One of the sharpest rebukes I ever received for a sermon was from a faithful member of my congregation. She was a university English teacher, a Harvard graduate; therefore, I took her comments seriously.
For some reason that I have long since forgotten, or perhaps — and this is worse — for no excuse whatever, my sermon was slapped together in haste and presented like a blemished offering to the Lord and the congregation.
After the service as I was speaking to the people in the foyer, my friend came by and with a warm, reassuring smile thanked me for my sermon, adding, “– and it was so well organized!” The arrow hit the bullseye from the back of the target: I knew that she knew what was well-organized and what was not, and her words did their work.
God has placed great store in the organization, the form of all that He has made. Every living creature, from the smallest insect to the human being, is a miracle of organization. The sermon can reflect something of that creativity. The form of the sermon can and should follow the function in the mind of its creator. The following questions are designed to open up that issue.
1. Does your preaching show variety of form from sermon to sermon?
Let us agree, to begin with, that there is no one good way to structure a sermon. The old joke about “three points and a poem” is just That — a joke. However, we have plenty of evidence for the caricature, and we chuckle when we hear it.
Some of us have to have all our sermon points alliterated, the main words or phrases in all the points (and sometimes the sub-points as well) beginning with the same letter of the alphabet. Some of us do what has been called “inchworm exposition,” in which we always laboriously make our way over a passage of scripture word-for-word without giving the total picture and a focused message of the text. Perhaps all of us have our ruts in which we prefer to move, though we do venture out of them occasionally.
The very variety of types of literature in the scriptures themselves suggests a variety of possible forms for the sermon, forms that would be a radical departure from the usual stereotypes that determine our approach.
Professor Gwen Walters of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a native of Wales, once presented a description of Welsh preaching, some of it in English and some in Gaelic.
A profoundly moving example came from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. It was a courtroom scene in which the preacher, following the lead of the text, dramatically showed Christ the Advocate standing and pleading for the accused, the sinner.
The variety was in the scripture itself, and the preacher was perceptive enough and courageous enough to capture and use what was there. Are you?
2. Is the form of the sermon shaped by its aim?
Let us be clear about one thing: the ultimate aim of all our preaching is to help people know God and do His will. However, individual sermons have specific, penultimate aims that are quite different, even though they all point toward that most important goal.
By and large, our preaching will do four general things: explain, convince, revitalize, and/or actuate.
When we look at certain texts, we will say of one, “That needs explaining”; of another, “That needs arguing for”; of another, “That ought to inspire and encourage”; and of still another, “That ought to move people to do something.”
However, there are some single texts that we can approach and use with any one of the four aims. Take John 3:16, for example. Our aim could be simply to explain what it means — nothing more. Or our aim could be to argue for some truth expressed in the text. Or our aim could be to assume the truth in the clear assertion of the text and use that truth to inspire or encourage the congregation in some way. Or, finally, we could use the text to shape the sermon to bring people to a public commitment of faith and obedience.
Each of these sermons on the same text would look and sound quite different from any of the others. Form has followed function. Of course, making the single sermon serve two or more aims would create still another form.
3. Does the sermon have unity?
Fenelon, is his Dialogues on Eloquence, argued against divisions in sermons, saying that they resulted in discourses without unity. He observed that in some sermons the divisions were no more related to each other than were the separate sermons in a Lenten series. The unity that did exist was only an arbitrary unity of the general theme.
We have all listened to sermons that left the impression that what we heard was a series of sermonettes. Some so-called expository preaching is like that. The preacher picks up a word or a phrase in the text and charges off in hot pursuit of an idea that is only suggested by the text, but not related to a legitimate theme in the text. Then the preacher goes on to another word or phrase and does the same. And so on until the time is up.
The best sermon functions as an organic whole, with all the parts vitally related. This can be the case with a sermon on a long text, perhaps on a chapter, or even on an entire Bible book. The trick is to find a unifying theme that binds everything together. That theme, cooperating with the aim –whether to explain, to convince, to revitalize, or to actuate-will determine what parts and how much of the text to use in the sermon. Sometimes a single word, a phrase, or a verse serves as the center of gravity for a sermon on a long text, and the sermon is pervaded in all its parts by that unity of thought.
When I was working on a translation of the sermons of Eduard Schweizer several years ago, it was my task to give a title to each sermon, for in characteristic Continental style, most of the sermons appeared with text but without title.
