A cruciform sermon is a mix of beautiful poetic rhythm and over-the-top gonzo insanity

For many people in our congregations how their pastor prepares his sermon is a mystery. How does he, week after week, prepare the sermon he will preach Sunday morning? Where does the sermon come from? How are they prepared?

The craft of sermon writing isn’t something I hear many pastors discuss at our monthly Winkels and it’s rarely a topic that emerges at pastoral conferences. When I ask my brothers how they go about writing sermons their typical response is, “This is the way I’ve always done it …” What follows could be a cut and paste version of “How To Make An American Quilt: The Sermon Writing Edition.”

To that point, I have little respect for lazy preachers who rarely, if ever, spend any time honing their craft; they don’t consider that prayer, translation and exegesis, catechesis, and personal discipline are important aspects of crafting a sermon. Instead, week after week they work “off-the-cuff” from an outline. They print off someone else’s sermon then claim it as their own. They search the internet for sermons. They subscribe to sermon clubs that provide them with weekly [relevant] illustrations for their sermons. They buy sermon outline books. They don’t respect the craft of sermon writing so they approach sermon preparation as simply another part of their schedule. “It has to get done and I only have so much time to get it done in!” Thus, when they run short on time and suffer blockage? They go hunting for another sermon that they can claim for themselves.

In my experience, pastors who take seriously the discipline of sermon writing, who deliberately hone their craft, have become a dwindling group in our church.

Four basic principles I use when I begin writing Sunday’s sermon are:
1) Make Christ the subject of the verb.
2) Name the hearer as the direct object.
3) Preach unconditionally.
4) The Gospel is present tense.

Beyond these, there’s the process. The crafting. The writing. Taking aim at the ‘nuts and bolts’ of sermon preparation. Oftentimes seriously. Sometimes with tongue planted firmly in cheek. With that in mind here are five ruminations on the craft of sermon writing.


1) A cruciform sermon, because it necessarily confronts the old Adam in the throes of Spirit-wrought faith, is a mix of beautiful poetic rhythm and over-the-top gonzo insanity.

2) Lack of confidence leads young pastors (and many not-so-young) to get too caught up in perfectionism—they have to alight on every doctrine, get everything just right, so they can’t enjoy the craft of sermon writing. Instead of plowing through the first draft, just getting it down and being satisfied to make it to the “Amen,” they get hung up trying to make everything right, which leads to writer’s block and frustration.

3) It’s a little paradoxical, isn’t it? In some ways it feels like you’re just channeling and this is a divine process, but in others, it’s very cut and dry. “That won’t do at all,” you think, “I can’t preach that.” You’ve got to honor the thesis in the first draft, but be able to go back and do what the text of Scripture demands in later drafts. The Scripture reigns and the Scripture wins every time.

4) You have to love words and love the process of writing, because sometimes you end up throwing the whole sermon away and that’s all you have. You also have to love exegesis, catechesis, assertions, preaching Christ as the subject of every verb, and you’ve got to love this world—God’s world—the world He died to save that you’re now preaching to. Sermons that endure have all these loves.

5) But what if you’re blocked? You’re blocked because you have nothing to say. It’s not about your talent abandoning you. If you have something to say, some axe to grind, you can’t preach the text. You can’t kill your talent, but you can starve your hearers into a coma through ignorance … Pray. Do exegesis. Feed your sheep.


A cruciform sermon is a mix of beautiful poetic rhythm and over-the-top gonzo insanity — 14 Comments

  1. There needs to be some clarification about preaching from an outline, because preaching from an outline is not lazy. In fact, it takes a lot of practice. Speaking from an outline is also a whole school of thought and those who teach it will tell you not to wing it.

  2. My pastor writes his through the week and reads the text rather than off-the-cuff or from an outline, although I have seen him practicing it on some Saturday mornings at the church so maybe that makes it sound more off-the-cuff to people. He once told me the recommended research (includes some Hebrew/Greek word study) and writing time for each Sunday sermon is about twenty hours for a twenty minute sermon.

  3. A bit vitriolic.

    Both seminaries print sermon outlines in the back of their quarterlies.

    I used to have the every Concordia Pulpit from the 1930’s through 1985. Wonderful sermon books with sermons for every occasion.

    Is it lazy to subscribe to Concordia Pulpit Resources? It has sermons and outlines.

    Lent retreats usually provide “lazy preachers” outlines or sermons. I am attending one with a Hom Prof from one of the seminaries this January.

    Writing Sermons is a part of every pastor’s schedule. If he doesn’t set a deadline for it to be finished, it doesn’t get written in a timely fashion.

  4. Thannks, Pastor Riley for those great points. I would add one more: the devil is always at work to bring you to a point where you are “blocked”. What’s the solution to that, given that a pastor has heeded the “4 basic principles?

