Sermon Preparation on the Run

Published in Unashamed Workmen: How Expositors Prepare and Preach (Mentor, 2014).

Ajith Fernando

I am writing as a non-pastor who has been actively involved in the same church, which my wife and I helped “restart,” for thirty-three years. I preached regularly there during the early years, but most of my preaching has been as a visiting preacher in churches, camps, conferences and mostly in gatherings of Youth for Christ. Despite that irregularity, I have generally spoken about five or more times a week. So preparation of sermons is as challenging to me as it is to a pastor of a local church.

One of my great aims as national leader of Youth for Christ for thirty-five years was to develop a model of ministry where everything came out of biblical theology. Biblical preaching and teaching therefore have been key aspects of my life and ministry. Now after stepping down from leadership and taking on the role of Teaching Director I am preaching and teaching even more than before (20-35 times a month). Because of the itinerant nature of my ministry I repeat my messages a lot, but I am always working on new messages.


Most preachers who love to preach look longingly at two models of sermon preparation which are impossible for them to follow. The first model is that of the Senior Pastor of a large multi-staff church in North America who is expected to concentrate on preaching and so is able to spend thirty or more hours a week on preparation. Other staff will handle most of the other duties relating to pastoral ministry.

I fear that this may not be a very biblical model. Good preaching comes out of a lifestyle ministering personally to people. Acts and the Epistles show that Paul gave a lot of his time for personal ministry. That is messy and calls for us to do many different things for people with which we may be uncomfortable. I think one of the glories of the call to be a preacher is our generalism. This can be very frustrating, but it gives us close contact with people; and that provides a background for the kind of theologizing that produces great preaching. When the frustration of working with difficult people combines with careful study and reflection, the result is penetrative insight.

In his early years of ministry Augustine had a little community in a place called Tagaste, where he taught the Bible and was able to give himself to a contemplative life. He feared becoming a pastor as he knew that this would deprive him of the time for reflection he desired and had in the monastery that he headed. As he was a good preacher he was often invited to preach, but he would not accept appointments at churches where there was no pastor. He feared they may ask him to come there as pastor!

Once Augustine was invited to Hippo to counsel someone. He was not afraid to go to Hippo as there was a pastor, Bishop Valerius, there. He went to church to hear the Bishop preach, and the bishop seeing him, told the people that there was an urgent need for a second ordained man there. “At once the congregation laid hands on Augustine and brought him to the front amid general acclamation. There was no escape…. He was ordained on the spot.” He began to weep. Some thought that he was weeping because he had not been made bishop (elder) right away. “But the real reason was that he knew ordination meant the end of his dream of a tranquil Christian life, withdrawn from the pressures and strife of the world”1

He served in Hippo until his death almost 40 years later. But what an influence this one man had! He has been called, “The greatest Christian theologian since the apostle Paul.”2 Some of his books took a long time to write because of the pressures of ministry. One, called The Trinity, took 17 years to finish. He had to drop this project each time a challenge came his way that needed to be addressed.3 The solitude Augustine desired, he got only during the last 10 days of his life, when, confined to his bed, he asked not to be disturbed.4 Some of the most influential theologians in history, like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley, were generalists who preached and wrote out of active grassroots ministry.

The second model of sermon preparation that is impossible for most preachers today is that of “the country parson” of a few generations ago. He lives in a peaceful, idyllic town and is able to devote the whole morning on weekdays for study and preparation.

When I was a student at Fuller Theological Seminary in the mid-1970s, John Stott visited the seminary. At a question and answer session a student asked him how a pastor should devote time for study. He said that the old model of the pastor giving the whole morning to preparation is almost impossible to follow today. Instead he said that we should squeeze in whatever time is available for preparation. Few statements about preaching have helped me as much as this one. It is a huge challenge to keep up with the preparation we need to do in this rushed world. But it is amazing how much time preachers could find if they discipline themselves to use the little moments of free time they get for studying.


Keeping ourselves enriched so as to have a wealth of insight to use in our preaching is a great challenge. I rely on five indispensable sources.

