In a normal year, our culture is overwhelmed by consumerism, sexual addiction, anxiety, depression, entitlement, grudges, and self-absorption.
In a year like 2020, however, we get all that plus what happens when you mix a global pandemic, massive economic disruption, racial unrest, and a presidential election.
It’s an ugly mix that’s leaving us stressed and strained.
But what if all that mess positioned the church of Jesus Christ to shine brightly in the darkness?
And what if pastors had a timely word that could give us perspective and peace?
Good news: the Lord has us right where he wants us.
You, pastor, have a powerful antidote to so much of what plagues our world today: thankfulness.
Thankfulness changes our perspective.
- When we’re thankful, we become givers instead of consumers.
- When we’re thankful, we stop trying to use people for our pleasure.
- When we’re thankful, we experience greater peace and joy.
- When we’re thankful, we take our eyes off ourselves.
- When we’re thankful, we stop complaining and start praising.
- When we’re thankful, we look to love and bless others.
True thankfulness comes from receiving the ultimate gift of Jesus Christ, who gave his life so we could have our sin forgiven, be reconciled to God, and have eternal life in a renewed creation.
And… here’s the kicker…
We have a holiday every November that puts these themes on a silver platter for any preacher who is paying attention: Thanksgiving.
We believe that in any year—and especially in 2020—you should consider leveraging the Thanksgiving holiday with a sermon or sermon series on gratitude.
And in this article, we want to help you think through how to do it well. Consider this a step-by-step guide to creating a Thanksgiving sermon outline, and ideas for creating an entire sermon series.
Step #1: Consider WHY Preach about Thankfulness
We’ve already considered a few reasons preaching on thankfulness this Thanksgiving would be a great idea. But there’s more—Here are five big reasons:
1. It’s a major biblical theme.
Thanksgiving is a theme that runs throughout the Bible. The Old Testament law encourages it, the Psalms model it, Jesus exemplifies it, and the Apostle Paul can’t write a letter without sharing a bunch.
This shouldn’t surprise us when we consider that God is the giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). As generous as He is to us, the response is gratitude.
2. Because 2020 has been ROUGH—and people need a new focus.
Nearly everybody would say that 2020 has been one of the most challenging years of their lives.
You and the people in your church are likely feeling isolated, frustrated, emotionally worn out, and discouraged.
Out of this situation, a new word has broken through: “doomscrolling.”
Doomscrolling happens when we get obsessed with bad news and constantly scroll through our phones seeing bad story after bad story.
Amid a rough year, we need a new focus and a new perspective. Rather than complaining, we need contentment. Rather than tantrums, we need thankfulness.
Not only is gratitude a massive biblical theme, but it’s also perhaps one of the most valuable traits that believers could cultivate during this tough year.
As it says in James 1:2, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.”
2020 has been a major trial. Of various kinds. What will help us “count it all joy”? Gratitude.
3. It leads to greater happiness and well-being.
Not only is thanksgiving the appropriate and commanded response to God’s goodness, it’s also in line with how we are created to live. We were not made to be grouchy, complaining, stingy people who always find a cloud in every silver lining.
Therefore, it makes sense that practicing gratitude has several relational, physical, and mental health benefits. Psychology Today reports a number of significant benefits:
- Gratitude improves physical health. One 2012 study shows that thankful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier, and may also be more likely to prioritize other healthy practices.
- Grateful people sleep better. A big part of physical health is sleeping well. A 2011 study indicates that spending time before bed writing areas of gratitude may lead to better and longer sleep.
- Gratitude opens the door to more relationships. Saying “thank you” to people makes them more likely to want a relationship with you — or to strengthen the relationship you already have.
- Gratitude improves confidence. When we are grateful, we’re less likely to compare ourselves to others. Guess what? Those who don’t play the comparison game are more likely to be confident, happy, and able to appreciate other people’s accomplishments.
- Gratitude improves psychological health. The world’s leading expert on gratitude is Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California – Davis, who discovered that gratitude reduces toxic emotions, increases happiness, and reduces depression.
- Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression. Thankful people are more likely to be kind to people — even to those who aren’t kind to them. A 2012 study indicated that those who were more grateful were less likely to retaliate when given negative feedback.
- Gratitude increases mental strength. Life is hard, and for some the challenge is multiplied by facing trauma. How do we cope? One strategy is gratitude. Multiple studies have shown that those who practice gratitude have more resilience and lower rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
As a pastor and preacher, your job isn’t to make people feel good. But if you can help people develop practices that honor God and improve their well-being — that’s a good reason to try!
3. It paves the way for generosity.
The Bible indicates that gratitude and generosity are linked (2 Corinthians 9:11-12), and research demonstrates that it’s true. Grateful people enjoy giving more, and generous people tend to be more grateful.
Christina Karns, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon, did an experiment where participants were in a brain scanner while they watched a computer either give actual money to a food bank or put it in their own account. What did she see? Here’s what she says:
“It turns out that the neural connection between gratitude and giving is very deep, both literally and figuratively. A region deep in the frontal lobe of the brain, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, is key to supporting both. Anatomically, this region is wired up to be a hub for processing the value of risk and reward; it’s richly connected to even deeper brain regions that provide a kick of pleasurable neurochemicals in the right circumstances.”
