Introduction. Explanation. Application. A More Effective Way To Write Sermon

by | Jun 8, 2020 | Church Leadership, Coaching

Introduction. Explanation. Application. – Step-By-Step

For lack of a sexier phrase, I call the sermon writing process that I use and teach based on this three-act structure: “Introduction. Explanation. Application.”

At this point, the most helpful way I can teach you how to write a sermon using this method is to briefly go through the steps of writing a message right now and comment along the way.

So, imagine for a moment that we’re sitting side by side at your desk, looking at your computer monitor, and we’re ready to rock and roll.

1. Set your document up for a sermon.

I always use a 13-point Arial font and put the page numbers in the top-right hand corner.

I always put the relevant sermon information in bold in the top left-hand corner.

Here’s mine from this Sunday:

The Happiness Challenge
Message #4 “The Happiness Challenge”
CCV, 02-11-18
Brian Jones

2. Craft the set welcome statement that you will use with every sermon.

Here’s the same 20-second introduction for all of my sermons:

“Good morning, my name is Brian Jones, and I’m the Senior Pastor here at CCV.

I’d like to welcome all of our guests here today!

And I’d like to say hello to everyone watching this online.
…we know most people will check us out online before they ever visit
…so, we really look forward to seeing you soon…

I want to start today by…”

The reason I start this way is that 1,700 people will view my sermon live this Sunday, but 5,000+ people will view it next week (70% on their phones, 30% on a desktop). I always want to greet the person watching online. Words marked in red font are reminders for me to look into the camera. When my sermon is finished I’ll go back and highlight 2-3 places on each page in bold red where I want to remind myself to speak directly into the camera.

3. Next type the words INTRODUCTION, EXPLANATION, and APPLICATION in all caps, underline them and put “(10 minutes)” in parentheses after each.

INTRODUCTION (10 minutes)

EXPLANATION (10 minutes)

APPLICATION (10 minutes)

Yes, that means each section will only be ten minutes, and yes, that means you will preach under 30 minutes, or you will die.

4. Pick out the central idea from your Bible text, turn that into an action statement, and place it at the bottom of your document.

If I were sitting next to you the very next thing I’d do is ask you to determine the central idea of your message.

Let’s say you are preaching on evangelism and you’re using 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 as your passage. I’d ask you what the central idea is in that passage, and you’d say it is found in verse 22,

“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Your first thought is the central idea in that verse is “become like the people you’re trying to reach.” But we talk, and you finally settle on the idea of “removing every barrier” that stands in the way of your friends hearing and responding to the gospel.

Now, turn that phrase into an action statement that starts with a verb. This is what you want them to DO when they are done listening to you.

You finally pick, “Be willing to get uncomfortable so you can earn the right to talk to your friends about Jesus.”

Okay, since that’s what you want people to DO when they leave, that will become the bullseye that your entire sermon is aiming for.

Take that phrase and put it at the bottom of your document. Then you go back up to the top now and tentatively title your sermon. Let’s call it “Trading Places,” which admittedly is lame, but you just need a placeholder until you can go back after it’s written, generate ten options, and pick the best one.

At this point in our sermon, our document will look like this:

____________________

Engaging Evangelism Series Name
Message #4 “Trading Places”
CCV, 02-11-18
Brian Jones

Good morning, my name is Brian Jones, and I’m the Senior Pastor here at CCV.

I’d like to welcome all of our guests here today!

And I’d like to say hello to everyone watching this online.
…we know most people will check us out online before they ever visit
…so, we look forward to seeing you soon…

I want to start today by…

  • INTRODUCTION (10 minutes)
  • EXPLANATION (10 minutes)
  • APPLICATION (10 minutes)

“Be willing to get uncomfortable so you can earn the right to talk to your friends about Jesus.”

____________________

5. Under the “INTRODUCTION (10 minutes)” section write the words Jab 1, Jab 2, Jab 3, right hook.

Here’s what that will look like:

INTRODUCTION (10 minutes)

  • Jab 1
  • Jab 2
  • Jab 3
  • Right Hook

For the INTRODUCTION I want you to think like a boxer.

