written, until that sentence has emerged, clear and lucid as a cloudless moon.”
4. Arrange your Material to Serve the Dominant Thought
a. There must be structure to subordinate our material to the theme of the sermon. One danger is a too prominent outline like the protruding skeleton of a starving prisoner of war. Double or triple alliteration of main points is an example. Another danger is artificiality of outline. The form of the text must influence the form of the sermon.
b. Also our words must be chosen carefully. Our words need to be as simple and clear as possible or otherwise “the good news of the gospel is lost in the bad word choice of the preacher.” Our words should not only be simple but vivid with concrete examples so our listeners can visualize our message.
c. In addition to supporting structure and simple and vivid words we should use illustrations to serve our dominant thought. There is a Biblical precedent for illustrations. For example, Jesus used concrete examples in his parables. There is also a psychological need for illustrations. Our people need to hear often, “For example.” We ought also to guard against sermons that have too few or too many illustrations. A house with no windows is a prison and a house with all windows is too weak.
5. Add the Introduction and Conclusion
Introductions are usually too long or to short. Introductions should be like the porch to a house, not too large or too small.
For variety sake, start with the situation instead of the text, and with the topic instead of the text. Instead of first announcing the text start with your attention step and create an interest in them for your sermon and then invite them to find the text.
Conclusions must go beyond recapitulation to direct, piercing, and personal application. Stott used three metaphors for convicting conclusions given by three different preachers: Storming the fort by G. Campbell Morgan, striking and breaking the hard heart, instead of stroking it, by Richard Baxter, and hitting them with the punch line by Paul White.
Spurgeon challenges preachers to aim at our audience with sharp applications: “Some preachers remind me of the Chinese jugglers, who not long ago were everywhere advertised. One of these stood against a wall, and the other threw knives at him. One knife would be driven into the board just above his head, and another close by his ear, while under his armpit and between his fingers quite a number of deadly weapons were bristling. Wonderful art to be able to throw to a hair’s breadth and never strike! How many among us (preachers) have a marvelous skill in missing!
6. Write Down and Pray Over Your Message
Stott identifies three ways to write a sermon. The first two are extremes to avoided by most preachers.
The first is complete extempore preaching without written preparation. Charles Simeon advised his students not to try this until they had first preached 300-400 written sermons or had been preaching three to four years.
The second extreme to abstain is reading a word for word manuscript. Some have succeeded at this method such as Jonathan Edwards. The rest of us mental and spiritual pigmies should opt for the third method.
The third way to write a sermon is write the sermon as a word for word manuscript but reduce it to an outline to take into the pulpit.
“After the writing of the sermon comes the praying. It is on our knees before the Lord that we can make the message our own, possess or re-possess it until it possesses us. Then when we preach it, it will come neither from our notes, nor from our memory, but out of the depths of our personal conviction, as an authentic utterance of our heart.”