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Understanding the Contemporary Preaching Model
There is a recent development that has taken place in the field of preaching. It did not originate with a prominent scholar in the field of homiletics. It has come out of the practical experience of some of today's leading preachers. I will call it, for lack of a better term, a contemporary model of preaching. I would like to examine what brought about this new model, what this new model proposes, and what its strengths and weaknesses may be.
Over the last thirty years or so our society has changed from a Christian mind-set to a secular mind-set. This change means that a preacher cannot expect that the people to whom he or she preaches will have an understanding of the basic beliefs of Christianity, knowledge of biblical stories, or even a belief in absolutes of right and wrong. This of course assumes that the preacher is trying to reach the unchurched person.
This new model of preaching is designed for preaching to the secular person, not for preaching solely to the Christian. To preach to such people will require a new understanding and new approach.
Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, designs his preaching with this new rationale. He says that in order to speak intelligibly to unchurched people we need to work through two critical areas. First is that we try to understand the way they think (Hybels, Mastering Contemporary Preaching, p. 29). This means the preacher must get out of the church and into the world, getting close enough to people to understand their needs. The second area is to communicate that we like the unchurched person (Hybels, p. 30). Hybels believes that if you don't like them, it will be reflected in your preaching, destroying your effectiveness.
Today, people are part of a television generation. They are so used to flashing images and high stimulation that they have raised expectations of communication. The unchurched person is also the ultimate consumer. Hybels would say that with every sermon they are asking, "Am I interested in this?" (Hybels, p. 31). The preacher must start where the unchurched person is and then bring them to a Christian understanding.
Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Mission Viejo, California, is another leading advocate of the contemporary model. He has developed its theory more than any other preacher, pointing out that people today have three fundamental needs: they need to have their faith reinforced, they need to have their hope renewed, and they need to have their love restored. His thinking about preaching is based upon these fundamental needs and how the preacher can meet them.
Doug Murren, pastor of Eastside Foursquare Church in Kirkland, Washington, believes the Church must be "user-friendly" and preaching should lead the way to accomplishing that. He advocates preaching very practical, how-to messages that tell the listener Christianity is meant for everyday life (Murren, The Baby Boomerang, p. 95). He says a contemporary model sermon begins by going straight to the self-help section of the local bookstore (Murren, p. 100); sermon ideas will come from titles found in this section.
Warren believes that sermon ideas should come from the response to three questions: What are people's needs? What are people's hurts? What are people's interests? He develops sermons that will provide answers to these needs in people's lives.
Warren says that people will not listen if they don't care about the message. There are three things that will get a person's attention: things that they value, things that are unusual, and things that threaten us. Developing sermons that touch on these issues will ensure a hearing from your audience.
In the actual development of the sermon, the contemporary model is essentially propositional. This is an ironic aspect of it because of the connection this has with traditional preaching. Scholars such as Fred Craddock have proposed an inductive, narrative approach to preaching because of today's modern person. The contemporary model shares many of Craddock's beliefs about the listening ability of today's person but has come to a completely different conclusion.
Murren says that since he only has a few minutes to convince people to listen to his sermon, he states his "take away" points up front (Murren, p. 101). This is the ultimate in deductive and propositional preaching, in which from the start you tell the listeners what they are going to learn, do, and understand. Craddock believes you draw listeners along until they reach the conclusion with you; Murren says that you give them the main points right away and remove any doubt about where the message is heading.
In the development of the sermon, Warren has the most extensive ideas. He claims that nothing can become dynamic until it becomes specific. Thus he proposes ways to be more practical and specific in sermons. He says the sermon must clearly spell out the action that is desired, tell the listeners why this action is needed, and show them how they can do it. Exhortation without explanation leads to frustration, which is what many listeners experience in preaching today.
Possibly the most innovative aspect of Warren's theory is his understanding of applying the sermon. He says that if the goal of preaching is changed lives, then application should be the preacher's central task; application should make up the sermon's main points. In other words, instead of having points which are then made applicable by some action, the desired action is the main point supported by the main truths or principles.
He gives an example by using the book of Jonah. The four chapters of Jonah could each be a main point in a sermon or series of sermons. Instead of stating the truth of each chapter with some point and then applying it, he makes his application his main points. In chapter 1 the point would be: you can run but you can't hide. In chapter 2 the point is: when you've hit bottom look up. In chapter 3 the point is: God gives a second chance. In chapter 4 the point would be: God loves everyone and so should we. This approach endeavors to produce preaching that does not simply inform but transforms.
Warren gives a five-step process for developing a sermon. First, condense the message into a single thesis sentence. Second, avoid using religious terms. Third, keep the sermon outline simple. Fourth, make the applications the points of the sermon. Fifth, never make a point without a picture. This model of sermon development involves aspects of traditional deductive preaching along with more inductive narrative forms.