What most preachers do – especially in this day when preachers overact to Andy Stanley and swing in the opposite direction and try to make themselves into Matt Chandler – is they stand up and say, “Open your Bibles to 1 Corinthians 9. We’re in a series called …” and just start talking.

I swear, if you’ve been in the habit of doing that, I will lean over and stab you in the leg with a pencil.

The first 10 minutes of your sermon needs to build like a roller coaster – up, up, up, then downhill a million miles an hour.

That “right hook” information as I call it – “Open your Bibles…” – needs to be the LAST thing you do in your introduction (at 9 minutes and 30 seconds in), not the first thing.

In boxing terms, you need to jab, jab, jab for the first 9.5 minutes THEN give them the right hook.

Remember, the people you’re talking to are coming in cold. They’ve been working, living life, and for the last 15 minutes wrangling kids to get them to their classes in time to sit down and listen to you.

They know NOTHING about what you’re about to say. Meanwhile, you’ve LIVED this material all week and are excited about it.

See the problem?

We can’t honestly expect people who know NOTHING about what we’re going to say and have a million things swirling around in their heads to get focused and engaged in only 30 seconds.

They need hooked (jabbed). Not once. Not twice. But THREE times. I believe it takes a FULL 10 minutes to do this.

The Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook 10 Minute Introduction

Jab 1 (2-4 minutes)

The reticular activating system at the base of our brain filters out everything unless it is funny, bizarre, shocking, or interesting. So, start by telling a story that is funny, bizarre, shocking, or interesting that is related to “being uncomfortable.”

Jab 2 (2-4 minutes)

Then share ANOTHER compelling piece of information that’s funny, bizarre, shocking, or interesting that is related to “being uncomfortable.” Why? Because it takes a while to engage an idea and to get excited about it.

Jab 3 (2-4 minutes)

Next, tell them why you are so passionate about what you’re going to talk about.
Give them the central idea, without calling it that, and why embracing it matters.
This is where you must have passion in your voice and fire in your bones.

Right hook (1 minute)

NOW is when you say, “Turn in your Bibles to…we’re in this series…” If you jab, jab, jab well, I CAN’T WAIT to open up my Bible and find out how this passage addresses what we’re talking about.

So, for our purpose, your hypothetical introduction will look like this:

Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook To Introduce 1 Corinthians 9:22

Jab 1 (2-4 minutes)

Tell a story about the time you asked that kid to the 7th-grade dance and they said no. Follow it with that Dallas Willard quote about unrealistic expectations.

Jab 2 (2-4 minutes)

Then share the stats of people who get turned down the first time they ask someone out on a date, and ask people to guess the most common “openers” they used that got shot down. Follow that with a transitional statement about if people are scared to ask someone out on a date, “I can just imagine what goes through your minds when you are encouraged to talk to people about Jesus.”

Jab 3 (2-4 minutes)

Next tell the story about how uncomfortable it must have been to approach you when you weren’t a Christian, and how your friend was willing to get uncomfortable to share the gospel, and how there are thousands of non-Christian people living within a 20-mile radius of your building who will never be reached because their Christian friends care more about staying comfortable than their friend’s eternal destiny.

Right hook (1 minute)

THEN say “Turn in your Bible…”

Does the introduction need to be 10 minutes? 100%.

“That seems like FOREVER before you get to the text,” I can hear some people say.

The point is you want your people to collectively nod across the room and say, “Okay, we’re ready now, let’s do this thing. We’re fired up and want to learn what the Bible says about this topic.”

6. Under the “EXPLANATION” section, copy and paste your scripture in its entirety, then highlight three nuggets in that passage you want to teach them.

The EXPLANATION is the part where you EXPLAIN what the Bible is saying.

You just spent 10 minutes introducing the topic of getting uncomfortable, now tell me about the ways Paul got uncomfortable.

Read the passage in its entirety, then tell them you want to point out three things about that passage (that they couldn’t pick up on their own).

You only get 10 minutes for this section, so get after it. Don’t waste time.