I discovered that, even though all the sermons were on texts of several verses, I could find in each sermon a word or a phrase that seemed to hold the entire sermon together. Though Schweizer is a biblical scholar of international renown, he preaches sermons that are always focused and clear. His exegetical and theological expertise is always in the service of the message of the text and never a hindrance to that message.
4. Are you willing to set aside the normal homiletical canons to do something that unusual circumstances may require?
Sermonic unity is not essential either to salvation or to obedience. If you had to choose between unity in the sermon and a chance to turn a life in a new and right direction, you would, of course, say, “Let the unity of my sermon go! I want to win a soul for God.”
A friend of mine asked Eduard Schweizer what he thought of American preaching. His reply, I am told, was this: “The sermons are too perfect.” What he meant, I take it, was that the sermons do not as a whole demonstrate the freedom necessary to get the best job done; they are too rigidly bound to rules.
A graduate student researching the forms of preaching in the sermons of Augustine found a number of sermons in which Augustine digressed from his intended discourse and talked at length on topics outside his main subject. Apparently a recent event or an unexpected listener in the congregation led the preacher to seize the occasion to strike while the iron was hot, even if it distorted the ideal form of the sermon.
Augustine was a rhetorician and taught the subject. He knew the rules and the need for them, but he was willing to bend them under the pressure of a more compelling need.
One successful preacher regularly included one point especially for the children in every Sunday morning sermon. I am sure that this occasionally noticeably interfered with the unity of mood and style in the sermon; yet, was this not justified?
5. Does the sermon have a forward movement?
It was said of the sermons of the old Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers that they moved on hinges rather than on wheels. He preached a classic sermon, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” and was remarkably effective in his time, yet even his best sermons often lacked a sense of forward movement.
Halford Luccock told of taking some children to a circus and letting them ride the merry-go-round. One of the children exclaimed with delight, “I’d love to live on a merry-go-round!”
Some preaching is like that-it lives on a merry-go-round; it doesn’t go anywhere. In deference to the narrative quality of human experience — one thing naturally follows another-sermons should normally move forward in a definite progression.
This is easy to see and affirm when we are talking about a story from the Bible, telling it from the situation through the complication to the resolution; or, in a more abstract sermon, from the thesis through the antithesis to the synthesis. We might also discuss what is important, what is more important, what is most important; or what pertains to the world, what pertains to the church, what pertains to the individual; or past, present, future; or then, always, now.
To be sure, the question, “Does the sermon accomplish anything?” is more important than the question, “Does the sermon go anywhere?” However, the fact that the sermon does move forward and arrives at a definite point most often helps the sermon do something worthwhile.
6. Is a fitting amount of time given to each part of the sermon?
How is what is “fitting” determined? We decide that issues on the basis of the material, the audience, and the occasion. It is extremely difficult to assign arbitrarily a time pattern to a sermon when the subject may be simple or complex; when the audience may be hostile, indifferent, or sympathetic; when the occasion may be a lectureship or a revival meeting.
We usually think of a sermon as comprising introduction, body, and conclusion. As to the introduction, W. E. Sangster preferred to plunge directly into the main discussion without any introduction at all, if that was possible.
George A. Buttrick consistently set his introduction at one-half a page. Harry Emerson Fosdick let an introduction go as long as necessary to set the stage for the main discussion; therefore, the introduction tended to be quite long, though it could be short for good reasons.
We should ask of any part of the sermon: Is this necessary, or is it only padding? Have I allotted enough time to make myself clear at this point? To give all the evidence needed to make my assertion credible? To provide sufficient material to heighten inspiration, to strengthen encouragment, to make a lasting impression? To bring my appeal for action to an effective climax? These questions could well be asked with reference either to introduction, body, or conclusion-or to all of them.
7. Does the sermon make use of helpful transitions?
George Buttrick and I had a lively private debate about the value of transitions; that is, words, phrases, and sentences that signal or assist the movement of the sermon from one part to another.
Buttrick made the telling point that you don’t arbitrarily build a dam across a flowing stream or dig a trench across a road. The point was: why hinder movement of the sermon with transitions? A good point!
As I see it, the best reason to use transitions is to facilitate movement. I once heard Paul Scherer critique a student sermon, with special attention to his transitions. Scherer said, “Your transitions were clumsy, like an elephant turning around.” Paul Bull once said, “A good link carries on the attention without jar or distress, as in a well-laid railway line the train passes smoothly over the points from one pair of lines to the next.”
