How do I Decide What to Preach?

Startup Stock Photos

“How do you decide what to preach?”

I get this question often. Here is the 5-step process I have come up with to answer it:

1) Make sure you’re burning real wood.
2) Keep the fire stoked, and always be about the business of gathering more wood.
3) When you see smoke, search for the fire.
4) When you find the fire, jump in.
5) If it is burning in you, preach it.

1) Make sure you’re burning real wood.
You know those fake fireplaces? They have plastic logs, some creative lights, and even some material that waves around appearing to be a flame. As you examine them closely it becomes evident that the “fire” is just a mirage. There is a switch on the wall that you can flip on and off which controls the heat. It’s not a fireplace; it’s more like a glorified space heater. It’s safe for children. It’s economical. It’s contained. Preaching can be like this. It can have the appearance of fire, but no one is really in danger of getting burned.

How do you make sure you’re using real wood in your preaching?

I think the key is starting with the text of Scripture.

This first step is vital to the entire process. Start with the text of Scripture, pull out what is there, and the ideas contained therein produce the content of our sermons. This is called expositional preaching.

Haddon Robinson’s definition of expositional preaching is helpful here:
“Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.”[1]

Starting with the text means we don’t start with an “idea” or “concept” when we’re planning a series or a sermon, instead we start with a passage (or book) of Scripture. We also work hard to start with a “clean slate” as much as possible, going straight to the text first instead of saying “Hey, we want to preach on this, what is a text that will support that?” We start with the question “What does the text say?” before we determine the theme, topic, or creative concept of our sermons or sermon series’.

2) Keep the fire stoked, and always be about the business of gathering more wood.
I try to remain a couple of steps ahead at all times. This means having a good idea of the preaching direction 6 months to a year out.   

3) When you see smoke, search for the fire.  
Most of the “wood gathering” I do occurs through daily devotional reading, Scripture memorization, or teaching leadership lessons from different texts. Sometimes I keep tripping over specific logs in the forest before I stop and start to examine them. Meaning, certain texts or books of the Bible will keep coming up while I’m counseling people, or in my reading (of Scripture and other books). There come certain points where I say, “You know what, maybe it’s time to pick this log up and carry it for a while.” This is searching for the fire as you see and smell the smoke.

4) When you find the fire, jump in.
Once I get an idea that a certain book of Scripture may be the next place we should be headed as a church, I dive in with both feet. This means memorization, study, reading a couple of books/commentaries, etc. Bible apps often have the feature where it will read the Bible to you. I often listen over and over to the book I’m studying while I’m working around the house. A couple years ago I cut down 4 fruit trees in my backyard while listening to the gospel of Mark 3 or 4 times one Saturday.

5) If it is burning in you, preach it.
All Scripture burns, it is the word of God, a God who describes himself as “a consuming fire.” But in my experience, preaching some books of the Bible and some specific texts burn hotter in me at different times. As I remain about the business of constantly gathering wood, as I search for fire, and I jump in when I find it, sometimes that fire burns hot, as if it is “shut up in my bones” (Jeremiah 20:9). When it burns that way, I know it is time to let it out.

When I was praying through and studying 1 Peter late 2013, the content was so clearly resonating with where we were at as a church. The more I studied, the heavier the burden grew.

In my local church, I work through all of these steps in collaboration with our elders and pastoral staff. After deciding on the next book we want to tackle, we’ll get the preaching and creative teams together to brand it, figure out the passage breakdowns, and get to the business of nailing out illustrations and concepts.

[1] Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching, p. 21.