The ultimate challenge of preaching is to take the materials that have been gathered in the exegetical process and transform them into a sermon designed to offer some spiritual nurture for a specific congregation. Of course, that congregation lives in a world that is at least two thousand years removed from the setting of the biblical text. How to make that transition from then to now, and from the study of an ancient text to addressing its truths about the lives of a modern congregation, is our focus here.
The Skill Phase and the Creative Phase in Preparing to Preach
At this point, the words of Joseph Stowell in his interview in Biblical Sermons come to mind. Stowell breaks the work of the preacher into two parts or processes, the “skill phase” and the “creative phase.”1 The skill phase is like a person who goes to the grocery store and buys all of the necessary ingredients for some food item. The creative phase occurs when those ingredients are carefully and intentionally mixed together to create the desired food item.
Stowell says, “My weakest sermons have been ones I preached when I finished the skill phase and did not take time to let it germinate and, as John Stott says, take it into the world of real people.”2 Thus, the creative phase not only involves moving from text analysis to sermon design, but doing so with a specific mean and an intended audience in mind. This is where the rich and broad variety of themes and topics so often heard in today’s preaching are rooted. Each preacher brings a variety of talents, perspectives, and intentions to the task of preparing a sermon.
It is possible that two preachers could set out to do the skill phase with the same text, and by the end of step seven they could wind up with much the same information. All they have done up to that point is go shopping, checklist in hand, for the needed ingredients. It is virtually impossible that those same two preachers would create the same sermon from those common ingredients. It is at the level of the “creative phase,” sermon design, sermon designation, and sermon delivery that the miracle and majesty of preaching may emerge.
I heard the Scottish preacher Peter Marshall preach about the Exodus story on a record entitled “Encounter in Egypt.” I have heard my own seminary advisor, James Cone, comment, lecture, and preach on that same story innumerable times. Both men were experts in doing the skill phase. However, when I heard the finished product, the two sermons had almost nothing in common except the use of the same text. The creative phase of preaching took them in different directions.
As part of my teaching at Ashland Seminary, I begin by establishing the 8 Ls methodology for doing biblical exegesis. That is my approach to the “skill phase.” However, the eighth step, Life Application, involves the use of a model for engaging in the creative phase of preaching. This model involves eight words:
1. Exegetical
2. Evangelical
3. Environmental
4. Emotional
5. Experiential
6. Epigrammatical
7. Evocative
8. Ethical
It is when these steps are engaged in, or steps similar to these as defined by other preachers and professors, that the uniqueness of each preacher is unlocked so he or she can engage in the creative work of preaching.
1. Exegetical
If preachers want their sermons to be living water for thirsty souls, they should take the time to clearly comprehend both what the biblical text SAYS and MEANS.
2. Evangelical
When I suggest that preaching should be evangelical, I am not suggesting that preaching must adopt the politically-correct position on such issues as a return to school prayer, student-led prayer at school events, or tax credits for families who want to enroll their children in private or parochial schools… I am using the word evangelical as an indicator of the New Testament and Reformation roots of the word. Carl Henry, writing in The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, says, “The term means pertaining to the Gospel (as expounded by the four Gospels) or conforming to the basic doctrines of the Gospel (as enunciated by the New Testament as a whole). By extension it signifies one who is devoted to the Good News or “Evangel” of God’s redemptive grace in Jesus Christ.”3
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church speaks more directly to the Reformation roots of the term when it says, “In a wider sense, the term Evangelical has been applied since the Reformation to the Protestant churches by reason of their claim to base their teaching pre-eminently on the Gospel.”4
Principally, I use the word evangelical to stress the need for a sermon to be biblically based and Christ-centered. Preaching needs to point people to the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ. After all of the exegetical work has been accomplished, the preacher must ask himself or herself how all of that will be fashioned into a sermon that will result in an encounter between the congregation and the Christ of Calvary.
There was a deacon in my first parish in Montclair, New Jersey, who asked me every Sunday morning, “Rev, is there any word from the Lord?” The use of the word evangelical is designed to push the preacher to shape a sermon that is not a collection of personal opinions, politically correct observations, or quotes and quips from prominent people. Rather, an evangelical sermon is the preacher’s very best effort to present a word of hope or help, or a word of comfort or challenge, that is grounded in a thorough analysis of a portion of scripture. “Reverend, is there any word from the Lord?”