“The participants I’d identified as more grateful and more altruistic via a questionnaire [showed] a stronger response in these reward regions of the brain when they saw the charity gaining money. It felt good for them to see the food bank do well.”
Karns decided to see if gratitude also helped people become more generous. It did. Those who started journaling about their areas of gratitude became more attracted to charitable giving than receiving money for themselves. She said:
“Practicing gratitude shifted the value of giving in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It changed the exchange rate in the brain. Giving to charity became more valuable than receiving money yourself.”
As pastors, we want our people to be generous with their resources. We want this for their sake and for the sake of the church’s mission.
Many churches create new giving opportunities during the holiday season. Preaching a Thanksgiving sermon series is one powerful step in helping people grow in generosity.
Here’s an example of a series that brilliantly ties gratitude and generosity together.
4. It equips people to fight the pain of the holiday season.
The time from Thanksgiving to Christmas can often be the best and worst time of the year. While some people relish every moment, many others can’t wait for it to be over.
The challenge of the holidays often comes from an increased sense of isolation, colder weather, shorter days, grieving the losses of loved ones, extra stress, financial pressures, and the expectation to be happy all the time.
If gratitude is a practice that increases happiness and well-being, then what better time would there be to preach on thanksgiving in the months of November or December?
Think about how a Thanksgiving sermon might equip and prepare your people with the resources to resist and push back against the holiday blues.
5. It’s appealing to Christians and non-Christians.
As pastors and preachers, we are often looking for something that has relevance and importance for both Christians and non-Christians.
We want our messages to disciple the people already in our church and be an entry point for the gospel with non-Christians. Thanksgiving is a perfect topic to do just that.
Though many of us are naturally more complainers than thanks-givers, we all know that gratitude is a better way. Not only does the Bible say a lot about gratitude (see below), but tons of non-Christian websites and articles esteem it.
If you ask a non-Christian, “Do you think your life would be better if you were more grateful?” he or she will respond affirmatively. We have the opportunity to leverage God’s word, to connect with something that will help those with and without Christ — what an opportunity!
Step #2: Pray
Prayer must be part of how a preacher prepares himself or herself and walks with God. But prayer must also be a crucial part of interpreting the Scriptures. The Bible is a “God-breathed” book and, thus, cannot be read scientifically or analytically. To be sure, we cannot interpret correctly without good reading techniques (see below). But it is possible to read well and still come short of God’s message—especially if we read without the Spirit’s help.
Though we’re considering this as a “step,” prayer must be woven throughout the entire process, from beginning to end.
A few specific items to pray for:
- Illumination — Ask God to open your eyes and heart to the truth of his word.
- Guidance — Ask God to direct the process, helping you to see and say exactly what he knows the people in your church most need to hear.
- Personal Impact — Ask God to use his word to make the goodness and beauty of the truth real to your heart, so it’s not merely something you give to others, but something you experience powerfully.
- Power — Ask God for spiritual power necessary to faithfully and fruitfully proclaim the truth..
For another strategy, consider John Piper’s acronym A.P.T.A.T., which gives practical steps to walk in God’s power whenever you open your Bible:
- Admit you can do nothing without God (John 15:5).
- Pray for help (Psalm 50:15).
- Trust a specific promise (2 Chronicles 20:20).
- Act (Philippians 2:12–13).
- Thank God for his provision and goodness (Psalm 106:1).
(For more about this, consider Piper’s free book, Reading the Bible Supernaturally)
Step #3: Review What the Bible Says About Thanksgiving
The Bible has a TON to say about thankfulness and gratitude. It’s hard to find a chunk of Scripture where it doesn’t somehow come up. Thanksgiving takes place in a variety of contexts, by a variety of people, as a response to various situations.
In the Scriptures, it does not encourage gratitude to manipulate or sweet talk God into doing something. Rather, it is a conscious, joyful expression of thanks and praise — often in response to God’s character, blessings, protection, and love.
Why Thanksgiving is So Important
In the Scriptures, giving thanks is crucial. Rather than being an optional practice only for the ultra-mature “Navy Seal” Christians, God sees gratitude as an essential part of life in His world. Consider these two reasons thanksgiving is so important:
1. Giving Thanks is Commanded by God
Thanksgiving isn’t merely a suggestion or recommendation in the Bible — it’s a command.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul writes: “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
When you examine the Greek of this verse, you discover that the verb “give thanks” is both an imperative (you must do it) and present-tense (you must keep doing it continually). We are never to stop expressing our gratitude.
Not only does the verb structure communicate the importance of giving thanks, but Paul goes so far as to say, “this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Christians often struggle with discerning God’s will: Should I take this job? Should I marry that person? What’s the best path for me to take? Is this an opportunity I should pursue?
But one thing we know for sure is that giving thanks is God’s will. Whatever decisions we make or paths we take, we must do them with gratitude.
2. The Lack of Thanksgiving is the Source of All Kinds of Sin
At the end of Romans 1, the Apostle Paul describes the unraveling of the world because of sin. He describes idolatry, impurity, sexual immorality, and all kinds of sin:
They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (Romans 1:29–31, ESV)
But before you get to all the ugliness of verses 29-31, there’s a key sin that takes place in verse 21:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:21, ESV)
The fountainhead of evil and disobedience is ingratitude.
