Want to Write a Good Sermon? Listen First, Write Later

 Photo by  Toa Heftiba  on  Unsplash

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

A good sermon in part depends on offering a message our listeners need to hear from God. But how do we know what they need to hear?

In theory, we know because we listen to them.

  • We listen to them in pastoral care exchanges.
  • We listen to them in parish meetings.
  • We listen to them in bible studies.
  • We listen to them in a broader context by paying attention to what affects them in the news.

That said, these conversations rarely address the coming Sunday's passage and sermon directly, leaving us to infer, guess, and imagine connections as we prepare our message.

But what if we didn't have to guess at all? What if we knew?

The Backstory Preaching Collective+ was fortunate to hear a live lecture this past week from John McClure, the Charles G. Finney Professor of Preaching and Worship at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. Professor McClure made a compelling case that we can listen more deeply and craft our sermons more effectively with intentional help from our listeners. The result is more informed, collaborative preaching. His book, The Roundtable Pulpit: Where Preaching and Leadership Meet* spells out how.

It may sound unfamiliar or logistically complicated, but collaborating with your listeners doesn't have to be complicated. Consider these ways to tap into the needs of your audience.

How to Find Preaching Collaborators

1) Gather A small Group of Parishioners

Gather a small group of parishioners, perhaps three to five people, who will meet with you weekly to discuss the upcoming text.

To avoid a sense of exclusivity, have members rotate in and out of the group so there are always new voices and perspectives. Ask them to meet with you for a specified length of time: seventy-five minutes over eight weeks, for example. Craft questions about the text to prompt conversation. Then listen.

Over time, you'll hear deeply from a variety of those who have a vested interest in the sermon.

2) Ask Randomly

Getting your hair cut? Have a plane ride coming up? Going to sit through your kid's lacrosse game? Keep the text in a convenient place and ask someone you're sitting next to to read the text and what they see in it. You'll learn a lot about the people in your area, including perhaps why they don't attend church. What a great way to do evangelism and sermon prep at the same time!

3) Invite Conversations in the Community

Head to your local coffee shop or pub and put a sign on the table saying, "The Preacher is In!" Have copies of the text available, and over coffee or a beer, listen to what those in your community have to say about the text. These spots may be an especially helpful way to hear from those who say they are "spiritual but not religious."

In addition, consider taking the text to sites where people are hurting: nursing homes, prisons, or domestic violence shelters, for instance. People living in these places are likely to have different takes on a text than those who feel safe and secure.

4) Engage on Social Media

The best conversations will happen in person, but social media also offers a wealth of potential feedback. Reach out on your Facebook page, set up a Twitter feed, or post on the church's website. Post the text (or portion of it) and ask a specific question for people to respond to.

Knowledge vs. Knowing Your Audience

We may have a whole bunch of background knowledge about the text, but of course, knowledge alone does not a sermon make. Preachers need to take that knowledge and craft it into the word of God our people need to hear. We need to see how God is speaking to them in a Sunday's text.

Good sermons find the message in the "sweet spot" where the text and the joys/tribulations of our listeners intersect. Rather than presume we know what our listeners need to hear, in humility we can ask. And then we'll know.

Further Exploration

Want to learn more about how to set up such groups and suggestions to shape the conversation? Read Dr. McClure's book. After thirty years of hearing from preachers who have used this process, he reported not only is it successful in crafting better sermons, but paradoxically, it saves time in sermon prep.

Have you set up collaborative preaching groups as Dr. McClure suggests?

What was your experience?

With whom might you try to hold a conversation on the text?

What kinds of questions might you ask?

Let your colleagues know what worked for you by leaving a comment.


Next month, the guest lecturer in The Backstory Preaching Collective+ is The Rev'd Dr. Lisa Lamb, Visiting Assistant Professor in Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary, who will speak to us about storytelling in sermons. I'd love to have you join us!

*Interesting to note! This book was published in the 1990's, but Dr. McClure said it is suddenly selling better than it ever has! Backstory Preaching is an affiliate of Amazon.com and receives a very small percentage on the sale of books we recommend. We will never recommend a book we don't believe is worth your while. Thank you for supporting our ministry this way.