Writing a Bible Talk

Public speaking is scary, doubly so when handling God’s Word.

One of the various responsibilities I have at church is giving a sermon. Or, in less churchy terms, speaking about a particular passage from the bible.

This is a particularly big investment from me in terms of time, emotion and effort. So I’m only rostered on every 6-10 weeks. (This is often why this blog has a month or so when I make no posts; I’m probably preparing a sermon).


This is an overview of what I do to prepare a sermon, which is explaining and applying a part of the Bible to a church meeting. There will be plenty in here to help non-preachers if you can read past the churchy parts (ie: general help for public speaking). I’ll make occasional reference to non-sermon things though.


You can download a recent talk I gave on Acts 9. I hope, when reading this article (which is rather abstract at times), it will help you understand what I mean.

The Process

The process of writing a sermon, for me, takes about 6 weeks of calendar time. Which is spread out across train trips, time at night after the kids go to bed, etc. So I have to break it down into small chunks which can build up to a full presentation over time.

Initial Steps

The first step is talking to my senior minister, who will suggest / give me a passage from the Bible, a date to preach and a time limit. My most recent one was Christmas day, on John 1:1-18. Talks are always 20-30 minutes at my church, but Christmas morning needs to be shorter than usual, so I was aiming to be closer to 20 minutes.

I’ll double check if there’s anything special I need to be aware of (eg: Christmas), if Power Point is available (yes at our church), any differences to expected audience, what Bible translation I should use, etc.

Next, I’ll read over the passage and surrounding context, to get a basic idea of what its about.

I know at this point I should be praying about my prep, my hearers, etc. However, I’m terrible at praying, and it often happens much later in the process. (But do what I say rather than what I do, on this point)!


The next overall stage in my prep is research.

When writing a sermon, the research phase is all about working out what the original author meant (both God and the human author) and then how that translates into our culture today. For other speaking gigs, its about working out the facts of the subject and how it applies to people today. (Attentive readers will note that my aim for both Bible and non-Bible speeches is identical; just the source material differs).

My goal is to thoroughly understand the passage, in its context, and knowing what big “issues” hang off it. Those issues might be anything from major Christian teachings, obvious errors in understanding, things in our contemporary which relate to the ideas raised. The context will, at minimum, be the immediate chapters before and after, but may extend across the whole book, or even wider parts of the Bible (particularly when getting my head around Old Testament prophets and how they fit into the overall Bible timeline).

This involves reading the passage. In detail. (In the original Greek for New Testament passages, if time allows (never learnt Hebrew, sorry Old Testament)).

And then pulling the passage apart. Finding its logical structure and flow. Working out the author’s emphasis. Making guesses about what is going on, and looking for support (or to be refuted) from the text. Asking questions about why the author says what he does, what he means, etc, and looking for answers in the text.

The key to this part is that I have no particular conclusion I want to reach. I need to find the conclusion or overall main point of the passage from the passage itself.

(This is expository preaching, or trying to let the text drive the speaker. It’s pretty much all I’ve known from preachers in my lifetime, but it is not that common further afield).

After looking at the passage itself, I’ll read one or two Bible commentaries. Which are just someone else’s ideas about the passage.

Getting another person’s take on the passage is good to make sure I haven’t made any terrible errors or overlooked something obvious. But, other people can make mistakes just like me. And don’t have the benefit of knowing exactly the situation I’m speaking to, so their ideas might be brilliant, but totally irrelevant for my little bit of the world.

By nature, research is an open ended process which can go on forever. But I need to limit myself to about 2 weeks (perhaps 6-8 hours), so I have time for the next steps.

At the end of my research, I boil the main point(s) down to a few sentences, so I have something to focus my writing on.


Before I get into actually writing what I intend to say, there are two questions I need to answer:

  1. What is the single main point I will be making?
  2. Will I deliver the talk from memory, or from paper?

The second question is usually pretty easy to answer (most sermons are from paper, but kids talks, outdoor talks, or more interactive presentations need to be from memory). And if I have to deliver the presentation from memory, then it never goes to paper (so I am forced to remember it).

