I was born and bred on three-point sermons. They were the kind my father preached in his small mission church in southern Alabama, and the style I heard echoed at conferences, youth rallies, and revivals. Three points, a poem, and a couple of stories thrown in for good measure — that pretty well captured my socialization into the world of preaching.
Theological education further refined my methods, for I was now told that the familiar three points should be tied to a main idea or proposition, balanced in emphasis, and consistent with each other. My natural instincts toward logic (after all I was a Philosophy-Religion major in college) resonated with the method and so did many of the parishioners in my first church. I felt rather secure in the affirmation that “your sermons are clear and so easy to follow.”
Then I decided to preach on a story from the Old Testament — the entire story of Job, all in one fell swoop. I began with the time-worn formula and groped to find three or four points related to Job’s suffering and God’s response. Nothing seemed to work. I finally decided to try something new; I’d simply tell the story. In one sermon I told the entire story of Job with his sufferings, rounds of debate with his friends, and God’s final word to Job at the end of the book.
As I greeted people after the service the affirmations were forthcoming, but something was different this time. The commendations came from an entirely different group of people, and those who normally appreciated my three-pointers seemed a bit less vocal. That event sent my homiletical sensitivities into a tailspin.
As I pondered the responses to my sermon on Job, the obvious (or what should have been obvious) dawned: not everyone thinks alike and not everyone receives sermons in quite the same manner. My mind drifted back to a psychology class I’d taken and to a discussion on the two spheres of the brain. The left brain (or really the left hemisphere) is responsible for logical and linear thought. We learn languages, math, and sequential thinking with the left side of our brains. The right brain (the right hemisphere) is more sense-oriented and is responsible for our orientation in space, artistic endeavors, body image, and recognition of faces. The right brain is relational, intuitive, and feeling-oriented.
Of course, no one is ever totally left-brained or right-brained despite the occasional protestations of some people. As a seminary professor, I had a student who complained that he’d done abysmally on one of my ethics exams because he was right-brained and couldn’t think in the analytical categories of a left-brained test! I hope I was kind in my response when I tried to acquaint him with the view that no individual is completely incapable of using their less-dominant sphere. Yet, the reality is that some people do think, assimilate ideas, and experience the world more through the right brain and others through the left brain. As psychologist Robert Ornstein put it:
Both the structure and the function of these two “half brains” underlie in some part the two modes of consciousness that coexist within each one of us. Although each hemisphere shares the potential for many functions and both sides participate in most activities, in the normal person the two hemispheres tend to specialize.1
The simple understanding that people think differently and thus absorb sermons differently has revolutionized my preaching. No, I haven’t abandoned left-brained three-pointers, as a perusal of my recent sermons will attest. I’ve simply added right-brained sermons to my repertoire and tried to assure that in every sermon some appeal is made to both hemispheres. The issue for me is no longer what is the correct way to preach (as homileticians representing both sides of the brain will sometimes try to argue). Rather, the issues are now: which style is best suited for this text, how will my parishioners hear this sermon, and over the long haul how fair am I being to both left-brainers and right-brainers?
Left Brain Preaching
It’s an oversimplification, to be sure, but sermons that appeal to the left brain are what we traditionally call deductive sermons (the usual three-pointers), and sermons that appeal to the right brain are what we term inductive sermons (such as narrative or story sermons). Left-brained deductive sermons are linear and logical in that the bulk of the time is spent developing a thesis set forth near the beginning. The big idea is let out of the bag early on, and the balance of the sermon provides defense, amplification, illustration, and application of that big idea or proposition.
Such sermons appeal to left-brained people with their analytical, logical and linear ways of thinking. The classical deductive sermon structure fits their style as it moves from the general thesis or proposition to the logical ideas that flow from it. Each idea is carefully sequenced in an attempt to construct a sermonic edifice with balance, logical clarity, and cognitive precision.
I recently completed a series of sermons from the book of Genesis and some weeks ago preached a left-brainer from Genesis 3 on the Fall. After an attention-grabbing introduction which pointed the congregation toward the theme, I laid out the sermon’s thesis: sin leads to alienation. The remainder of the sermon explored four dimensions of alienation suggested by the text: alienation from God, from ourselves, from others, and from nature. With each point I attempted to bring the story of the passage to life (an intrusion of right-brain induction into left-brain structure) adding appropriate analogies and contemporary illustrations.
In the conclusion I explained how sin in our own lives, even as believers, engenders the same forms of alienation. But as depressing as that might sound, there is a glimmer of hope in the story, for God says to the serpent, Satan’s vehicle, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15).