Reading and Listening for Personal Renewal. We need to be exposed to means that feed our heart and mind. The most important thing here, of course, is exposure to the Bible. To that I would like to add the need to be exposed to the thinking of other Christians. There is a great danger that in today’s digitalized world, preachers get exposed to limitless bytes of information that fill (not feed) the mind but do not feed the soul. A pastor who left the ministry as a result of burn-out left behind his library at his office in the church. When his successor came and looked at his library, he noticed that many of the books he has acquired early in his ministry were on Bible and theology, but most of his more recently acquired books were on practical topics relating to techniques of ministry and leadership.5 He had probably neglected the work of feeding his mind and soul.

Theological and devotional books based on exegesis feed us with security-building realities. These realities give us strength to go through the rigors of an active life of service to others. We confront so many uncertainties and receive so many blows in ministry that without this strength we can become very insecure people. This is what gave the psalmists the courage to persevere against all odds. As David said, “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction” (Psa. 119:92). Deep down we are braced by the reality that “the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17). With so much uncertainly around, we cling to the belief that truth will finally triumph. As Peter said, “The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Pet. 1:24-25). As we are bombarded daily with messages that seem to deny this, it is easy to imbibe the insecurity of the world. This is why we need to be fed by a regular dose of the truths of God. These abiding truths give us the security to persevere amidst so many seeming setbacks in ministry.

I am convinced that burnout takes place more as a result of insecurity than hard work. Paul uses of the verb kopiaō, which carries the idea of toiling or working to the point of exhaustion, thirteen times,6 and the corresponding noun kopos eight times7 in connection with Christian ministry. This suggests that hard work and tiredness are inevitable in ministry. But if our hard work and passion for success comes from trying to overcome our insecurities, we would never be contented in ministry and could keep pushing ourselves until we get burned out. Therefore feeding our minds with truths which affirm our security should be a priority in ministry. So is time spent alone with God in prayer. But that is beyond the scope of this article.

When I was a student at Asbury Theological Seminary we had Bishop Stephen Neill, who served with distinction in India, Kenya and England, visiting us for two days. He had one of the most brilliant minds I have ever encountered. During a question and answer time he recommended something to the students which I have found very helpful. He recommended that when we launch into ministry we regularly read theological books slowly, a little at a time when we can find the time, even if it takes several months to complete them. Over the years I have tried to do this with not only theological books but also expository books, exegetically derived devotional books, and biographies of people whose ministries have stood the test of time. Among my favorite authors are Joe Bayly, F. F. Bruce, Don Carson, Robert Coleman, David Gooding, E. Stanley Jones, Dennis Kinlaw, C. S. Lewis, Leon Morris, Robert Murray M‘Cheyne, J. A. Motyer, Lesslie Newbigin, John Piper, A. T. Robertson, Tom Schreiner, John Stott, Chris Wright, and Philip Yancey.

Another lesson that has been helpful to me has been something I learned from John Piper who said, “Books don’t change people; paragraphs do. Sometimes even sentences.”8 What I learned from this is that sometimes one does not have to read a whole book to be blessed by an author. When you are reading a large book slowly, it may take too long to complete the whole book. Sometimes we may leave a book after reading a substantial portion of the book, as we have imbibed enough of the author’s burden for the time being.

Of course, we will skim some books and magazines in order to get a sense of some of the issues being discussed today. I also read book reviews which gives me a glimpse of the issues being talked about. I have found that the e-journal Themelios (which is found in the Gospel Coalition website) and The International Bulletin of Missionary Research have a good variety of helpful reviews. Today, of course, many preachers will find nourishment through listening to talks through podcasts, DVDs etc.

Observation. We preachers need to know what is happening in the world in which we live. This knowledge leads us to good avenues for the application of truth and also tells us the issues we should address from the pulpit. For this television, newspapers, the internet and magazines can be very helpful. Preachers should consider keeping up with the news (religious and other) as an important aspect of their calling. I work with the poor, and most of them travel by bus. So I usually do several short trips by bus a year and one or two longer trips. The discomfort is more than compensated by the potent preaching material that is gained through observing what is happening.