(As a side note, I originally found it weird and borderline impossible that anyone could memorise a speech. But after doing more public speaking, seeing other speakers who work from memory, teaching kids, and learning another language, I’ve realised it is not only possible, but improves my presentation dramatically. So, even when I deliver from paper, I try to keep to bullet points only; although I have a tenancy to write more if given half a chance).

The first question is much harder, yet much more important. Until I have a clear idea what I want to communicate, I really can’t write much.

Seriously, I’ve tried.

But if I don’t have a goal in mind, my writing goes no where. Without a goal, the best I do is write about interesting facts or curious elements in the passage. Which may help, but hardly makes a sermon.

So, as soon as I finish my research, I focus on a goal I want to accomplish. (And simply communicating the main points from my research isn’t good enough, even if it is a starting point). The goal must focus what I’m talking about, as well as try to move my audience closer to a right knowledge of Jesus.

And if my goal is bad (not matching the passage, not sharp enough, not appropriate for my audience, or whatever reason) then the sermon almost always will be bad.

This idea of developing and focusing on a single goal, isn’t strictly what expository preaching is. Expository preaching tends to work through the passage verse by verse which doesn’t stick to a single goal. I try to show how all the individual verses (or at least most of them) from the text work toward a single idea.

It can lead to preaching on the same passage at different times, but with dramatically different goals and sermons (even when that my understanding of the passage hasn’t really changed). And this can be a very good thing around Christmas and Easter, where there aren’t many passages to chose from, and simply recycling last year’s talk isn’t good enough.

A Basic Outline

The good thing about a Bible talk or sermon is the structure is pretty basic and can be re-used easily enough, even if the content changes. There are plenty of suggested outlines or structures for preachers. Here’s mine.

1. Introduction

Key things for the introduction:

  • Introduce myself by name and relevant credentials (“regular member of the church”, or for computer presentations “work professionally in IT”)
  • Introduce the passage, and themes raised by it.
  • Relate the themes to something contemporary.
  • Tell people what I’ll be talking about (and possibly what I won’t be talking about)

Many preachers like to spend 5 to 10 minutes here, but I prefer the shortest intro I can get away with. I figure the real meat comes later, and the best I can hope for in an intro is to get people to keep listening.

2. Context

Context is a small extension of the intro. Enough to ground people in the wider context of the passage, or of the series of talks we’re working through.

Context is important so people realise the Bible isn’t lots of individual verses, but a larger narrative that builds to an eventual climax (Jesus).

3. Passage

This is the main part of any expository sermon: talking about the Bible passage at hand. While other parts of my structure can be written pretty mechanically, this part is often quite different from sermon to sermon.

I’ll often raise a tension, or problem which arises from the passage (this may be a real or perceived problem). And then use the passage itself to resolve this tension. Often the tension is simply that the passage suggests a way of understanding God, or ourselves, which is unexpected. Or the tension may be a way to act which is counter-cultural. Other times, it could be something genuinely strange or unexpected or problematic in the passage itself.

Key things when talking about the passage:

  • Talk about the passage itself, buy avoid simply re-reading it.
  • Explain what the passage is about, including jargon words or ideas.
  • Have several points which contribute toward my overall goal (but no more than 3 points).
  • Include at least one large illustration, to break the flow and allow people to relax.
  • Build quickly to a key, obvious and not particularly difficult to grasp point people can take home (this should correspond to my overall goal).

4. Implications

This will often be folded in with talking about the passage, but push things a bit further. Usually, I want to build to a key point as quickly as possible (before people go to sleep). Once I’ve done that, I can push on into more complicated, or subtle, or difficult ideas.

This might take the form of another logical point in my talk, or a small sub point somewhere, or just some interesting questions to consider.

It is usually is aimed at Christians who are more mature and may have heard my obvious point from the passage many times in the past. That is, its something to stretch people’s understanding of the ideas raised in the passage.

5. Application

A Bible passage unapplied to people’s lives might as well be unexplained and unread. The point of sermons is to move people that little bit (or possibly a big bit) closer to Jesus. So showing people how the passage is relevant and affects them right now is very important.

