In an election year it doesn’t take a political analyst to recognize the tensions between opposing parties. Republican or Democrat? A choice must be made, unless of course the choice is for the independent candidate. In recent years, more than ever, that has has been a real possibility.
In preaching circles there are tensions as well these days. The incumbents say preaching must be expository. They speak glowingly of exegesis, outlines, and overhead projectors. The challengers think more in terms of inductive flow, narrative development, and telling stories. Who are we to vote for?
Fortunately, there is another option and one that does not mean violating our cherished convictions — the split-sermon. A split-sermon entails dividing the preaching moment into two or more distinct phases which are woven into the fabric of the worship service in some meaningful way. Expository preachers might choose to divide the traditional sermon into parts that could be interwoven with appropriate hymns or other elements of worship. Narrative preachers might choose to do the same thing with a more innovative sermon form.
Another option, however, might be to include an expository teaching time at one point in the service followed by various elements of worship and a narrative proclamation later in the service. There are limitless possibilities.
The debate between the two schools of preaching is not nearly so well-known as our national political parties, so allow me to describe the candidates and their platforms. Expository preachers of note include John MacArthur, Stephen Olford, and Haddon Robinson, just to name a few. The platform upon which their understanding of biblical preaching is based is propositional philosophy. Propositional preaching seeks to convey biblical truth by extracting principles from a given text that may then be applied to the hearers. These principles are frequently stated in the form of points.
Expository or propositional sermons are often characterized by phrases such as, “This morning, we will look at …” or “In this text we note …” or “There are several things in this passage that we shall consider …” These phrases (the verbs, in particular) reveal a statement of purpose that underlies propositional preaching — namely, the instilling of information. As John MacArthur has stated, preaching involves exegeting a text “for the sake of eliciting out of the text truths that God put in Scripture and then pounding those truths into the minds of the congregation.”2
This instilling of information (or “pounding” of biblical truths) is most certainly a valid purpose in preaching. Quite often the preacher will be faced with the need to speak directly to a matter by expositing the biblical teaching on that subject. Not only do certain subjects require this approach but, as David Buttrick reminds us, some texts are more congenial to this approach, which Buttrick labels “the mode of reflection.”3
An equally strong campaign is being run by a different school of thought known as narrative or inductive. Its leading proponents include Fred Craddock and Eugene Lowry.4 This style of preaching is concerned with re-presenting the biblical text. Re-presentational preaching (as opposed to propositional preaching) is more concerned that listeners encounter the biblical text than that they simply comprehend it. This style of preaching seeks to proclaim the text in such a way that what happened in the original hearing of the text “then” also happens in the hearing of the sermon “now.”5
This emphasis on encounter is also desperately needed in preaching. When those women went to the tomb that first Easter morning they discovered something beyond their wildest dreams, a something summed up in the phrase “He’s alive! He’s alive!” As they ran through the little village their words proclaimed a new reality. No one took notes and, so far as we know, none of them said “He’s alive and I see three things in that.” It was an encountering type of message. And, as Buttrick notes, some texts lend themselves to the “mode of immediacy.”6
While a strong campaign may be built for either of these platforms to the exclusion of the other, it is important to remember that the Bible itself emphasizes both. Those followers of Jesus may not have seen three things in the resurrection, but Paul did in his theological reflection in 1 Corinthians 15:13-15.
The dilemma every thinking preacher faces is how to decide when to use which approach. So often an encounter with a biblical text (narrative) must be predicated on an understanding of that text, yet narrative preachers often resent having to present their exegetical homework for fear that they might bore their constituency.
Conversely, a sermon which helps listeners to understand a text (expository) often fails at the point of encounter. Though expository preachers recognize the value of illustrative material, some consider it trivial as compared to explaining the principles of a text. Some would even say that illustrations are a necessary evil, a bowing down to the god of entertainment which Americans have come to worship. Thus the need for the split-sermon that combines the best of both worlds.
Richard Jensen, in Telling the Story, was the first to formally propose this method of preaching, though he was not the first to practice it. None other than Charles Spurgeon, the prince of expositors, practiced something similar. Spurgeon frequently delivered what he called an exordium (a solid exposition of a text) and continued with a more traditional sermon (almost always evangelistic in nature) in the worship service. While thousands of his sermons remain in print, only a relatively few of his exordiums do.
