Choosing Your Sermon Text: Step 1 – Creative Digital Sermon Prep
Far too many preachers forget the biggest part of choosing your sermon text – prayer. Before you do anything else, top and consult the wisdom of the One who inspired the text we preach. After prayer we can attempt multiple strategies for choosing your sermon text, but until you’ve consulted God, you’re not even ready to consider it.
Our prayer and Bible study time, which we do out of our loving desire to hang out with our best friend Jesus, will inform this stage of sermon prep. Often, as I read through my devotional Bible reading, I’m inspired to preach a text I’ve read. Sometimes I pray for my congregation and God pricks my heart to a need the people of High Peak Baptist Church might exhibit that the Scripture can inform. Then times come when it’s time to prepare for a message and I’ve got nothing. I don’t feel inspired by my devotional readings and nothing jumps out during my prayer time. What do I preach then? So, I pray, “Lord give me the wisdom to understand what you want me to preach.” That prayer or something like it usually results in ideas with a day or so.
Many preachers handle the “what do I preach” problem with a preaching calendar that they plan out for a given period of time. If I was more organized I’d do this. I’m not, but I’ve heard of some approaches to this that I’d recommend. You can use a calendar to help in choosing your sermon text.
- Preaching Calendar Retreat – schedule a regular annual retreat where you’re away from ministry and you can pray and plan for a year of preaching.
- Preaching Planning Team – some pastors work with a staff that can work together to plan out the year of preaching. They meet with them on a quarterly basis or monthly basis.
- As You Go – many people follow this approach and I have to admit that I do. I just keep a Word document (see above) with a table of four columns with one for the date for each week’s Sunday. The other three are for morning, evening and Wednesday night Bible study. I add to it as I have ideas. Sometimes that’s many months in advance and sometimes it’s just a week or two. I also put holidays on this and other church events that will effect my calendar.
- Preaching Through… – many preachers just pick a book of the Bible or a section of a book or maybe a list of passages and preach through them till they’re done and move on to the next book, passage or list.
If you use a different approach, please leave a comment below and I’ll update this list giving you credit.
What is Expository Preaching?
Before we think about choosing your sermon text, we need to consider our strategy for preaching. I am what’s generally called an expository preacher? We get a lot of false understandings of what that means. Here’s what expository preaching is not…
- A running commentary on a verse
- Preaching through books of the Bible
- Boring because it sounds like a commentary
Some preachers prefer what we call topical preaching. This means they take a subject like Godly Parenting and come up with some Biblical ideas and then find passages that seem to talk about this subject. This approach comes out of public speaking theory where a speaker will select a subject and then find supporting material and arguments to prove the truth of their subject or explain the idea. The Bible happens to grab the majority of their time.
A preacher once said that Jesus preached topically. While that may seem true since we don’t often hear him saying, “The scriptures (law, Torah, etc) says…”. He does say that, but not a lot. However, Jesus is divine and, therefore, every word he said was itself Scripture. Until I can claim divine inspiration of every word of my sermons, I better take a different approach. I should let the Bible speak for me and I should attempt to make all of my words focused on the primary message of a passage of scripture. That is expository preaching.
If you disagree and want to preach a topical message, then to help with choosing your sermon text, take a look at an article I wrote about how to choose passages for a topical sermon using Logos Bible Software. focused on using Logos to find a good sermon subject, for Topical Preaching or Topical Textual Preaching. Instead, expository preaching will dominate the rest of our sermon prep series.
I don’t have the space to look at the benefits of expository preaching versus topical preaching. Check out Lifeway’s helpful list of 9 Benefits of Expository Preaching by Tony Merida. However, let me quickly define what I mean by Expository Preaching. Expository preaching includes the following:
- One single text that dominates the sermon’s content.
- The main message comes out of the text. Some call this the Big Idea, as Haddon Robinson did in Biblical Preaching.
- The text will also dominate the tone and style of preaching. Poetry should have a poetic feel while narrative should include the story as a primary part of the sermon. Texts with a positive tone should not result in a harsh sermon negative in its tone.
- The preacher will explain, illustrate, prove and apply the Big Idea of the text while preaching that text.
Choosing Your Sermon Text – What Kind of Passage?
Your expository preaching can include the following:
- A single passage or pericope of scripture, like a sermon I recently preached on John 13:31-35.
- Part of a book like The Sermon on the Mount or Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in John.
- A full book of the Bible like John’s Epistles.
I’ve preached using all three taking anywhere from a single message to multiple years. Recently I preached on John 13:31-35 but I’m not preaching through John or through the Farewell Discourse of Jesus in John’s Gospel. I’ve preached through the Sermon on the Mount, but not through the book of Matthew … yet. And last year I preached through John’s letters. All of the above sermons or series of sermons were expository sermons.
Choosing Your Sermon Text Using Bible Software
Bible software often includes tools that will help in choosing your sermon text. For example, Logos Bible Software helps you find passages about a given topic. Choosing your sermon text includes a few steps as follows:
- Choose a passage or choose theological idea.
