By Reuben Archer Torrey
HOW TO PREPARE A SERMON
There is no intention in this chapter of presenting an elaborate treatise on homiletics. It simply aims to give practical suggestions for the preparation of sermons that will win souls for Christ and edify believers.
I. FIRST GET YOUR TEXT OR SUBJECT.
A great many neglect to do that, and when they get through preaching they do not know what they have been talking about, neither does the audience. Never get up to speak without having something definite in your mind to speak about. There may be exceptions to that rule. There are times when one is called on suddenly to speak, and one has a right then to look to God for subject matter and manner of address. There are other times when one has made full preparation, but it becomes evident when he is about to speak that he must take up some other line of truth. In such a case also, one must depend upon God. But under ordinary circumstances, one should either have something definite in his mind that he is to speak about, or else keep silent. It is true God has said in His Word, "Open thy mouth wide and I will fill it" (Psalm 81:10), but this promise, as the context clearly shows, has nothing whatever to do with our opening our mouth in speaking. Most people who take this promise as applying to their preaching, and who make their boast that they never prepare beforehand what they are going to say, when they open their mouths have them filled with anything but the wisdom of God. Christ did say to His disciples, "Take no thought how or what ye shall speak; for it shall be give you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you" (Matthew 10:19-20); but this promise did not have to do with preaching, but with witnessing for Christ in circumstances of emergency and peril. In all cases of similar emergency, we have a right to rest in the same promise, and we have a right also to take the spirit of it as applying to our preaching. But if one has an opportunity to prepare for the services before him, and neglects that opportunity, God will not set a premium upon his laziness and neglect, by giving him a sermon in his time of need.
How shall we select our text or subject?
1. ASK GOD FOR IT. The best texts and topics are those which a man gets on his knees. No one should ever prepare a sermon without first going alone with God, and there definitely seeking His wisdom in the choice of a text or topic.
2. KEEP A TEXT BOOK. I do not mean the kind that you buy, but the kind that you make for yourself. Have a small book that you can carry in your vest pocket, and as subjects or texts occur to you in your regular study of the Word, or in hearing others preach, or in conversation with people, jot them down in your book. Oftentimes texts will come to you when you are traveling somewhere or going about your regular work. If so, put them down at once. It is said that Ralph Waldo Emerson would sometimes be heard at night stumbling around his room in the dark. When his wife would ask him what he was doing he would reply that he had a thought and he wanted to pin it. Oftentimes when you are reading a book, a text will come to you that is not mentioned in the book at all. Indeed, one of the best ways to get to thinking is to take up some book that stimulates thought. It will set your own mental machinery in operation. Not that you are going to speak on anything in that particular book, but it sets you to thinking, and your thought goes out along the line on which you are going to speak. Very often while listening to a sermon, texts or subjects or sermon points will come to your mind. I do not mean that you will take the points of the preacher, though you may sometimes do that if you will thoroughly digest them and make them your own, but something that he says will awaken a train of thought in your own mind. I rarely hear a man preach but his sermon suggests many sermons to me.
Put but one text or subject on a page of your text book. Then when points or outlines come to you jot them down under the proper text or subject. In this way you will be accumulating material for future use. After a while texts and topics and outlines will multiply so rapidly that you will never be able to catch up with them, and will never be at a loss for something to preach about.
3. EXPOUND A BOOK IN ORDER. Take a book of the Bible and expound it. You should be very careful about this however, or you will be insufferably dry. One of the best preachers in an eastern State undertook to expound one of the long books of the Bible. He made it so dry that some of his congregation said they were going to stay away from church until he got through that book, they were thoroughly tired of it. Study the masters in this line of work, men like Alexander Maclaren, William H. Taylor, and Horatius Bonar. F.B.Meyer's expositions on Abraham, Jacob, Elijah, Moses, etc. are very suggestive.
