If biblical genre is not an inert vessel, what about a sermon form? If a text has only one point, as Blomberg affirms in the case of Luke 18:1–8, should not the sermon have just one point to maintain its meaning and impact? Choosing the medium of communication is a then-and-now task. Certainly, elements from the now,1 such as a preacher’s predilections and congregational norms, are germane in selecting sermonic form, but so are the elements2 from the then domain. It may be possible to preach a multi-point sermon based upon a text with a single point without altering the meaning, but it may also result in distorting the conveyed meaning and its impact.3
Preachers who are looking for three points are likely to find them. It would be easy to see Matthew 7:7 in thirds: (1) “ask, and it will be given to you,” (2) “seek, and you will find,” (3) “knock, and it will be opened to you.” The genre of this verse is parallelism; therefore, ask, seek, and knock function as synonyms, not three modes of praying.4 However, the tripartite sermon structure can imply that there are separate actions involved in praying.
Taken as a separate point, seeking or knocking could lead the hearer to the conclusion that the petitioner should actively attempt to bring about the desired resolution through human activity. In this case, prayer becomes a secondary solution to the problem, human activity being the primary—God just helps the petitioner who is seeking for a solution. While this idea is consistent with Benjamin Franklin’s philosophy that “God helps them that helps themselves,”5 it counters the context of Matthew 7:7, which encourages those who pray to do so with “an expectant attitude”6 because God is dependable and loving. He cares for His people and will answer their prayers. The emphasis is on a God who provides, not on the mental and kinesthetic energy the petitioner puts into the act of praying.
In this case, ignoring the context and the organic unity of the synonymous parallelism used in Matthew 7:7 and instead imposing a three-point structure shifts the emphasis away from expecting that God will answer to an entirely different message: Pray and do your part in answering the prayer. This example, no doubt takes the meaning from the then,7 but it untethers the message from the textual form. While being a coworker with God is a biblical concept (see 1 Cor. 3:9), it does not emerge from this text. An expository sermon must extract meaning from its text.
Preachers who gravitate toward the common three-point propositional sermon without regard to understanding of structure derived from the literary genre limit themselves.8 Stott uses stronger language; he says they confine themselves in a “strait-jacket.”9 Craddock goes even further by asking, “Why the gospel should always be impaled upon on the frame of Aristotelian logic.”10
The notion that a preacher can proclaim the meaning of an immutable text with an interchangeable sermon chassis has the feel of homiletical Gnosticism—one being sacred and the other not. There is an organic unity between form and meaning; they affect one another11 and should stay unified throughout the sermon writing and preaching event. Craddock calls the separation of the two “fatal for preaching.”12 Stott says, “Each text must be allowed to supply its own structure.”13 The inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the intent of the author,14 forever link the form and meaning together. Long refers to this linking as “form of the content.”15
If the biblical author, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, used a genre that makes a single point,16 the meaning extracted from the text the preacher conveys through the sermon cannot be independent from that textual form. The application can and the significance can, but the meaning cannot.17 Sunukjian writes, “The sermon outline may indent or symbolize a bit differently than the passage or truth outline. It may slightly change the author’s structure (but never his meaning!).”18 Then, can changing the structure (as dictated by the literary genre and context ) change the meaning?
The Medium Is the Message
Communication theorist, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” to describe the effects communication media have on a message. He contended the way communicators say something is as important as what they are saying. Actually, he argued the medium was more important. “The content or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb.”19
In a macro sense, as in the introduction of the Roman alphabet, Gutenberg press, or electronic media into culture, he argued media itself shaped the cultural environment to such an extent that the medium is more important than the words the alphabet formed, the printing press printed, or the electronic media broadcasted.
Each technological innovation rewired how people processed information and what they did with their time. The Roman alphabet,20 not the words it formed, reshaped thinking from pictures to words, from spatial to linear. It made changes as far as the east is from the west. Philosophers might point to Aristotle and Confucius to highlight the differences between the cultures, McLuhan would indicate that the difference began with the western adoption of the Roman letters,21 instead of something like the logographic Chinese characters.22
The printing press made orality antiquated and flattened time. After the mid-15th century, readers easily could spend their leisure time in isolation interacting with thinkers from another time and place, instead of exchanging their heritage stories in their communities, resulting in less tribalism and more individualism.23 McLuhan would argue that it was not the words that the press printed that made post mid-15th century generations more individualistic, but that the introduction of the printing press itself caused the transformation.
