Photo Cred: Unsplash| Updated: 5/27/2019
So in the first segment in this series on sermons, I’d like to go back and revisit sermons that I have preached in the past, in order to learn from them through self-reflection. The preparation, the prayer, the delivery, and so on for each sermon that I have given to better not only myself but possibly you as well. By learning from the past we can do better in the future and that includes improving our ability to preach.
I’d like to share a sermon that I preached in mid-March of 2018 and breakdown the process of creating that sermon. It was called The Thorns of Life and dealt with the parable of the sower as told in the Gospel of Luke. My sermon was based on Luke 8:7 and 8:14, which was about the thorn-filled soil.
This sermon was given to about 80 students at StudentLife‘s winter camp (i.e. The Growdown) and it was roughly 25 minutes long. I began to prepare for this sermon on February 26th, which was just over a month out from the Growdown retreat and I was pretty rusty since the last sermon that I taught was 3 years ago. Typically, I can start prepping and praying through a sermon within a week’s time, but because it had been so long I started extremely early. There was also the added pressure of this being our first winter camp as a youth group, so I didn’t want to let the other leaders or the students with a sermon that sucked.
Before I even began to work on my sermon, the four teachers (David Margosian, John Lewis, Andrew Morrison, and myself) for that retreat met up a few times to discuss the theme and pray about what we should teach through for that winter camp. Eventually, we all felt led to teach on the parable of the sower in the Gospel of Luke for various reasons. John had just taught it to his youth group, while Andrew and David did this theme years ago as the original Growdown winter camp. We figured that this year we should go with this theme to keep things simple.
After the theme was decided upon, we went our separate ways to prepare. Since I was rusty, Andrew reviewed my outline over gmail twice to help me stay on track for the retreat. He aided in keeping my sermon the right length for a 20 to 30 minute teaching.
When I actually started, I read the text and prayed a lot about the theme for my teaching. What was going to be the main idea to explore and share with the students? What did they need to hear that afternoon on March 17th, 2018?
The Text, the Title, and the Elevator Pitch
Anytime I prepare to teach, I always look for three things first: a basic understanding of the text, a title, and an elevator pitch. To determine the basic understanding of the text you need to comprehend the context. To accomplish this, read past the given text.
For this teaching, I wanted to pinpoint the big picture. When it was reported to Jesus that his Mother and Brothers were trying to get to him through the crowd listening to Him teach, He replies that “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it (1).” Elsewhere, we get more clarity from Jesus when He says to His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments (2).” The basic understanding of this text was identifying the true believer.
If we are true believers in Christ, then we will naturally obey him. David and Paul Watson put it perfectly when they wrote that “it appears that God spells love o-b-e-y (3).” The seed that falls on the good soil is the true believer because they obey God.
From there, I asked the opposite question: who does not obey God and why? The text I was given focused on the thorn-filled soil. What happens when we are pricked by a thorn? We are distracted by the pain. This was the basic crux for my sermon.
For my title, I took that basic understanding and distilled it. Making it brief and to the point. For me, the title has to be the main theme of the teaching. It must be the anchor that I can refer back to over and over in the sermon. So I called it “The Thorns of Life.”
Lastly, an elevator pitch is a one sentence description of a story. My elevator pitch was my basic understanding of the text summarized. That being that the thorns of life are the distractions of life. Next, I got into the bulk of sermon prep. Analogies, cross references, exegesis, research, and all that other good stuff. That’s usually my favorite part of the process.
Once my outline was complete, I moved onto revisions and verbal practice. This was roughly two weeks out from the retreat and I was really afraid it was going to flop. During this time I mostly prayed and would practice maybe a dozen times before finally delivering my sermon. I found that prayer would calm me, so I prayed before I practiced verbally delivering it.
The Day of and the Delivery
When we all left for the Growdown, I barely ate. During that Friday and Saturday I only had two meals. When I get nervous, I can’t eat because I get really sick to my stomach.
Had a long day of winter camp stuff and trying to run everything as a leader, so when it finally came to preaching I had about an hour and a half to get prepped one last time. As worship was closing, my anxiety and nervousness just kept increasing. Prayed a lot of little prayers inwardly. Too afraid I was going to forget something, I poured over my outline making last-minute changes and rehearsed a few more times.
Andrew came down and prayed over me. It helped reassure me that this teaching was put on my heart by God, so I didn’t have to rely on my own ability or talent because the Holy Spirit would guide me. Worship ended and I waited a minute intentionally before heading up. I told Jason Best, the worship pastor, that I wanted there to be an awkward moment of silence before I enter the room to set the tone.
This little stunt played into my theme of being distracted. Also, I wore a pink morph suit and did some goofy stuff to distract the students before telling the story of my best friend Zach’s car accident. This was all in the hopes of using body language, humor, and other visual cues to reinforce the effect that a good distraction can have on someone not paying attention.
The silly sermon illustrations went okay. Some landed, some hit an abrupt thud. As a public speaker, you’ll know when what you did worked or didn’t.
I think of the 25 minutes I spent, 5 to 10 minutes should have been used better. I started strong, but felt I wasted the opportunity for a strong ending. I ended up cutting out the Value of Time segment completely because I knew from practice it probably wouldn’t make the cut. I liked it, but it wasn’t necessary for this audience.
Had some obvious slip-ups and an over reliance on my outline, yet I felt positive about the delivery afterward. The students got a kick out of my ridiculous introduction and the call to action seemed to stick that night during the altar call, which resulted in praying with a student named Abe for almost an hour as we cried our eyes out before God. That was the highlight of the teaching for me: seeing a young man run back to God that night.
Overall, loved the time I spent on this teaching and it gave me confidence to return to preaching. Next time, I’ll share my sermon on Exodus from May 3rd, 2018. With that, Godspeed and Jesus bless.