We live in a rather quiet neighborhood where nothing big ever seems to happen. At least so it seemed until several weeks ago when we became front page news! A small plane crashed into a house down the street from ours, sending tremors through the ground beneath our feet, and gathering television crews like kids to an ice cream truck on a hot summer’s day.
The single engine craft had been out patrolling the lakefront breezes, and the pilot was trying to land at a tiny township airport nearby. Surprisingly, the tragedy took place on a clear day with no threatening storms in sight. The skies were beautiful, and those who were in the plane had probably enjoyed the spectacle of creation from their lofty vantage point.
Yet in the few final moments of flight, the novice at the controls made several critical blunders and took his passengers on an unscheduled house call. Two died in the disaster, and now none of the survivors remembers the delight of soaring. All that will live on in memory is the disastrous crash that brought it to a ghastly halt.
A Sermon That Will Live In Infamy
The incongruity of the glorious flight and its bitter end pulled a skeleton out of the closet of my memory. Not long ago I was looking through a stack of old sermons and experienced a horrible recollection when I came across the sketchy notes of a message I delivered in my second year of ministry. Those were the days of mad rushing trying to stay ahead in the race of meeting every demand in my moderate-sized congregation. Of course, the hardest part was preparing two new, fresh messages each week.
Often I tried to work in series, thus reducing the overall study time by stretching the research to give substance to several messages. The sermon that crashed was the second on the topic of “discipline.” In the first I explained the concepts of church discipline based on Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 18. I thought that I could expand on those insights in a follow-up message addressing discipline in the home, reflecting on the wisdom of several of the Proverbs.
I remember starting well, opening with humorous reflections on the fact that I was not married and didn’t have children, so obviously I was an expert on these things! Then I got into recent news stories of youth violence in our nearby city that were blamed on the permissiveness of parents. I transitioned into the main thrust of the message with a quote from Napoleon. When he was asked how the training of the young should be handled, he replied, “You start 21 years before they’re born by training their grandmothers how to teach their daughters to be mothers.”
Leaning heavily on James Dobson’s perspectives in Dare to Discipline I went on to address the values underlying discipline, the means of discipline, the concept of a “disciplined life,” and the relational end of discipline. At that point I simply ran out of material. I was empty. There was nothing on paper, and my mind was blank.
I remember standing at the pulpit with absolutely no words to speak. I felt my face get hot and red. The people shifted restlessly in their seats, every eye now awake and wondering what was happening. After what seemed to be an eternity of silence (probably only about 45 seconds!) I said that I wasn’t feeling well (which was emotionally true), asked if we could sing the last hymn, mumbled a prayer, and walked out the door, heading straight for home. I crawled into bed and stayed there till the next day.
The only grace surrounding the debacle was that when I finally emerged in public again, people were concerned for my health, and that kept them from discussing the failure of my sermon.
Deductions and Summaries
Whatever good there might have been in that message was lost forever on my congregation. The sermon crashed. The novice at the controls didn’t have the skills to land the plane. No one would ever call for that tape or seek insight in parenting from notes taken on that Sunday afternoon.
I’ve never crashed that badly again, thankfully. Still, I’ve skidded off the runway a number of times, and more frequently landed the sermonic plane somewhere off at the far side of the airfield, forcing people to hike back to the terminal on their own if they really wanted to get there.
Along the way, though, I think I’ve picked up a tip or two about how to bring the message home most of the time. For one thing, I’ve learned to determine consciously whether the sermon I’m preparing should be developed deductively or inductively. Each rhetorical method requires a different culminating technique.
The deductive sermon states the theme or central idea of the message early. Then it unpacks, defines or expands upon that theme in several different ways. Typically, in a deductively packaged message I will use some form of summary or restatement to conclude. The goal of a deductively developed sermon is to express the central thesis and then to buttress that idea with strength, substance and conviction. If this has been done well, the conclusion only has to remind people of the point to which they’ve already agreed.
For instance, in a homily prepared for a Communion Service I began with the obvious fact that we were using ordinary stuff, like bread and grape juice, but in a manner that gave these extraordinary significance. If someone were to walk in on us from another planet, they wouldn’t understand. We would have to explain it to them in terms of several things: (1) the meal itself was not ordinary; (2) the host, Jesus, was very unusual; (3) the table spread was not typical of our daily meals; and (4) we ourselves were no ordinary people. The thesis of the message was that Jesus, out of sheer grace, receives us into His friendship and family, and thus transforms our lives with power and significance. This I stated at the beginning. Each of the four points reinforced that supposition.
