Navigating Sermon Preparation: Strategies for Impactful Messages

A pair of glasses is on the page Sermon on the Mount of an opened bible.
A pair of glasses is on the page Sermon on the Mount of an opened bible. (photo: Getty Images)
By Steve Sun August 25th, 2023

In an era of shifting dynamics, the art of delivering impactful sermons faces a spectrum of challenges. While some sermons resonate deeply, sparking spiritual transformation, others might intellectually engage but fall short of igniting the heart. 

Recently, pastor Xu Ronglai (a pseudonym), a millennial pastor from South China, shed light on the intricacies of preparing sermons that convey the grace of God. In an interview with Christian Times, Pastor Xu expounded on his strategies and principles for sermon preparation, addressing the influence of renowned pastors' resources, the vitality of local pastoral care, and the delicate balance between biblical interpretation and practical application.

Christian Times: Pastor Xu, can you share your approach to sermon preparation and your guiding principles?

Pastor Xu: Certainly. I view sermons through two lenses: themed sermons and Bible interpretation sermons. My training leans towards the latter, which requires a deep dive into the scripture and distilling its essence. The themed sermon is to support the theme with relevant scripture.

Christian Times: Given the abundance of online resources from renowned pastors, do you find local preaching challenging?

Pastor Xu: Indeed, the rise of online resources raises questions about substituting offline sermons with digital content. While I recognize the value of these resources, local pastors play a crucial role in addressing specific needs and offering tailored pastoral care. While renowned pastors bring unique gifts, local pastors provide insights relevant to their congregations' contexts.

Christian Times: How do you approach sermon preparation and what aspects do you emphasize?

Pastor Xu: Certainly. Our church follows a structured approach to sermon preparation. At the beginning of each year, we establish a calendar with themes for the upcoming months. These overarching themes are then distilled into specific topics for each Sunday, aligning with events such as Christmas, the start of the school year, and Easter. These themes are also guided by our church's vision for development. We plan themes and select scripture passages for the next six months, and at the start of each month, I collaborate with fellow pastors to identify key themes.

As for my personal process, I initially crafted a sermon outline along with detailed content. However, due to time constraints, I've adapted my approach. Currently, I create an outline along with simple examples, forming a draft that I can build upon.

Christian Times: What common issues do you observe with Chinese pastors' preaching, and how do you address them?

Pastor Xu: A recurring challenge is striking a balance between scriptural interpretation and practical relevance. Long-winded interpretations can dilute the message's focus. A sermon should feature a concise interpretation section and a more substantial practical application segment.

Christian Times: When considering sermon planning, which approach do you find more effective: pre-determined themes or adapting to current church circumstances?

Pastor Xu: Pre-planned themes streamline preparation without necessarily impeding the work of the Holy Spirit. Conversely, determining weekly themes based on real-time church situations can be burdensome, especially for pastors preaching on consecutive days. This approach can lead to last-minute anxiety, potentially affecting sermon delivery.

I prefer pre-planned themes. Understanding congregational needs in advance allows pastors to delve deeply into scriptural exploration and development. This enables pastors to craft messages that are well-rooted and closely aligned with the church's growth direction.

Christian Times: Do you actively seek feedback from believers regarding your sermons?

Pastor Xu: We have a tradition in our church where a "love banquet" follows the service, during which attendees participate in small group discussions. Each group shares their takeaways from the sermon and the subjects of their prayers. This provides invaluable insight into the effectiveness of my sermons. Through these informal feedback sessions, I gained an understanding of any discrepancies between my expectations and the actual impact. It forms an essential mechanism for refining my approach.

Christian Times: How do pastors harness the power of the Holy Spirit to bring transformative change through sermons?

Pastor Xu: Effective sermons hinge on two critical factors. Firstly, a precise understanding of scripture is paramount. Secondly, structuring the sermon in a clear, practical manner that resonates with believers' daily lives is essential. When preparing sermons, I streamline multiple threads of thought to enhance clarity for everyone. I focus on nurturing positive habits rather than consistently highlighting negative ones, fostering spiritual growth through positive reinforcement.

In terms of cultivating new preachers, I emphasize to them the importance of receiving grace from God's word. This foundation surpasses the pursuit of flawless delivery. During their journey, I encourage them to focus more on their own spiritual growth, rather than fixating solely on their preaching skills. I assure them that growth is gradual, and the experience of pastoring multiple times a year will contribute significantly to their development.

- Translated by Oliver Zuo

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