The basic premise of the split-sermon would be to include a teaching time and a preaching time, interwoven with other elements of worship. As an example of how split-sermons can work in a worship service, I have included an order of service along with a rationale of how the service was put together. In addition, I have included a sample split-sermon on the Lord’s Prayer as found in Matthew’s gospel. The service centered on the theme of what happens in worship when people pray. As such, I chose to preach on the Lord’s Prayer since we pray it aloud together each week. The order of service was:
Morning Worship Service
Call to Worship
Our Lord’s Prayer
Hymn of Reverence
Glorious Is Thy Name
Pastoral Prayer
Hymn of Sovereignty
Jesus Is Lord of All
Old Testament Lesson
Isaiah 65:17-25
Hymn of Dependence
Come, Ye Thankful People, Come
New Testament Lesson
Revelation 7:9-17
Matthew 6:9-13
Hymn of Forgiveness
Hymn of Leadership
Great Is Thy Faithfulness
A Storybook Prayer
Time of Response
Our Lord’s Prayer
We began the service by praying the Lord’s Prayer as a call to worship. The hymn selections corresponded to the prayer’s various petitions. In response to the petition, “Hallowed by Thy name,” we sang Glorious Is Thy Name, and so forth. The Old and New Testament readings were chosen for the perspective of a world yet to be revealed. That perspective closely parallels the intent of our Lord’s Prayer as well. The passages are alluded to in the closing of the sermon.
In the exposition element we intended to convey the meaning of the prayer with the hope that the narrative sermon would be more meaningful and that from then on every time we prayed that prayer it would be more meaningful. Thus, we chose to pray it as our benediction as well.
Before looking at the sermon itself, one more item needs to be addressed — that is, deciding when to use the split-sermon format. Every expository preacher has had the experience of wanting to explain some important insight of a biblical passage, yet knowing all along that it might not hold attention. Expository preachers occasionally even admit it in their sermons: “Before we look at this text, it’s important that you know some background material here. Bear with me for a moment.”
Any time the preacher thinks the sermon might be boring, it is a good indicator that a split-sermon might be helpful. Another indicator might be that the preacher feels a tension between the sheer poetic beauty of a passage and its multifaceted technical aspects.
Used occasionally, the split-sermon has much to offer. Used too often, it could become predictable and stifling. Preaching, like the world of politics, occasionally needs some independent (or, in this case, some cooperative) thinking to help us question the status quo. Perhaps the split-sermon might be one way to add interest to our worship services and bring about some much-needed unity in a bipartisan world of preaching.
The sermon that follows is typical of my split-sermons. The Exposition (or teaching time) is followed by the Sermon (or preaching time). I prefer the term Sermon to Message, since the latter may be applied to any element of worship through which God speaks — hymn, reading, or whatever.
Preaching on the Lord’s Prayer is like dissecting a frog. It’s obvious after you have dissected a frog that you may understand it better but it is no longer a frog, at least not a living frog. The Lord’s Prayer is one of the most magnificent passages in all of Scripture. Preaching such a passage could easily result in our understanding it better, how it works, and so forth — yet killing it in the process. I attempt the task, however, in the hopes that from now on, when you pray this prayer, it will be richer in meaning and will become your prayer.
We call it the Lord’s Prayer, which is a bit misleading. Our Lord intended it for us, not for Himself. It is to be a model of what prayer can be. It’s really not His prayer, for He has no need to pray for forgiveness. It is intended to be our prayer. So let’s look at it.
The prayer’s opening reminds us that this prayer is a corporate prayer intended for the family of God, thus the term “our.” When we pray this prayer we pray together even when we pray it alone. We are reminded that we are a part of God’s family. That idea is further carried in the term by which we address God: “Our Father.” Jesus was not the first to refer to God as Father; the term is in the Old Testament — but Jesus personalized it. Even as we begin this prayer we are aware of our relationship with all believers and our personal relationship with God as Father.
Then we are instantly reminded that God is “in heaven.” The prayer keeps in tension the intimacy we have with God and His transcendent separateness.