I also have decided to do my exercise walk in my neighborhood rather than the nice walking areas available close to my home. This is also so that that I can stop and chat to neighbors and get a little involved in their lives. We preachers have to search diligently for opportunities to interact with non-Christians as it is so easy to get so involved in the affairs of the church that we end up limiting our contacts to Christians. John Wesley was walking with one of his preachers when they encountered two women quarreling. The preacher suggested that they walk on, but Wesley checked him saying, “Stay, Sammy, stay, and learn to preach!”9

I must give a warning along with this call to find out what is happening in the world. Some terrible things are also happening. There are sordid stories that are circulating as news, which should be categorized as gossip or pornography, which can arouse unsanctified feelings within us and leave us impure. This is why I think it is good for every preacher (indeed, for every Christian) who spends a lot of time on the internet to install some accountability software which both blocks unhelpful sites and sends a weekly report of internet use to an accountability partner. I use the program Covenant Eyes and have found it very helpful.

Personal Ministry. Using a metaphor popularized by John Stott, we could say that the preacher’s job is to build a bridge between the biblical world and the world of our hearers. Knowing the world we live in and the Scriptures is important. But we must take the knowledge we know and present it in a way that is relevant and challenging to people. All preachers must develop skills in the art of integration. Few things help a keen student of the world and the Word to integrate as effectively as personal ministry. To be sure personal work is often frustrating and filled with disappointments. When we make ourselves open to helping people we find that their needs often crop up at the most inconvenient times. Yet personal ministry is a key to penetrative preaching.

Personal ministry forces us to theologize. We are forced to ask how we can effectively apply what we know of the Word and the world to the lives of the people we are ministering to. This often brings us to the point of desperation. We ask questions like, “How can I help this person?” “What went wrong in this situation?” “How was it that I able to help John while I couldn’t help Jerry?” All this helps us develop skills in applying the Word to people’s lives penetratingly.

I remember that in my first few years of ministry after completing my seminary studies most of the illustrations I used were explanatory. That is, they explained what a biblical truth meant. Now I find that most of my illustrations are applicational. They are intended to help people to apply biblical truth in their daily lives. I believe this shift is directly related to experiences in personal ministry. When you work with the lives of people, you become desperate to help them in them. So one of the great aims of preaching becomes helping people to think and live like Christians.

I have had to live with a measure of prominence because of my call to be a writer and to speak internationally. But I have come to recognize that the prominence of public ministry is as a burden to be endured rather than an honor to seek. Our badge of honor is personal work. Public ministry must never detract from personal ministry. Personal ministry is the context out of which good public ministry emerges.

Research. I suppose I should say something about specific research relating to the content we are going to present in a sermon. The internet of course presents us with a marvelous array of material, which can be very helpful. But we have to be cautious about this, as sometimes what you get on the internet is not reliable. What I have found very helpful are dictionaries. I do a lot of my study when I am travelling. So, thanks to the kindness of some friends, I have been able to install several dictionaries on a variety of topics which I can refer to when preparing a message. I have Dictionaries/Encyclopedias of the Bible, of Biblical theology, of theology, of church history, of biography, of pastoral theology and ethics and of counseling. This is augmented by books on topics that would figure in my preaching and teaching; but most of those are hard copies rather than digital copies. Of course, I must mention Bible commentaries which help enrich our study. For me inductive study of the text comes first and only after that do I refer to a commentary.

Usually I use the BibleWorks software for my basic study of the Bible and Logos Bible Software for research and broader study. The Logos program is so large that I have had to keep changing my computer to keep up with it, as it can get very slow on an older machine. Thank God for friends who help with such purchases!

