Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2007. Hardcover, 375 pages.
Don Sunukjian has long been an influential voice among evangelical homileticians. With the publication of his excellent new book Invitation to Biblical Preaching, that influence will be extended and deepened.
Although primarily designed as a preaching textbook, the volume will also prove valuable to veteran preachers looking for new insights and perspectives. Sunukjian is committed to biblical preaching, and offers useful guidance in developing sermons that are faithful to the biblical text and sensitive to the contemporary setting.
Unlike many evangelical writers, Sunukjian doesn’t claim “expository preaching” as a primary model. He argues that biblical preaching is defined by “how the biblical material is treated,” and can be presented in various models, including a topical message. Realistically, however, if you follow Sunukjian’s guidance in developing sermons, you’ll spend most of your time preaching what we would recognize as expository messages.
To Sunukjian, the preacher is one who stands in the midst of the congregation, open Bible in hand, and shares, “It’s what God is saying to us! He’s already said it to me; I’ve already received the benefit from it as I’ve studied and prepared. And now I’m simply sharing it with you – Look at what God is saying to us!”
As an expositor, says Sunukjian, we seek to be “true to the meaning of the original author,” which means that the sermon should “unfold according to the natural flow of thought of the biblical author.” Such an approach does not seek to dip into the text to lift out observations (for example, using the story of David and Goliath to suggest “six characteristics of a future leader”) that would have seemed alien to the biblical author.
Yet the biblical truth must be presented “in a manner that is relevant to the contemporary listener.” That involves not simply teaching the details of a passage but applying the biblical principle to contemporary listeners and drawing pictures of what those implications would look like today.
Sunukjian offers a series of steps in recognizing “what God is saying” through a text:
– Study the passage
– Outline the flow (including three stages: the passage outline, “happened;” truth outline, “happens;” and sermon outline, “happening”)
– Move from history to timeless truth
– Form the take-home truth (one sentence that expresses “the essential core of what the author is saying”)
In each of these steps Sunukjian offers additional guidance along with helpful examples based on different biblical passages.
After going through the hermeneutical process in the above stages, then it’s time to ask “what God is saying – to us.” Here Sunukjian offers a series of guides to the process of formulating a relevant message rooted in the biblical passage, starting with three developmental questions:
• What do I need to explain?
• Do we buy it?
• What does it look like in real life?
Probing the take-home truth and each statement in the outline with these three questions causes the biblical text to expand and develop into a full sermon,” the author asserts.
Sunukjian proceeds to discuss the various methods and resources used to amplify on the take-home truth and build on the outline to develop the body of the sermon. In one helpful section, he discusses and demonstrates the difference between developing a sermon deductively and inductively. There’s also a helpful discussion of shaping a sermon when the biblical passage is chiastic – “that is, when the original biblical passage repeats previous themes in inverted order” as was common in Hebrew poetry.
In his discussion of the introduction,Sunukjian pictures it as a funnel – “capturing the listeners at the widest edges of their interest, directing them with clarity and a sense of need to the biblical passage, and taking them into the first hunk of the message.” (How can you not love a preaching book that talks about the “hunks” of a sermon?) He offers several steps in this process:
• Engage the listeners’ interest to “create a need for, or curiosity about, the message”
• Focus the message on either the take-home truth (deductive) or the topic/question (inductive)
• Set the stage biblically
• Preview the coming hunks, the direction the message will take
• Announce the passage Sunukjian also offers counsel on developing the sermon’s conclusion and title, and reminds his readers that as preachers we are to “write for the ear” – “write ike you talk, and be sensitive to the emotional overtones of your language.” He concludes with some suggestions for ways to achieve clarity in an oral presentation and to gain delivery in freedom by preaching without notes. There are some interesting appendix items added to the book, including a chapter on procedures for outlining a sermon and a discussion of the dangers of alliteration in preaching. (The latter has long been a topic of interest to Sunukjian, and one on which he wrote for Preaching several years ago.)
Don Sunukjian has given us a practical guide to developing 21st century sermons that are biblically faithful, clear and engaging. This is not ivory-tower theory; Invitation to Biblical Preaching offers down-to-earth insights and enough examples to spark dozens of great sermon ideas for any preacher!