There is a way to discover whether or not one’s preaching is evangelical in the sense in which the term is being used here. Does your preaching regularly engage people around the major doctrines and themes of the Bible? Do you speak about the sovereign power of God, the love of Christ as revealed by His death on the cross, or the power and promise of the resurrection? Do you challenge people to understand properly the role that the sacraments and ordinances play in the life of a Christian? Do you speak about Christian discipleship, the outreach and mission of the church, and the regular practice of Stewardship as an authentic act of worship and obedience? Do you challenge people to “love one another” across or despite differences in race, culture, language, and gender? Finally, does your sermon ever present people with the challenge of personal salvation through faith in the atoning work of God in Jesus Christ? Or as we so often say in the Baptist church, does your sermon flow into an “invitation to discipleship?” The first challenge in designing and delivering a sermon is to be sure that it is an evangelical message.
3. Environmental
The next challenge of sermon design and delivery is to be sure it is relevant to and informed by the setting in which it is being delivered. Every sermon must be understood as an encounter between the Word of God and the people of God meeting together in a particular place, at a particular time, for a particular reason. Preaching does not take place in a vacuum. Instead, preaching happens within social, cultural, theological, and ideological settings. The preacher must work hard to understand how the word of God speaks to the congregation that has gathered at that time and place. What is the environmental setting in which the people of God gather to hear the preaching of the gospel?
Preachers should learn one simple lesson from the ministry of Paul. This great apostle had a knack for directing his epistles to the specific needs and circumstances of the church or individual to whom that epistle was addressed. Paul did not write to Philemon those lessons he intended for Timothy. Paul did not write to the church in Philippi about matters that were occurring in Corinth. Paul did not examine in Romans the same doctrinal concerns that one finds in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Paul wrote, and presumably preached, with an awareness of the environment in which his words were directed, and to which his words were addressed.
Effective preaching requires that we bring that same level of environmental sensitivity. We need to be aware of the people who constitute the congregation and the pressures and problems that confront them. Is this an inner-city congregation struggling to maintain ministries that relate them to issues of homelessness, poverty, and substance abuse? How to motivate that congregation to engage in a ministry that it has long been avoiding, or to keep the faith even though their efforts over many years have not lessened the problem, is an issue of environmental relevance.
Is this a rural congregation in an agricultural community? The issues there are somewhat different. Is this church largely populated with senior citizens? Is it a suburban and largely affluent white congregation where many of the corporate executives in a community are members? Is it a church where preaching is central to the worship experience, or does music or free flowing praise define how worship takes place? Does this church give special focus to motivating men to take a leadership role, or does it seek to move women into roles of leadership that had long been denied to them? Does this church expect the preacher to follow the liturgical calendar in themes, if not in the actual Lectionary texts for the day?
This issue of environment can be taken to an even deeper and more helpful level of preaching, especially as it relates to those who preach to the same congregation week after week. The more you know about the people in your congregation, the more you can direct your preaching to address issues that you know will be helpful for them. One thinks about the role of a shepherd who not only feeds the flock in general, but also takes care to meet the needs of particular sheep: the very young and the very old, the weak ones, and the ones who need some special grass. This is the beauty of the image of the shepherd in Isaiah 40:11, which says, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” One can almost see the shepherd keeping an eye not only on the flock, but also on each individual sheep therein.
Seward Hiltner was the chief proponent of a model of pastoral ministry that he called “the shepherding model.”5 What he implied about the role of the pastor in counseling, sick visitations, and administration, also applies to the work of the pastor as preacher. He or she not only preaches sermons that are relevant to the life of that congregation, but the preacher also has a clear idea of some of the spiritual needs of individual members of the congregation. Who is battling with cancer or HIV/ AIDS, depression, or some other physical or mental illness? Who has a child or spouse in prison? Who has just lost a job, and with that, the possible loss of car, home, and lifestyle?
How does one plan a sermon, and a year of preaching as well, so that the needs of teens are met, as well as the needs of their parents and grandparents? In John 10:14, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd; and know my sheep….” We may not be the Good Shepherd, but every pastor can be a good shepherd by just paying close attention to the environment in which he or she feeds the sheep and the flock of God.