4. READ THE BIBLE IN COURSE, AND READ UNTIL YOU COME TO A TEXT THAT YOU WISH TO USE. This was George Muller's plan, and he is a safe man to follow. He was wonderfully used of God. When the time drew near to preach a sermon, he would take up the Bible and open it to the place where he was reading at that time, first going down upon his knees and asking God to give him a text, and then he would read on and on until he came to the desired text.
II. FIND YOUR POINTS.
I do not say make your points, -- find them, find them in your text, or if you are preaching on a topic, find them in the various texts in the Bible that bear upon that topic. It is desirable often to preach on a topic instead of on a single text. Never write a sermon and then hunt up a text for it. That is one of the most wretched and outrageous things that a man who believes that the Bible is the Word of God can do. It is simply using the Word of God as a label or endorsement for your idea. We are ambassadors for Christ, with a message. Our message is in the Word of God, and we have no right to prepare our own message, and then go to the Word of God merely to get a label for it.
How shall we find our points?
1. BY A CAREFUL ANALYSIS OF THE TEXT. Write down one by one the points contained in the text. Suppose for example your text is Acts 13:38-39:
"Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sin, And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses."
By an analysis of the text, you will find the following points taught in it:
(1) Forgiveness is preached unto us.
(2) This may be KNOWN (not merely surmised, or guessed, or hoped, or believed).
(3) It is known by the resurrection of Christ (this comes out in the "therefore" and the context). Forgiveness is not a mere hope, but a certainty resting upon a solid and uncontrovertible fact. The one who here speaks had seen the risen Christ.
(4) This forgiveness is through Jesus Christ. In developing this point, the question will arise and should be answered, How is forgiveness through Jesus Christ?
(5) Every one who believeth is forgiven. Under this point there will be four special points:
(a) He IS forgiven (not SHALL be).
(b) EVERY ONE that believeth is forgiven (RV).
(c) He is forgiven ALL things.
(d) The meaning of justified.
2. ASK QUESTIONS ABOUT THE TEXT. For example, suppose you take Matthew 11:28 as a text:
"Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
You might ask questions on that text as follows:
(1) Who are invited?
(2) What is the invitation?
(3) What will be the result of accepting the invitation?
(4) What will be the result of rejecting the invitation?
One of the easiest and simplest ways of preaching is to take a text and ask questions about it that you know will be in the minds of your hearers, and then answer these questions. If you are preaching upon a subject, you can ask and answer questions regarding the subject. Suppose, for example, that you are to preach upon the subject of the new birth; you could ask the following questions and give Bible answers to them, and thus prepare an excellent sermon:
(1) What is to be born again?
(2) Is the new birth necessary?
(3) Why is it necessary?
(4) What are the results of being born again?
(5) How can one be born again?
If you answer the questions that suggest themselves to your own mind, you will probably answer the questions that suggest themselves to the minds of others. Imagine your congregation to be a lot of interrogation points. Take up their questions and answer them, and you will interest them.
3. IF YOU ARE GOING TO PREACH UPON A TOPIC, GO THROUGH THE BIBLE ON THAT TOPIC AND WRITE DOWN THE VARIOUS TEXTS THAT BEAR UPON IT. As you look these texts over, they will naturally fall under different subdivisions. These subdivisions will be your principal points. For example, suppose you are going to preach on "Prayer." Some of the passages on prayer will come under the head of "The Power of Prayer"; that can be your first main point. Others will come under the head of "How to Pray"; that will be your second main point, with doubtless many subordinate points. Other passages will come under the head of "Hindrances to Prayer," and this will make your third main point.
III. SELECT YOUR POINTS.
After finding your points, the next thing is to select them. You will seldom be able to take up all the points that you find in a text, or upon a topic, unless you preach much longer than the average congregation will stand. Few ministers can wisely preach longer than thirty or forty minutes. To a person just beginning to preach, twenty minutes is often long enough and sometimes too long. At a cottage meeting fifteen minutes is certainly long enough, and usually too long. The more you study a subject the more points you will get, and it is a great temptation to give the people all these points. They have all been helpful to you, and you wish to give them all out to them, but you must bear in mind that the great majority of your congregation will not be so interested in truth as you are. You must strenuously resist the temptation to tell people everything you know. You will have other opportunities to give the rest of the points if you give well the few that you now select; but if you attempt to tell all that you know in a single sermon, you will never have another chance. In selecting your points, the question is not which points are the best in the abstract, but which are best to give to your particular congregation, at this particular time. In preaching on a given text it will be wise to use certain points at one time and certain other points at another time. The question is, which are the points that will do the most good and be the most helpful to your congregation ON THIS SPECIAL OCCASION.