- Finding a section of scripture that covers that idea, if that’s your approach.
- Narrowing the text – pick the specific verses to preach.
Assume you’re choosing a book to preach. For example, if I choose to preach through the book of Hebrews because I want to help my congregation understand the theology behind Jesus as the Passover Lamb and High Priest of our faith, then I will of course begin in Hebrews 1:1.
Some preachers like to preach through a book by first giving an introduction to the message. They will preach a single sermon that hits the highlights of the overall message of a book. I don’t like this approach because it isn’t the way the author of Hebrews intended his readers to read his letter. It’s possible a local church pastor read the book and said something like, “We received this letter from (fill in the blank with your pick for author of the book of Hebrews, like Luke) and in the book he wrote…” at which point he summarizes the book. But he will then read the opening verses of the book. Did he stop and summarize? Possibly, but we can’t be sure how each local pastor read the book. I’ve always assumed he just read the letter out loud.
Now the preacher needs to decide what verse to start with and what verse to end with. The first sermon will begin with Hebrews 1:1. Will the sermon end with verse four as the HCSB, Lexham English Bible or NRSV sections it? Should we preach the entire chapter, which is how the NIV, ESV or NASB does?
Consult multiple translations and look at the way it divides the pericope. A pericope is a section of scripture. Think about the way a modern translation divides up chapters into sections with a heading before each section. That’s a pericope. The original text didn’t divide the passage this way. Modern translators did to make it easier for modern readers to understand what each section talks about.
Be careful to rely too much on translation divisions. You also need to be careful relying too much on verse and chapter divisions, two things that the original writers also didn’t include.
Using Logos Bible Software in Choosing Your Sermon Text
From this point on, we’ll focus on using Logos Bible Software for choosing your sermon text. The screenshots and instructions cover doing this with Logos 8. If you use a different version of Logos or some other great Bible software, you can still follow these steps but adapt them for your particular software.
I start by reading the text in context multiple times. In Logos Bible software, open your favorite translation. Go to your library by clicking the Library button, second from the left next to the home button on the toolbar. You can drag the Bible to your toolbar so it’s always available with one click. Or click in the Command Box and type Go to John 13:31-35 or whatever your chosen text might be. Read the text in context as follows:
- Narrative – read the story and read those passages before and after.
- Poetry – find the beginning and end of the poem and if it’s in context of another genre then read the parts before and after. Psalms are a single unit of text by themselves so just read the chapter.
- Proverbs – read the chapter and decide if your Proverb is part of a collection of Proverbs about a single subject. If so, then pay attention to the other Proverbs about this topic. If it’s not part of a section of Proverbs on a single topic, then read your single Proverb (note some Proverbs might include multiple verses).
- Didactic – teaching passages like the epistles require us to find the letter’s overall argument and then look for this particular part of the argument to find how your text fits in the overall argument. This overall argument might include the entire book or a large section of the book, like Romans 1-11 or Ephesians 1-3.
- Prophetic – find the overall prophecy, often in poetic genre and other times as part of a narrative. One prophetic message will become one preaching text.
- Legal – read laws in context of their overall application, like laws about the priesthood in Leviticus or the feast days, etc. and choose your text-based on this overall section.
You can do this in any software. Logos doesn’t do it better or worse than any other program. You can even do it in a paper Bible (shudder to imagine it).
Passage Analysis Tool
Checking out multiple translations can help you with choosing your sermon text. The Passage Analysis Tool in Logos Bible Software helps us with this aspect of delineating the test.
Go to Tools and click on Passage Analysis. Type your passage into the command box in the upper left corner. It will visually show the boundaries of the various pericopes in your top translations. Next to the command box you’ll see a drop down box that reads Pericope Sets. Click it to choose your translations by putting a check in the check box of your preferred translations. If you own too many books with pericopes, you may need to scroll to show them all. (What is a pericope?)
After you finish choosing your translations in the previous step, they will show up in columns in order of your rankings. Along the left you’ll see links to the text that you can click to open your preferred Bible to that verse.
The columns will show boxes that represent a pericope. For example, in the image above, notice that the ESV (dark blue column on left) has more pericopes than the NLT (green column third from the right above). Click on a pericope box and it opens in your top translation, but not that specific translation that you clicked. I’d expect it to open in that translation, but it doesn’t for some reason.
How does this help in choosing your text? You can see how all the various translation teams chose to break up the pericopes. They often vary wildly as in our chosen passage in John 13 above. The ESV, HCSB, NKJV, NRSV and UBS4 all agree that John 13:31-35 forms a single unit or pericope. However, the NASB, NIV 1984, and NLT all include John 13:31-38. If you scroll up you’ll see that all but the NASB 1995 agree that the pericope begins with verse 31 (see below)..
The two steps above should help you find a single pericope. You can probably preach single sermon on that passage. Or it may take too long to preach in a single message and you decide to break it up into a series covered over a few weeks.
Sermon Starter Guide
If you’re still struggling to choose which verse to include in your expository sermon, then consider firing up the Logos Sermon Starter Guide. Thanks to Graham Criddle in the Logos forums for this suggestion.