And I do this very poorly.

In part, I’m not good at application because I prefer to explain things. And in part because application is hard; after all, you’re asking other people to change possibly deeply ingrained behaviours and attitudes. But mostly its because applying the passage to others means I must apply it to myself. And its much easier to tell people what to do than change how you act yourself.

The idea of personal change in non-Biblical presentations is less common, but still present. Usually, a presenter at least is trying to convince us of their point of view, if not sell us something. And even with the driest training course, you can improve how you do your book keeping, or basket weaving, or whatever. So even when I’m “educating” rather than “preaching” there needs to be some way people should change in response to my presentation.

There are a few categories of application I think in:

  • Obvious application: application which is really obvious in the passage. I like to state the obvious, if for no reason than to move beyond it.
  • Impossible application: application which people may think is in the passage, but actually isn’t. Possibly an assumed idea, or some way to read our culture into the passage. In any case, this is something to not do!
  • Possible application: application which is possible, but may not apply to everyone. Some people find money, or alcohol, or sex, or anger, etc a real problem, but not everyone.
  • Person application: how the passage has applied to me personally. A bad preacher tells people what to do, a good preacher says “here is something amazing I found in the Bible, and here’s how it changed me”.

Another way to cut it is:

  • How the passage says we should act differently (things we aught to do, or not do).
  • How the passage is urging us to think differently (about ourselves, or God, or society at large).
  • How we can share this passage (and what we get from it) with other people.

6. Conclusion

A conclusion is where I remind people of what I’ve already said. Repeat the main points of the passage and what it means. And summarise the overall application.

I’ll often spend some time working on the very last line I’ll say. As its the thing people will be most likely to remember as what the whole talk was about. And I like it to be punchy as well.

Delivery of a conclusion is important as well. Slow down. Use very simple sentences. Introduce nothing new. And make it clear you’re coming to the end (I commonly say “let me finish up”).

Practice / Refine

Based on the list above, you may think I start at the intro, write for a while and finish with a conclusion. (That was certainly how I approached my high school essays)! In actual fact, I tend to jump around a lot.

I usually start with the context and passage, add some extra meaning and depth in, then add illustrations in places, perhaps return to the intro, then add application, and finally conclusion.

And then I start ripping bits out. And changing stuff. And editing. And reading it aloud (or at least thinking it “out loud” in my head).

As I do this, I find that some parts just don’t flow very well and need to be re-arranged. Other parts need more detail added around them. Other parts again are not relevant (or not relevant enough) and get cut. It’s quite common that I’ll re-work a section three, four or even five times before final delivery.

In a sense, I’m gauging my talk by delivering it to myself. And it gets incrementally better and better.

I also become more and more familiar with it. So that when I deliver it, I can give more of it from memory rather than reading from paper.

It’s very important to remember that a verbal presentation must sound and flow very different from a written essay. I’ve heard preachers who write sermons like essays and they are very hard to follow (and made doubly worse when the same person can speak much better off script). Both verbal and written presentations attempt to convince their audience of a point, but there are two big differences: 1) People can’t rewind if they miss something, so you need to speak slowly, use simple words and sentences, and repeat the same point in several different ways. 2) you speak more slowly than you can read, so a presentation may contain 2000-3000 words, when transcribed in full, but a book on the same topic may have ten times as many.

If you do the math on the amount of content in verbal vs written work, you’ll realise why having a sharp and focused goal when speaking is so important. You simply don’t have enough time to waste words on anything not on topic.

I like to make a point to rip a large chunk of my talk out near the end of my prep. As I practice and read over the talk, I tend to add little bits in to improve the flow of the talk. This makes it sound much better, but ends up adding 20% to the length. So 20% needs to be chopped as well. And I can usually find a decent chunk which sounded good at the start, but really doesn’t contribute much to my goal.