Often when preparing a message I call friends, whom I consider experts, to check up whether a point I am making is correct. I will call a doctor if I am making a medical point or a lawyer if I want some clarification on a legal matter. When preparing a message for young people I often ask my children or other staff of Youth for Christ for guidance in helping me make my talk relevant. We must look at application as an exacting task that requires the same kind of rigor that we would give to doing accurate exegesis of the text we are going to speak from. If I have a serious exegetical question that I cannot answer from the books I have, I am blessed with two top Bible scholars Donald Carson and Tom Schreiner whom I could write to or call. Sometimes when I come to the USA I come with a list of things I want to ask Dr. Carson. I am amazed at the versatility of his scholarship and thank God that once in a way God gives the church this kind of genius.

Bible Study. The core of a good preacher’s preparation should be time spent studying the Bible. I am grateful to have had the privilege of studying under Dr. Robert Traina at Asbury Theological Seminary and Dr. Daniel Fuller at Fuller Theological Seminary. They introduced me to inductive Bible study, and I use what I learned from them almost every day. The well-known steps of observation, interpretation and looking for legitimate applications continue to serve as a sure way to get myself and others into vibrant Bible study.

However, this is a time consuming task, and it requires people to think hard about what they are reading. In today digital world people are not so accustomed to spending so much time thinking. Many people would not regard spending large amounts of time on careful observation and thinking about a short passage as a meaningful and fulfilling activity. Ours is a surfing culture that is used to skimming through material and accumulating facts that have been presented in easily digestible bytes. Our generation seems to be more skilled at producing technicians rather than thinkers and theologians. People say that expository preaching is out of fashion today because it seems culturally distant to people. I feel that the primary reason for the loss of popularity of biblical exposition today is that preachers find it difficult to devote so much time to the tasks of serious study of the Word and thoroughgoing application of the text.

Yet in promoting biblical preaching today we do face some serious cultural challenges. There is an aversion, in this postmodern generation, to fashioning one’s life by submitting to objective truth (truth that is outside of us). This makes exhortation from the Scriptures a culturally unacceptable practice to many. Related to this is the subjective reader-oriented hermeneutic where there is greater focus on the way a text affects the reader with a decrease in attention given to the intention of the author.

I remember talking to some publishers in the west about twenty-five years ago when I was discussing the possibility of some of my work being published in the west. They told me that people are not interested in reading Bible expositions. Even Bible expositions that sell should be camouflaged as something else, so that the fact that it is an exposition does not figure in the decision to read the book. I remember someone in the publishing world telling me that Zondervan made a mistake in having a sub-title Applying the Book of Daniel Today to my book Spiritual Living in a Secular World. This person felt that the main title was attractive but the sub-title would betray the fact that the book was a Bible exposition and would thus deter some prospective readers. I determined at that time that I would labor to make Bible exposition exciting and relevant.

I am grateful for a lively correspondence in those early days with Jack Kuhatschek who was formerly at Zondervan and is now the Publisher and Executive Vice President at Baker. He egged me on to be conscientious in presenting the results of solid study in ways that are attractive and relevant. It was a joy and privilege to be able to write the volume on “Acts” in Jack’s brainchild, The NIV Application Commentary.10

My dream is to preach in such a way that people will be attracted to the Scriptures; that they would be amazed at how relevant the Bible is to their daily life; that they would find themselves developing an inclination to live under the objective truths in the Bible. So preachers today need to be not only expositors of the Bible but also evangelists for the Bible and for objective truth. They have the task of convincing people that the truth of the Word is worth taking seriously. And one way to do that is to present the truth of scripture in such a powerfully relevant way that it will trigger life change in the hearers. The exposition must demonstrate what living under the Word means as it applies the Word relevantly to everyday life. In this way we can raise up a generation of Christians who learn to respect and eagerly sit under the objective truth of the Word.

A Daunting Task. Yet we are asking a lot from preachers when we say they must study the Word and the world and theology and also do personal ministry. Many find this to be too demanding and they compromise somewhere. Sometimes preaching is very relevant but not exegetically sound. Other times it is based on good biblical study, but it is boring and not relevant to the lives of the audience. Those who choose to follow the path I am advocating may experience tiredness. I have been in vocational Christian Ministry for thirty-seven years, and I think I have been exhausted for thirty-seven years! I have been preaching since I was about 18 years old, that is, for about forty-six years. Though exhausted, I must say that I am more enthusiastic and thrilled about preaching than I was forty-six years ago.

