Craig Alan Satterlee
The title “A Method of Sermon Preparation” suggests that this is one of many. It is the method I use and teach. I trust this method to bring me to Jesus and good news. This document is a synopsis. You will find a complete explanation of this method in Chapter 6 of My Burden is Light: Making Room for Jesus in Preaching. For this homiletic method and my presentation of it, as for so much of my homiletic pedagogy, I am indebted to John Allyn Melloh. This method consists of five parts: Build, Ponder, Order, Create, Proclaim.
All homiletic methods are built on the preacher’s foundational beliefs about preaching. Preachers identify the foundations on which their routine of sermon preparation rests. This homiletic method is built on three:
- The goal of preaching is to proclaim Christ, crucified and risen, as the power and wisdom of God (My Burden is Light, Chapters 3–4). To preach Christ crucified and risen is to move people from death to new life. For this preaching to be effective, it is not enough to get the gospel said. Preachers are responsible to God and their congregations to get the gospel heard. So, sermon form and delivery are as important as the message.
- A homiletic method is a friend, rather than a constraint. A method, an orderly way of proceeding, guarantees some result. Having a method, knowing what to do, creates confidence. A method releases and governs creativity in liberating ways. A method also helps preachers do what we need to do during weeks we would rather not, because, regardless of how we feel, Sunday is coming. Most important, a homiletic method is a way preachers welcome and work with the Holy Spirit.
- The Bible is the written record of the scripted stories of God’s saving events (My Burden is Light, Chapter 5). God reveals Godself in events in time and space, which always give rise to a story that is “slanted” and “scripted” by the community for whom the story is significant. Eventually significant scripted stories get written down. In sermon preparation, we study Scripture so we can tell the story and uncover or recover God’s saving event proclaimed in the Bible and continuing today. We do this because Scripture does not present things that happened long ago and far away but presents models or paradigms or prototypes of how God has dealt with God’s people and is dealing with God’s people.
To ponder Scripture is to carefully reed, think about, and pray over and with the readings, especially before making a decision or reaching a conclusion about their meaning.
- To ponder Scripture is to read the readings not once but over and over; to ponder is to let Scripture work on us before we run to the commentaries.
- To ponder is to read Scripture in places of peace, quiet, and solitude.
- Pondering includes reading Scripture in different ways: aloud as well as silently, alone and with others, at different places and different times.
- To ponder Scripture is to return to the readings again and again throughout the week, even after we have decided what the readings mean and what the sermon is about.
- Pondering includes converting the reading back into the story from whence it came by telling the story as if to a six-year-old. Stay as close to the language of Scripture as possible but translate biblical and theological concepts into the language of experience.
Once we have done the work necessary to “interiorize” the reading, we are prepared to study the reading.
- Whatever tools we use (My Burden is Light, Chapter 5), it is important to do our own work before turning to others, including commentaries because congregations desire the fruits of their preacher’s direct encounter with God’s word and not a report on a commentator’s encounter with God’s word.
- Do not rush too quickly to arrive at a conclusion about what a reading means. Instead, we try out possibilities.
- Ask how what is happening in the liturgy, congregation, community, and world impacts hearing and understanding this reading.
Before making a final decision on what the reading means, intentionally wait on the Holy Spirit. Be prepared for the Holy Spirit to give insights at times, and in places that are unexpected and inconvenient.
Pondering results in lots of insights, information, images, and good news, often too much for any single sermon. Pondering leads to ordering, to determining the central idea or focus or message of the sermon. In determining the central message of the sermon, decide on one and only one insight.
The goal when determining the message of the sermon is to formulate a “focus statement.”
- A focus statement is a “single sentence that summarizes the thrust of the sermon.”
- The focus statement is good news from God concerning God’s love for the world and God’s will for justice in the world.
- The focus statement is a simple sentence that includes a subject, action verb, and predicate.
- The subject is normally God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit.
- The action verb is usually an activity of God: loving, healing, saving, freeing.
- The predicate is usually a benefit or consequence of God’s love and justice.
- The tone of the focus statement is ordinarily positive, hopeful, and encouraging. “Jesus loves us to the end” is a good focus statement; “Let us do better” is not.
- The focus statement is appropriate to the congregation. The preacher’s task is to decide what about the Gospel is new and good for the congregation in its situation.
The focus statement is a beacon that shines on everything—content, form, and style of delivery—the preacher considers including in the sermon. As a general rule, if the beacon is enhanced or reflected by whatever the preacher is considering, it is appropriate to the sermon; if the beacon is diminished or obscured, it is not.
Most often, determining the central message of the sermon is a matter of consideration and choice. Preachers must decide “the now meaning,” the good news Jesus brings, in our hearts. Deciding is easier when our goal is to preach Jesus.
Creating the sermon is giving form to focus. The goal is not only to get the gospel said but to get the gospel heard. Therefore, the shape or form of the sermon is based on the message or content of the sermon but also the way the shape or form of the sermon gets the message heard.
I believe the best way to create a sermon is to write a manuscript.
- Writing is a means to arrive at good organization, clarity of expression, and concreteness.
- A manuscript provides the necessary distance we need to examine, evaluate, and edit the sermon; this is more difficult when the sermon never leaves the preacher’s mind and heart during the creative process and when the sermon remains imprecise in an outline.