There is no question that a well-crafted left-brained sermon is clear and easy to follow. It delivers the goods in a “user friendly” manner with its systematic, logical flow. But there are potential problems with deductive preaching. For starters, some people just don’t experience the world in systematic, linear fashion; and while they may recognize our logic, they may not resonate with it. For these folks, the truth being taught may not take root in their lives in quite the same manner as another form might. A second problem is that some deductive sermons reveal too much up front, tempting the listener to tune out for the details.
But there is a more serious problem with limiting ourselves to left-brained sermons. Not all biblical texts are amenable to them. To force all parables, narrative accounts, poetic texts, and apocalyptic genre into a deductive grid can compromise the impact of the text or, worse, do it injustice. Even some of Paul’s epistles unfold in a non-deductive manner, and forcing such passages into three-point sermons may distort their meaning and power. Preachers with a penchant for deductive reasoning may end up avoiding texts that don’t fit their left-brained proclivities. As one such old Puritan divine complained: “Much of Scripture is in the form of story, for what reason the Holy Ghost himself best knoweth.”2
In the past two decades there has been considerable critique of the traditional deductive sermon by homileticians. The old three-pointers are out of touch, it is argued, with the “cool media” of modern communications. Imagery and sound bites are the fare for people of our age, and communication that gets bogged down with substance and meaning is doomed to failure. Such an assessment is problematic for those of us who take a high view of the Bible as the vehicle of God’s communication to an anchorless humanity.
Any reasonable critique of the traditional left-brained, deductive sermon cannot be based on a rejection of content, meaning, and the significance of ideas. The critique should rather suggest that there are additional ways to convey biblical truth beyond the linear, systematic structure of traditional rhetoric.
Right-Brained Preaching
Right-brained sermons are inductive in nature. In this form of preaching the listener is taken on a journey with the destination revealed only at the end. Like good deductive preaching, inductive sermons should have a specific purpose and a big idea or proposition; but this only comes to light near the sermon’s conclusion and in a different manner than one might expect from a left-brain structure.
The brain’s right hemisphere is primarily responsible for orientation in space, artistic endeavor, body image, and recognition of faces. It processes information in a more diffuse manner than does the left hemisphere. As James Ashbrook describes it, the right side of the brain “sees images, senses patterns, and feels the personal significance of what goes on. Instead of processing data in logical steps, it may take in everything at once or start anywhere with anything simply as it appears.”3 The right brain does not attempt to systematize complex realities as does the left brain, but views reality and knowledge in a more holistic way.
Inductive right-brained preaching begins, as Ralph and Gregg Lewis put it, “With the particulars of life experience and points toward principles, concepts, and conclusions…. The preacher seeks to lead rather than push…. Inductive preaching is a quest for discovery.”4 In this quest for discovery the preacher will rely more on metaphor, image, and emotion than logic, precision, and argumentation. The latter are not absent, and they are not the solitary or even primary carriers of the sermon’s message.
Inductive sermons can utilize various homiletic structures. Perhaps the most basic form is problem-solution, in which the sermon begins with a problem, explores various dimensions or proposed options, and then sets forth a solution near the end. While this form has been utilized most frequently with topical sermons, one can use problem-solution for expository preaching if the text itself moves in that fashion. A sermon on 1 John 1:5-11 might lend itself to this structure, as the passage moves from the problem of recognizing sin in human life to the solution: our confession and God’s forgiveness. Similarly, Luke 12:22-34 flows from the problem of anxiety over material things to the solution: seeking first God’s kingdom.
The story or narrative form is one of the most familiar right-brained structures because the Bible is so full of the narrative genre. Jesus’ preaching with parables is a classic example of this style, in that the vivid story He tells reaches its climax at the end. In most stories or parables there is a plot that tends to move from a dilemma to a resolve.
When I recently preached on the story of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18, I allowed the story’s plot to shape my structure. The first part of the story portrays a king forgiving the large debt of his servant — clearly an illustration of God’s forgiveness. But the story doesn’t end there, just as the Bible’s message of forgiveness doesn’t end with our own forgiveness through Christ. In the second half of the story the unexpected happens, as the forgiven servant becomes unforgiving of a poor, lowly servant who owed him a few paltry dollars. The king who forgave the large debt is furious and has the man thrown into prison. Then comes the climax of the story in the words of Jesus: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35). We reach the destination or big idea only near the end of the sermon: As a forgiven people we must become a forgiving people, for Christian forgiveness is both divine and human.
