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Preaching Points: Sermon Adjectives

Adverbs are supposed to modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. Generally they do not so much modify as nullify, mystify, stultify and nearly always dissatisfy.

The easiest way to make an adverb is to take an adjective and add -ly to the end of it. You thereby hybridize briskness with something less moving and confusing. I have always seen -ly words as court words. Lawyers use them a lot. They are waxy and escapist.

I recently heard a politician (and a lawyer use the word allegedly. I thought to myself: Exactly what does the ambiguous word really say? It is like the words comfortably, notably, seemingly, apparently, surprisingly, etc. Such words are fuzz balls in speech, sermons in particular.

I also never have believed much in adjectives; they rate only slightly higher than adverbs with me. As adverbs tend to end in -ly, adjectives tend to end in -al, -tive or -ory. Let us take the word expository for instance. This is a very key -ory adjective that when applied to preaching supposedly is supportive of its stronger noun form exposition. Therefore, the word expository should have something to do with exposing the truth of God's Word; but in many cases the adjective form is so pleasing because it gilds the bearer with an affirmation for just about any preaching style.

Expository is a darling adjective ending that just about everybody claims. In Evangelical circles, to say, "I believe in expository preaching!" is the equivalent of saying the Apostle's Creed in an Episcopal gathering. On the other hand, to say, "I don't believe in expository preaching" is the equivalent of saying, "I am a member of the A.C.L.U," in a Baptist gathering. So just about every preacher I know claims to be an expository preacher, even if the statement is not sincere—even if his or her preaching style is to read a verse of Scripture and immediately leave the verse to major on opinion or irrelevant illustrations.

Topical on the other hand is an -al adjective despised by the -ory people. The topical preachers see the -al ending as their particular ending, which makes the Word relevant, while the -ory-ending people see their word as courageous and honest. The extremist -ories sometimes see the word expository as a command to go through the Bible verse by verse, ignoring the seasons of the sermon. Advent disappears, because they started preaching through the Book of Daniel in September, and by December you're just now getting down to the prophetic fireworks of the book. You secretly would like to rebuke the choir for doing its Christmas music just when you're getting into Gog and Magog.

Easter fares a little better than Advent, because most preachers (whether expository or topical) tend to celebrate the Resurrection; but Lent as a word has very little -ory respect because it comes from a word that only means "spring" and therefore has very little to commend it biblically. Once Easter is out of the way, the -ories can get back to their two-year focus on Leviticus.

D.A. Carson tried to help bridge this wide -ory—-al gap by proposing yet another adjective: topositional. This coinage has a lot going for it. It allows a merger of the two adjectives by a new one, which always has appealed to me. The topositional preacher is one who tries to bridge the -ory—-al divide with a bit of common sense. The topositional preacher is free to consult a lectionary, figure out how to preach to the seasons of our lives and meet the specific needs for the congregation and develop sermons with expository force that keeps the Bible central while also paying attention to the specific needs of the church during the times and seasons of the church year.

There are plenty of other -al adjectives that have come to modify sermons: premillennial, liturgical, liberal, traditional, not to mention a host of -ic adjectives (Calvinistic, classic, frenetic, prosaic, poetic, impolitic, lunatic). Overall, good sermons—maybe even great ones—come from good sensible preachers, who avoid any of the pigeon holes each of these adjectives denote.

Perhaps we are only mature as preachers when our yea is "yea" and nay is "nay." Truth is a good noun to work on, as is evangelism, baptism, worship and integrity. These are great substantives on which to build the piers of ministry and preaching (two other good nouns). When these firm words come to define our lives, maybe we can play around less with the adjectives and wily adverbs. Ever notice how nounsy and verbsy the fourth gospel is:
 
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made without Him was anything made that has been made."

So the text continues for nine verses with only three adjectives; but then, those were the delightful days when the founders of our faith apparently were stuck on the big ideas—ideas so big that only nouns would suffice for preachers who were out to change the world.

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