You’ll find it under Tools in the menu. Click on Sermon Starter Guide from the list along the left of the box that pops up. This opens the guide to the passage in your open Bible. You can type in your text and run the guide.
For this step, we’ll focus on three sections of the Sermon Starter Guide. Look at the Sermons, Sermon Outlines and Outlines sections. Under each you can see how other preachers or scholars have divided the passage and preached it or handled it in a commentary. You’ll have to own books that include these three kinds of information. Open them and read over them to see what these other preachers chose as their text.
At this early state, be careful to use these tools only as a guide for picking your sermon text. Don’t read too much of the content because it might push you in the wrong direction and keep you from discovering your own Big Idea or sermon thesis. You can come back to it later when you’ve finished your own personal inductive Bible study of the passage.
Now that you’ve looked at the text in multiple translations, checked out the Passage Analysis Tool and looked over the Sermon Starter Guide, it’s time to pick the beginning and ending of the text.
You’ll want to consider another issue. How much can you cover in the time given. I preach in a traditional Baptist Church and the people typically expect about a 25 to 35 minutes sermon. I can stretch that to 45 on occasion. On Wednesday evening we have an hour and prayer requests take up about ten minutes, so I can easily go 50 minutes since it’s a discussion time and not just my lecture.
Choose the first and last verses based on all the research above and stick with your choice. Prayer will also help throughout the process, before, during and after you prepare to preach.
Pick a Book or Longer Passage to Preach
The above steps help preachers pick a passage for a single sermon. How do we find passages or books to preach in our Logos Bible Software sermon prep?
Use the topical search steps from part one of this series and look at the context of the passages that you discover. You may find that an entire section will make up a good sermon series through a chapter of the Bible. For example, let’s say you searched for a passage on prayer. You opened the Sermon Starter Guide and typed in Prayer. It returned the Lexham Theological Workbook. You opened it and found John 15:7. After reading the passage, you decide that you want to cover the entire topic of John 15 on remaining in Jesus. Or maybe you see a group of Psalms and so you decide to pick a few of them to preach through Psalms on Prayer.
Maybe you like to preach through books of the Bible. Search for some topics that you’re concerned about in your church. Use the following steps to search through your commentaries. If you don’t already have a Logos Collection that includes your commentaries, create one using the steps in the company’s helpful Logos Pro Training on the topic.
Open the Logos Search feature from the search button on the toolbar. Choose a Basic search and then click the link labeled Everything, Type the name of your new Collection the box that pops up. Click it from the list that shows up below the search box. Now click in the Search box and type the topic. You’ll find commentaries that include that word. Focus on the Introduction sections of the commentaries. You may find that a book fo the Bible talks a lot about a topic. Consider preaching through one of those books based on this search method.
Logos Lectionary Tools
I neglected to include the Lectionary Tool in the original version of this article because I’m not a lectionary preacher. However, many users will want to use it.
Even if you’re not someone who follows the lectionary regularly, it can offer some suggestions for preaching passages when you’re not coming up with any ideas using the above tools or when a topical search (from part one) doesn’t help. The lectionary follows the church calendar, so it’s a good way to keep in step with the rest of Christendom.
Logos includes various lectionaries and you can add them to your Home Page. I’ve done that and you can see it in the upper left corner. Edit your Home Page by clicking on the tiny gear icon in the upper right corner next to your name.
This opens a new window that pops up. See it below. Along the left there’s a list of things you can include on the left column of the Home Page. The list on the right of the pop up will show items to include I the main section of the Home Page.
For the purpose of this article, notice the various lectionaries included. I have my mouse over the Revised Common Lectionary, one of the more popular lectionaries used today. I have the Christian Worship Three Year Lectionary selected. You can choose more than one or just your favorite by putting a check mark in the box next to the name.
Now that you’ve selected your favorite lectionary or multiple lectionaries, click outside the pop up box to close it. The Home Page will refresh to update to the new settings. The lectionary will show up in the upper left. Click on the verse to open a new desktop Layout. You can also open this using the Layouts menu item from the toolbar. Click on Layouts. Make sure the Home Page Layouts section is open in the Layouts pop up. Then choose Lectionary.
The Layout will open your Lectionary on the left to that entry. In the center you’ll get two window panes. The top pane has your top 5 Bibles listed in the Library prioritization list in their own tabs. The bottom pane opens your top Commentary that includes that verse in one pane and your top devotional in the other pane showing the date of that lectionary entry.
The smaller column on the right shows two panes. The top will do a search to find books in your library that include references to the passage from the lectionary. The bottom pane shows a Bible Explorer Tool window open to that passage. The Explorer gives you things like Biblical People, Places, Events, Thing and Media. You’ll also see sections for your content, cross references and commentaries for that passage.
If you’re a lectionary preacher, then you likely already know that you can preach on one of the passages or include more than one. When I have used the lectionary to pick a passage, I just read them all and choose one that I want to preach.