Discern Module 6: What we Craft. read.watch.reflect.practice

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What we Craft


“The mystery of preaching reflects the mystery of the conception and birth of Jesus, and there is no deeper pattern for the spirituality of the preacher than that of the Virgin Mary, who receives, clothes with her substance and gives forth to the world God’s eternal Word.”


    Preaching, according to Jean-Jacques von Allmen, a Swiss pastor and theologian, is a kind of incarnational miracle. In a sermon, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the indwelt Word takes on human form. Prompted and inspired by Scripture, its substance is provided by the preacher’s questions, reflections, experiences, thoughts, and feelings. It is expressed in the preacher's words and gestures. It is crafted and shaped by the preacher’s aesthetic and theological and pastoral sensibilities. Every sermon is unique to the Word proclaimed, unique to the preacher who speaks it, and unique to the context into which it is given life.


    To craft a sermon, then, is to shape the context in which a particular congregation is invited and encouraged to encounter the same transformative Word that has made its home in the heart of the preaching pastor. It is to give birth to the good news for this people in this place.


Particularity


    The heart in which the Word dwells during the week is filled with many things: from dimly-remembered seminary lectures to the preacher’s favorite movies and last night’s dinner conversation. The scriptural text in view for a sermon may remind the preacher of a novel just read, or an image from a Psalm may recall a piece of artwork hanging in a friend’s living room. It is right and fitting that the preacher brings all this to the process of crafting the sermon.


    In addition, the preacher’s heart -- if it is open and loving -- is home to the needs and concerns, the joys and anxieties, the sorrows and fears, of her congregation. When the text offers consolation or confrontation or a piquant question, the preacher brings these to his own people, and with empathetic imagination, figures an answer. A text asks, “Does God answer prayer?” or “Who do you say that I am?” and the preacher thinks of the family with the wayward child, the returning veteran, the newly married couple -- and on their behalf, tries to hear and speak and enflesh a message for them. The crafting of a sermon begins not just when the preacher hears a Word, but hears a Word for her particular flock. Not just “Be not afraid;” but “Your cancer, Jim, will not have the last word.” Not just “God so loved the world” but “Karen, your divorce doesn’t disqualify you from God’s immeasurable love.”


    The sermon birthed by the preacher has a particularity, then, just as Jesus’ body had a distinct shape, his voice its own timbre and accent.


Perspicacity


    The sermon also has perspicacity, so that people can perceive and receive it; just as Jesus came in human flesh, and spoke comprehensibly in Aramaic, in stories and images and concepts that his largely poor, rural hearers could grasp.


    There is a school of preaching that contends preachers need to be very careful about what they say, but not so much how they say it, or concern themselves with how it will be heard by the congregation. While scripture does indeed argue that God’s Word has its own efficacy (cf. Is. 55:11), this is a thin understanding of the miracle of preaching. It appropriately safeguards the divine dynamic in preaching but sacrifices the human dynamic to do so.


    Consider the teenage daughter speaking with a parent about having been rejected by a boy she likes. What she needs to hear is affirmation that she is loved and deserving of love. One could give it to her in a number of ways, including a list of her top 10 qualities sent to her email, or a heartfelt hug and an assurance that everything is going to be alright. Neither of these is right or wrong. But they communicate the same thing in very different ways. Which will be best received will depend on the daughter’s temperament and mood in the moment, the parent’s ability to write (or hug!), and a host of other factors. The point is simple: the medium is the message. How we speak communicates just as surely as its content.


    The wise pastor, therefore, is mindful first of the divine message to be proclaimed—but also mindful of all the factors that go into the congregation’s ability to hear, and his or her ability to speak. She attends, both individually and in the aggregate, to the comfortable linguistic register of the congregation, their economic and demographic features, their attention span, their political predilections, and much more.


The Gospel Communication Plan


    All of these considerations are brought to bear when the preacher turns from dwelling in the Word to crafting the sermon. The sermon is fundamentally a prepared talk. It is more than that, of course, because of its divine character, and because it is embedded in the covenantal context of a worship service. Yet the aural experience of the preached sermon is not the same thing as the plan the preacher prepares for giving it. In order to preach a sermon well, i.e., to fittingly and faithfully “clothe” the indwelt Word, the pastor will need to have a sort of “roadmap” for the talk, a “Gospel Communication Plan.”  This roadmap is like an itinerary for the journey on which the sermon will take the congregation. What stops will there be along the way? What sights will we all see? How long will we stay in this place before moving on?  Or to put it more directly, what gets said first, and how? What comes next? What illustrative stories or objects are to be used? How will the sermon conclude?


    This plan—the design of the sermon—looks different for every preacher. For some it might be quite detailed, and look like a manuscript: the broad moves blocked out, every sentence crafted, every word carefully chosen. Such a sermon is most often memorized, or read winsomely by the preacher. For others the plan is a set of visually striking notes that help the pastor remember the primary themes and illustrations that will make up the sermon. For still others, the plan is an outline of the sermon’s theological argument. For others, it is a few notes made in the margins of the text of the scripture itself.  For others the plan is as simple as knowing the biblical story at the heart of the sermon deeply and well, and telling it scene by scene, stitching its fabric to the fabric of the congregation’s lives at four or five key points. Whatever the case, the plan for the talk is the sermon’s form.