  • Tell them about how Jews were grossed out by non-kosher food, and this was Paul’s upbringing, but he was willing to be uncomfortable to reach Greeks. Pull out key phrases that illustrate this. Make me FEEL how uncomfortable Paul FELT.
  • Tell them about how second temple Judaism “orthodoxy” revolved around clear boundaries that marked who was “in and out.” Tell them about the social pressure Paul would have felt to stay away from Greeks. Dig into the historical background and maybe quote Hillel or another rabbi at this time talking smack about Jews who didn’t stay holy in this regard. Dig into the background of the word “ethne” in Greek. How that’s the word Jesus used in the Great Commission. How this is who Jesus wanted us to reach.
  • Most important, I would tell you if you were sitting next to me, if you skip over what Paul meant by “save some” and the reality of hell without the gospel, you miss the whole point of the passage. This was what was driving Paul. THIS was why he was willing to get uncomfortable.

Don’t waste time on inconsequential background material or Greek words that don’t add value. I remember hearing a preacher say, “In the original Greek, the word ‘to sleep’ means ‘to close your eyes and go to sleep’”

Dude. Seriously. If you do that, here comes that pencil.

Teach this section as if you are teaching it to your small group leaders who are going on a mission trip afterward to a severely persecuted area of Myanmar and they will have to teach new believers what you’re teaching them.

Teach stuff that matters, that you can’t wait to point out, and most of all show the lengths to which Paul was willing to be uncomfortable.

Hold off on the illustrations in this section unless they can be told in less than 30 seconds.

And MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANYTHING ELSE, teach them DEEP CONTENT in 10 minutes or less. Not a minute more.

Get in, attack it with a vengeance, then get out, in 10 minutes.

As Howard Hendricks used to say, “Leave them longing, not loathing.”

7. In the “APPLICATION” section tell your people HOW to do what you just showed them that Paul did in the first century.

You spent 10 minutes INTRODUCING the topic of getting uncomfortable, then spent another 10 minutes EXPLAINING the different ways Paul got uncomfortable, now you need to take 10 minutes APPLYING this to their lives and showing them how to be uncomfortable.

The INTRODUCTION section has already answered the WHAT? question.

This message is about being willing to get uncomfortable.

The EXPLANATION section has already answered the WHY? question.

Paul was willing to do this because heaven and hell hang in the balance.

The APPLICATION section needs to answer the HOW? question.

How do I do in the 21st century what Paul did in the first?

Most preachers don’t have three acts to their messages, they have one.

They stand up, tell people to turn in the Bible, talk for 30 minutes, and then pray.

Listen: the application section is THE MOST IMPORTANT part of your message. NOT the Bible teaching part.

Let me repeat that.

“The application section is THE MOST IMPORTANT part of your message. NOT the Bible teaching part.”

Somehow – someway – we preachers got the idea that the best and holiest section of the sermon is the “teaching Biblical information” part.

How did we come up with that? We certainly didn’t get that from Jesus.

Go over to the Sermon on the Mount and pull out a piece of paper and create two separate columns. Over one column write, “Taught expository information about the Old Testament” and over the other column write down, “Told people what TO DO with the information from the Old Testament.”

Read the entire sermon through that lens then tell me what percentage of that sermon was EXPLANATION of the text and what percentage was APPLICATION of the text.

Maybe 10% EXPLANATION and 90% APPLICATION?

In the Great Commission, Jesus told us “to teach people to obey” (Matthew 28:20).

That’s your job in this section.

You must teach them, in very SPECIFIC and CONCRETE ways, what you want them to DO.

Three Things To Remember With Application

Keep three things in mind when writing the APPLICATION part of your message:

First, over half of your listeners are SJ’s on the Myers-Briggs. Which means when you give them a proven model that they can benchmark from, they will be much more likely to create their own. Meaning, it won’t “click” for 60% of your people unless in this section you share a specific time when YOU got uncomfortable to reach a friend and show them how you did it.

Second, people must be CALLED TO ACTION or they won’t do jack. Your job is to teach them “how to obey” and exhort them to do it the minute they leave the room.