4. Evocative
Many sermons that I have heard over the last thirty years of my professional life as both a pastor and professor of preaching have failed to achieve their full effect because the preacher never got around to asking for anything from the listeners. The sermon was not designed to evoke a response from the congregation or from any persons or groups within the congregation. The preacher told us what the biblical text SAID and MEANT. What the preacher so often did not do was answer the questions, “So what” and “What next?”
Every sermon needs to have an objective of what is going to be asked from the congregation as an appropriate response to that message. Every preacher needs to know what the response is or the next steps he or she hopes to evoke from the listeners. Here is where journalism and preaching part company. Both of them deal with the what, the substance of some issue. However, preaching also involves the so what, and the preacher’s job is not complete until some answer has been given to this so what.
I have been greatly helped by Robert McCracken’s book, The Making of the Sermon, in which he states that there are four things a preacher can seek as the appropriate response to the sermon. There are four responses to the so what question. He calls them (1) to kindle the mind, (2) to energize the will, (3) to disturb the conscience, (4) to stir the heart.6 Let the preacher seek to evoke any one of these four possible responses, and preaching will take on added urgency and challenge…
5. Emotional
One of the aspects of my own black preaching tradition that I value and treasure has been the level of enthusiasm and emotional investment so many black preachers have brought to the task. Sometimes that emotion has been scorned as nothing more than “emotionalism.” There may be instances when that is true and when preachers substitute emotionalism for serious consideration of the biblical text. That abuse of the preaching moment and the people is to be regretted. However, I hope that every preacher will come to value the importance of bringing some emotion to the preaching of the Gospel.
Most forms of preaching and public speaking can trace their roots to the statement of Aristotle that those who speak to others must possess logos, ethos, and pathos.7 For Aristotle, logos meant the substance of the argument being made. Ethos meant the ethical character of the speaker, implying that the speaker’s own conduct should not contradict the message that he or she is attempting to communicate. Pathos meant the necessary passion that the speaker must feel about the subject and the passion the speaker must bring to the delivery of the message if those who listen are to be expected to respond.
If it appears to our listeners that what we are saying does not matter to us, why do we think it will matter to them? The issue at hand is the need for those who preach to allow themselves to demonstrate some passion, some emotion as a part of their presentation of the gospel.
Halford Luccock, who taught homiletics at Yale Divinity School for many years, raised a question with himself that every preacher needs to consider. He said, in his book, Communicating the Gospel, “Eugene Ormandy once dislocated his shoulder while leading the Philadelphia Orchestra. I do not know what they were playing, but he was giving all of himself to it. And I have asked myself sadly, did I ever dislocate anything, even a necktie?”8
I am not urging people to preach themselves into a need for orthopedic care. However, I do believe that we ought to bring the same passion and enthusiasm to the interpretation and presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ that a conductor brings to the interpretation and presentation of a concerto by Mozart or a symphony by Beethoven.
I have often wondered whether preachers should view their pulpit work under the lens of Paul’s statement, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Rom. 1:16). At stake would not only be our willingness to speak about Jesus before a non-believing world, but to do so with a degree of enthusiasm and emotion that might give others the impression that we are not scholarly or logical or intellectual.
Somehow, I do not envision any of the prophets, or Paul, or Jesus being first and foremost concerned about whether they were being perceived as being too emotional. They spoke with urgency, with conviction, and with a sense of purpose that was so compelling that they evoked an almost immediate response from those who heard them. Sometimes the response was conversion and faith in Christ, sometimes the response was rejection and the need to flee the city to preserve their lives (Acts 19). But either way it is easy to imagine that it was their obvious sense of conviction, of emotion, of passion (pathos), that moved the crowds who heard them. I sincerely doubt whether cold and dispassionate preaching would have resulted in “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
Henry Mitchell speaks persuasively about the use of emotion in preaching as being “the point of greatest divergence” between black and white preachers in America.9 Writing in “African-American Preaching” in the October 1997 edition of Interpretation, Mitchell points out that this absence of emotion in preaching has not always been the case. Rather, the white preachers of the Great Awakening were noted for their use of emotion. In fact, they were commonly called “enthusiasts.”10 The use of that term by the clergy of the more sedate Anglican and Presbyterian churches was, of course, meant as something of a slur. However, the Baptists and Methodists who were identified with that term were the persons largely responsible for the Great Awakening.