What Did God’s People Thank Him For?
Living in relationship with a generous God creates many opportunities to express thanks to Him. It’s no surprise that we see God’s people in the Scriptures continually thanking God for many things. Consider these biblical examples:
For His Majestic Creation
Bless the LORD, O my soul! O LORD my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering yourself with light as with a garment, stretching out the heavens like a tent. (Psalm 104:1–2, ESV)
For Good News (the ark arriving in Jerusalem)
Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works! Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice! Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually! (1 Chronicles 16:8–11, ESV)
For Bad News (even in Job’s suffering)
And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1:21, ESV)
For His Enduring Love
Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever! (1 Chronicles 16:34, ESV)
For His Righteousness
I will give to the LORD the thanks due to his righteousness, and I will sing praise to the name of the LORD, the Most High. (Psalm 7:17, ESV)
For Deliverance from Enemies
I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up and have not let my foes rejoice over me. O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O LORD, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit. Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name. (Psalm 30:1–4, ESV)
For Deliverance from Death
Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back. For Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness. (Isaiah 38:17–19, ESV)
For Forgiveness of Sin
You will say in that day: “I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me.” (Isaiah 12:1, ESV)
For God’s Restoring Kindness
“Thus says the LORD: Behold, I will restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob and have compassion on his dwellings; the city shall be rebuilt on its mound, and the palace shall stand where it used to be. Out of them shall come songs of thanksgiving, and the voices of those who celebrate. I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will make them honored, and they shall not be small.” (Jeremiah 30:18–19, ESV)
For Answered Prayers
Blessed be the LORD! For he has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy. The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him. (Psalm 28:6–7, ESV)
For Being a God of Justice
For I will proclaim the name of the LORD; ascribe greatness to our God! “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. (Deuteronomy 32:3–4, ESV)
For God’s Sovereign Grace
But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (Jonah 2:9, ESV)
For the Grace of God Given to Others
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:4, ESV)
For Leading Us in Mission
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. (2 Corinthians 2:14, ESV)
For Entrusting Us With Ministry Responsibility
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, (1 Timothy 1:12, ESV)
For Freedom from Sin
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:17–18, ESV)
For the Faith and Love of Others
For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers (Ephesians 1:15–16, ESV)
For Others’ Partnership in the Gospel
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:3–5, ESV)
For the Way God Leads Our Convictions
The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:6, ESV)
For Opening Doors for the Gospel
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— (Colossians 4:2–3, ESV)
For Victory Over Sin and Death
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:56–57, ESV)
For God’s Rescue From Sin
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:24–25, ESV)
For the Peace of Christ
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:15, ESV)
For More and More People Experiencing Grace
For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 4:15, ESV)
For Jesus Himself
Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! (2 Corinthians 9:15, ESV)
For the Inheritance We Have in Christ
…giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. (Colossians 1:12, ESV)
For Authorities and Governmental Leaders
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1–2, ESV)
For Being Rooted and Built Up in Jesus
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. (Colossians 2:6–7, ESV)
For God’s Abundant Provision
Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. (John 6:11, ESV)
For the Fellowship of Friends
And the brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage. (Acts 28:15, ESV)
For God’s Worthiness and Glory
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:9–11, ESV)
For All That We Do
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17, ESV)
Different Thanksgiving in the Bible
Thanksgiving looks different throughout the Bible, taking a variety of forms:
This is the most obvious kind of gratitude. Often God’s people directly express their thankfulness to God. This is not merely feeling grateful, but expressing it to the Lord in prayer.
I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. (Psalm 86:12, ESV)
And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name. (1 Chronicles 29:13, ESV)
To you, O God of my fathers, I give thanks and praise, for you have given me wisdom and might, and have now made known to me what we asked of you, for you have made known to us the king’s matter.” (Daniel 2:23, ESV)
At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children…” (Matthew 11:25, ESV)
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you… (Colossians 1:3, ESV)
Closely related to thanking God is praising God. Though technically thanking the Lord and praising the Lord are different, they share similar qualities. Both are finding joy in God, looking to God to share with Him how we appreciate Him, and acknowledging His goodness.
The role of the Levitical priests was to lead the way in thanking and praising God:
Then he appointed some of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the LORD, to invoke, to thank, and to praise the LORD, the God of Israel. (1 Chronicles 16:4, ESV)
And they were to stand every morning, thanking and praising the LORD, and likewise at evening… (1 Chronicles 23:30, ESV)
The priests stood at their posts; the Levites also, with the instruments for music to the LORD that King David had made for giving thanks to the LORD—for his steadfast love endures forever—whenever David offered praises by their ministry; opposite them the priests sounded trumpets, and all Israel stood. (2 Chronicles 7:6, ESV)
The Psalms — which often use parallelism to link key ideas — frequently show that thanksgiving and praise go together.
Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name. (Psalm 30:4, ESV)
I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you. (Psalm 35:18, ESV)
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. (Psalm 57:9, ESV)
But we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise. (Psalm 79:13, ESV)
It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O Most High… (Psalm 92:1, ESV)
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! (Psalm 100:4, ESV)
Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. (Psalm 111:1, ESV)
Songs of Thanksgiving
We’ve already seen the link between thanksgiving and praise. Praise can take multiple forms, but a common form in the Bible seems to be music. The example of God’s people and the exhortation of the Scriptures is that we would express our gratitude through singing:
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! (Psalm 95:2, ESV)
Then on that day David first appointed that thanksgiving be sung to the LORD by Asaph and his brothers. Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works! (1 Chronicles 16:7–9, ESV)
And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. (Ezra 3:11, ESV)
And the Levites: Jeshua, Binnui, Kadmiel, Sherebiah, Judah, and Mattaniah, who with his brothers was in charge of the songs of thanksgiving. (Nehemiah 12:8, ESV)
And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, harps, and lyres. (Nehemiah 12:27, ESV)
Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre! (Psalm 147:7, ESV)
For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isaiah 51:3, ESV)
Out of them shall come songs of thanksgiving, and the voices of those who celebrate. I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will make them honored, and they shall not be small. (Jeremiah 30:19, ESV)
…addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ… (Ephesians 5:19–20, ESV)
Sacrifices of Thanksgiving
Leviticus 7 describes a number of kinds of peace offerings that could be made, each according to their associated motivations. The first is “for a thanksgiving”:
And this is the law of the sacrifice of peace offerings that one may offer to the LORD. If he offers it for a thanksgiving, then he shall offer with the thanksgiving sacrifice unleavened loaves mixed with oil, unleavened wafers smeared with oil, and loaves of fine flour well mixed with oil. With the sacrifice of his peace offerings for thanksgiving he shall bring his offering with loaves of leavened bread. And from it he shall offer one loaf from each offering, as a gift to the LORD. It shall belong to the priest who throws the blood of the peace offerings. And the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace offerings for thanksgiving shall be eaten on the day of his offering. He shall not leave any of it until the morning. (Leviticus 7:11–15, ESV)
These “sacrifices of thanksgiving” are discussed elsewhere as well:
And when you sacrifice a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the LORD, you shall sacrifice it so that you may be accepted. (Leviticus 22:29, ESV)
And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy! (Psalm 107:22, ESV)
I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the LORD. (Psalm 116:17, ESV)
Thanksgiving From Giving
We easily connect the idea of our gratitude flowing out of God’s generosity. But the Bible teaches that thanksgiving is the fruit of our generosity. Here’s how the Apostle Paul puts it:
You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. (2 Corinthians 9:11–12, ESV)
Thanksgiving in Conversation
Jesus said that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34). It makes sense that thanksgiving would be part of the conversations of grateful people. This is a contrast to the ugliness that is far too pervasive in our in-person and online conversations.
Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:4, ESV)
Paul’s Four Expressions of Gratitude
In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, P.T. O’Brien points out that the Apostle Paul uses four different “joyful responses to God’s gracious saving activity in creation and redemption.” God is gracious, and Paul responded with:
- Benediction — Paul affirms God’s grace to them and shares his gratitude. These often take place at the beginnings (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2, etc.) and endings (Rom 16:20, 24; Gal 6:18; Eph 6:24, etc.) of his letters.
- Blessing — Though blessing language is more common in the Old Testament, Paul uses it several times to declare praise for God’s goodness and grace (2 Cor 1:3–4; Eph 1:3–14; Rom 1:25; 9:5; 2 Cor 11:31; 1 Cor 10:16; 14:6)
- Doxology — These short, hymn-like praises flow from Paul amid his letters and often feel like the overflow of gratitude in his own heart (Rom 11:36; Gal 1:5; Phil 4:20; 1 Tim 1:17)
- Thanksgiving — O’Brien notes that Paul mentions thanksgiving more in his letters, line for line, than any other Greek author, whether pagan or Christian (see above for many examples).
Biblical Characters Who Modeled Thanksgiving
Given the biblical importance of giving thanks, it should not surprise us to find that many people in the Bible modeled gratitude. Besides the many prayers of Paul, consider these examples:
The Levites, who regularly led the people in worship:
…and all the Levitical singers, Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, their sons and kinsmen, arrayed in fine linen, with cymbals, harps, and lyres, stood east of the altar with 120 priests who were trumpeters; and it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the LORD), and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the LORD, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever,” the house, the house of the LORD, was filled with a cloud… (2 Chronicles 5:12–13, ESV)
Hannah, after giving birth to a baby after a long season of infertility:
And Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation. (1 Samuel 2:1, ESV)
David, after the people gave to the Lord for the Temple:
Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name. (1 Chronicles 29:11–13, ESV)
Daniel, who received an interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream:
“To you, O God of my fathers, I give thanks and praise, for you have given me wisdom and might, and have now made known to me what we asked of you, for you have made known to us the king’s matter.” (Daniel 2:23, ESV)
Daniel (again), as both a regular practice and an act of protest:
When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. (Daniel 6:10, ESV)
Jonah, after being rescued by the Lord despite his disobedience:
“But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (Jonah 2:9, ESV)
Anna, after seeing Jesus as a baby:
And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36–38, ESV)
Jesus, who was recognized by the disciples on the road to Emmaus only after they saw him give thanks:
When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him… (Luke 24:30–31, ESV)
Step #4: Pick a Passage or Theme
Having reviewed the biblical landscape of gratitude and thanksgiving, it’s time to make some decisions about the passage or theme you want to unpack.