Another thing I try to do in each talk is to make sure there is something for people on different points of the “maturity” spectrum:

  • The outsider: a person who isn’t a regular church attendee, or possibly even a Christian. Church meetings are targeted at believers, but you want to set an assumption that unbelievers are present (as they often are).
  • The new believer: someone who has very recently started trusting Jesus. Basic truths about the Christian faith are good here.
  • The mature believer: someone who has followed Jesus for many years (possibly longer than I’ve even been alive). Digging deeper and thinking harder about more complex issues (often without a clear cut answer).

An important part of this refining process is I pay very careful attention to the tone I use. That is, the way you deliver a presentation (tone you take, mannerisms used, and so on) is at least as important as the actual content. An easy to listen to sermon with less ideas can be more effective than a dry presentation with more content. Although, its easy to skimp on content and focus entirely on a slick style, so beware! (Important note: style over substance is totally against expository preaching).

But even more important than style is your own actions. A preacher who follows their own preaching is more effective than the most charismatic speaker. (And in a local church, where you stay for an extended period of time, its only a matter of time before people find when you don’t practice what you preach).

Power Point

The last bit of refining is Power Point slides. My church assumes speakers use Power Point to some extent, so I try to put a bit of effort into this.

But it’s important to make Power Point your servant rather than your master. One of the best pieces of advice I was given for early talks was to never use the built in Power Point templates, as they try to put your Power Point presentation in the drivers seat.

Most of my use for Power Point slides is to a) let people know when I’m moving to a new point and b) give people something visual to focus on.

Most slides can be categorised as:

  • A title slide. With a carefully chosen image, title text, and Bible passage. This usually is shown in my conclusion as well.
  • Images (not clip art) to give some emotional impact to the point I’m making. Sometimes with a few words (a sentence is too long) to reinforce my point.
  • Text. Such as a Bible reference outside my talk’s passage. But 32 point font is as a small as you can go, if you expect people to read and follow large blocks of text.
  • Diagrams, maps, timelines or other pictures to help explain things
  • Blank slides. Usually during application where I want people’s full attention.


My rule for delivery of a sermon, speech or presentation is: be prepared. The more I do before the day of presentation the better.

Which means things like:

  • Put effort into memorising the words you will say.
  • Think about the mannerisms and gestures you will use at different points.
  • Be familiar with the place you will be speaking (where will you speak from, where is the audience, is there a slide clicker, is there a wireless microphone so I can walk around, etc).
  • Get a running sheet and know exactly when you will speaking. Make sure you are there at least 30 minutes in advance.
  • Do a full practice run through a few days before (into a mirror or to a trusted friend; be prepared to make changes).
  • Have all props, Power Point slides, and any notes all ready the night before. Test them in advance, if possible.
  • If you’re being interactive, work out how will you physically handle your props (in kids talks, I hold a microphone and a slide clicker, which makes it hard to hold anything else).
  • Have backups of everything (or be prepared to go without when the projector doesn’t work, or your prop can’t be used, or Internet isn’t working).
  • Get appropriate clothes ready the night before (we have 8am church, which is a 6am start on a Sunday; anything to save brain time that early is worth it).
  • Get a good night sleep (preferably two nights).
  • Pray.

If I’m well prepared, the actual delivery is usually pretty smooth. But a few things I need to keep in mind:

  • Speak slowly.
  • Have a timer in front of you. Be prepared to skip parts if you find you are running short of time.
  • Pay attention to your audience. If something isn’t right, you can usually tell (eg: someone falling unconscious during a sermon - yes, it has happened while I was speaking).
  • Pray (either as part of starting your talk, or before the church meeting starts).

After your speech, you should debrief with someone or seek feedback. Or at least try to critically review your own talk (perhaps by listening to a recording of it). However, it is exceedingly rare that I do such a thing.


Any public speaking gig is stressful, nerve racking and requires stacks of preparation (around one hour of prep for each minute of speaking time). A sermon doubly so, because it involves handling the Word of God, and deals with issues of eternity, salvation, and human darkness.

With enough preparation, careful thought, and plenty of practice and refinement, I can deliver a sermon or presentation which is passable, and might even be helpful.

I take my hat off to full time preachers, who prepare and deliver sermons every week. Now that is a tough gig!