Mitchell notes that it was during the Great Awakening that the forces of logos and pathos met and merged, and the result was a revival of religious enthusiasm that lasted well over one hundred years. More importantly, he observes that it was the emotional fervor of white preachers such as George Whitfield and Gilbert Tennent, along with the fervor and enthusiasm of traditional African religions, that ignited the flame of emotion that burns in the black church to this day. He says, “The Great Awakening burst forth with shouting … under no less a preacher than Jonathan Edwards — though he was wary of it at first. The shouting really burst forth under Whitefield and the Tennents. Thus, in discussing emotion, if one goes back as far as the first and second Great Awakening, one finds the streams merged even here.”11
Mitchell concludes by noting that it is a shame that even among those white Methodist groups once known for their zeal and enthusiasm, the pathos seems to have been lost. What is an ever greater form of historical amnesia is to see black Baptist and Methodist preachers and churches turning away from the use of pathos in both preaching and worship. When they do that, they are burning the bridge that brought us over!
6. Experiential
It is very possible that the best illustration of what it means to be “saved by grace,” or to have been “delivered from the lions’ den,” or to have a joy and peace that “the world didn’t give and the world can’t take away,” resides within the experience of the preacher. In fact, part of the passion and enthusiasm that we bring to our preaching is due to the fact that the Good News of the gospel that we present to others was initially Good News in relation to our own sin and salvation saga. When approached this way, our preaching becomes infectious. The emotion that God’s grace has stirred within us easily flows over into the way we share from the scriptures.
Preachers will want to be highly selective in the ways they share their personal experiences in the context of their preaching. However, there is a general rule that might serve well in most instances. If the illustration or episode you are relating tends to place the preacher in a favorable light where it seems we are urging people to “be like us,” we should probably not share that experience. Preaching is no time for us to hold ourselves up as moral examples. That speaks of both arrogance and ignorance. It is arrogant because our task is to help people see Jesus, not to focus on us (John 12:21). It is ignorant because it seems to ignore the fact that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Make no mistake about it, the preacher is a part of that ALL!
On the other hand, if the illustration or episode shows how God has worked for the good in the life of the preacher, if it shows how God has “brought us from a mighty long way,” then that is a story worth sharing. If we are willing to allow the congregation to see that the sins abhorred by God have left their marks upon our own bodies, souls, and lives, our people might listen to us more willingly. We are often accused of “preaching at people,” which implies that we are talking at them. The dynamics of preaching change considerably when we are willing to admit that “It ain’t my mother, or my father, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”
How much more powerful was the preaching and the testimony of Paul concerning the power of God to change and transform human lives when he could speak about that from personal experience. To the extent that we make our transformative experiences with God a part of our testimony when we preach, we aid and strengthen our sermons.
In his Lectures on Preaching, delivered as the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale, Phillip Brooks states that the art of preaching involves the presentation of “truth through personality.”12
What is the personality of the preacher? Is it just his or her character traits, speech patterns, attitudes, and predisposition? Or does personality also include the full range of personal experiences that have helped to shape and mold the preacher’s soul and spirit, thoughts and beliefs, hopes and fears? Not only should we not seek to preach without calling upon our experiences, but I very much doubt that we can preach without our collective experiences working to shape the message as they have already shaped the messenger.
7. Epigrammatical
We experience and comprehend our world as a series of sensory encounters. We taste, feel, smell, hear, and see. It is impossible to fully communicate with people without some attempts to invite them to use one or more of their sensory receptors. As a preacher and teacher, I do not simply try to “tell” something to people. I try to present the Gospel story in as graphic and visual a manner as possible, appealing on every possible occasion to the use of their five senses. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is to employ an epigrammatic preaching style. This means that the preacher makes use of word pictures, engages in storytelling, and makes the biblical text and the biblical world come alive in the mind of the listeners through character development and commentary on the actions being discussed in the text.