You can’t say everything about thankfulness, but you want to say something powerful.
So you have a choice: pick a text or pick a theme.
Some of this will be easier depending on your preferred preaching structure (read more about finding your preaching style).
If you pick a text, you’re landing in a specific chapter or paragraph of Scripture and preaching through it for your sermon. Not only does this approach allow you to focus on just studying one passage (rather than having to study a bunch of them), but it also narrows your sermon’s focus.
If you pick a theme, you’re going to explore a few different passages or verses that relate (like the themes above). This allows you to cover a broader swath of material, but also carries the temptation to be too broad.
Either way is fine, but don’t do both — unless you want this to become a way-too-long sermon!
Step #5: Study the Text(s)
Having landed on your approach (text or theme), you should now have one or more Scripture passages to dig into.
Study can involve a lot of steps depending on your time and resources available, but it should involve at least these two:
1. Read Carefully.
This may seem obvious, but many Christians (and even pastors) get tripped up here.
A preacher must absorb the context, situation, and words of Scripture. Casual, careless reading leads to thin preaching.
The questions we bring to the text will shape what we get out of the text.
As we study God’s word, we should ask and answer a number of questions (whether in our heads or in writing) that force us to seriously engage the text of Scripture:
- What observations do I have of the passage?
- What initial impressions do I have of the passage?
- What are the keywords, verbs, and themes in this passage?
- What cultural dynamics need deeper understanding or exploration?
- How would I rewrite the passage in my own words?
- What emotions are described or drawn out from this passage?
- What is the basic point of the passage?
- Why is it important?
- Why do we resist this truth?
- What about this passage highlights the fallen condition that all humanity faces? (See Bryan Chapell’s Christ Centered Preaching for more on what he calls the “Fallen Condition Focus”)
- How is Jesus and/or the gospel communicated through this text?
- What does the text want people to know, feel, and/or do?
2. Listen to Others Through Commentaries or Contemporaries.
It’s a tremendous gift to study the Bible for oneself. But we will always get more if we lean into the insights of the community of faith.
God uses the beautiful diversity of his church to help us read well—seeing and hearing things that can only come from various experiences, backgrounds, cultures, stages of life, moments in history, theological traditions, and genders.
We should leverage two sources in particular:
Trusted believers in the local community. The model of a solitary preacher holed up in a private study is foolish. Find a group of people to discuss the text with.
Some preachers may develop a formal group who meet regularly for this purpose, while others may need to be intentional about seeking input from others in their local church. Not only will this help the preacher better interpret Scripture, but it will also give increased insight into how to apply the Scriptures to the congregation.
Commentaries. What a gift we have in commentaries! Through remarkable technology, it affords us the opportunity to ‘listen in’ to many wise (and some foolish) interpreters from a variety of situations and settings.
In many cases, these interpreters have been able to spend most their lives investigating the Scriptures and preserving their insights as a gift to the church.
Every preacher would be well served to have at least a few single-volume commentaries on the whole Bible, like the ESV Study Bible, New Bible Commentary, or Bible Knowledge Commentary.
If you have the financial ability to purchase commentaries, check out https://www.bestcommentaries.com/ to find recommendations on each book of the Bible.
Though conventional wisdom encourages preachers to use commentaries at the end of the process (as a kind of ‘check’ on your work), it might be wise to consult commentaries earlier. If God has given his Spirit to his people, then leveraging their wisdom and insights early in the process seems important.
Also, it saves a bunch of time to ‘check your work’ early. If you’re headed in the wrong direction, wouldn’t you rather find that out at the beginning than the end?
Step #6: Ask Some Crucial Questions
Preaching is not primarily informational, but transformational. One preacher calls preaching “the hostile takeover of the heart by the Spirit of God through the word of God.”
Thus, we can’t just communicate what the text means, but how it applies — individually or collectively. Consider asking questions in the following categories to help unearth applications and implications:
Me (The Preacher)–How do I need to apply this passage personally to my own life? Where have I struggled to embrace this truth? What would change for me if I grew more obedient in this area?
Uniquely God–What about the passage is important for the way God unfolds his plan of salvation in history? What’s unrepeatable by us but worthy of worshiping God for?
Love Connection–How does this passage demonstrate the love of Jesus in its fullness? What are the implications for how we are called to imitate Jesus’ life of love? How does love inform this truth?
Public Square–What does the passage say about our lives and roles in the public sphere, both as Christians and non-Christians (e.g., government, work, school, neighborhood)?
Our Church–What does the passage mean for the corporate life of our church? How does it call the church family to tend to its corporate life together and witness to the unbelieving community around it? What does it imply for our church’s unique vision?
Individual Christians–What does the passage mean for the life of the individual Christian? How does it call him/her to deeper repentance and belief? How does it warn, rebuke, correct, motivate, comfort, or encourage him?
Suffering & Hurting–What does this passage say to those who are hurting? What encouragement does it offer? What example is provided? What truths offer hope?
Unsaved “Christian”–How does this passage challenge those who think they are saved but aren’t? What warnings, contrasts, tests, and invitations does it provide?
Fading Teenager–How does this passage connect with a teenager skeptical toward the reality of Christianity? What might surprise him or cause him to sit up and pay attention?
