My daughter and I had a disturbing conversation a few months ago. It was a typical father/daughter discussion. She wanted to do something I thought might be inappropriate and I said so with all the fatherly tenderness and respect I thought necessary for such an occasion. She was quick, however, to sense the nature of my rebuke. "Dad, I don't need to hear a sermon," she said as she turned her back on me and walk away." She was nine years old.
Her response stung, given that I make my living preparing and delivering sermons. Unfortunately, it is not only my daughter who has decided that listening to sermons has become unnecessary. It would appear that the whole culture has concluded that preaching is anachronistic, that it is at best a relic of bygone times and at worst an arrogant abuse of religious authority.
I have concluded, however, that the Lord has not revoked my calling and that he still expects me to preach. Still, it seems to me that preaching in these days might demand some fresh thinking and an alternate form.
Principles: Theology and Theory
Authority: "Oh yeah, who says?"
There are two primary issues relevant to the task of preaching.
The first is the matter of authority.
Anyone who wishes to persuade must provide warrant for his or her claim. It may have been in distant times that listeners would attend sermons in an agreeable and docile frame of mind, unquestioningly receiving whatever the preacher cared to suggest. Those listeners have long since been replaced by a newer more skeptical group who listen with one finger on their mental remote control, challenging the preacher to prove that this sermon is worth the investment of their time and energy.
"Love one another," the preacher says, "be good to your enemies."
"Oh yeah," the listener responds, "who says?"
"Well, God says," the preacher answers. It is a good answer, but for many it may not be enough. Listeners today come ready-built with their own authority. They could choose to daydream or close their mind. They could get up and walk noisily out, shaking their fist as they do. The listener has power in the transaction known as preaching and they are not afraid to use it. The preacher, then, must make an authority level choice between text and today, between divine authority and human authority.
On the one hand, the case is made on the basis of God's revealed Word. Thus saith the Lord, settles the question.
On the other hand the point is established upon the foundation of the listeners own preset assumptions and experiences. "Sounds about right," the listener says, processing the message through their inborn authority system.
Apprehension: "O.K. How Do I Say It?"
The second primary concern for the preacher is to discover the most effective means of helping the listener own the truth. Apprehension, is the taking hold of a truth, like a constable apprehending a suspect, or a student taking hold of a book. It is the preacher's desire that the listener 'get a grip' on the message being offered.
There are two primary approaches a preacher could choose. The first is by means of explanation and the second is by means of experience.
Traditionally, preachers have emphasized the cognitive path, explaining the propositions of the text and sermon, making things clear and making things orderly. The idea is that if the truth is made comprehensible to the mind, the listener will be compelled to respond and the preacher will have done his or her job.
More recently, preachers have been rediscovering intuitive experience as an avenue to listener apprehension. Gripping stories and emotional appeal compel a listener to want to respond to the message on offer. Whether the propositions can be explained is less important when a listener feels a need to respond.
Integration: "Refuse to Choose."
The recent history of homiletics has tended to describe a spasmodic lurching from pole to pole in the struggle between text and today, explanation and experience. Cognitive forms of exposition square off against more intuitive narrative sermon forms. Text based authority structures stand against listener based "seeker" forms or preaching. In the end, however, such polarized approaches might not be helpful.
Integration describes the bringing together of seemingly contrary options in such a way that the integrity of each substance remains uncompromised. Is it possible that preachers could integrate text and today, explanation and experience? Is it possible that preachers could refuse to choose?
Overlaying the two continuums, authority and apprehension, creates an interesting opportunity for preachers to integrate these seemingly opposing concerns.
Move 1: experience (apprehension) of the text (authority)
Move 2: explanation (apprehension) of the text (authority)
Move 3: explanation (apprehension) of today (authority)
Move 4: experience (apprehension) of today (authority)
God endorsed integration as a means of communication in the incarnation of his son, Jesus Christ. The Word become flesh is more than just an analogy of the preaching task. It is the substance of the preacher's message.
Process: Discover, Construction, Assimilation, and Delivery
First Stage: Discovery (the Message)
The first stage in the preparation of a sermon, then, is discovery . Specifically the preacher seeks to discover the message, which is "what God wants to say through this text to these people at this time." It is an unrepeatable, virtually unpublishable moment in time when the people encounter the voice of God through the Word of God for their unique moment and place in history. The message can be discerned by four simple questions corresponding to the above four integrative moves.
Move 1 What's the Story?
Move 2 What's the Point?
Move 3 What's the Problem?
Move 4 What's the Difference?
1. What's the Story? (Experience of the Text) Even in the book of Hebrews, there is always a story. There really were Hebrew people with a story. Identifying that story can help the listener see the humanity in the text, creating an experiential encounter with the message that will not easily be shaken off.
2. What's the Point? (Explanation of the Text) The Bible, while not exclusively propositional, is conceptual in its makeup. The Bible offers truth that can be examined, detailed, ordered, and for the most part, understood. The preacher need not shy away from offering points, well explained and carefully put.
3. What's the Problem? (Explanation of Today) The problem with biblical propositions is that they are not so easily accepted. The Bible is profoundly counter-cultural. If a preacher offers biblical truth with honesty and integrity, there will be inherent conflict in the engagement with contemporary listener presuppositions. Acknowledging the problem from the perspective of the thinking human will be important if we care about listener comprehension and assent.
