When I go to the store without a list, there's no telling what I'll bring home. Same with preaching. Without a list to go by, there's no telling what I'll deliver.

I have a three-by-five card taped to my desk with a list of questions on it. Once I've done my biblical spadework, I break for caffeine, then start in with the first question. I ask these questions every time I prepare a sermon.

Get specific

In one sentence, what is this sermon about? When, on Tuesday, someone asks, "What are you preaching about Sunday?" I hope I can answer with one clear sentence. It may be similar to the big idea of the text, but it's more relevant.

I recently preached on the Lord's Prayer, using the text in Luke 11. The idea of the text was "Jesus reveals the secret of his rich prayer life." My one-sentence description of the sermon was "Prayer charges our spiritual batteries."

What theological category would this fit under? Am I being theologically faithful? If the sermon is not theological, on some level, what is it?

I once preached a Father's Day message from Psalm 15 on the characteristics of a godly man. It was biblical, but not particularly theological. If pressed, I would justify the message as illustrative of our redeemed ontological nature or some such blather.

I wish I had preached the message from a recent issue of Preaching Today delivered by Jim Nicodem from Psalm 103:8-12. It was entitled, "The Father Heart of God." It was also a sermon for Father's Day, but it was a theological exploration of one aspect of the nature of God. Every father who heard it learned something about being a better dad, but the focus was Godward, not manward. Increasingly, I'm moving from the anthropocentric message toward the theocentric.

What do I want my listeners to know? This question causes my sermon to engage the mind. What information does a listener need to know before he or she can act?

In a recent sermon on forgiveness, Bob Russell, minister of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, wanted his congregation to know that forgiveness will set them free from a variety of emotional and spiritual maladies. More specifically, he wanted people to know there is a reward for doing the painfully hard work of forgiveness.

What do I want them to do? This is the application question, which focuses on my listeners' hands and feet. I must be as specific and practical as possible. In Bob Russell's message, he asked specific questions not easily deflected by the heart: "What about your boss, who denied you a raise, even though you had a more productive year than the year before? Will you forgive her? What about your dad, who left you and your mom when you were 8? Are you ready to forgive him?"

What do I want them to become? Now I'm going for the heart. What attitudes, priorities, and adjustments in lifestyle will this sermon address?

This question is often the hardest to answer, and for that reason I'm tempted to ignore it. It's easy to say, "As a result of this message, I want people to become more effective and consistent at prayer."

But what do more prayerful people look like? Will I know one when I see one? If Rick, our sound technician, put these principles of prayer to work in his life, what would he become in his work, his home, his church?

Naturally, some sermons, by nature of the text, are primarily knowing, doing, or being sermons. Yet I want to identify some element of understanding, action, and regeneration in each message I preach.

How does this sermon fit with the larger vision? This question helps me focus on the long view: How does this week's message move us toward our long-range goals? How does it fit into our church's vision statement? Am I providing this flock with a healthy, balanced diet of preaching? Is there a cohesiveness with what I've previously preached? A sense of direction?

Answer the skeptics

Sermon preparation would be a lot easier if we could just send our congregations to seminary. But since that won't happen, I have to be relevant. I have to face the pragmatism and skepticism of the age. Two questions help me do that.

So what? That is the relentless question of pragmatists: So what if the Philistines stopped up the wells dug by Isaac's father, Abraham? I didn't sign up for a class in ancient Middle Eastern history.

The story of Isaac and the wells in Genesis 26 has relevance for anyone who has felt the undeserved enmity of another. I heard homiletics professor Miles Jones use this text recently to call African-Americans to remove the dirt of racism from the wells of their souls. Even though they may not have initiated the racism, said the speaker, they were responsible for digging out of it. "We've got to dig deeper, 'cause deep won't do," became his refrain. He answered the "So what?" question beautifully.

Oh really? Many people are conditioned by life to discount every promise they hear by about 90 percent. I try to imagine the broken promises and empty assurances people have had to face: the large woman and her larger husband, for example, who for more than twenty years have tried to lose weight. Fad diets, pills, expensive health club memberships—they've been there, done that. Just last month, an infomercial guaranteed a revolutionary piece of exercise equipment would transform soft-and-flabby into hard-and-healthy in just minutes a day. The behemoth contraption maxed out their credit card, takes up half the family room, but hasn't taken off a pound. The woman hangs clothes on it while she's ironing.

"Oh really?" This
question saves me
from trite preaching.

"Oh really?" will be their reaction to a sermon entitled "Six easy steps to spiritual fitness." This question saves me from trite preaching.

Analyze my condition

Last night I attended a concert at our county fair by a country singer who has been recording hits for twenty-five years. Her band was technically precise, her gestures polished, her vocals on pitch. But as she sang, I asked myself, How many rinky-dink fairs and rodeos has she been to over the past two and a half decades? She's not only tired, she's bored out of her mind. After five or six of her songs, Susan and I rounded up the kids, ready to go. I'm sure the performer wished she could leave early as well. On the way home, I sang her songs with more gusto than she had. I'd hate to think of my congregation doing the same with one of my sermons.

So I wrestle with a couple more questions.

Do I believe this message will make a difference? Without this question, I could drift a long time before I'm conscious of growing cynicism or hopelessness. I can fake sincerity pretty well, but contrived passion is ugly to watch. I need to wrestle with my faith every week: faith in God, faith in the Word, faith in the foolishness of preaching.

Has this sermon made a difference in my life this week? By this stage of preparation, I've spent many hours engaging the text and thinking about its implications for life. If it has not yet touched me, dare I believe it will touch anyone else in the thirty minutes I'll be in the pulpit?

John Calvin said, "If a preacher is not first preaching to himself, better that he falls on the steps of the pulpit and breaks his neck than preaches that sermon."

Have I earnestly prayed for God to speak through me? As my friend Dennis Baker says, "Even a church service can get pretty interesting when God shows up." Have I met with him in the study? Am I expecting him to show up this Sunday?

Have I used the material of others inappropriately? Access to the sermons of great communicators is easier than ever. Plagiarism isn't just about what it does to the person I stole it from. It's about what it does to the level of trust with those who will hear me. They may not be able to articulate this, but my listeners come with the expectation that what I'm sharing came through honest, prayerful work.

Have I tried to make myself look better than I am? Who else besides us preachers can tell stories about ourselves without getting interrupted? If I'm not careful, I can abuse the privilege and select excerpts from my life that make me look smarter, funnier, and kinder than I'll ever be.

Will my listeners know I care about them? Love does cover a multitude of pastoral sins. If my flock recognizes my voice as that of a loving undershepherd, they will listen with ears of trust and faith. They'll know instinctively I have their best interests at heart. And there's an added benefit: They'll think I'm a better preacher than I really am.

Ed Rowell is assistant editor of Leadership and editor of Preaching Today.