I believe my exhaustion is because I have tried to live a balanced life (though I cannot say I have “arrived” at the best balance yet). I see the balanced life, not as doing everything in moderation, but as being obedient in every area of life. So we give time for study, for reading, for observing what is happening in the world, for preparation, for prayer, for fun times with the family, for other family responsibilities, for exercise, for weekly Sabbath rest, for personal ministry, for neighbors…. Just reading that list could leave you exhausted! However within this stretched and balanced life are sources of renewal. There is a balance between output and input; between fun and work. For example, when we study the Word we are fed, and when we pray and play with family we are refreshed. So we are tired; but we are also refreshed. And if we are happy about our work and relatively healthy—what more do we want?

Quite often I am so busy with other things or I get stuck in my preparation because of an exegetical or other problem, that I am forced to work almost the whole night on a message for the morning. I go and preach and then come home to catch up on lost sleep. I do not detest this discomfort. Preaching is such a great privilege and such a thrilling call that I am happy to pay whatever price needs to be paid to prepare for it. I concur with the sentiments of Robert Murray M‘Cheyne who said, “I will tell you why we faint not. Because it is so sweet to preach. I would say with Henry, ‘I would beg six days, to be allowed to preach the seventh.’”11 I am so grateful for the homiletics course I took under Dr. Donald Demaray in my first term at Asbury Seminary in 1972. The biggest impression it left on me was that preaching was a grand and glorious task. That impression has not left me all these years.


Let me tell you something about the specific process that goes into my preparation. In Dr. Demaray’s homiletics class one day we had the local Methodist Pastor Dr. David Seamands come and tell us how he prepared his sermons. Dr. Seamands had been in the same church for almost two decades at that time and had preached two different sermons of about 50 minutes each in the morning and evening on most Sundays. He was a brilliant preacher, and I was always inspired and stimulated by his preaching. He told us that he would go on a retreat and decide what he would preach on for three months. Then he would have a large envelope for each sermon and he would keep adding things that he found which would help him in the sermon into the appropriate envelope. If he read something in a paper or magazine he would cut it out and put it in.

I use a similar method, though I put my material on a clip board or a note book. I try to decide on what I am going to preach on as early as possible, and then I let the sermon grow. If I am giving an expository message (which is what I do most of the time), I will print out the passage. I usually use sheets of paper with plenty of space for writing notes. The passage is on the left of the sheet in a strip of about three inches. There will be a very large margin on the right and also large margins on the top and bottom. A sermon requires several such sheets. If I am speaking from one or two verses I will use a page for a phrase, which will be typed out at the top. The rest of the page is for notes. The text will be only on one side of the paper, so that the other side is also available for writing notes. These pages will be clipped on to a clip-board. Usually I am preparing more than one message at a given time, so I have a clipboard for each sermon. Some sermons are prepared using smaller note books but with a similar idea of having a page or two for a point.

Usually I will read the passage devotionally during my quiet time for about two days. After that my preparation will be outside the quiet time. I will study the passage inductively taking down notes as I go along. Once I have an idea of what my main points are, I keep adding notes to each point. My diary has several blank detachable pages, and if I do not have my notes with me, I will write down ideas in the diary as soon as they come to my mind. Later I will paste or write it into the main notes I am collecting for the sermon. If I do not have my diary, I will look for a paper in my wallet and write it down. If I do not write it down immediately I would probably lose it.

Sometimes something I hear in a sermon triggers an idea for a sermon I am working on, and I write it down at once. An incident on the road, something I see on TV, something I read, or a conversation may trigger some ideas. Those are also written down as soon as possible. Sometimes when I am driving my vehicle, a thought comes and I park somewhere as soon as possible and write it down before proceeding on my journey. Applications spring out through day to day experiences. What we learn through our personal ministry is a potent source for applications, but we must be careful not to embarrass the person through whom we learned the truth.

