Module 8: When we Craft. read. watch. reflect. practice

read.

 In this module, Rev. Dr. Trygve Johnson writes about the intersection of preaching and form. He takes on the craft of sermons, drawing from Genesis 2 and riffing on the word "Form" as an alternative to "Craft." We hope you enjoy the additional layer and depth his essay brings to the conversation.


And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.  Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Genesis 2:8-9

 

I.  Form & Function 

    Form matters.  It matters because what we form often forms us.  One can intuit the quality and care of a space because of how an architect forms

    When God planted the garden of Eden and put the first of us in it to tend it, God also caused to grow out of the ground trees. In fact these first trees are described as “pleasant to the eyes and useful for food.”  This is interesting detail.  And one that I want to commend to every preacher who is charged to give form, design, and craft to a sermon. 

     The tree was “pleasant to the eye.”   Meaning, the trees God planted were a delight to look upon.  Each tree, unique and individual, had a sense of form that possessed an inherent aesthetic integrity.  This integrity gave shape to its existence order, unity, and proportion that was pleasing to look at.  Isn’t it interesting that when God creates he creates things with a form that is beautiful?  Yet at the same time, the tree was “useful for food.”  The tree had a practical purpose.  It yielded food for hungry people.  The trees aesthetic integrity did not sacrifice its practical application.   On the contrary, its function was an outgrowth of its form.  It is the form of the tree that allows its function to flourish fruit in season.  For without form, there would be no way to direct the production of the trees energy that sustains and nurtures life for others.  The tree was “pleasant to the eye and useful for food.” The form and the function of the tree worked together to satisfy our need for beauty and our need for nourishment.

    When a preacher forms a sermon, it should have a similar quality.  Trees require shape, as a sermon demands a form or design.  A sermon should be pleasant to the ear.  Meaning when we preach we should pay critical attention to the structure, to the proportion, the measure and balance of our words.  We to often are so preoccupied with the function of a sermon – with what we want to say and to what effect we want the sermon to do on the hearer – that we to often neglect the basic truth that a sermon’s form is often the means by which the desired effect is achieved.  For a sermons sense of force and clarity that is grounded in wisdom, requires an expression, an eloquence of form that is worthy of the truth it seeks to proclaim. 

II.  The Preacher as Architect

    How is this kind of form and function to be accomplished in a sermon?  Maybe one way to think of the work of crafting a sermon is thinking of the work of sermon design as that of an architect giving shape to a building.  Let’s think of a preacher forming a sermon the way an architect might go about drafting a plan for a Cathedral.  At the most basic level, like an architect, a preacher requires a working vision.  This vision has to be articulated into a working plan, where all the pieces are required to work together for the overall objective of a space.  The preacher whose vision neglects a plan of arrangement will lose, instead of improve, the power of organizing a constructive vision that inspires the faith for God’s people.   Without such a vision, the will often people perish. 

    A vision that is can breakdown into a workable plan is going to require the preacher to make decisions.  This requires more than just instinct.  It requires a sense of skilled discernment about how to hold all the various parts of a sermon together.  Some important things to think about when deciding on the form of a sermon are unityorderproportion, and progress.  First, the Unity of a sermon’s idea gives a sermon a sense of oneness.  The sermon presents one subject, a major idea.  A work of art may express a variety of ideas, but art that endures understand that its work cannot remain a work of art unless its variety is held together by the unity of a single idea.  This is also true of the sermon.  Unity of an idea is critical.  Second, the order of a sermon is concerns the various parts in relation to the whole and to each other.  A building may have lots of rooms, but each room is ordered together to make the whole building functional.  This instinct is also is true when forming a  sermon.  Lots of parts of a sermon need to be ordered together to serve the overall purpose of the building.  Good form, or arrangement, also requires a prudent sense ofproportion.  The several parts of the order need to be in relation and symmetrical to the whole design.  They are not to be discussed at the same length, but at a length proportioned to their relations to each other and to the entire sermon.  Proportion is why the writing out of a sermon is important.  Writing disciplines the preacher to see how each part that is ordered together is in proportion to one-an other.  Finally, arrangement is what gives a sermon the energy that directs its progress.   Good form allows the forward movement of the sermon to culminate toward its climatic telos – or end.  This end is to be determined by the objective of the sermon.   A gospel sermon has one end – to point like John the Baptist to the content and significance of God’s self-revelation in the world – the Son of God – Jesus Christ.

III.  Counter-Cultural Lives

    The call of the preacher is to learn how to use language and to put it into a form in which it gives a hearer a vision of the truth of Jesus Christ that is both pleasant to the ear and good for the soul.   To achieve this, the form and the function of the sermon need to work together.  This is not easy to achieve.  It requires a counter-cultural discipline.  As John Broadus, a celebrated preacher at the turn of the 20thcentury wrote to encourage preachers of his day:

In America a growing number of writers and speakers, both secular and religious, can be held up as models.  But a negligence and looseness of style is observable in many otherwise capable ministers.  And the great American fault in speaking and writing is excessive vehemence, a constant effort to be impressive.  Such style, as well as its delivery, too often lacks the calmness of conscious strength, the repose of sincerity, the quiet earnestness which only and then becomes impassioned.”[1]

    Even over a hundred years ago, Broadus observed that ours is a culture that favors the shrill sound-bite, over disciplined discourse.  We often confuse spontaneity with authenticity.  Such an instinct is dangerous for the Christian preacher.  It can nurture a kind of passion that lacks discipline.  We want our preachers to be authentic and full of passion.  Yet, the wise preacher, will discipline a faithful passion into a form whose energy is directed intentionally towards its proper end.  The end of our sermon, the Word Jesus Christ, requires a calm and disciplined use of words.   The preacher who learns to discipline passion into a form will be a preacher whose sermon will endure as a counter-cultural expression.

Conclusion

    Crafting a sermon is a counter-cultural spiritual discipline.  It takes patience, skill, wisdom, and hard work.   It means a preacher spends intentional time editing, molding, shaping a sermon’s language from beginning to end.  The work of forming a sermon is a discipline that is important because it also reminds us of a great Christian truth.   Crafting a sermon is always a reminder that our lives – our everyday day, ordinary take-out the trash, pay the bills, going to work lives – also require the patient and hard work of intentional formation.   We learn in forming a sermon, that the form often forms us.  This is why we indwell the Word we seek to form.  We indwell the word, so that its wisdom might form our affections, our reason, our imagination, the elemental desires of our being.  We form our sermon not so that we know more, but so that we might become more. Our lives require a formation that directs us toward our proper end – a life in union with Jesus.  It is such a life that has the hope of becoming its own lived sermon. 

    The result will be constructing lives that are beautiful.  Like a true the will be rooted in good soil, even as they spiral upwards toward the Light form true light.  Such preaching will encourage our lives to have a form that is both pleasant to experience, as well as providing good food for the soul.  


Rev. Dr. Trygve Johnson

Dean of the Chapel

Hope College 



[1] John Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 203




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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?