This is certainly the genius of the black preachers I have heard and most admired over the years. They do not simply read the words of a text and launch out into a three-point sermon and a conclusion. They take the listener on a walking tour of the world in which the text is set. Gardner Taylor, Samuel Proctor, William Jones, and Sandy Ray are the four preachers who have most influenced my love for preaching, even though I have never risen to their level of skill and power. When any one of them would tell the story of the passion of Christ, I was carried into the darkness of the Garden of Gethsemane. I was almost enabled to feel the pain and torture as Christ is beaten and flogged. I heard the mob cry out, “Crucify him!” I could see the scowls on the faces of the Roman soldiers as they made sport of the Savior. I could smell the stench that must have hung in the air around Calvary as three men were crucified, hung up, and left to die beneath the baking sun of the Mediterranean region.
Of course, no one was better at the use of epigrams than Jesus Himself. His use of parables, His references to things that could easily be visualized or imagined by His listeners was unparalleled. One could easily see a sower going forth to sow or a woman furiously searching her house in search of a lost coin. The challenge of the preacher is to follow that example when presenting the biblical story. Why talk about the fear that gripped the disciples when they were caught in a furious storm on the Sea of Galilee without describing what they must have heard, seen, and felt at that moment? The sermon is strengthened if the preacher makes a conscious attempt to get the listeners to understand the text by focusing on the sights, sounds, and scents present in the story.
Very few preachers have the innate ability to preach with this level of attention to the details of the text, or create vivid word pictures that appeal to the five senses. This is, for most of us, an acquired skill. One of the best ways to acquire this ability, or to enhance what may come naturally, is to squeeze in the time to read an occasional novel. A novelist has to create the characters, the context, the plot, the steadily unfolding events, and the conclusion of the story. All of this is done through an appeal to our imagination, and through a masterful appeal to the five senses. Whether you prefer Tom Clancy or Toni Morrison, Stephen King or Alice Walker, you cannot help but learn how to be sensitive to the sounds of birds at night, the smell of the ocean, the taste of food or drink, or sweat or blood. You come away much more sensitive to the touch of human skin, especially when it is attached to a rough hewn wooden cross by large spiked nails driven through the wrists and ankles. Good preaching, like any other art, takes time and work. The extra effort it takes to be truly effective as a preacher is not too much to ask.
8. Ethical
For those of us who preach the gospel, the only thing as important as the intellectual integrity with which we handle the scriptures is the personal integrity with which we live our lives. Preaching is a very public act that requires that the preacher stand before an assembly of people and speak to them, sometimes about the flaws and failures of their lives. That can be hard to do when the sinful conduct and the immoral character of the preacher is the topic of conversation in the barber shops and beauty salons, and in the restaurants and recreational venues where people in the community and congregation meet and mingle.
Preachers should seek to live their lives by the highest possible ethical standards, so that no aspect of their personal conduct prevents them from being able to preach any aspect of the gospel message with authority and sincerity.
On too many occasions, I have heard gifted preachers attempt to deliver wonderfully crafted sermons. However, the congregation was more offended by their conduct out of the pulpit than they were interested in anything the preacher had to say while standing at the pulpit. Ethical conduct and personal integrity are two things that every preacher should work hard to establish and maintain. In short, it is difficult if not impossible to persuade people to receive living water for thirsty souls when the cup that brings them that water is dirty.
Let this be the final note. When we stand to preach the word of God, may our logos, pathos, and ethos meet and merge in the pulpit. Let the truth and clarity of our message, the power and conviction of our delivery, and the ethical conduct of our lives work together in such a way that the people of God are nourished, the church of God is strengthened, and the name of God is glorified.
Taken from Living Water for Thirsty Souls by Marvin A. McMickle. (C) 2001 by Judson Press, Valley Forge, PA. Reprinted with permission. To order call 1-800-458-3766 or visit www.judsonpress.com
1Haddon Robinson, Biblical Sermons (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1989), 174.
2Ibid.
3Carl F.H. Henry, “Evangelical,” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, J.D. Douglas, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 358-359.
4F.L. Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford, 1983), 486.
5Seward Hiltner, Preface to Pastoral Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 1958).
6Robert McCracken, The Making of the Sermon (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), 18.
7Aristotle, Rhetoric and Poetics of Aristotle (New York: The Modern Library, 1954), 24-25.
8Halford Luccock, Communicating the Gospel (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954), 145.
9Henry Mitchell, “African-American Preaching,” Interpretation (October 1997): 380-81.
10Alan Heimert and Perry Miller, eds., The Great Awakening (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), 231.
11Henry Mitchell, 381.
12Phillip Brooks, Lectures on Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 8.

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