Structures


    Though we have been highlighting contextual considerations up to this point, the more significant factor in determining sermonic form is the nature of the Gospel message to be proclaimed, the shape of the good news. The preacher dwelling in the Word has heard a message. Maybe it is a word of hope, a word of consolation, or a word of prophetic challenge. Maybe that message can be summarized in a memorable phrase (“It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming!”), or maybe it can be encapsulated in an anecdote (“Two men went to the temple to pray”), or maybe what the Word has given the preacher is a generative image or two or three (Oil of Anointing and Mt. Hermon Dew from Ps. 133). It is wonderful to let the structure of the sermon be governed by this gospel summary, or from the literary genre of the scriptural text through which it was heard.


    A familiar sermonic structure for many preachers is “three points and a poem”: a sermon divided into three sections, followed by a concluding poetic illustration. A sermon on I Kings 19, Elijah and the “still small voice” might thus prompt a sermon with these three points: we hear God speak in times of 1) vulnerability, 2) expectation, and 3) crisis. For many pastors, this was the only pattern they learned, and no matter the context or shape of the gospel message, this was the mold into which the good news was poured. More adventuresome pastors may well want to learn from some of the great preachers and teachers of preaching, who have articulated some alternative and appropriate sermon designs.


    Eugene Lowry, for example, argues that we experience life as a story, with moments of building tension and then surprising solutions that release that tension. In The Homiletical Plot, he suggests, then, that sermons would do well to follow a basic narrative pattern. Barbara Brown Taylor in the Preaching Life ruminates on the power of images and the imagination to carry the freight of the gospel in a sermon. In They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God, Frank Thomas contends that sermons naturally move toward an enthusiastic celebration of God’s goodness and grace, and the structure of the sermon builds to that end-point. The previously quoted Jean-Jacques von Allmen writes that sermons are best when they conclude sacramentally, in a move that will confirm and seal the gospel, in commitment (or recommitment) at the baptismal font, or in communal feasting around the Table. In Jana Childers classic book, Birthing the Sermon, a dozen women speak of the wide variety of ways they have come to craft sermons. And Thomas Long, in Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible makes a strong case that the design of a sermon should take its cues from the literary genre of the indwelt text - that a sermon on an epistle, for example, should be structured differently than a sermon on an Old Testament story.


    To extend this argument a bit, one might say that the best sermons not only take their theological, rhetorical, and literary cues from the text - but they make ample use of the text itself in the crafting of the sermon. If one of the preacher’s goals is to invite the congregation to encounter the living Word, it only makes sense that the actual words of scripture be at the heart of any gospel proclamation.


Holistic Hearing


    People in Reformed and Evangelical traditions place a high value on both the preaching of the Word and also on clear thinking about the things of God. This is very good.  But such communities sometimes run the risk of reducing the good news to a set of theological propositions, reducing salvation to cognitive understanding of these propositions. Preaching then becomes merely “teaching” - i.e., transmitting ideas from one ‘expert’ to a congregation of less knowledgeable people.


    Consider the preacher whose text is John 21, the post-resurrection barbeque on the beach. When dwelling in the text, the preacher discovers that the text uses some different Greek words that are all translated into English, “Love.” The sermon veers toward teaching rather than preaching if this leads to a sermon in which ten minutes are taken up by an exegetical lesson on the difference between the Greek terms “eros,” “philios,” and “agape”, while never posing to the congregation Jesus’ central question, “do you love me?” or presenting to them Jesus’ directive: “feed my sheep.”


    Long ago, recognizing the dangerous difference between speaking about God, and speaking on behalf of God, St. Augustine wrote that a good sermon should “teach, delight, and persuade.” By this he meant that a sermon should communicate the good news of Jesus. And it should do so in a way that touches our emotions, in a way that helps the Holy Spirit to reshape our religious affections in Christlike patterns, and in so doing, energize our wills to follow the way of Jesus. Good sermons instruct, inspire, and motivate.


    The carefully crafted sermon, then, will attend not just to the logical flow of material, but to its emotional flow as well, asking at each point “how is this material inviting my congregation to feel”? Angry? Afraid? Frustrated? Sorrowful? Joyful?  Further, how are they being invited to respond, both now and in the week to come?


Conclusion


    Because every sermon pattern is unique to text, context, and preacher, there is no surefire recipe to turn to when the preacher gets practical and considers how to craft the sermon. But in all cases, the end–the telos–of the sermon is the same: to present an enfleshed gospel message to a congregation eager, along with the disciple Philip, to “see Jesus.”


Ron Rienstra
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship Arts
Western Theological Seminary



Bibliography


Augustine, St. On Christian Teaching (Oxford World's Classics). Oxford: Oxford University, 2008.

Childers, Jana, and editor. Birthing the Sermon: Women Preachers On the Creative Process. St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2001.

Long, Thomas G. Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989.

Lowry, Eugene L. The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form. expanded ed. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2001.

Taylor, Barbara Brown. The Preaching Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 1993.

Thomas, Frank A. They Like to Never Quit Praisin' God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching. rev. and updated. ed. Cleveland: Pilgrim, 2013.

von Allmen, Jean-Jacques. Worship: Its Theory and Practice (tr. Fletcher Fleet). London: Lutterworth, 1965.



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reflect.

Consider the questions below - ponder them in your mind and in your heart. Then write out your answers before meeting with your group.

As you read and watch, how do you...

...find yourself resonating with the ideas offered in the essay?

...find yourself experiencing resistance?


practice.


Consider the text you have internalized over the last few months. What message is starting to appear? How would you begin to see this as a sermon?