Converting Sermons into Books

May 2, 2012

Phil Johnson, proprietor of the Team Pyro blog and the executive editor of Grace to You Ministries (John McArthur) has a terrific post on converting sermon series into books.

I have experience doing this. For nearly a decade I worked for a Christian ministry as an editor and writer and it was my job to turn sermons into readable print. It’s an enormously difficult job, simply because the spoken word and the written word are vastly different. Phil explains:

Sermons lose something important in the process, and even the greatest preaching in the world doesnt easily translate into great writing. And unless you are already a superbly gifted writer, no matter how great the original material is, youll never be able to translate it into writing in a way that equals its original greatness. Preaching is very different from writing, and unless the sermon itself is very fertile with important thoughts and profound insights, its probably not going to make a viable book anyway. Tell the average Christian publisher that you want to make a book out of a sermon series, and unless you are a preacher with worldwide fame and a following of untold thousands, the publisher isnt likely to be interested anyway, no matter how much the people in that pastors flock appreciated the sermon series. Sermon series made into books dont generally do very well. There are exceptions, but few.

In my experience, sermons are far easier to turn into short articles, blog posts, or devotionals, because you can take one section of a sermon and rewrite it to be very readable, rather than trying to reconcile an entire sermon into a chapter.

I might also say that for a sermon series to be a successful book, you could, perhaps, have each sermon be a chapter and you might even keep the outline within the sermon as your chapter structure. But you will need to rewrite the entire sermon or even start from scratch. 

I have found that actually setting the sermon aside and re-outlining it as a chapter and rewriting it is the best way to convert sermon to chapter. In my personal ministry I’ve attempted, at times, to create a synthesis between a sermon series and books, but I haven’t found a way that works.

I manuscript all of my messages, so you would think that would make book conversion easier, but it’s just not. I write for speaking in a way that I just can’t write for books. A sermon is almost a rough draft of what a chapter would be. A book chapter is much tighter prose, employing much more creative flourishes than you’d be comfortable using in speech.

Some pastors have actually reversed it and wrote a book before preaching it as a series.This is a bit complicated as well, because if you stood up and read a book chapter, it would not be a very good sermon.

Bottom line: it sounds easy to convert a sermon series into some bestselling books. I’ve had numerous people approach me with this idea as if its as simple as doing a little editing and pressing “print.” Not so. Kudos to Phil Johnson for his very insightful post on this.

You can read the entire thing here: Pyromaniacs: That Looks Really Easy; Why dont You Tell Me how to Do It?.

Update: Jared C. Wilson has an excellent post, “6 Ways to Turn Sermons into Books.”