IV. ARRANGE YOUR POINTS.
There is a great deal in the arrangement of your points. There are many preachers who have good points in their sermons, but they do not make them in a good order. They begin where they ought to end, and end where they ought to begin. What may be the right order at one time may not be the right way at another time. There are, however, a few suggestions that may prove helpful:
1. MAKE YOUR POINTS IN LOGICAL ORDER. Put those first that come first in thought. There are many exceptions to this rule. If our purpose in preaching is not to preach a good sermon but to win souls, a point will oftentimes be more startling and produce more effect out of its logical order than in it.
2. DO NOT MAKE YOUR STRONGEST POINTS FIRST AND THEN TAPER DOWN TO THE WEAKEST. If some points are weaker than others, it is best to lead along up to a climax. If a point is really weak, it is best to leave it out altogether.
3. PUT THAT POINT LAST THAT LEADS TO THE IMPORTANT DECISION THAT YOU HAVE IN VIEW IN YOUR SERMON. It may not in itself be the strongest point, but it is the one that leads to action; therefore put it last in order that it may not be forgotten before the congregation are called upon to take the action that you have in mind.
4. Give your points in such a way that the first leads naturally to the second, and the second to the third, and the third to the fourth, etc. This is of great importance in speaking without notes. It is quite possible to so construct a sermon that when one has once gotten well under way everything that follows comes so naturally out of what precedes it that one may deliver the whole sermon without any conscious effort of memory. When you have selected your points and written them down, look at them attentively and see which point would naturally come first, and then ask yourself which one of the remaining points this would naturally suggest. When you have chosen the two, in the same way select the third, and so on.
V. PLAN YOUR INTRODUCTION.
One of the most important parts of the sermon is the introduction. The two most important parts are the introduction and conclusion. The middle is of course important; do not understand me that you should have a strong introduction and conclusion and disregard all that lies between, but it is of the very first importance that you begin well and end well. In the introduction you get the attention of the people; in the conclusion you get the decisive results; so you should be especially careful about these. You must catch the attention of people first of all. This you should do by your first few sentences, by the very first sentence you utter if possible. How shall we do this? Sometimes by a graphic description of the circumstances of the text. Mr. Moody was peculiarly gifted along this line. He would take a Bible story and make it live right before you. Sometimes it is well to introduce a sermon by speaking of some interesting thing which you have just heard or seen -- some incident that you have read in the paper, some notable picture that you have seen in a gallery, some recent discovery of science. In one sermon that I often preach, and that has been used of God to the conversion of many, I usually begin by referring to a remarkable picture I once saw in Europe. I start out by saying, "I once saw a picture that made an impression upon my mind that I have never forgotten." Of course everybody wants to know about that picture. I do not care anything about the picture; I only use it to secure the attention of people and thus lead directly up to the subject. If you have several good stories in your sermon, it is wise to tell one of the very best at the start. Sometimes a terse and striking statement of the truth which you are going to preach will startle people and awaken their attention at the very outset. Sometimes it is well to jump right into the heart of your text or subject, making some crisp and striking statements, thus causing everybody to prick up his ears and think, "Well, I wonder what is coming next."
VI. ILLUSTRATE YOUR POINTS.
Illustrate every point in the sermon. It will clinch the matter, and fasten it in a person's mind. Think up good illustrations, but do not over-illustrate. One striking and impressive illustration will fasten the point. More will be said about illustrations in a future chapter.