I ended that message with two anecdotes that summarized the thesis by reiterating each of the four points that confirmed it. The first story was one told by Lewis Smedes about a colleague of his at Fuller Seminary who came to faith through observing a group of Christians who lived extraordinary lives. It naturally transitioned into the second story in this manner:
“She said to herself, “If Christianity were true, this is how I would expect Christians to live!” And then she said to herself: “But these people do live this way, so maybe Christianity is true!” And so she went to their church. And she read the Bible. And she learned what these people had learned. She learned about the love of God. And she learned about the sacrament of Communion. She learned that this is no ordinary meal. She learned that Jesus is no ordinary host. She learned that this is no ordinary table. And she learned that those who eat here are no ordinary people.
“She went back to school She earned a second Ph.D., this time in theology. And today she teaches at a Christian seminary. Because of the love she found in a community. A community of those who were no ordinary people.
“And here we are this morning, at the Table of Christ too …”
I went on to tell people that seven times during the past week I had heard people say beautiful and astounding things about our church and its folks. “Of course,” I said, “they’re not saying it about us, really. They’re saying it about Christ in us. Because we’ve been to His table.”
The sermon landed where I hoped it would — creating a first-hand link between the extraordinary character of Communion and the extraordinary impact of grace on our lives. People could nod affirmatively about the “strangeness” of the “meal” we had shared. But then they could go on and nod about the beautiful “strangeness” of living Christian faith. The thesis was declared at the start. It was buttressed by four supporting concepts. Then it was reaffirmed in two summaries which reiterated the point in relational images.
Another Approach
While that sermon worked well and landed properly, deductive preaching is not my usual pattern. More often I prepare a message inductively. The touchdowns for that kind of “plane” are much more tricky.
An inductive message doesn’t state a thesis or theme up front. Instead, it builds toward a climax in one of several ways. Sometimes it takes a note of folk wisdom or generally accepted proverbial sense, and solicits common agreement. Then, through a series of moves, it undermines the strength of that premise. When people are beginning to feel uneasy about the shifting sand under their cherished notions it is time to bring out a new idea, one which would have seemed absurd or strange a few moments ago, but which now offers new hope.
For instance, in a Thanksgiving message entitled Only the Grateful Believe, based on Psalm 22, I began with catalogues of things we could be thankful to God for. In fact, I said, it was only those who believed in God who could be truly thankful, right? After all, if you didn’t know where your blessings came from, “Thanksgiving” Day would be rather awkward!
I led the people further down that path — we’re worshipping here today because we want to thank God for all that He has given us! I made reference to the obvious things, and even included bits and pieces of the less obvious. Then came the turn. While the latter third of Psalm 22 seems to rehearse similar lists of thanks, it arises out of the horrible trauma of the painful story told in the first part!
Using that conundrum I began to reflect on the “bad” things that had happened in the lives of many in our community during the past several months. Could these be thankful? In fact, could any of us really be thankful when we started lists and compared them to the tragedies that were also part of our lives? (We were in a time of great economic recession when I preached this message, and coping with our deaths in our congregation.)
How can David be so expressive in his appreciation when the circumstances of his life breathed bitterness? How could David be thankful, after all the torment he enumerates in the early verses of the Psalm? More pointedly still, how could he still believe in a good God?
That’s where I made the inductive jump. Perhaps David wasn’t thankful to God because he believed. Perhaps it was the other way around. Maybe David believed in God because he was thankful — that his faith wasn’t tacked on at the end of the year, on some formal holiday designed to tweak consciences. Maybe it was that in the struggles of life, the only way for things to hold together was to begin with a thankful heart that someone was still on the throne, and reach above the difficulties a deliberate decision of thankful faith.
Some people encounter difficulties and “lose” their faith. David seems to find his faith through his difficulties, precisely because after everything else crumbles, only God remains. Perhaps that’s why the opening verses of Psalm 22 became Jesus’ cry of mixed pain and faith from the cross.
I ended the message retelling the story of one of our most cherished thanksgiving hymns. It came from the pen of Pastor Martin Rinkart during one of the worst years in Eilenburg, Germany. Three times in 1637 the city was attacked and severely damaged. When the armies left, the refugees poured in. Disease ran rampant, food was scarce. Rinkart was the only pastor in the city. His journal for 1637 indicates that he conducted over 4,500 funerals, sometimes as many as 40-50 a day!
Yet that same year Pastor Rinkart gave the church one of the greatest hymns of thanksgiving, not because of a list of trinkets tossed our way, but because, beyond even the “thanklists” of our whimsical lives, only the grateful believe. And they sing:
Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices
Who wondrous things has done, in whom his world rejoices;
Who from our mother’s arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today!
Of course, after a brief prayer, we sang that hymn with great gusto!
Building Blocks With A Purpose
Another manner in which an inductive sermon is built is by asking a legitimate and important question early, and then giving a biblical answer to that question in three or four statements, each constituting a progressive building block in finding a reasonable, “faith”-ful, and inspirational answer.