The electronic media formed a global village that blurs the lines between here and there. The world came into the living room in McLuhan’s day and into the palm of user’s hands today. While it shrinks the world into a tiny screen, it also expands the users’ world. It creates a cultural fusion where the East and West constantly churn and blend resulting in fewer distinctions, less privacy, and more awareness.24 McLuhan argued that it was not the words that producers broadcasted that ushered in these changes, but the electronic media itself.
Most of the time, when McLuhan used the phrase “the medium is the message” he was referring to this macro sense of how media shapes its environment and does more to influence people than the words spoken, read or heard. However, he does make an important distinction between hot and cold mediums.25 Some communication mediums, such as the narrative form, invoke a higher level of participation from the audience. It is a cool medium requiring the use of multiple senses and mental capacities. Other communication mediums are hot, requiring only a single sense. A photo projected on a screen is a hot medium (requiring only the visual sense) or a lecture is a hot medium, requiring only the single sense of hearing.
Imposing a three-point, deductive sermon structure upon a one-point, inductive biblical narrative shifts the communication medium from cold to hot, invoking lower audience involvement. This movement, taking a literary cold medium and shifting it to an oratory hot medium, has the possibility of altering the impact of its meaning, if not the meaning itself. The author of an inductive narrative intended the listeners to immerse themselves in the story and discover the truth as the tension in the story resolves. Instead, with the three-point, deductive sermon structure, the storyline no longer requires their involvement, just their attention to the expert who will explain its significance and make an application for them.
Remember, the biblical authors wrote their words for listeners not readers.26 Prior to Gutenberg, the text was not widely available and the people would gather to listen to it. They did so after rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 8:5–6) and during Domitian’s reign27 (Rev. 1:3).28
In a micro sense, shifting the temperature of the communication medium from cool to hot may affect the impact of the message and obscure the intended meaning, but in a macro sense, it can change the way the listeners come to regard the Bible. In the same way the introduction of the Roman alphabet, printing press, and electronic media affected western culture, altering the literary genre from a single point focus to a multi-point sermonic form can shift the way listeners view the Bible. The medium is the message.
Sermons based on narrative passages that tilt away from the story to propositions-for-living communicate something besides their content. They shape the congregation’s view of the Bible. Long says, “Idea-centered sermons are prone to communicate, over time, that the Christian faith itself can be boiled down to a set of concepts to which people are supposed to give assent. The gospel thus gets presented as a list of propositions, and sermons become didactic devices for explaining these truths and how each of them logically connects to the others.”29
A steady diet of propositional preaching of narrative passages can result in people viewing the Bible as an answer book for life’s problems, or an owner’s manual for the Christian life, or a textbook for a Christian education. While the Bible may be useful in those pursuits, its purpose is greater. The Bible is not a collection of propositions for Christians to understand and apply. It is God’s story to be experienced. The Bible does not just contain narratives. It is narrative. Even the epistles have a “narrative bedrock,”30 Greidanus writes, “A vibrant story lies just beneath the surface of many an epistle text.”31
Long says, “The first-order work of the biblical writers was to ‘reveal the enactment of God’s purposes in history.’”32 More times than not, expository sermons will reveal something about God and the way He works in redemptive history. If preachers align their sermons with authorial intent, the majority—if not all—of their sermons will be theocentric33 and will encourage the listeners to respond in faith to God as revealed in the sermon. The literary form will provide clues to how many points the sermon will have, and in some cases, the structure of the sermon can come from the movements within the text.34
One-Point Sermon Forms
According to Chapell, “As preachers mature, they will discover that rhetorical ‘moves,’ homiletical ‘plots,’ concept-rich ‘images,’ thoughtful transitions, implied ideas, and other measures can often substitute for the formal statement of points in their outlines.”35 Typically, one-point sermons are inductive in nature and use movements instead of points to progress their listeners through the sermon. Just as movements in plot presented above, these movements are not the same as points. Multiple points subdivide a concept into equal or progressive concepts. They either show the smaller components of the whole or a cascading list (ascending or descending) of interrelated ideas. Movements are oratory devices that propel the message forward, usually using the conflict or tension inherent in the structure of a story. Buttrick says, “In speaking of ‘moves,’ we are deliberately changing terminology. For years, preachers have talked of making points in sermons…Instead, we are going to speak of moves, of making moves in a movement of language.”36
In the case of preaching through a biblical narrative, movements often come from plot dynamics of the text itself.37 In other cases, the preacher provides the movements for the sermon structure. Long argues, “Even though the possibility of matching sermonic movement to text movement is clearest when the biblical text is a narrative, non-narrative texts possess their own inner movements that can also serve as the patterns for sermons.”38 (For three samples of one-point sermons, see the appendix.)