- The manuscript must be written so the sermon is an oral rather than a literary form. For example, long, clause-lead sentences that are beautiful in books are difficult for the preacher to speak and the congregation to receive and comprehend. The manuscript must reflect the way the preacher speaks and facilitate the congregation’s listening.
Designing the Sermon
- The first step in creating the sermon is to decide on or develop the sermon design. The sermon design is the sermon’s frame, structure, or skeleton.
- No single, established form is suitable for all sermons. There are distinct forms or structures that work best for creating a sermon on a particular text for a particular context.
- Designs include central image, story or narrative, binary oppositions, siding against the text, and moving from our problem to God’s solution; these designs can all produce effective proclamation of the gospel.
- The preacher’s task is to select or develop a sermon design that is hospitable not only to the gospel encapsulated in the focus statement, but also to the congregation receiving, experiencing, understanding, and appropriating the good news.
- The sermon design is biblical. Both the authority of the sermon and the way it is crafted flow from the features of the reading. For example, the design respects the reading’s genre. The sermon design goes with (or at least acknowledges the church’s interpretation of the reading.
- The sermon is structured to proclaim good news.
- These sermons name with equal vigor sin and grace, law and gospel, cross and resurrection, judgment and mercy; then they fall on the side of grace.
- The concreteness and intensity of judgment and mercy must match.
- Include a moment of deliverance when the congregation experiences being saved from sin by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. This moment of deliverance includes a clear and unambiguous statement of the gospel. The sermon proclaims the gospel as good news that means something to these hearers.
- The sermon is structured so invitation or exhortation to remember, believe, give, serve, change, grow, or do follows and flows from the proclamation of the gospel.
- The sermon is crafted so any explicit call for faithful response does not overshadow, undermine, obscure, or equivocate the gospel in a way that people feel coerced by the erroneous notion that God’s love depends upon their actions.
- When the gospel proclamation is big and bold, the invitation or exhortation can be simple, straightforward, and, in fact, feels natural and fun.
- It is best to create a sermon to preach Jesus, describe what God is doing, lift up possibilities for our participation, and then invite people to remember, believe, give, grow, and serve. Avoid language that makes God’s mission dependent upon us, because it is not.
Enriching the Structure
Once the sermon design is determined, the next step in creating the sermon is to enrich the structure with word choice, description, illustration, and tone.
- Preaching demands language that creates an experience of Jesus and not merely provides information about Jesus.
- The amount of experiential language therefore far surpasses the amount of informational language. In fact, informational language is provided to assist the hearers in exploring, clarifying, understanding, and appreciating their experience of Jesus. Translate theological concepts into the language of experience using stories and examples.
- Exclusive language of any kind (language used singularly and habitually) limits rather than expands experience, especially of God. Preachers do well to expand and use a variety of names and images for God, Jesus, and the church. Preachers are also sensitive to language that, when used consistently and exclusively, “splits consciousness” as it takes the hearer somewhere other than where the sermon is going.
- Description creates experience in the hearers.
- Start with the reading to describe the good news. Characters, actions, and settings all receive attention.
- Draw on biblical themes and imagery generally. Descriptions are made with an economy of words and are therefore incomplete.
- I increasingly employ biblical illustrations, especially Old Testament types and stories from Jesus’ life, since Scripture is the story the church shares.
- Especially when they are not biblical, illustrations should not overshadow the message, or the temptation will be to abandon the reading and preach from the illustration.
- To create an appropriate tone, explore the message, the preacher’s feelings about the message, the congregation’s anticipated response, and the occasion.
Proclamation or sermon delivery is essential to preaching because how one communicates is as important as what one says.
- Decide how you will proclaim the gospel, whether extemporaneously, from memory, from notes or an outline, or from a manuscript.
- All of these can be effective; all are skills that need to be cultivated and so require practice.
- Making value judgments about the use or non-use of manuscripts or other notes may be more harmful than helpful.
- Instead determine which way of proclaiming this sermon most effectively frees both themselves and the listeners so that the good news will be received.
- Regardless of which style of proclamation selected, practice the sermon so that it goes from being a written document to a proclaimed event.
- Practice the sermon enough that the proclamation is natural and authentic and not wooden and rehearsed.
- Be familiar enough with the sermon that you can look at the congregation and respond to their reactions and participation.
- Cultivate the urgency that the gospel deserves. Practice enough that you are free to preach with the power of the Holy Spirit.
- Practice the sermon out loud to develop clear articulation, determine how the voice will respond to their words, and incorporate both pauses and vocal variation.
- Develop movement, gesture, eye contact, and facial expression so their nonverbal communication supports and does not undermine the message, especially by the body’s not being involved in preaching.
- Take the opportunity to practice in the worship space to account for acoustics, the pulpit, and especially the sound system.
 Craig, Alan Satterlee, My Burden is Light: Making Room for Jesus in Preaching (Minneapolis: Fess Press, 2023), 145–164.
 Cf. John Allyn Melloh, SM, “Homily Preparation: A Structural Approach,” Liturgical Ministry 1 (Winter 1992): 21-26.
 1 Corinthians 1: 23–24.
 Committee on Priestly Formation, Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly (Washington DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1982), 11.
 Ronald Allen, Preaching the Topical Sermon (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 63–64.
 Cf. John 13:1.
 Committee on Priestly Formation, Fulfilled in Your Hearing, 10.