Unchurched Men How does the passage speak to an unchurched man? How does it call him to repentance and belief? How does it warn, rebuke, correct, or prod the unbeliever? What does it say about the danger of his situation, the exclusivity of Christ, his need for a Savior, or the sufficiency of that Savior as a substitute for him?
Step #7: Pick an Angle
The most challenging and artistic element of sermon preparation for many preachers is picking the angle or framework for the sermon. Each text or theme has many elements that are interesting and could be applied.
Picking an angle is about focusing the attention and communication of the sermon in a unified direction. This is where writing and organizing begins.
To illustrate this task, consider the example of preaching on 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
This one verse is packed with powerful truth:
- It’s not enough to feel thankful, we need to “give thanks”
- Giving thanks is a command, not a suggestion
- Giving thanks is something you never stop doing — it should be a continuous action for a Christian
- Giving thanks should happen constantly, regardless of of the circumstances
- Giving thanks is hard when things are bad and when they are easy
- It’s God’s will that you give thanks in all circumstances
- God’s will is that his people would be a thankful people (the “you” is plural)
- There is a particular way that we should be “in Christ Jesus,” and that is thankful
- Giving thanks is likely connected to our rejoicing always (v. 16) and continual prayer (v. 17)
You could come up with additional interesting aspects of this verse. But a good sermon is more than just a running list of truths from a passage. That’s how you end up with a scatter-brained sermon. Picking an angle is about deciding what will give the sermon its structure and unity.
An “angle” is the organizing principle, the coat hanger that everything must link to. It’s like a “big idea,” a sermon proposition, or even a sermon title
What would be some possible “angles” for a sermon on this verse? Consider the following options:
Thanksgiving is different than you think — setting up the surprising elements of thanksgiving
The surprising path to God’s will — also highlighting surprise, but with a focus on God’s will
The hardest verse in the Bible — puts the emphasis on the difficulty of obeying this simple verse
Biblical Thanksgiving: only possible with Jesus — links the difficulty with the “in Christ Jesus”
Notice that in each of these examples, you would still end up talking about many of the bullet point lessons above. But these “angles” give your sermon a structure from which to talk about it.
Step #8: Decide What Kind of Outline to Use
While this may seem like the same as #7, it’s not. The sermon “angle” is the frame of reference or the organizing principle. But the outline is the actual flow of the sermon.
The angle is like what the movie is about, but the outline is like the storyboard that moves that point forward.
Believe it or not, there are more kinds of sermon outlines than you think. Below are six of the most common sermon outlines, and an example of how you could preach 1 Thessalonians 5:18 with that outline.
Similar to the essays you wrote in high school or college—you introduce a topic, expound on three points relating to it, then conclude by recapping what you’ve discussed.
- Gratitude is more expressive than you think (giving thanks vs merely feeling thankful)
- Gratitude is more comprehensive than you think (in all circumstances)
- Gratitude is more important than you think (it’s God’s will for you)
Created by Andy Stanley, this approach helps you communicate one big idea from a particular passage of Scripture conversationally.
- Me — A time when I struggled to give thanks
- We — How the listeners also struggle with it
- God — What God has to say about it (hint: it’s really important)
- You — How to obey the verse
- We — Imagine what would happen if we more consistently gave thanks
Verse-by-Verse Running Commentary
Preaching in this style allows you to delve into the Biblical context, history, culture, and difficult-to-discern meanings found within your text. But be careful! If done poorly, it can ramble and be confusing.
- Give thanks — what it means to express gratitude
- In all circumstances — when we are to express gratitude
- For this is the will of God — why we can express gratitude
- In Christ Jesus for you — how it’s possible to express gratitude
The Defender’s Outline
Helpful for apologetic sermons or messages about more controversial issues, but also a sympathetic approach for getting people to engage with their doubts or suspicions.
- Introduction — Thanksgiving is a holiday that most people totally love and totally ignore
- Biblical Principle — Give thanks in all circumstances
- Consider Objections — But what if life is hard? Is God the one making my life hard?
- Offer a Defense — God is good and our pain is, at its root, a failure to give him thanks (Romans 1)
- Application — How to move toward a life of gratitude
The Children’s Leader
Developed with children’s church leaders in mind, this format centers on mixing things up and giving listeners distinct reminders of what you’re teaching that day.
- Introduction: Fun facts about Thanksgiving
- Hook: What if the best part of Thanksgiving was the thing we were most likely to forget?
- Phrase of the Day: “Give Thanks”
- Story: Explain the verse
- Illustration and Application: Corrie Ten Boom, “Thank God for the Fleas”
- Reflect & Activity: Write a thank you note
The 5 C’s Youth Sermon (Capture, Connect, Consider, Collide, Call)
A helpful way to grab attention and drive one key idea home.
- Capture: Corrie Ten Boom, “Thank God for the Fleas”
- Connect: God’s will is that we would be a thankful people
- Consider: What if giving thanks is not just the right thing, but also the best thing?
- Collide: What are the “fleas” in your life that you wish would go away?
- Call: Let’s pause and thank God for the “fleas”
These outlines are embedded into Sermonary, our word processor, developed specifically for writing sermons, and we have a helpful article explaining each in greater depth (with videos).
When in doubt, don’t get too cute. Just go with the Traditional Three-Points (people are used to stories with a Beginning, Middle, and End). It’s traditional for a reason: it usually works.