Whatever form sermons take, the sermon must make a difference. The strength of a multi-point sermon is it provides several options for information and inspiration; if one point does not apply, there is a chance the next one will. Not so for the one-point sermon; it delivers a single point, and if it is not strong and well delivered, the hearers leave with little benefit.
The one-point sermon must have atomic impact upon the congregation. It must be powerful and it must be clear. The strength of a one-point sermon is that it does not force any point to compete with another for the audience’s attention. Instead of the pressure to develop a point in a third of the time allotted for the sermon, preachers can devote all their time to develop the single point to make that clear, atomic-sized impact.
Adapted from Pastoral Ministry in the Real World by Jim Wilson. Copyright © 2015 Jim Wilson. Published by Weaver Book Company. Used by permission.
1 I have refrained from making a case for the one-point sermon structure from the now domain, so as not to detract from my argument that the literary form of the text should influence the form of the sermon.
2 Specifically I mean the genre and context.
3 Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 19–20.
4 France, Gospel of Matthew, 280.
5 Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac, 82. Although popularized by Franklin, Algernon Sidney originated the phrase in 1698 in his Discourses Concerning Government, Section 23. It was also the moral of Aesops’s story, Hercules and the Wagoner.
6 Blomberg, Matthew, 129.
7 If the meaning does not arise from the selected text itself, it might come from somewhere in else in the Bible. Even though a sermon does not accurately reflect the intent of the author of a certain text, does not mean it is not theologically sound or unbiblical—just that it is not an expository sermon.
8 Equally, an argument that those who lean toward a one-point structure also limit themselves if they do not look for sermon points in genres that typically have multiple points.
9 Stott, Between Two Worlds, 230.
10 Craddock, As One Without Authority, 38.
11 Larson, Anatomy of Preaching, 63. Though Larson argues for a multi-point sermon form, which does not align with my assertions, he does affirm “substance and form affect one another.”
12 Craddock, As One Without Authority, 5.
13 Stott, Between Two Worlds, 229.
14 Long, The Witness of Preaching, 24. Long argues that the biblical writers are not just concerned with what they said, but how they were saying it. Genre therefore is part of authorial intent. I link it with the message and affirm it is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
15 Long, Preaching, 13.
16 Edwards, Deep Preaching, 65.
17 Ibid., 169.
18 Sunukjian, Invitation, 39.
19 McLuhan and Zingrone, Essential McLuhan, 238.
20 While Egyptian hieroglyphics and Phoenician cuneiform made this shift centuries before the Roman alphabet, McLuhan’s argument focused on the Roman alphabet.
21 McLuhan, Understanding Media, 121.
22 McLuhan and Zingrone, Essential McLuhan, 122.
23 McLuhan, Understanding Media, 122.
24 Ibid., 53–55.
25 McLuhan, Understanding Media, 39. “Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience.”
26 Long, Witness of Preaching, 24.
27 Mounce, Revelation, 32.
28 Ánaginoskon is a word that denotes "reading aloud." In Revelation 1:3, John blessed the one who would read his words aloud to God’s people.
29 Long, Witness of Preaching, 101–102.
30 Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, 31. In an explanatory footnote to the sentence, he says that “the biblical gospel is not a collection of timeless statements such as God is love. It is a narrative about things God has done.” Goldingay elaborates, “The narrative form of the Gospels makes this point evident, but a ‘narrative bedrock’ also underlies the non-narrative form of Paul’s writings.”
31 Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 335.
32 Long, Preaching, 70.
33 As the title suggests, in Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, Chapell encourages Christ-centered preaching. Because our God is triune, I encourage theocentric preaching to encompass all three Persons of the Trinity.
34 Taylor, “Shaping Sermons,” 140.
35 Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 134.
36 Buttrick, Homiletic, 23.
37 Wilson, Write Narrative Sermons, 11–33.
38 Long, Literary Forms, 131.
Jim L. Wilson is professor of leadership formation and the director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.