  5. Though I am not a pastor, I have done a bit of public speaking, and I think the points about “lazy pastors” are right on the money. I don’t think it’s a matter of laziness to use previous sermons as resources for crafting one’s own, nor to use an outline when presenting an already written sermon. I usually have a fully written script that I distill into an outline just for presentation. This prevents me from sounding lecturish or “read”-y, but still provides the information. I believe the reference here is to pastors, and it applies to other public speakers also, who constantly put little development into their own writings but prefer to “cut-and-paste” or “bullet-point” a sermon together. You pastors are blessed to have the ultimate infallible Resource for reference!

  6. Nothing worse then going to a service and watching the pastor read the sermon. If you are going to read it might as well print it out so everyone can follow along.

  7. Matthew :Nothing worse then going to a service and watching the pastor read the sermon. If you are going to read it might as well print it out so everyone can follow along.

    Yeah, I suppose that’s the worse thing that could ever happen at a Divine Service. ???

  8. Matthew, many Pastors use their manuscripts. (The tech people who subsequently put them on the congregational web site are helped considerably by that habit.) But you, in the pew, shouldn’t be too aware of the fact.

  9. I actually do print out copies of my sermon – as I do have several folks who are hard of hearing. I don’t necessarily stick exactly to the text (I’ll switch word order on the fly, maybe add an adjective or two), but it lets them follow the text better. Also, we send the bulletin w/sermon to our shut-ins and those who missed service this week.

    Just because someone follows a prepared text doesn’t mean one just stares at a page and reads in a monotone. (For proof, I suggest listening to Patrick Stewart read “A Christmas Carol” — wonderful, even though he’s just “reading” a text word for word.)

  10. While I do not preach as often as I’d like, my practice has been to do a careful study of the original languages, then read around in as many Lutheran fathers as possible, then Early Church fathers. I usually don’t find much in modern commentaries, which are more fascinated with the history of the form of a verb than in actually dealing with the teaching of God’s Word (exception being, of course, the Concordia Commentary series!!).

    Then, I’ll do a “brain dump” into a Word file on my computer, then go back over that and salvage whatever is worth actually saying and keeping, then plug into a more detailed outline, and then practice the sermon, running over it and mulling it over.

    Then I get into the pulpit and preach without notes, or with only the most bare of outlines.

    I find trying to read a sermon to be a stifling element in the pulpit and I feel I’m lecturing, not preaching, reading, not proclaiming and I feel I’ve put a barrier between myself and the congregation; namely, a manuscript.

    I suspect one major reason many pastors still rely on a written manuscript in the pulpit is simply a fear of not having it with them. I would urge them to try taking only a bare outline and simply preaching the sermon.

    What’s worth remembering from your writing will be remembered and if you don’t remember it, it’s not worth remembering.


  11. Excellent post! I always appreciate hearing a fellow craftsman talking about his approach to the craft. Woodworkers and musicians are much better at this than preachers. One of the most profound preachers I have ever encountered is Dr. Norman Nagel, who always read his sermons from a scribbled over manuscript (he often revised them on the way to chapel). I recall talking with Norman about how to approach the text for preaching in terms of Law and Gospel. What he said has influenced my homiletical craft ever since. He said, “Look for the Jesus the text is delivering, and then analyze what gets in the way of receiving that Jesus.”

  12. Bringing this thread around to the “four basic principles I use when I begin writing Sunday’s sermon,” i.e.,

    1) Make Christ the subject of the verb.
    2) Name the hearer as the direct object.
    3) Preach unconditionally.
    4) The Gospel is present tense.

    This goes to the root matter in preaching the Cross. That is, those who are made theologians of the Cross by the Holy Spirit in the school of the experience make up what Luther later called the “heuflein Christi,” the little band of Christians. Likewise, Luther’s last written words, found on a slip in his pocket at his deathbed, sum it all up, “We are beggars. This is true.” A preacher of the Cross stands in the pulpit, as with every vocation, with empty pockets pointing at Christ who desires to give all He has to us, sinners every one.

  13. I find the blessing of reading Luther, Walther, and some “far-out” sources like Episcopalian priest Robert Farrar Capon have helped my preaching grow these last few years. I wince at what I wrote even five years ago.

    Having stayed put in my current call for 5.5 years helps too. The longer the pastorate, the better the pastor gets to know his people and their situations in life.

    Thank you, Pastor Riley, for your clear and unambiguous advice on preaching Gonzo Gospel.

  14. Matthew # 6: “Nothing worse then going to a service and watching the pastor read the sermon. If you are going to read it might as well print it out so everyone can follow along.”

    I disagree, I would say it is worse to sit through a Lenten series having a pastor read the sermon and being able to read the sermon word for word (week in/week out) from the printouts you got after doing a web search on the subject matter. By the way, the sermon series on the different types of crosses was posted by a non-denom pastor from CA.

    As to whether or not the pastor reads the sermon, I would prefer the “off the cuff” delivery. For the pastors that read the whole sermon, when you are attempting to emphasize a point, then break eye contact to read the next few words, the moment is lost (in my opinion).

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