Step One – Sermon Text Selection

Because expository sermons explain and apply specific portions of Scripture, the first task of sermon preparation is the selection of the sermon text, the portion of Scripture upon which the sermon will be based.

How long should this portion be? Bryan Chapell speaks of what he calls an “expository unit.” “An expository unit,” he writes, “is a large or a small portion of Scripture from which a preacher can demonstrate a single spiritual truth with adequate supporting facts or concepts arising within the scope of the text.”[1]

Sidney Greidanus offers further guidance: “The question whether a preaching-text ought to be short or long can be answered in only one way: whether short or long, a preaching-text ought to be a literary unit.”[2] He continues: “One ought to keep an open mind to the possibility that a sentence may be such a concise summary or may be so rich in meaning that it may well form a preaching-text in its own right. On the other hand, a paragraph may well prove to be too small a unit, particularly in preaching narratives, so that one is forced to select a larger unit of several paragraphs.”[3]

How should one decide which sermon text to select?

Some preachers, especially those who are part of denominations that have lectionaries, choose as their sermon text one of the Scripture readings prescribed in the lectionary for each Sunday.[4] An advantage of this approach is that the work of sermon text selection is greatly simplified. Also, there are a number of books and materials on the Internet that are oriented to lectionary preaching.[5]

Some preachers, following the example of John Calvin and others, choose to preach through books of the Bible. Their sermon texts are determined by what comes next in the biblical book.

This method has the advantage of giving the congregation a more holistic understanding Scripture. It also saves the preacher time. If, for example, one has thoroughly studied the background and structure of Paul’s letter to the Romans, one can build on that study, without repeating it week after week. Also, it is not necessary to spend hours considering first one text and then another before finally settling on a sermon text.

Preachers often select sermon texts that go with special Sundays recognized within their denomination or local congregation. Examples might be seasons of the church year, such as Advent or Lent, or Mission Emphasis or Stewardship Sundays. My own Christian Reformed church tradition for many years had the practice of using the Heidelberg Catechism (or one of the other Reformed confessions) as a guide in determining what to preach at one of the two services on each Lord’s Day.

Several teachers of preaching emphasize that in selecting texts, preachers should choose significant rather than obscure texts. While it is true that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), a text such as John 3:16 is clearly of greater significance than the law in Exodus forbidding the cooking of a young goat in its mother’s milk (Ex. 23:19 and 34:6).

In selecting texts, preachers should also keep in mind the needs of their local congregations. Perhaps a number of members have recently had loved ones die. Perhaps there are many struggling with addictions who need encouragement. Perhaps some members seem to lack an understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. In all of these cases, the preacher would be wise to select texts that will address those congregational needs.[6]

  1. Chapell, Bryan. Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2005. 61.
  2. Greidanus, Sidney. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988. 126.
  3. Ibid., 127.
  4. The Revised Common Lectionary can be found here.
  5. Long, Thomas G. The Witness of Preaching, Third Edition. Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. 81.
  6. Greidanus, 125.