Rules for Sermon Writing–Then and Now

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Jeremy Walker of Reformation21.org posted a brief sketch of Alexander Somerville, a pastor of a church in Glasgow, Scotland:

Alexander Somerville (1813-1889) was a close friend of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. They went to school and university together. As divinity students, they met for the study of the Bible using both the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and the Hebrew original. More often still they met to pray and share their Christian experience.
Somerville began his ministry in Anderston, Glasgow, in a similar church extension charge to M’Cheyne… At the age of sixty-one he responded to what he was persuaded was God’s call to be what may be described as an itinerant missionary travelling in India, Australasia, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, South Africa, Greece and Western Asia. He was Moderator of the Free Church General Assembly in 1886.

In Glimpses of Old Glasgow (1894), Andrew Aird described Rev. Somerville as a preacher and pastor:

As a preacher Dr. Somerville was fervent; his style of address was that of a scholar; and his prayers were the outpourings of his heart. As a pastor he was held in high estimation by his people; and he frequently occupied Glasgow and country pulpits, where his discourses, full of the knowledge which maketh rich, were ever listened to by large audiences. There was something in the tone of his voice, and in the light of his eyes and the glow of his countenance which made one involuntarily say, “This man has been with Jesus.”

Seeking to train and encourage men to preach, Dr. Somerville wrote “Rules for Sermon Writing” below (left column). His rules are as far as the east is from the west compared with the prosperity and megachurch preaching we see and hear today (right column).

A Reformed Pastor’s Rules for Sermon Writing by Alexander Somerville (1813-1889) A Megachurch Pastor’s Rules for Sermon Writing (1970s-The Next Church Fad)
1. Pray without ceasing for clear views of your subject, for help in composition, in committing to memory, and in delivery. 1. Pray without ceasing for a clear decision on your topic before leaving for church, and for help in remembering one-liners and delivering adlibs.
2. Pray without ceasing for the people you are to address. 2. Pray without ceasing for the people you are to entertain.
3. Remember you are to speak to souls who must either be impressed or hardened by the sermon you deliver. 3. Remember you are to speak to souls who must be so impressed that “as soon as the offering basket is pressed down, shaken together, and running over, those souls ‘Hallelujahs!’ will ring.”
4. Write for Christ and of Christ. 4. Write for the audience and for their felt needs so they can become better people and have their best life now.
5. Remember that the Holy Spirit not merely can alone show to the heart the things that are Christ’s, but that He must be recognised as doing so by us. Keep the Spirit’s peculiar office and work continually in view. 5. Remember that a Spirit-led, anointed pastor will always be able to deliver a sermon with no knowledge, training or preparation.
6. Remember that what you write must have eternal consequences. 6. Remember that what you write must have budget consequences.
7. Write as one who must give an account to Christ for so doing. 7. Write as one who must give an account to the Financial Committee for so doing.
8. Write for a people who must give an account to Christ for the manner in which they hear. 8. Write for a people who must give an account to the Tax Board for the checks which they write.
9. Never write for the sake of magnifying yourself. 9. Never write for the sake of magnifying Christ, for that would be most boring.
10. Remember the flock of Christ must not be fed with ingenuities, but with the bread of life. 10. Remember the flock of Christ must not be fed with the bread of life, which is bland, but with junk food, which is rich in fat and artificial flavors.
11. Write from the heart with simplicity, plainness (so that a little child may comprehend), and godly sincerity. 11. Write simple and plain anecdotes full of humor, jokes and sexual themes, because the people will be bored without them, and don’t know any better anyway.
12. Pray for other congregations … for your own companions in the work of preaching. 12. Pray for other megachurches … for your own network in the entertainment business. Remember what happened to the Heritage USA, City of Faith, and Crystal Cathedral.
13. Never write without this before you—and read at least three times in the composition of each discourse. 13. Never deliver a sermon without this before you. You can leave your Bible at home, but not these rules.
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