Step #9: Wordsmith Your Outline
Once you have your outline style picked, it’s time to put it together.
This step is easily overlooked and underdeveloped, especially for less experienced preachers. But spending a little extra time to craft the wording of the outline can make the sermon stronger.
Some ideas for wordsmithing your outline:
1. Try to use similar word and sentence patterns
Consider these two potential outlines:
Gratitude is more expressive than you think
Gratitude is more comprehensive than you think
Gratitude is more important than you think
It’s better to “say thanks” than just feel thankful
It’s important to give thanks in all circumstances
It’s God’s will to give thanks.
Both outlines are true, but the first one is better wordsmithed. It’s stickier and cleaner. Why? Because it’s leveraging the power of similar structure.
2. Don’t force alliteration, but don’t ignore it either
Preachers like to joke about starting every point with C or T or any other letter. We should avoid forcing it — if every sermon uses alliteration, it’s unlikely to be that memorable.
Alliteration is a valuable communication tool. Just because some people overdue it doesn’t mean you should never use it.
3. Stop saying “things”
“Things” is one of the laziest words preachers use. Charles Koller says that to use “things” as a keyword is “like using a bushel basket or a wheelbarrow to carry three apples.”
Instead of saying, “1 Thessalonians 5:18 tells us three things about gratitude,” try something like:
- “1 Thessalonians 5:18 reveals three surprises about gratitude”
- “1 Thessalonians 5:18 uncovers three qualities about gratitude”
- “1 Thessalonians 5:18 challenges us to three commitments about gratitude”
It takes extra work, but do what you can to get “things” out of your preaching vocabulary.
4. Leverage the power of keywords and transitional verbs
The examples of the previous point all highlight the value of keywords and transitional verbs.
In his book, How to Preach Without Notes, Charles Koller explores “keywords”:
One of the most helpful of all homiletical devices is the “key word.” If there is structural unity in a sermon, there is a “key word,” not necessarily expressed or even recognized, that characterizes each of the main points and holds the structure together. The need for such a “key word” may be illustrated by an extreme example.
A preacher of pioneer days is said to have introduced one of his sermons as follows: “My text is, ‘Adam, where art thou?’ My sermon has three points: First, Where was Adam? Secondly, Why was Adam where he was? And thirdly, A few remarks about baptism.”
Obviously, he had not tested his structure by means of a “key word.” The value of a clear cut thesis and a “key word” that exactly fits each of the main divisions can scarcely be overstated.
The “key word” opens a corridor down the length of the sermon structure, with direct access from the front entrance to every room, instead of leaving the preacher and his hearers wandering uncertainly from room to room.
According to Koller, “keywords” should be plural, are better if specific and accurate, and are always a noun or a noun form of a verb or an adjective. For instance:
(1) Noun: attributes, barriers, causes, devices
(2) Noun form of verb: beginnings, refusals, inferences, commitments, expectations, disclosures
(3) Noun form of adjective: actualities, weaknesses
Similarly, Koller says that:
The “key word” generally involves the use of a “transitional verb,” which is always a “transitive” verb requiring an object, or a verb coupled with a preposition that requires an object. In either case the object is the “key word.” The following “transitional verbs” are set in natural combinations with “key words,” to demonstrate their normal use.
“This text raises . . . questions.”
“The Lord makes . . . promises.”
“The apostle delivers . . . charges.”
“The prophet points out . . . reasons.”
“The situation calls for . . . responses.”
“Faithfulness leads to . . . satisfactions.”
Key Word Examples
abuses, accusations, acts, actualities, admonitions, advantages, affairs, affirmations, agreements, aims, alternatives, angles, answers, applications, approaches, areas, arguments, aspects, aspirations, assertions, assumptions, assurances, attainments, attitudes, attributes, barriers, beginnings, beliefs, benefits, blessings, calls, causes, certainties, challenges, changes, charges, claims, clues, commitments, comparisons, compensations, compromises, compulsions, conceptions, concessions, conclusions, conditions, consequences, contrasts, corrections, credentials, criteria, criticisms, customs, dangers, decisions, declarations, defenses, deficiencies, definitions, degrees, demands, denials, destinies, details, devices, differences, directions, directives, disciplines, disclosures, discoveries, distinctions, doctrines, duties, elements, encouragements, essentials, estimates, events, evidences, evils, examples, exchanges, exclamations, exhortations, expectations, experiences, expressions, facets, factors, facts, failures, faults, favors, fears, features, finalities, forces, functions, fundamentals, gains, generalizations, gifts, graces, groups, habits, handicaps, hopes, hungers, ideas, imperatives, implications, impressions, improvements, impulses, incentives, incidents, indictments, inferences, injunctions, insights, inspirations, instances, instructions, instruments, intimations, invitations, items, joys, judgments, justifications, kinds, lessons, levels, liabilities, losses, loyalties, manifestations, marks, methods, mistakes, moments, motives, movements, mysteries, needs, notions, objections, observations, obstacles, offers, omissions, opinions, opportunities, particulars, peculiarities, penalties, perils, phases, phrases, pledges, points, possibilities, practices, premises, prerogatives, principles, priorities, probabilities, problems, processes, promises, promptings, pronouncements, proofs, prophecies, propositions, provisions, qualifications, qualities, questions, realities, realizations, reasons, reflections, refusals, remarks, remedies, reminders, requirements, reservations, resources, responses, restraints, results, revelations, rewards, risks, rules, safeguards, satisfactions, secrets, sins, sources, specifications, statements, steps, stipulations, successes, suggestions, superlatives, suppositions, surprises, symptoms, tendencies, testimonies, tests, thoughts, threats, topics, totalities, truths, urges, uses, values, views, violations, virtues, voices, warnings, ways, weaknesses, words
Transitional Verb Examples
announces, answers, anticipates, concedes, declares, demands, describes, deserves, desires, emphasizes, enumerates, exemplifies, explains, expounds, expresses, identifies, implies, indicates, introduces, names, notes, offers, presents, proclaims, produces, pronounces, reveals, stipulates, suggests, supplies, teaches, draws attention to, results in, sets forth, touches upon, unveils
Step #10: Flesh Out the Introduction, Illustrations, and Conclusion
Once you’ve landed on an outline — the milestones that this journey will hit — it’s time to think about how the trip begins, ends, and what makes it interesting in between.
