I’m really excited and really encouraged to hear that you’ve been given the opportunity to preach this Sunday. And, frankly, I’m not surprised—I’ve seen how seriously you’ve been taking your faith, how faithfully you’ve been committing yourself to the Word, and how you’ve grown in your ability to communicate. Pastors should notice young men who are doing these things.
You asked for some quick pointers in preparing your first sermon. Here are a few that come to mind.
Be encouraged. Be encouraged that an older and more seasoned pastor sees in you the ability and the character of a man who may be worthy of the task of preaching. Be encouraged that he is giving you this opportunity. It is no small thing for a pastor to ask someone else to fill his pulpit, so don’t take the opportunity lightly.
Be humble. Be encouraged, but also be humble. Many men get invited to preach just once or twice before they show through lack of character, or lack of preparation, or lack of skill that they are not worthy of the task. So be humble. Take the invitation humbly and approach the task with humility.
Pray a lot. You can never pray too much in the process of preparing a sermon. In fact, by the time Sunday morning rolls around, you’ll probably find yourself asking God to forgive you for not praying more. But whatever else you do, be sure you commit this opportunity to the Lord. Pray as you begin to look for a text, pray as you begin to study that text, pray as you begin to jot down your first words, pray as you complete the final words, pray as you prepare to deliver the sermon, pray after you’ve preached the sermon.
Keep it simple. Don’t try to do too much for your first sermon (or your first twenty sermons, for that). Make it your goal that at the end of the sermon, the people who hear it will better understand the text and better know how it applies to their lives. As much as you can, preach a simple sermon rather than a sophisticated one. That’s a good goal for your first sermon and probably a good goal for every subsequent sermon. Keep it simple.
Begin with the text. I believe the best place to begin is with just your text—not with study Bibles or commentaries or other tools. Either print out a plain copy of the text or hand-write your own. Begin your study with just that plain copy of your text and study it carefully. Look up the OIA method if you need a place to begin.
Be yourself. One of the great challenges (and pleasures) of the first few sermons is finding out who you are as a preacher. It’s finding your unique voice and your unique style. It’s important that, as much as possible, you try to be yourself rather than your favorite celebrity preacher or even your favorite local church preacher. Make sure that the sermon sounds like you, not someone else!
Preach a text, not a topic. I believe it’s far better and easier to preach a text than to preach a topic in these early days. The beauty of preaching a text is that it defines the “boundaries” of the sermon. It forces you to work hard to understand, explain, and apply a particular text instead of allowing you to wander all over the Bible. Perhaps preach a story—Acts 12:1-19 is a great place to begin, or the parable of the lost sheep, or Jesus freeing the Garasene Demoniac. As much as possible, find a text that does not demand that you explain a lot of context before you can exposit it. Make sure you preach the text not an idea within the text.
Prepare a manuscript. I believe most young preachers do best with preparing a full manuscript and then preaching from that manuscript. Creating a manuscript forces you to sharpen every word and every point; it forces you to know exactly what you are going to say. It also keeps you from rambling or getting lost during your delivery. As much as possible, prepare that manuscript as if you are speaking it, not just writing it. In other words, try to capture a speaking voice rather than a writing voice. Personally I do this by speaking the words out loud as I type them out.
Begin boldly. You are probably going to feel uncomfortable as you take to the pulpit for the first time. The temptation may be to say something trite or to crack a joke. Don’t. Plan our your first words, make sure they are significant, and make sure you begin with exactly those words. Consider, “Please pray with me,” or, “Please take out your Bible and turn to…” Deliberately deflect attention away from yourself and toward the Lord.
Get feedback. If possible, find some people who will listen a draft of your sermon on Friday or Saturday and provide you feedback before you preach it (or, failing that, to read the manuscript). The next week, find some people who heard the sermon on Sunday and are willing to give you a point or two of feedback. Perhaps specifically ask them for one or two areas you did well and one or two areas where you could improve. The next time you preach, pick one thing to work on and focus on that. Every time you preach after that, pick one more thing to improve on. Set limited but realistic goals for improving in your skill.
Be humble. Yes, I already said this, but I’ll say it again. After the sermon you’ll inevitably face the temptation of pride. If things go well, you’ll be tempted to be proud of your ability; if things don’t go all that well, you’ll be tempted to wallow in misery. In both cases, you’ll be dealing with pride. Take Luke 17:10 as your prayer after you have preached: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). Do your duty before the Lord as a servant who is unworthy of the great task of preaching, and leave the results in his hands.
These are just a few guidelines I like to pass on to new preachers. Consider the ones that are helpful, skip the ones that are not, and get busy with your preparations. In the meantime I’ll be praying that God blesses you and blesses his church through you.