Baker Books, 2007. Paperback
175 pages

For a craft that is now 2,000 years old, Christian preaching nevertheless continues to change in many ways. Recent years have brought into the conversation significant discussion about issues such as inductive vs. deductive preaching, the use of narrative and story, the relationship between sermon form and literary genre, and much more. Yet how is a busy pastor to keep up with such change? (Apart from reading Preaching magazine, obviously!)

In The Shape of Preaching, pastor Dennis Cahill seeks to help pastors understand the various approach­es to sermon theory and design which have entered the homiletical conversation in recent years. And as he points out, these are not just pragmatic or methodological questions: “Sermon design is not just a matter of what works. Sermon design also relates to theology, literary form and to the culture of the world in which we live.” (A portion of his discussion on the theology of sermon design appears in an article in this issue.)

Cahill begins by introducing the concept of sermon design – the way the content of the sermon is structured. He points out that sermon form deals with sequence (the order of ideas), movement (how does the sermon deal with those ideas) and content (the material used in the sermon). He explains the changing ways in which preaching has been dealing with sermon form, and contrasts the classic deductive sermon model with the inductive approach (including an extended discussion of narrative as a form).

The author proceeds to discuss the theological implications of sermon design and the relationship of sermon form to the literary genre of the biblical text. Cahill also offers a helpful analysis of the role of culture in sermon design. He notes, “Audience, which is just another way of saying culture, should affect sermon design. Preaching is not a one-way street. Done well, it involves give-and-take between the preacher and the audience. The discerning pastor exegetes not only the text but the audience as well. Our understanding of the audience to whom we speak ought to affect the way we design sermons.”

The second half of the book deals with the act of designing the sermon. Cahill initially deals with identifying the focus of the sermon – “The exegetical idea of the sermon, the homiletical idea, and the sermon’s purpose. The exegetical idea is the central thought or proposition of the text…The homiletical idea is the exegetical idea written for today’s audience. It is sometimes called the ‘big idea.’ The purpose is what the sermon intends to do in the life of the listener. It is the goal of the sermon. Together these form what I call the focus of the sermon.”

Cahill then talks about the movement from text to sermon – how we form our ideas into a message that can be effectively communicated. He offers exam­ples of deductive, inductive and narrative approaches to such design. Finally, he offers counsel for “fleshing out” that struc­ture into a sermon that will be preached.

The Shape of Preaching will be a useful introduction for young ministers as well as a helpful refresher for veteran preachers. As Haddon Robinson writes in the book’s foreword, “In relatively few pages he walks us over the terrain we must travel as we think ourselves clear about the meaning and authority of the biblical text and how the passage affects different listeners’ thinking and living.”

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