An Attention Grabbing Introduction
Good introductions are crucial to effective preaching. Rather than assuming the listener is interested, a good introduction grabs the listeners by the throat and says, “Hey! You’re going to want to listen to this!”
A good introduction gives the listener a reason to listen. It takes something attention grabbing and hooks the listener in to where the sermon is headed.
There are many effective ways to grab attention—stories, illustrations, bold statements, jokes, emotion, provocative quotes, or interesting questions. Good preachers may not always use the same tools for an introduction, but they all give those listening a reason to care about what’s coming.
If you want a better approach to sermon introductions, check out Brian Jones’ helpful tool for crafting an introduction he calls the “Jab 1, Jab 2, Jab 3, right hook.”
We all know that illustrations make a big impact in preaching by being memorable and creating “aha moments.”
Not only are they effective for memory and making a point, but they also function as a kind of break from what feels like cerebral content. As listeners, we can only handle so much information and intensity before we need a mental break. Interesting, funny, or lighthearted illustrations serve as a “commercial break” that helps listeners stay engaged (or re-engage).
Some of the best sermon illustrations come from your own life. Check out this guide to finding good, personal sermon illustrations.
Illustrations are important and dangerous enough that it’s worth reflecting on how to use them well:
Remember the purpose of illustrations. Illustrations exist to illustrate key truth. They shouldn’t be used just to be interesting, funny, or creative—that’s self-indulgent. They should illustrate.
Beware too few or too many illustrations. Too few illustrations make a sermon less interesting, harder to listen to, and harder to apply. Too many illustrations can be a way of having an interesting sermon that doesn’t say anything. A helpful rule of thumb is to have a good illustration for each key point. More than one per point is unnecessary and can sometimes confuse—if an illustration needs an illustration, it shouldn’t be used.
Include enough details to pique interest, but not too many to distract. Good storytellers include interesting details. They help the illustration come to life and stick in more memorable ways. However, beware including so many details that the point of the illustration gets lost.
Don’t overshadow the point. Sometimes preachers tell stories that are so detailed and so interesting that weeks later listeners can remember the story in vivid detail—but they can’t remember what the point of the story was. Be careful of having an illustration that takes over the sermon.
Don’t be the hero. Almost without exception, preachers are served by not being the heroes of their stories. Have a story where you look bad? Tell it all day long. Have a story where you look amazing? Be careful. There are some times where a preacher may, like Paul, say “follow me as I follow Christ.” But these success stories shouldn’t be the norm. Better to tell stories of others’ success and your failure.
Get permission from your family. For many preachers, experiences with family can be helpful for crafting illustrations. If it’s a negative example of a family member, skip it. But if the illustration is more positive, it’s wise to check with the family members before sharing.
A Smooth Conclusion
Sermons are like flights: you don’t circle the airport for an hour, and you also don’t want it to end with a crash.
How do you “land the sermon” well? H.B. Charles offers these seven suggestions:
- Give a true conclusion. Don’t just stop. Conclude the sermon intentionally.
- Only conclude once. When you say, “Finally,” you mean it. Avoid serial conclusions.
- Know your destination. A good conclusion is the result of a sermon that had purpose, unity, and movement.
- Review the message. It is often said that a speaker should tell the audience what he is going to say, say it, and then tell them what you said. That may be a cliché. But it works.
- Issue a call to action. Application should take place throughout the sermon. But the conclusion is a good place to emphasize it.
- Run to the cross. Jesus should be the hero of every sermon. And the conclusion is a good place to point your hearers to Christ.
- Leave a good impression. First impressions are lasting impressions. But so are closing ones. Think of the conclusion as a lawyer’s closing argument. Don’t leave any reasonable doubt. Preach for a verdict.
Final Thoughts on Thanksgiving Sermon Outlines
If you’re looking for a small way to make a big impact this year, consider preaching a Thanksgiving sermon. It will be good for your church and good for you.
And remember: the principles we’ve outlined for writing a Thanksgiving sermon outline can be followed in creating nearly any sermon.
May God fill you with gratitude, and may he use this Thanksgiving to fill you and your church’s heart with joy!