4. What's the Difference? (Experience of Today) Of course, head knowledge without heart response is hardly worth the effort. Every text intends a difference in the life response of the listener as they grow in obedience to the God who created them. Answering these four questions will lead the preacher to know what it is that God is saying to these people through this text at this time.
Second Stage: Construction (The Sermon)
The second stage in homiletic presentation is construction . What is to be constructed is the sermon, which is simply a framework sufficient to communicate the message. Just because a preacher has an understanding of the message does not mean that he or she is ready to preach. The preacher needs a sermon, a vehicle that will help the people hear from God.
The preacher is wise to begin by seeking to get the listener involved (engaged) in the message. It is no longer wise to assume that the listeners will invest the energy needed to engage themselves in the experience. Having gained the listener's involvement in the process the preacher can declare the propositions offered by the text (teaching). From there, the preacher ought to work to convince the listener of the truth of the teaching. Finally, the preacher needs to motivate the listener to a reckoning with the implications of the message. The preacher is looking to encourage a response.
The concepts chosen by the preacher need to use appropriate language and argumentation in order to address the following important listener issues:
Move 1: "so what" (tell the story)
Move 2: "what's what" (make the point)
Move 3: "yeah, but" (engage the problem)
Move 4: "now what" (imagine the difference)
1. "So what?" In the first move the preacher seeks to convince the listener of the relevance of the message. The listener needs to be given a reason to listen. Usually, this is most effectively achieved by getting the listener emotionally involved, connecting their own story with that of the biblical text.
2. "What's what" In the second move the preacher makes the point overt. This is the place for explanation - only so much explanation as necessary to inform the listener's mind without bogging him down with confusing details. The challenge is to be clear and intellectually stimulating.
3. "Yeah, but..." In the third move the preacher acknowledges the listener's objections, seeking to overcome the inevitable reticence the listener will harbor. Minds don't change wihtout a fight. Preachers that can get under the surface and deal with the real cognitive objections of the listener will speak powerfully.
4. "Now what?" In the fourth move, the preacher offers the possibility of a tangible alternate future according to the call of the gospel. Biblical texts intend substantive lifechange. Our sermons must intend no less.
Stage Three: Assimilation (Unction)
Many preachers having discovered their message and constructed their sermon understand their task to have been completed, but there is another stage that is essential to powerful, biblical preaching. This is the stage in which the preachers seeks the "unction" of the Holy Spirit, the empowering passion that makes a sermon live. The preacher must be filled with the message from God by the Spirit of God. Assimilation involves three concerns, spirit, word, and life .
Spirit refers to the power of the Holy Spirit that gives the sermon it's impact. Preaching intends eternal impact for spiritual purposes. Spiritual business cannot be accomplished without the Spirit's power. This kind of power is only accessed through prayer - much fervent prayer . While it is important that the preacher bathe the entire process of preparation in dedicated prayer, it is helpful at this stage in the process to engage in a protracted time of intentional prayer. One is not prepared to preach until one has truly met with God.
Word refers to the practical business of choosing and assembling the language of the sermon. Whether the preacher chooses to sit down at a computer and write the sermon or rather to go on long walks to consider how to say what needs to be said, the preacher needs time for " working it out ". Wrestling with the language of the sermon is an important use of time and energy at this point in the process. The preacher needs to struggle at " locking it in ", striving not so much to memorize the words, but to grow comfortablee with the language, perhaps committing key phrases and transition points to memory. The process of assimilation is an attempt to embed the sermon in the mind and character o the preacher piror to preaching.
To that end, the concept of life is most curical. The preacher ought to look intentinoally towards ways to obey the message of the sermon. Obedience to the claims of the text on the part of the preacher is important to win the approval of the listener. Further the effective preacher will pursue identification with the life and experience of the listener. The congregation needs to sense that the preacher understands their lives and that the sermon is more than theoretical.
Stage Four: Delivery (The Event)
The sermon event is a unique moment in time when people hear from God. Virtually unpublishable, the sermon event is much more than just the worlds that are uttered. It is a dynamic event inw hich people are able to hear from God by means of the preacher. An inviting physical style coupled with conversational passion and a minimum of obstacles (including even pulpits and notes) will enhance the possibility that the listener will be drawn into the presence of the Lord.
One of the mysteries of preaching is that God would use a human instrument at all. Human preachers are tempted to get in the way of the task, fearing men (which leads to debilitation) instead of fearing God (which offers motivation). Yet God, for his own good reasons has chosen to integrate the human with the divine in the process of making his word known. God uses preachers!
A few years ago while attending a conference on preaching in Boston, I returned to my hotel room late in the evening and turned on the television. Much to my delight, they were broadcasting a hockey game between the Boston Bruins and my beloved Vancouver Canucks. I confess, however, I spent most of the time thinking more about preaching than hockey. I noticed as the team was returning to the ice from the dressing room for the second period, a motivational saying that was embedded in the carpet in the hallway out toward the ice. This was the last thing the players saw before stepping out onto the playing surface and it struck me that while it was good advice for hockey players it was even better advice for preachers. It said, "Master technique, but let the Spirit prevail."
We do the best we are capable of to master the various theories and techniques of the homiletical task, but in the end the power belongs to the Spirit of God. We do our part, but if anything of eternal importance and value is going to happen in the sermon event it will be his doing.
Master technique, but let the Spirit prevail!
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