VII. ARRANGE YOUR CONCLUSION.
How shall we conclude a sermon? The way to conclude a sermon is to sum up and apply what you have been saying. One can usually learn more as to how to close a sermon by listening to a lawyer in court than he can by listening to the average preacher in a pulpit. Preachers aim too much at delivering a perfect discourse, while a lawyer aims at carrying his case. The sermon should close with application and personal appeal. It is a good thing to close a gospel sermon with some striking incident, an incident that touches men's hearts and makes them ready for action. I have often heard men preach a sermon, and right in the middle they would tell some striking story that melted and moved people, then they would go on to the close without any incident whatever. If they had only told the story at the close, the sermon would have been much more effective. It would have been better still if they had had that moving story in the middle, and another just as good or better at the close.
A true sermon does not exist for itself. This, as has already been hinted, is the great fault with many of our modern sermonizers. The sermon exists for itself as a work of art, but it is not worth anything in the line of doing good. As a work of rhetorical art it is perfect, but as a real sermon it is a total failure. What did it accomplish? A true sermon exists for the purpose of leading some one to Christ or building some one up in Christ. I have heard people criticize some preachers, and say that they broke nearly all the rules of rhetoric and homiletics, and that the sermon was a failure, when the sermon had accomplished its purpose and brought many to the acceptance of Christ. Again, I have heard people say, "What a magnificent sermon we have just heard!" and I have asked, "What good did it do you?" and they would say, "I do not know that it did me any good." I have further asked what good it did any one else, what there was in it that would particularly benefit any one. It was a beautiful sermon, but it was a beautiful fraud. A few years ago a well-known professor of homiletics went to hear Mr. Moody preach. He afterwards told his class that Mr. Moody violated every law of homiletics. Perhaps he did, but he won souls to Christ by the thousands and tens of thousands, more souls, probably, in one year than that professor of homiletics ever won to Christ in his whole lifetime. A scientific angler will get a fishing rod of remarkable lightness and elasticity, a reel of the latest pattern, a silk line of the finest texture, flies of the choicest assortment, and he will go to the brook and throw out his line with the most wonderful precision. The fly falls where he planned that it should, but he does not catch anything. A little boy comes along with a freshly-cut willow stick for a rod, a piece of tow string for a line, a bent pin for a hook, and angle worms for bait. He throws out his line without any theoretic knowledge of the art and pulls in a speckled trout. The boy is the better fisher. The man has a perfect outfit, and is wonderfully expert in throwing his line, but he does not catch anything. A good deal of our pretended fishing for men is of the same character. Let us never forget that we are fishers for men, and our business is to catch men alive for Christ. Let us not try to save our sermons, but to save men's souls.
VIII. THINK YOUR SERMON OUT CLOSELY.
I would not advise you to write your sermons out, because what you have written might afterwards enslave you, but I would advise you to do a great deal of writing, not for the sake of preaching what you have written, but for the sake of improving your style. Most emphatically would I advise you never to read a sermon. The more preachers I listen to, the more firmly convinced do I become that a sermon ought never to be read. Of course, there are advantages in writing the sermon out and reading it, but they are counterbalanced many times over by the disadvantages. I once heard a man deliver an address, who said before beginning, that as he wished to say a great deal in a very short time, he had written his address. It was a magnificent address, but he had no freedom of delivery, and the audience did not get it at all. So far as practical results were concerned, it would have been a great deal better if he had said less and spoken without his manuscript. Furthermore, it is not true that a man can say more without a manuscript than he can with it. Any one who really has a call to preach can train himself to speak just as freely as he writes. He can be just as logical. He can pack his sermon as full of matter and argument. His style can be just as faultless. It will be necessary, however, that he should think out closely beforehand just what he is going to say. After thinking your sermon all out carefully, when you come to preach, your mind will naturally follow the lines along which you have been thinking. You set the mental machinery going, and it will go of itself. The mind is just as much a creature of habit as any part of our body, and after one has thought consecutively and thoroughly along a certain line, when he takes up that thought again his mind naturally runs in the grooves that have been cut out.