The style of the contemporary sermon is primarily relational. Murren talks of the sermon being light and informal, filled with personal anecdotes (Murren, p. 103). Personal preaching is powerful preaching, according to Warren. He identifies the "non-manipulative dialogue" as being the best style for preaching. This style views the preacher as a friend relating what he or she has learned. The contemporary model consists of less proclamation and more incarnation (modeling). This relational style means that the preacher shares honestly in a way that will impact the listener. Warren says the preacher should honestly share his or her struggles, weaknesses, progress, and areas of current learning.
Murren, Warren, and Hybels agree on the importance of titles and current illustrations in the sermon. Hybels believes creative titles to be so important that he will spend hours on one title. He says that he does this because unchurched people will not come unless they can say, "Now that's something I want to hear" (Hybels, p. 32). He gives examples of sermon titles such as "God has feelings too" and "Telling the truth to each other." Warren is also an avid believer in the effectiveness of sermon titles. He especially likes to demonstrate bad titles as a way of illustrating the importance of good ones.
In the contemporary model the use of illustrations must be contemporary. Hybels says that sixty to seventy percent of his illustrations come from current events as reported in Time, Newsweek, and Forbes (Hybels, p. 36). Murren mentions similar magazines, as well as USA Today, for illustrative help (Murren, p. 102). Warren stresses the use of the local newspaper for current illustrations and frowns on the use of poetry and historical stories.
Preaching to a television generation requires interesting delivery. The contemporary model does not shy away from entertainment. Warren says that the difference between a good sermon and a great sermon is delivery. He believes that the delivery of Jesus is an example to follow. In Jesus' preaching He told stories to great effect. In a propositional sermon it is important to dress your principles in personalities.
Jesus' use of humor -- here Warren is speaking of Hebrew humor as exaggeration -- is another element of delivery He used effectively. The use of humor is extremely important to the contemporary model. Warren says it relaxes people and makes them feel comfortable in church. He also believes it makes some of the hard parts of Christian truth more palatable. Likeability is the number one factor in being an effective communicator, according to Warren, and humor makes the preacher's delivery more effective.
This model of contemporary preaching does have several strengths. I believe its greatest strength is its inherent ability to relate to today's person. There is no lack of preaching in our country; some 55 million people hear sermons each Sunday. If people are not able to "hear" preaching, are not able to understand it and relate it to their lives, then it is a failure. The basis of this model is understanding the unchurched hearer and changing the form of the sermon to meet the needs of the unchurched. Evidence of its effectiveness is seen in the experiences of Hybels, Warren and Murren. Hybels pastors the country's largest church with over fifteen thousand adherents. Warren has another mega-church with some ten thousand attenders. Murren will have to settle for his nearly five thousand on a Sunday morning. This model of preaching does seem to attract an audience.
Another positive element of this model is its relational approach. Compared with the confrontational approach of some past and present preaching, it communicates a proper understanding of grace. No person can stand up and act as if they are not related to the community, seeing himself or herself as an individual. An effective preacher is one who truly loves people; they sense that from the pulpit. Many people can accept truth but do not want it presented in a negative way.
A third note about this model is that it greatly enhances application of the sermon. Before a person can apply anything they have heard they must understand it. The practical will help most people more than the profound. When we realize that we forget 95% of what we hear in 72 hours, simplicity is a key. Making the main points of the sermon consist of application may produce more change in a person's life. Ultimately every preacher's goal is the changed life that takes place from the preached word.
The contemporary model has some strengths but it also has some weaknesses.
The beginning point of the sermon for the contemporary model is the situation of the modern person. The issue is explored at some depth, then the preacher goes to the Bible for insight and direction; what we understand about life is used to explore the truths of Scripture.
A better approach is to see the people in the Bible as people like us whose lives are absorbed into the story of God's action in the world. They become characters in a story not primarily about them but about God. If this is true, we do not go to Scripture to learn more about life as we know it; rather, we go to the Bible to have our basic understandings of life changed. The task of preaching is not to go to the Bible for more wisdom about some reality of life. It is to have the Bible call into question and ultimately redefine what we know of reality.
Another concern about the contemporary model is its didactic, propositional form. In our lives we think categorically for things like laundry lists, calendar appointments, and bills we owe. The larger thoughts of making sense out of life, love, and faith are not thought out categorically for most of us. Simplicity is one thing but overly-simplistic is another. With this sermon form there is not the "wow" or "gotcha" often found in the inductive sermon, which many times is the truth that will open up understanding in our lives leading to true change.
A final thought about this model would be its catering to a self-oriented, needs-centered society. The last thing preaching should do is confirm in us the selfishness which dominates our lives. Preaching only to perceived needs, interests, and even hurts can produce not a new creation but a recycled old creation. These preachers would say there is more preaching being done which touches on great truths and doctrines of Christianity at other services besides Sunday morning. That is good for those who come to mid-week service or membership class but what of those who attend only the "seekers' service" on Sunday?
I am grateful to these preachers for challenging preaching to respond to a changing world. With continued discussion and revision the future looks bright for contemporary preaching.
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