Following the introduction, a number of petitions are given; how many is somewhat debatable. Some view the prayer as being made up of six petitions: the first three relating to God, the last three relating to us. However, some view a possible overlap. For instance, some insist that “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done” should be understood as two separate petitions; others view them as synonymous. Personally, I view them as intimately related, with the second phrase expanding a bit on the first phrase.
The petition, “lead us not … but deliver us …,” is viewed by some as two separate requests, and others view it as one request. However, these questions of division do not seem crucial since the content remains unchanged either way.
But what of the petitions themselves? In the first, we pray that God’s name might be reverenced — “name” here referring to the very character and person of God. In the second, we pray that God’s kingdom purpose be accomplished and, related to that, that His perfect will shall be done in a very imperfect world.
In the petitions related to our needs we pray for daily bread, that our bodily needs be taken care of. Next, we pray for forgiveness. While Matthew’s version reads “trespasses” or “debts,” Luke’s account is probably more clear — “sins.” We don’t ask to be forgiven for crossing onto someone else’s property where a sign was clearly posted “No Trespassing.” We ask forgiveness for sins. And that forgiveness is not dependent upon our forgiving others. Forgiveness which is dependent is not real forgiveness. No, it is more a matter that the same thing required to be forgiving is the thing required to receive it — namely, humility as opposed to pride.7 Then we ask that we might be spared from situations too trying for our own good. It is not so much that God might not get us into trouble as that He alone is capable of delivering us from trouble.
As we close the prayer we acknowledge once more God’s ultimate control, power, and glory, and we say “amen,” which means “may it be so.”
A Storybook Prayer
(Matthew 6:9-13)
Recently we awoke to a beautiful new snowfall. White, clean, pure. The stuff dreams are made of. The stuff fairy tales are made of. Beautiful white snow.
But snow melts and as it does we are reminded of the harshness of reality: the sodden gray yard, dog droppings dotting the ground, the broken lawn chair we meant to take in.8
No wonder we like fairy tales where everything works out well. We need our stories: stories of hope, stories to cling to, stories where boy meets girl, they fall in love, get married, have beautiful children, buy a home, build a picket fence, live happily ever after.
“In the movies, happy endings are easy.” That’s what the commercial says. In the movies happy endings are easy, but in the real world?
But in the real world — ah, there’s the rub, the catch: the real world. We live in the real world. And in the real world love isn’t always as it seemed. There are irreconcilable differences, infidelities, divorces. And children? Some are born autistic or with muscular dystrophy; some don’t live at all; and some couples can’t even have children. And homes? Sometimes they are lost to foreclosure due to layoff or other cause.
In this cold, cruel world we need stories, stories that show us life can be better. And so this morning we venture into a story, a storybook prayer: “Once upon a prayer …” As we do, we think of better times to come.
“Our Father, who art in heaven; Hallowed be Thy name.”
They sat across from the preacher’s desk. They had come for counseling. Harry and Liz were parents; well, sort of. They had been once — once when parenting was trick-or-treating, Santa Claus, and “Dad, my bike chain keeps coming off, will you fix it?”
Harry fought back the tears, “I wish she would call me now to help her fix something.” Their daughter had gone off to college, spent their money, and blown it all on life in the fast lane. Now she was out on bond awaiting trial on charges of drug trafficking. She had reached the very bottom and when the father tried to offer love and help, compassion and care, she screamed at him — there in front of everyone — “Get out of here. You’re not my father anymore. I don’t want you.”
Do you know any parents whose kids have grown up and hurt them? Can you imagine the pain? In the cold, harsh reality of this world we profane God’s name, His person, when we behave like wayward children who inflict senseless pain upon the very One who created us.
And so we pray to our Father, the author of our story, a storybook prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven; Hallowed be Thy name.”
“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
This is a storybook prayer not only in its content but even in its form. This petition — “Thy kingdom come” — was the ancient equivalent of our “Once upon a time.” When the Jews dreamed of better times, they began their stories, “When the kingdom comes …” They said, “When the kingdom comes, there will be joy” or “When the kingdom comes, there will be peace.” The tension we face in our day is that the kingdom has come, but it is not yet fully come, come, but it is not yet fully come.