For example, when Peter wants to hold Jesus back from the road to the cross in Matthew 16, and Jesus turns round to call him “Satan,” what is it that makes the teaching of Jesus so hard to follow? At least two things. For one, Jesus indicates that life is a journey, not a destination. Peter and the disciples (and we with them) want to live in that moment of glory, not slog through the daily grind. Yet the latter is where Jesus takes us. Secondly, Jesus says that life is a pilgrimage, not a tour. It’s not something we glance at from the protected windows of our air-conditioned buses, but something that must be experienced first-hand.
That sermon landed with the story told by the early church of persecutions which made the church of Rome send Pastor Peter out of the city into the safety of hiding. But he soon returned, saying that he had met Jesus on the road heading back toward Rome. When he asked Jesus where he was going, Jesus said, “I am going back to the city to be crucified.” Peter said, “But Lord, were you not once crucified for all?” And Jesus replied, “I saw you fleeing from death, and now I wish to be crucified in your place.”
Peter responded, “Go, Lord! I know what I must do!” And Jesus said to him. “Fear not! For I am with you!”
In the hush of that moment I quietly encouraged each person to check which road she or he was traveling. Where were they going, and why? What did they hope the road would bring? I told them I didn’t know what it meant for each of them personally. Yet from the promises Jesus made to His disciples that day, the one thing I was sure of was this: we would never find ourselves alone on that road, precisely because Jesus chose to walk it first!
A Smorgasbord Options
How does a preacher land the plane from week to week without crashing the sermon? Let me summarize a few possibilities to consider.
1. Start with the ending. Determine specifically the attitude or action you believe the scripture ought to bring out in your people. Clearly state that idea, or craft that call. Then work backwards to hitch the challenge both to the specific exegetical material of the text and the realities of people’s lives. By working backwards, the plane lands almost by itself.
2. Tell a story. The story speaks. Jesus told stories, and the people were amazed at the authority of his teaching. But tell the story well. Condense it. Rehearse it. Get rid of everything you don’t need in it. Draw people into the world of the story and let them experience its impact. Let the story walk them home, and energize them to act upon what they’ve heard.
3. Let the sermon transition into a song by way of a story behind the hymn. Who wouldn’t weep and cry out for faith when hearing the tale of Horatio Spafford and the circumstances that brought his powerful prayer: It is Well with My Soul. Who can’t identify with Tommy Dorsey’s lonely plea: Precious Lord, Take My Hand. Who couldn’t be moved by the manner in which Joseph Scriven’s little poem, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, meant to bring comfort to his mother, became his mother’s testimony to a sick neighbor, and then the world? Find the hymn that speaks the message, and then let the sermon transition directly into the song by way of the story behind the hymn.
4. Summarize. If all else fails, and the words don’t come, review the “plot” of the message and rephrase it. You may be doing it only because you’ve run out of words. Your people, however, will say, “That was a great message! And so clearly put at the end!”
5. Ask a question. In a message on the rich young ruler who comes to Jesus in Mark 10, I led the congregation inductively through a series of moves relating to our dependence on either wealth or accomplishment to find identity, but that each delivers less than promised. Then I explained the power of Jesus’ statement about how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God, immediately followed by His talk, to His disciples, on the way of the Cross. I ended with a story from Toynbee’s history of a British family living in China. Their housekeeper, unfamiliar with the Christian faith, became increasingly agitated every time she entered their home. Finally, in frustration, she cried out that she didn’t understand — they were loving people, treating their children and guests well, entrusting their possessions to her. Why then did they tell stories to their children about a murdered man? Why did they have pictures and ornaments in their home of a bloody figure on a cross? “I don’t understand!” she said. And I ended the message with a simple question that I allowed to linger long in a heavy hush: “Do you?”
6. Outline a game plan. If this message was intended to get people to act on a certain point of Christian behavior, spell it out. In a sermon on forgiveness preached in a congregation that had gone through a divisive time with a previous pastor, I ended very pointedly by reminding the people that Paul instructed us to make things right before the sun set. I said that if the scriptures were true, and if the message was accurate, then it might mean that some of us wouldn’t leave the parking lot until we had taken the time to speak to someone else. It might mean that before we went to bed that night we might have to make a telephone call, or even write a letter to (and here I mentioned the place where the previous pastor had gone). It might mean that we’d have to decide not to watch television that night, renewing, instead, relations between ourselves and our marriage partners.
Bringing the sermon home is just as important as getting its hooks in people’s hearts at the beginning. Nobody will remember the flight if the plane crashes rather than lands. But when a message lands well, people know they’ve come home to the Kingdom of God.

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