Too many preachers are guilty of preaching a history lesson instead of a sermon. Though well-intended, sermons preached by communicators committed to exposing the Bible’s teachings may develop and then deliver an exegetical outline instead of a homiletical one, thus leaving the text’s meaning vague and its application to guesswork. The unfortunate result is that sermon hearers are left trafficking in the abstract instead of specificity, hearers of Scripture but not doers of the Word.
Let’s consider an example of this kind of outline (historical) from a study of David and Goliath. The interpreter’s exegesis concludes a focus on the justified offense David experienced when Goliath misrepresented David’s allegiances. He is servant of Yahweh, not of the mere man King Saul. The preacher readies this outline and then manuscripts this weekend’s message.
Outline (1 Samuel 17)
I. Introduction: Many of us had childhood nicknames we didn’t like.
II. Text: David was indignant when the Philistine Goliath called him and the Israelites the “servants of Saul” (v. 8).
III. Text: David boldly responded that the Israelites’ and his true identity was of the “armies of the living God” (v. 26).
IV. Conclusion: People should find their identity in God and live that out instead.
In the above example, the preacher’s outline is making the transition from the historical context of the Bible to the timeless (transcultural) principle the preacher is proposing. The introduction blinks the topic and solicits interest but fails to engage the listener beyond just a cursory explanation of why this topic matters. The body of the outline is biblical in that it tells what happened and helps make the narrative understandable.
The sermon’s development at this point is appropriately exegetical and perhaps timeless, but it’s not yet sermonic. Its message is suitable for a midweek Bible study but not for the people in the pews on Sunday, who are inherently skeptical (if not overtly so) of scriptural authority. In short, the outline’s content lacks relevance. It fails to be as concrete and specific in today’s context as the narrative was for first-century listeners. If it lacks application, it’s not biblical preaching—at least not as biblical as it could be. The conclusion states the timeless principle that’s true for all in any culture. The explanation is complete, but the living-it-out post-preaching is not.
One might argue, “Isn’t preaching Scripture’s timeless truth a good thing?” or, “Isn’t the opposite of that not biblical preaching at all?” Skilled homileticians know what these preachers don’t: Historical or timeless outlines need to “make a move”1 into a sermonic outline before they are ready for primetime.
Here’s a tool I employ and teach my students that helps us make that move, thereby helping turn an incomplete outline into a sermon:
Communication specialists (rhetoricians/homileticians) speak of propositions needing the following:2
1. The proposition needs to be explained. Does the sermon hearer know what it means?
2. The proposition needs to be proven. Does the sermon hearer buy it?
3. The proposition needs to be applied. Does the sermon hearer know how it applies to his or her life?
In addition to these three, homileticians increasingly are recognizing and discussing the need for a fourth developmental question to be present for a proposition to be considered robust.3
4. The proposition needs to show relevance. Does the sermon hearer care?
With that explanation, here’s how I suggest using these four developmental questions to engineer a sermon ready for preaching that is application-oriented, using them to assist in making a move from the historical outline into a sermon. When I finish the outline, I clear my desk of everything on it (figuratively speaking) and take a long walk down the hall to the auditorium where I’ll be preaching. Standing on the platform, I imagine locking eyes with those who’ve come to hear a word from God and ask myself, “What am I talking about? Why should these good folks listen? What difference will what I’ve studied make in their lives outside these four walls?”
Then I take the long walk back to my study. I put the historical outline aside. Of course, it is ever-present as the norming norm for this embryonic sermon, but I must enter the context of the sermon hearers. The exegesis must morph into a homily, properly understood as intended for spiritual edification rather than merely theological instruction. I must make the move to a sermonic outline.
Using the four developmental questions I begin.
Move 1: What is at risk if the sermon hearers fail to adopt the message being preached today? In other words, I answer, “Who cares?” I show the relevance of the sermon immediately from the start. I don’t introduce the text first, wrongly assuming interest. I assume responsibility for showing them why it matters that they hear what is being proposed.
Move 2: What assertion is being proposed, and what does it mean? In other words, I answer, “What are you saying about what you are talking about?” I explain the proposition that’s being offered, the one that correlates with the biblical text being preached.
Move 3: What argument(s) will the sermon hearers have regarding the reliability/do-ability of the proposed assertion? In other words, “Why will they not buy it?” I prove the proposition’s reliability, debating its trustworthiness with this part of the sermon. Or, I identify the more subjective reasons, regardless of the intellectual assent they may give it, why given particular emotional or societal barriers might prevent them from carrying out the task at hand.
Move 4: What’s to be done about the assertion being made regarding the topic being discussed. “So what?” I put forth next steps for how the hearer could apply Scripture to his or her daily life. This might include, as in the following outline, preaching an announcement of where this important conversation will be continued.
Using this tool, let’s consider how the David and Goliath message might look as a sermonic outline.
Sermonic Outline (1 Samuel 17)
I. Relevance: Some of us are stuck in destructive patterns because we live out the labels we’ve been given.
II. Assertion: We experience freedom when we reject false labels about our identities and embrace our spiritual identities instead.
A. David rejected Goliath’s declaration of his (and his people’s) identity and lived out who God said he was instead.
B. We should reject the labels others put on us and embrace our spiritual identities instead.
III. Barrier(s): The way we respond to disappointment reveals a lot about where we find our identities.
IV. Next Step(s): Register for the Exchanged Life Workshop we’re hosting the first week of May to resource us with identifying false labels and living out our true identities.
Now, the sermon’s relevance has been enhanced, and its clarity is intact. The sermon is still thoroughly biblical. It is rich with application. It’s a homily for edification instead of only a historical abstract for instruction. It is loaded with potential for life transformation.
I fear, however, that those convinced about the merits of employing this tool in their sermon development might yet fail to make the move for this reason: They fear congregants faulting the sermon as not being biblical enough. Making these moves forces the sermon into an editing process that may (as much for time constraints as any other reason) reduce the textual and historical content many have come to expect—or perhaps demand.
The preacher making the move to a sermonic outline from an historical abstract must not surrender to this pressure. Instead, the preacher might create an alternative, less public midweek environment that reveals to those attending still more of the exegetical treasures found during the sermon preparation process.
Others may critique the admonition proposed here as formulaic and predictable. I agree. “Know the rules so you can break the rules,” I tell my students. Creativity and fresh expressions are needed to (re)envision kingdom principles for contemporary audiences.
However, the elements of a proposition as noted in the four developmental questions are timeless. They are to the effective preacher what flour, sugar and baking soda are to an award-winning baker. They are core ingredients. I have found them essential in making a move from a half-baked history to a culinary homiletical treat.
1 Many will recognize this language from David Buttrick’s work, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987).
2 For further exploration of the developmental questions see: Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2nd ed., 2001), pp. 119-124 and Don Sunukjian’s Invitation to Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2007), ch. 5.
3 Two examples from recent papers presented at the Evangelical Homiletics Society annual meeting include, Curtis J. Young—Renewed Preaching: The Relevance of Transformational Learning Theory in Homiletics (2013) and Vic Anderson—Learning from African Preachers: Preaching as Worship Experience (2010) and can be found at EHomiletics.com/Papers.
Rod Casey is on the teaching team of Woodcrest Chapel in Columbia, Missouri. He also teaches homiletics as an adjunct professor at Bethel (St. Paul) and A.W. Tozer Seminary.