Store owners, bankers, preachers, and shoppers — they all decided to take a break from the day’s activities; it was lunch time. They stood in line at the cafeteria trying to decide between wheat rolls and cornbread when suddenly their lives were changed forever. A man — a lunatic of a man — crashed his truck through the cafeteria’s plate-glass windows and began to open fire with a semi-automatic gun. Blood and screams filled the air.
The kingdom has not yet come, not fully. And His will is not yet done.
There are abortions and AIDS, and in a world such as ours there are heart attacks, senseless heart attacks, where good people die.
But to pray this prayer is to be reminded that we are characters in God’s story, not the storyteller. We live in a world where we are free to follow or reject God. He does not force Himself upon us. He seeks us. And because so many reject Him, we pray to the author of all life: “Our Father, who art in heaven, Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
“Give us this day, our daily bread.”
“Man does not live by bread alone.” That’s true enough, but we don’t live long without it. Wheat rolls or cornbread, no matter our choice we’ve got to eat and so we pray for daily bread, enough to get us through the day.
I have a list; oh, not on me but in me. It’s a list of things I want some day. I want new golf clubs, not old ones. I want more clothes, not the same old ties. I want a new car, not a Sentra with 91,000 miles on it.
Do you have a list? Maybe it’s a microwave, a CD player, a VCR for the other TV in the bedroom. I have a list; do you?
This storybook prayer is concerned with needs, not greeds. And because we pray, “Give us this day, our daily bread,” we remember that some go hungry.
Thus we pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven; Give us this day, our daily bread.”
“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
We pray for forgiveness. Where do we start here? Maybe with even our own unwillingness to be forgiving. Or maybe with our indifference to those who have no bread. Or forgiveness for trying to establish our own kingdom, for profaning God’s name. Ultimately, we pray for forgiveness for the times when we the creatures have rebelled against God the creator, when we the characters in the story have shaken our fists in the face of the author and said, “I’ll do what I want.”
What a comically absurd kind of scene. Can you see it? An author, Shakespeare perhaps, standing over his play and Hamlet refusing to speak his part, changing his lines. “I’m not going to do it that way. And you can’t make me.” Can you see a picture? Write the word “sin” under it.
Contrast that with a picture of a hill where the Son of God hangs on a cross. Can you see that? Write the word “forgiveness” under that.
So we pray to the author of our story, “Our Father, who art in heaven; Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Of course, it’s not always a matter of willful rebellion, shaking our fists at God. Life is not always so clear-cut. In the movies it may be black and white, good guy/bad guy. But not in real life. Real life is a shade of gray and we need guidance.
And in our own strength we are not capable of withstanding all of life’s temptations and trials. Would you like to know what tomorrow holds? Not me. Its joys, yes, but not all of its pains. So we pray to the One who knows our stories and how they end, who knows what the next page holds. We pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven; Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
The cold, harsh reality of life awakens within us a desire for a better world where all is love and peace, joy and happiness. And for those who have looked ahead to the last page, that’s how it will be. No more tears. No more pain. Streets of gold. The presence of Jesus. In a phrase, we shall live “happily ever after.” But in the meantime we cling to the prayer:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.
1. The term split-sermon is taken from Ken Langley’s article, “The Split Sermon: Cure for Boring Sermon Explanations,” Preaching 7 (November-December 1991): 39-40.
2. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “An Interview with John F. MacArthur,” Preaching 7 (November-December 1991):2.
3. David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 365-404.
4. These preachers are probably best known for their works on preaching. Some of their better known works include: Fred Craddock, As One Without Authority (Nashville: Abingdon, 1971), and Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1985); Eugene Lowry, The Homiletical Plot (Atlanta: John Knox, 1980), and How to Preach a Parable (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989).
5. The differences between these two approaches to preaching are detailed in Richard Jensen’s Telling the Story (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1980), 28-43, 76-92. I have elaborated on them even further in Sermon Strategies for Narrative Preaching, a manuscript currently being considered for publication.
6. Buttrick, Homiletic, 333-363.
7. This insight was taken from Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 28-29.
8. Frederick Buechner plays with this imagery in Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977), 83.

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