Another form of right-brained preaching is the emotive sermon. By this I do not mean an appeal to feelings over ideas, nor do I wish to imply that other forms do not employ the emotive dimension. Rather, in the emotive sermon the structure is guided by the emotional flow of the biblical passage. I developed a sermon on Psalm 22 along these lines where the text ricochets back and forth, three different times, from despair to hope. Entitled “Where is God When it Hurts” (from the book by that title), the sermon portrays the ebb and flow of emotions that are so common to human beings. But not only to humans, for this is a Messianic Psalm that is quoted frequently in the passion narratives of the Gospels with regards to Christ. The thesis: When we pass through dark nights of the human soul there is consolation, for Christ our Savior and Lord has traveled this path before us. The text itself concludes by powerfully portraying the coming triumphal kingdom of God, “For dominion belongs to the Lord, and He rules over the nations” (v. 28).
Right-brained preaching has many assets. For starters, it leaves the hearer in suspense till near the end, thus reducing the temptation to tune out. Such preaching is also creative, artful, and engages the self in more holistic ways. In addition, right-brained inductive structures are more compatible with certain types of biblical texts.
But there can be dangers in this form of preaching as well. The most common complaint is that congregants often get lost enroute to the undisclosed destination. This of course need not happen, but inductive preaching does not offer the same conceptual pegs on which to hang the sermonic garments as does the deductive sermon. In order to be most effective, right-brained preaching must give constant attention to the sermon’s movement from one section to another so that the listener does not quit in despair.
The other major problem with the inductive pattern is the tendency to force this style onto texts that are not amenable to it. This particularly happens when preachers attempt to impose a narrative or story form onto a didactic text. While every biblical passage is embedded in a narrative context, this is not the same as saying it represents a narrative genre. To force the text to fit a narrative homiletic structure can distort its meaning in much the same way as when one forces a deductive, linear structure onto a story of the Bible.
Finding a Balance
I have discovered great personal satisfaction in diversifying my preaching style. It has liberated me from predictable ruts, infused my sermons with new energy, and provided greater access to the whole of the hearers. I am aware with each sermon I preach which structure I am using and the degree to which I am integrating both right- and left- brained modes of thought.
When determining which approach to use for a sermon, I begin by looking at the nature of the text itself. As one begins to study a biblical passage (or biblical theme in the case of topical sermons) there is often an intuitive sense of which structure will best convey the meaning of the text and the purpose of the sermon. I do not assume that a parable or narrative text automatically calls for a purely right-brained inductive sermon, but that will most often be the case. As one wrestles with the text one begins to sense its own natural movement, imagery, and main ideas, and these provide clues as to which sermonic forms to utilize.
My second consideration in determining a sermon’s shape is tracking the relative balance in my preaching over the past months. If I’ve preached three left-brained sermons in a row and the biblical text allows it, I’m prone to move towards an inductive right-brained structure for the next.
I try to make sure that some parts of every sermon appeal to both left- and right-brains. If my overall structure is deductive and left-brained, I make sure that I include plenty of illustrations, stories, images, and metaphors which appeal to the right-brained crowd. If my overall structure is inductive and right- brained, I make sure there is some appeal to logic and that the main idea comes through with clarity and precision (an instruction of left- brained thinking).
Self-awareness and listener-awareness are essential guideposts for our preaching. Good preachers will know their own bent in sermon style and seek to push themselves to broaden their repertoire. Good preachers will also be aware that God’s people sitting in the pew each Sunday will hear those sermons in different ways. Persons with left- brained propensities will revel in our three-point sermons which flow from the big idea. Others, with right-brained proclivities, will resonate more naturally with our narrative, imaginative, and sense-oriented sermons which journey towards an undisclosed destination.
It would be a mistake to view one style as inherently superior to the other. In His Word, God draws on a rich variety of forms and genre. We need that same flexibility in the sacred task of preaching God’s Word to people who so desperately need to hear that Word with clarity, power, and relevance.
1. Robert Ornstein, The Psychology of Consciousness (New York: Viking Penguin, 1986), p. 90.
2. Quoted by Donald F. Chatfield, “Left-Handed Preaching,” in Faith and Ministry in Light of the Double Brain, ed. by James B. Ashbrook (Bristol, IN: Wyndham Hall Press, 1989), p. 59.
3. James B. Ashbrook, The Human Mind and the Mind of God: Theological Promise in Brain Research (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), p. 5.
4. Ralph L. Lewis and Gregg Lewis, Inductive Preaching: Helping People Listen (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1983), p. 32.

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