Module 5: Why we Craft. practice




        C.S. Lewis was once asked what advice he would give to young writers. His answer was bold: “Writing is like ‘lust,’ or like ‘scratching when you itch.’ Writing comes as a result of a very strong impulse, and when it does come, I for one must get it out.” If he is right (and who would want to argue with C.S. Lewis about writing?), writing a sermon does not begin when you sit with pen in hand or with fingers cupped over a keyboard. Sermons begin when scripture has awakened hopes and dreams and longings that have to be expressed. An example of this happened to me recently as I memorized the story in II Kings 2 of the passing of the mantle from Elijah to Elisha.  That passage made me so grateful for the privilege of working with the next generation of pastors being formed at Western Theological Seminary and all the more eager to pour myself into students in the way that Elijah poured himself into Elisha. Getting in touch with those deep longings got my sermon going, and made it easy then to put my fingers in motion on a keyboard. I began to write with my heart fully engaged.

        People who have heard me preach are often surprised to learn that I write manuscripts.  I suppose they are surprised because my sermons involve textual memorization and I am clearly not reading the sermon from the manuscript.  But I embrace the discipline of writing out my sermon first in manuscript form.  Let me tell you why I do that.

        First, I do it for the satisfaction of being done.  I write my sermon out word for word before Sunday and then set it aside and enjoy the relief and sense of satisfaction that follows. Pastoral ministry is notorious for never being finished.  We all know the feeling that there is more to do and more to attend to.  Pastors deserve to be able to go to bed on Saturday night with the sense that they are ready for what’s coming on Sunday. Writing out your sermon will help achieve that satisfaction.

        My second reason for writing manuscripts has to do with “quality control.” If I have no record of what I am hoping to say I might just end up saying something stupid or embarrassing, and who wants to do that? Not me! Writing your sermon out word for word gives you chances to edit and imagine how to say things better.  As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

        A third reason I write my sermons out is to have something I can store, come back to, and maybe even preach again. Singers rarely feel bad about singing their favorite songs more than once and preachers shouldn’t feel bad about preaching their favorite sermons more than once either. What’s wrong with a preacher having a few greatest hits? I have listened to or read sermons by my favorite preachers multiple times and I never tire of them. I could hear Tim Keller’s sermons on the Prodigal Son or Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon on the widow’s mite over and over again and be both blessed and challenged each time.

        Now here’s a caution: when you write a sermon, write it for the ear and not the eye. I am deeply persuaded by cultural theorists like the late Jesuit scholar Walter Ong, who argued that our North American culture is fundamentally post-literate. This means that while most people can read, most people don’t. Our preferred way of taking in information is through our ears via radio, television and conversations at places like Starbucks.  There is a world of difference between those three mediums and reading. A sermon conceived as an oral event will require the preacher to help their hearers get the gist of what they are saying by employing rhetorical tools like repetition, changing volume, or using visual images. A written piece cannot do these things. Write a manuscript, but write it for the ear and not the eye.

        Let me throw in a bonus: if you write your sermon out before you preach, you are much more likely to end on time. There is little worse than preaching longer than your congregation is willing to listen. My mother’s lone piece of advice on preaching for me was pointed and insistent: “Tim, when you’re preaching, remember to quit before your hearers do.” I love to tell my students of a hard letter that William Farel once wrote to John Calvin about Calvin’s notoriously long sermons: “I am given to understand that your very full sermons are giving some ground for complaint.  I beg you earnestly to restrict yourself, even forcibly if necessary, rather than offer Satan any handle which he will be quick to seize.  We do not speak for our own benefit but for that of our people.  We must remember proportion in our teaching, so that boredom does not give rise to disrespect . . . Do not think you can expect from everyone an enthusiasm equal to your own."

Let the preacher beware!


Timothy Brown

President and Henry Bast Professor of Preaching

Western Theological Seminary

January 2015



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Consider the questions below - ponder them in your mind and in your heart. Then write out your answers before meeting with your group.

As you read and watch, how do you...

...find yourself resonating with the ideas offered in the essay?

...find yourself experiencing resistance?


Choose a sermon you have preached in the last year and consider the manuscript or notes. How did you craft it? What process did you use? What would you do differently? Identify a few key practices you use for crafting sermon.

Consider the text you have internalized over the last few months. What message is starting to appear? How would you begin to see this as a sermon?

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