In his best-selling book The Checklist Manifesto, surgeon Atul Gawande makes the compelling case that the best way to ensure quality is something simple, old-fashioned, and overlooked: the checklist.
In fact, he argues, we need the checklist more than ever, because today, information is so abundant and complex, it overwhelms our ability to process. To ensure we do most jobs right—fly a plane, finish a building project, cook dinner—we need a checklist.
I’ve taken Gawande’s wisdom to heart. If he, a professor at Harvard Medical School, uses one before his surgeries, surely I can use a checklist before my sermons. Here’s how mine helps me, and some tips to start your own.
4 Ways My Sermon Checklist Helps Me
Here are four ways that my sermon checklist helps me as a preacher.
1. It ensures I don’t miss the fundamentals.
I know full well that as a preacher of the Gospel, I am here to bring “good news.” That’s Preaching 101.
But if my week is rushed, or if the lectionary text doesn’t appear, at first glance, to offer much good news, I may miss this. Yikes!
So in my pre-sermon checklist, I include:
What is the good news of this text?
How can I show God provides more supply than demand?
These questions ensure that this sermon will not neglect the promise or empowerment of God.
Your list of sermon must-haves will be your own. Ask yourself, “What is so essential in any sermon, that I don’t ever want to miss it or mute it?”
Start your checklist with that.
2. It gives the sermon balance.
Some of us preachers, by nature, geek-out (Greek out?) on exegesis; others love the contemporary application.
Whatever my tendency, a sermon checklist keeps me more balanced.
For example, in my checklist, I ask:
Why did the original audience need to hear this message?
Why will people have to keep listening to me?
That way, I don’t skimp on either the ancient hearers or today’s.
3. It helps me apply the preaching-skill I’m trying to learn right now.
When I read a great book on preaching, I usually underline something in it. When I hear a great preacher, I admire the craftsmanship.
But how do I make sure I apply what I’m learning to my week-in-week-out preaching? And keep at it long enough to make that skill my own? I put it on my checklist.
For example, when I read Tim Keller’s book on preaching, I was captivated by how he speaks to the contemporary mind. So I added these questions to my preparation process:
How will my listener instinctively push back on, or not accept, this truth?
How can I show I understand and feel that concern and can even see some good in it?
I’m still unworthy to untie Keller’s Oxfords, but these questions have made my sermons better.
(To learn how to learn from gifted preachers while still remaining yourself, click here.)
4. It gets my heart right.
As we all know, a brilliantly crafted sermon can be smudged by the soot in my heart. I need to prepare not just my sermon, but my self.
So I’ve added to my checklist
Based on this text, how do I want to pray to God?
What can I praise God for?
What can I confess about myself?
Do I genuinely love these people?
Am I worried what people think of my message or what God thinks?
4 Tips to Make Your Own Sermon Checklist
OK, now for some tips as you make your own sermon checklist.
1. Put each item on your checklist in the form of a question.
Pretend you’re on “Jeopardy.” And when you answer the question, write your answer.
Something about writing forces me to think more clearly, to do the hard work of blowing out the mental fog.
For example, recently I preached on Matthew 9:9-13, about Jesus’ calling of Matthew. I got to this question on my checklist:
How is this passage supposed to make me feel?
And had I not written the answer, I don’t think I would have come up with:
“Surprise and shock. Surprise that Jesus recruits a bad dude to be one of his closest associates, and shock that he eats and hangs out with people like that.”
This made me work harder to communicate how radical Jesus’ choice was.
2. Keep your checklist short.
I would suggest between 5 to 10 questions.
Your list will generally grow over time, which is fine, but you want it to never become unmanageable. (Mine recently has become unwieldy, and I’m going to cut it down.)
Remember, you’re going to answer this question before you preach every sermon. Make sure it’s a question that really matters.
3. Find a simple way to build this into your sermon-prep.
I draft sermons in Word, so I’ve created a “sermon template” Word document that includes my checklist at the top.
I read the Bible text over and over, and then write my answers to each question on the checklist. The checklist forces me to directly, deeply engage the Scripture. Only when I’ve completed my checklist do I pull out the commentaries.
I’ve added questions, taken ones off, rearranged the list. After all: “The sermon was not made for the checklist, but the checklist for the sermon.”
The only thing that matters is this: Does my checklist help me preach better sermons more consistently? Mine does, so I encourage you to try one.
Suggested Questions for Your Sermon Checklist
In case you’ve lost track, here are the checklist questions I’ve mentioned in this post, plus others I’ve used. Feel free to use them if you think they will help you!
- What is this text primarily about?
- What is it saying about what it’s about?
- Why did the original audience need to hear this message?
- How is this passage supposed to make me feel?
- Which person in this text is most like my listeners, and what do they have in common?
- What is the good news of this text?
- What does this text say about God?
- How will my listener instinctively push back on, or not accept, this truth?
- How can I show I understand and feel that concern and can even see some good in it?
- How can I show God provides more supply than demand?
- Why will people have to keep listening to me?
- Based on this text, how do I want to pray to God?
- Am I worried what people think of my message or what God thinks?