Third, the reticular activating system is still in play here. Especially here. Unless you intersperse your application with ideas, phrases, quotes, stories, stats, etc. that get through the RAS you’ve lost them at the most important part of the message.

I always try to begin this section by sharing the action step I want them to take.

I’ll say something like, “Listen, here’s the thing I want to make sure you leave with: YOU MUST BE WILLING TO GET UNCOMFORTABLE TO REACH YOUR FRIENDS.”

I’ll try to brainstorm 10+ questions I know people will have at this point in the message. Anticipate the most important ones and answer them now.

Sometimes all I have is one point and just keep hammering it home in different ways. Other times I’ll say, “Okay, here are four things I believe Jesus would tell us to do if he were standing right here.”

It varies each time.

The key is to picture an actual person sitting across from you. Look them in the eye and give them specific, godly counsel about HOW they can do what Paul did THIS WEEK with their friends.

Two Final Thoughts

Here are two things to keep in mind:

1. Simple Structure. Deep Content.

This is a writing mantra I live by: “Simple Structure. Deep Content.”

Preaching is an annual marathon of creating 3,000-word documents (whether written or not) 42-47 times a year. That’s 141,000 words a year.

For a point of comparison, that’s the equivalent of writing three-full-length non-fiction books a year. That is an ENORMOUS amount of content you have to create out of thin air.

That’s like John Grisham level kind of heavy-lifting writing and idea creation.

No-one feels the weight of this like you and I do.

Writers who crank out novel after novel after novel have a secret: pre-existing templates into which they insert their best material.

If you want to become a great communicator that God can use to expand his kingdom, you must do the same thing.

INTRODUCTION, EXPLANATION, APPLICATION is the template you’re looking for.

It’s proven. It’s simple. It’s action-oriented. It’s universal. And it works.

2. Create The “Structure” For Your Next 10 Sermons And Begin Dropping Content Into Them Now

Let me suggest something that will dramatically improve the quality of your sermons and decrease preparation time.

Go ahead right now and create a Word doc for your next 10 sermons.

(FYI – those of you who have already “finished” your next 10 sermons, we hate you. Just saying.)

Create these 10 Word documents and in each of them type the words INTRODUCTION, EXPLANATION, and APPLICATION. Leave room between each to drop content underneath.

Then copy and paste the text you’re going to use for each message (if you know it).

When you do this, something really cool will happen. You’ll start finding material you can use in each of these messages IN ADVANCE. Like 4, 7, and 10 weeks in advance.

Ideas will just start dropping from the sky. “Oh, I can use this for my APPLICATION in my sermon on….”

Just yesterday an idea came to me that I’m going to use for my entire introduction for the first sermon in our upcoming series called, “Three Easy Ways To Blow Up Your Relationship.”

If I hadn’t already created these documents, that idea would have vanished.

Ideas will come to you because, well, God, of course, but also because your brain will become conditioned to notice useful material.

If you can take it one step further by doing advance work and identifying the central idea and ACTION STEP you’ll want people to take derived from the passage, so much better.

And if you really want to do next level preparation, you can ask volunteers and staff to do sermon research for you and input ideas quotes, stories, YouTube clips, articles, etc. into each of these sections.

Ask them to comb what they’ve read in the last 2 months for illustrations. Have people survey your people and ask what questions they have about these topics. Have them solicit testimonials. The possibilities are vast.

For those of you with personal assistants – you have no excuse for not doing this. Seriously.

Remember this: preaching has more impact on the overall growth and health of your people than everything else you do, combined. So, leverage every available resource you have.

Hope this helps.

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Brian Jones

I am the founding Pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley in Philadelphia, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and the author of four books. I’ve been married to my wife Dr. Lisa Jones for thirty years, and together we have three beautiful daughters and a lovable chubby orange cat named MAC. I love hiking, fishing, and backpacking. Our family loves to travel and have become passionate advocates for the rights of the poor and oppressed in developing countries. I’m an INTJ, 5w4, and D/I on various personality tests. I also write practical articles on church leadership and preaching at Senior Pastor Central.

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