Some weeks I listen to fifteen or more sermons from students. Most of them follow the fundamental principles I teach in class, with introductions, outlines, illustrations, transitions, and conclusions arranged well on paper and in presentation. Following a number of these messages, however—not all of them, but a fair number—I offer positive feedback and assign a respectable grade, then return to my office shaking my head. The sermon missed something.
As the student spent weeks preparing the sermon, it digressed into an academic exercise. The biblical text devolved into an object to study, the sermon into an edifice to build. The empowerment of God’s Spirit and the magnitude of God’s truth fluttered to the wayside somewhere between the commentaries and the pulpit.
A sermon that misses the divine
isn’t a sermon. It’s a speech,
and probably not a good one.
We might excuse this misstep in students who are still stumbling through the homiletical maze, but I admit that I falter in the same way. I prepare sermons, at least some of them, like I’d prepare an academic paper. I research, organize, outline, type, and edit. Then I’m done.
Such sermons fall short because they miss the divine. In truth, a sermon that misses the divine isn’t a sermon. It’s a speech, and probably not a good one. Apart from God’s guidance and empowerment, our messages dwindle into mere human presentations, lacking the spiritual vitality to effect lasting change.
In contrast, sermons sparked by the Spirit carry the supernatural potential to inflame hearts and lives in Christ Jesus. These messages surpass human potential and invite divine possibility. They concede the pulpit to God and allow him to perform his eternal work in listeners.
Effective preachers, therefore, never cease praying for their sermons and for the preaching event. They invite others to pray. They submit every aspect of the preaching process to God’s wisdom and
A few suggestions will help us become preachers who pray and pray-ers who preach.
PRAY THROUGH YOUR PREPARATION
Saturate your sermon preparation with prayer. The prompts below guide those who prepare sermons each week. Students, those who preach occasionally, or those in other circumstances can adjust as needed.
Peace about yesterday’s sermon.
Passion to begin a new study of God’s Word.
Persistence to stay disciplined in study throughout the week.
Strength from the Spirit to complete the difficult but rewarding
task of Bible interpretation.
Guidance from the Spirit toward study resources that will
provide the most help.
Enlightenment from the Spirit to understand the Scripture
The devotional insight to see God’s glory erupting from
The intellectual insight to connect the sermon text with
God’s larger story of redemption through Christ.
The pastoral insight to connect the text with the needs of
those who will listen.
Clarity in how to structure the sermon.
Courage to include whatever necessary to correct and
Conviction to live the truth of the text before preaching it.
The development of illustrations that shed light on the
truth of the text.
The development of applications that help listeners understand
the difference the truth should make in their lives.
The development of an introduction that invites listeners
into the message and a conclusion that motivates them to
live that message.
A mind settled and clear about the sermon.
A heart at peace with the message and the task.
A body enabled to rest in preparation for preaching.
Boldness to proclaim truth zealously.
Precision to proclaim truth clearly.
Transparency to proclaim truth authentically.
Humility to lose self entirely.
Yearning to exalt Christ eminently.
Effectiveness to bear fruit immediately.
PRAY THROUGH YOUR SERMON
Once you have prepared your sermon, consider praying through it. There are at least four ways to pray through your sermon. Often, multiple ways will naturally weave together as you pray.
- Skim the sermon and pray for personal enlightenment and application. Ask God to transform the sermon—whether it lies before you on paper or glows from your computer screen—into a mirror. Invite the Spirit to illumine your heart and mind as you skim through its paragraphs, to convict your heart with its applications, and to inspire awe in your spirit with its truths.
- Pray the words of the sermon. Fred Craddock instructed his students to take their sermons into the chapel. “Start out, ‘Gracious God . . .’, then pray your sermon.” His students objected, “But it’s a sermon, not a prayer.” “Well,” he responded, “Pray it. It’s amazing how that will bleed all the poison, and the desire to get back at people, and small-minded things. You’re suddenly made to realize that the primary audience of this sermon is God.”
- Pray for each segment of the sermon. Each section of a sermon intends to accomplish a certain purpose. A segment might help listeners grasp a concept, recognize how that concept should affect their lives, encourage and equip them to obey, or give them a sense of joy or hope. Therefore, read through each paragraph or point of the message and ask God to accomplish what he needs to accomplish through that segment.
- Give God the editing pen. As you read through each sentence of the sermon, ask God if he would prefer you to say something differently, to delete a sentence or section, or to add something you had not previously planned to say. We might assume his guidance as we form and polish our sermons, but do we ask for it? We can’t presume that God will guide and bless what we haven’t asked him to guide and bless.
We might assume his guidance as
we form and polish our sermons,
but do we ask for it?
PRAY FOR YOUR LISTENERS
A few years ago, I grew convicted to pray for those who hear my sermons. How could I preach to them if I hadn’t prayed for them? How could I present God to them if I hadn’t presented them before God?
I began arriving at the church building early on Sunday mornings, before anyone else. I walked through the worship center and stopped at each seat to pray for those who would fill them a few hours later. I visualized individuals, recalling time I’d spent ministering to and with them—conversations we shared, hurts we revealed, and joys we celebrated. As I walked by Helen’s pew, I envisioned the hours we spent in the hospital as her husband faded from life, and I prayed the sermon would offer her comfort and peace. Then I stopped next to Will and Kayla’s seats, recalled our premarital counseling sessions and the afternoon I led them through their vows, and prayed the sermon would remind them of the godly basis of their new marriage. When I arrived at the back corner, where Joe had sat the prior few weeks, I begged the Spirit to use that day’s message to nudge him closer to faith in Jesus.
These prayer times grew my heart for the people. I preached with greater passion and compassion. My desire to perform decreased. My desire to lead people into an experience with God through his Word escalated. I trusted less in my own creativity and skills and more in the power of the Word and Spirit to comfort, correct, encourage, and equip his church.
 Fred Craddock, “Taking P301 Again for the First Time” (workshop presented at the North American Christian Convention in Indianapolis, July 2003).
 This article is adapted from Daniel Overdorf, One Year to Better Preaching (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2013), 15–17, 266.
This post is adapted from Preaching: A Simple Approach to the Sacred Task by Daniel Overdorf. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
In Preaching, experienced preacher and teacher of preachers, Daniel Overdorf, leads readers through a tested process for sermon preparation that takes proclaiming God’s Word seriously yet does not overcomplicate the task or overwhelm the preacher. Overdorf describes and demonstrates consistent, manageable steps to effective preaching, including:
- Clarifying the convictions that drive your preaching
- Identifying the main idea of a Scripture text
- Forming memorable word pictures,
- Reducing reliance on notes
- Connecting with the congregation throughout the sermon
- Speaking authentically