As it is difficult for me to study at home, except at night, I have a few hideaways, where I can do undisturbed study. I got this idea from John Stott who had a cottage in Wales. My sister and mother live next door, and sometimes I go there. Our Youth for Christ drug rehabilitation center which is about 90 minutes from my home is my favorite home away-from-home where I can study undisturbed. During my travels abroad I have friends who open their homes to me for a few days of undisturbed writing. Without trying to play host, they just leave me alone to study. Sometimes if I have a little free time, like fifteen minutes or half an hour between appointments, I will park my vehicle somewhere and study in the vehicle during that time.

So the sermon grows with time. I am usually modifying the sermon right until the time I preach it because ideas keep coming up. Something that happens or that is said or sung during the service/meeting triggers an idea and that is incorporated into the message. This may mean that I will decide to drop something in the original sermon in order to stick to the time allotted to me. As I am modifying all the time, I write on only one side of the page so that I can put additions on the opposite page. I also take scissors and scotch tape with me wherever I go, so that if I need to do a major revision that could be pasted over the discarded material.

Usually I handwrite my sermon notes because I am more comfortable reading my own writing than I am reading typescript. Sometimes when I am speaking in a conference, I need to give the manuscript ahead of time. So I do that, and then I transfer the material into a handwritten form! This may sound strange to younger people from the digital generation. But this is what is easy for me. I want to see rather than read the notes. This way I can look at the audience most of the time. I color-code my messages using highlighters—again so that I can see without having to read. My main points are colored blue. Sub-points are in green. Scripture is in orange and illustrations and applications are in pink.

I must add that slowly my preparation is getting more and more digitalized and that I am progressively using my computer more during my preparation. Those who are more computer-savvy than me would see that all the processes described above can be done using an I-Pad or even a computer. The main thing is to find ways to access the material in our notes while we are preaching with minimal distraction, so that we concentrate on the huge challenge of communicating effectively to our audience.

* * * * * *

I tell our Youth for Christ workers that if they go to speak in a program without adequate preparation, they should be put in prison. One of the most terrible things that could happen on earth is for God to be dishonored. A poorly presented message dishonors God. And if we are responsible for that we should considered criminals. A vision of the glory of God and our call to uphold it drives us to prepare well before we speak.

Yet sometimes we have to preach without any preparation. On Pentecost Sunday this year at our church, I led the worship up to the sermon. The preacher had not come, and we kept expecting him to turn up any time. The offertory hymn was just before the sermon, and he had not yet come. I realized that I would have to preach. I pleaded with God for a message and took the first two chapters of Acts and delivered a sermon making it up as I went along. I think the message went well!

I was able to do this because it was an exception to the rule. A preacher is always thinking about the things of God. Out of the thinking (or theologizing) we have been doing, once in a while, we can come up with things worth sharing without much preparation. But we cannot do this often, for our resources would soon be exhausted. The norm for preachers is hard praying and conscientious preparation before preaching.

1David Bentley-Taylor, Augustine: Wayward Genius (London: Hodder and Stoughton and Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980 and 1981), p. 58.

2Tony Lane, The Lion Concise Book of Christian Thought (Herts: Lion Publishing, 1984), p. 40.

3Bentley-Taylor, Augustine, p. 189.

4Bentley-Taylor, Augustine, p. 238.

5 This was related by Bishop Robert Solomon of Singapore in a seminar he conducted in Sri Lanka many years ago.

6 Acts 20:35; Rom. 16:6, 12; 1 Cor. 4:12; 15:10; 16:16; Gal. 4:11; Phil. 2:16; Col. 1:29; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 4:10; 5:17; 2 Tim. 2:6;

7 1 Cor. 15:58; 2 Cor. 6:5; 11:23, 27; 1 Thess. 1:3; 2:9; 3:5; 2 Thess. 3:8.

8 John Piper, The Godward Life (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 1997).

9 From W. T. Purkiser, The New Testament Image of the Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974 reprint), 64.

10 Ajith Fernando, Acts: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998)

11 Robert Murray M‘Cheyne, A Basket of Fragments (Inverness, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 1979 reprint of 1848 edition), p. 8.