If your sermon undertakes explanation or argument, this may call for heavy-handed enumeration. You will list your points by using such phrases as “In the first place … In the second place … In the third place ….”
On the other hand, a sermon following a line of reasoning may use transitions like the one at the beginning of this sentence. The phrase “On the other hand” prepares the listener to consider a different line of thought.
The treasury of possible transitions is wonderfully rich. There is no excuse for making one series of transitions standard when such a wide variety is available. Reading the writings of a choice essayist or newspaper columnist will turn up countless ways of making our sermons more pleasing and effective as we note the ways in which these writers handle their material.
8. Are the Central Idea and the main points stated in a clear, striking, and memorable form?
Maybe they don’t need to be, maybe they do. It is important to be able to state in a sentence or two what the bounds of the sermon are and what is within these bounds.
The statement need not appear formally within the sermon itself, but it should be the preacher’s constant guide during the development of the sermon. On the other hand, the congregation may find it helpful in a sermon of a particular kind to have an up-front statement of what the sermon will contain.
One noted preacher went so far as to say that we should get all of the sermon we can into the first sentence. An exaggeration, perhaps, but good advice for a sermon that will explain an idea or try to convince of the truth of an idea!
For the same types of sermons, the main lines of explanation or of argument should be set forth in bold relief. The purpose is simple: to get something understood or believed. Artistic subtlety may be counterproductive.
Other types of sermons may need no such statements of theme or points. Why should a narrative sermon state points? Why should an inspirational sermon state points? Why should every persuasive sermon state points? When the sermon is designed to lead to an experience, points may be pointless. When the sermon is designed to discuss ideas and arguments to be carried away in the memory, points clearly and strikingly stated are necessary.
9. Does the structure of the sermon have an overall simplicity?
If the chosen text says, “I (Jesus) am the way, the truth, and the life,” why should we think it demeaning just to discuss the text under three heads: I. Jesus Is the Way; II. Jesus Is the Truth; III. Jesus Is the Life?
What is so bad about preaching on the Prodigal Son, as one preacher did, with this utterly simple division: I. Sick of Home; II. Homesick; III. Home?
Admittedly some texts and subjects do not lend themselves to such simple treatment, but many do. The task for the preacher is, first of all, to get the matter at hand clearly in mind. We cannot make clear to our hearers what is not clear to us. If it is clear to us, then we can put the sermon in a form comparatively easy to grasp.
The main points and topic sentences should be stated as leanly as possible. It is not necessary in these sentences to qualify and shade in fine nuances the complex aspects of our thought. We can do that in the discussion, if necessary.
The average reader can easily get lost in the profundities of the theologies of Karl Barth as we find it in his Church Dogmatics. However, his sermons in Deliverance to the Captives are models of clarity and simplicity. What makes the difference? Barth aimed at two different audiences; therefore his approach to each was different.
The clear, simple outline helps not only the listening congregation, it offers a bonus to the preacher as well. Sermons that are simply constructed are fairly easy to learn well enough to be delivered without notes.
10. Have you reviewed some of the standard sermonic forms to determine the best form for this sermon?
If your sermon is to be persuasive, you might follow Alan Monroe’s Motivated
Sequence in five steps:
I. Attention
II. Need
III. Satisfaction (of the need)
IV. Visualization (of results of non-satisfaction or satisfaction of need)
V. Action
If your sermon is to be expository, you might use steps I and II as an introduction, then explain the scriptures as step III, after which you summarize your points discussed in III.
If your sermon is to be “story,” the movements might be as follows (with applications as you go along):
I. Situation — that pinpoints a purpose
II. Complication — that hinders the accomplishment of the purpose
III. Resolution — that brings the matter to a proper conclusion
Or the narrative sermon might:
I. Tell the story as it happened (then); II. Tell what the story means (always); III. Tell how the story applies (now).
An even simpler method: I. Tells the story or explains the scripture; and II. Applies the meaning to present needs.
These are only a few basic — and quite useful — approaches. The preacher who cares for homiletical quality and variety will study and analyze many sermons to see how other preachers have approached various themes and texts and learn by healthy, though not slavish, imitation. Like a painter, copy the masters for exercise, then go on to discover or improve your own style.

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