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The Theology of Sermon Design

Current homiletic approaches did not materialize in a vacuum. Their ascendancy to popularity did not just happen. Today at least three winds of influence swirl around contemporary homiletic discussion: theology, literary criticism and culture. Pastors who would think deeply about the form of their sermons and who care about faithfulness to the gospel must wrestle with the issues raised by each of these areas of thought.

If we are to understand the roots of sermon design, we must engage sermon form theologically. Form is not just a matter of practice but of theology.

The first question that must be addressed in prelude to any investigation into sermon form is: Does it really matter? In other words, should preachers care about sermon form? Thomas Long notes, “There has always been the nagging suspicion, surfacing from time to time, that it is unbecoming for the preacher . . . to be concerned in a significant way about the sermon’s design.”1

Some would make a case that form should flow so naturally from the content of the gospel that any discussion of design should be unnecessary. After all, they contend, the New Testament preachers and apostles did not concern themselves with questions of inductive or deductive design, introductions or conclusions. Neither should the preacher worry much about the structure of sermons. The preacher should just, well, preach. Like the baseball player who, overly concerned with the technicalities of his swing, becomes an ineffective hitter, the preacher who becomes too concerned with sermon ructure.6 H. Grady Davis comments that the difference between “chaotic thought and ordered thought is not the difference between no form and form; it is the difference between confused form and organized form ...the only question is, what form?”7

Yet it is proper to raise concerns about the current focus on form. Issues of design and structure cannot be allowed to over-shadow the content of the word to be spoken. The goal of the sermon can never be eloquence or aesthetics; the goal must always be to speak the gospel well. Sermonizing may be an art, but it is doubt­ful whether sermons are intended to be works of art.

Perhaps a balance can be found. Sermons must always be designed and thus must be concerned with issues of form. The preacher must always wrestle with questions of structure. And yet such matters must never be allowed to take precedence over the content of the gospel we preach. Indeed, form must always flow from content. Sermon form must be the servant of the text, not its master. It is right, then, once the preacher has done the work of exegesis and study and has a message to speak, to carefully consider the form of the sermon.

THEOLOGY

There remains a deeper concern: the suspi­cion that theological issues are tied up in this business of form. Perhaps form is more than an issue of practice. Maybe sermon design is also a matter of theology. If so, more may be at stake than mere effectiveness in homiletic delivery.

Preaching is a theological task. The preacher has the responsibility of taking God’s truth and proclaiming that truth to the world. Preachers are schooled in theol­ogy and biblical studies. And the best preachers take pride in the time they invest in Bible study and theological thought. They pay attention to the theological nature of the homiletic mandate.

What has often been left out from preaching preparation is any serious theo­logical reflection on the matter of form. Of course we use form, our sermons are struc­tured. It is impossible to preach without form. But we often fail to recognize that there are theological questions related to the forms we choose. The discussion of form is often seen as a matter of pragmat­ics. We use the patterns we were taught in seminary, we take the form our tradition mandates or we employ the style with which we feel most comfortable. The more innovative among us learn to use forms that relate well to modem culture. In essence, we use “what works.” Pragmatism is our master.

What we need, however, is a renewed understanding of sermon form as a matter of theology. Sermonic form has its roots deep in the soil of theological discussion. As thoughtful preachers, we must enter into that dialogue. Theology will affect the forms we use. And the forms we use will influence the theology we communicate. The relationship may at times seem muddy and the issues obscure, but theology is related to sermon structure.

What are the theological issues that intersect with sermon form? Let me call attention to four concerns.

 

 

THEOLOGY OF SCRIPTURE AFFECTS SERMON STRUCTURE

Simply put, the preacher who can confi­dently say, “Thus says the Lord!” will shape his sermons differently than those who are uncertain of the veracity of the Bible. Preachers who hold to the truthfulness of Scripture may use different forms than those who are less sure. Or at the very least, they will use those forms differently. Those who hold to an evangelical view of Scripture (a confidence in the authority and truthfulness of Scripture) will not shy away from proposition or direct address. They may make use of narrative and induc­tion or even occasionally story forms, but always in the service of a biblical idea and biblical content. The sermon will both do something and say something. The sermon will consist of both image and proposition.

Conversely, those who question the truthfulness of Scripture may tend toward forms that are less direct. They may use story, narrative and inductive structures exclusively. Their forms may be vague and open-ended. They will attempt to create an experience of the gospel, perhaps forgetting (or not admitting) that the sermon must also communicate propositional truth.

Some sermon forms may not be con­genial to an evangelical view of Scripture. A sermon that is overly vague and open-ended does not keep good company with an inspired text. Long has suggested that the utterly open-ended sermon may be a betrayal of the gospel itself.8

Our theology of Scripture affects not only sermon content but sermon design, as well. Our view of Scripture does (and certainly should) influence our sermon structure.

ECCLESIOLOGY CAN AFFECT THE FORM OF THE SERMON

It is not just our view of Scripture that is interpreted through sermon form, but our view of the church as well. Ecclesiology is one of the more promising areas of homiletical inquiry that also relates to the form of the sermon. In what way should our understanding of the church as the people of God affect sermon form? How does the rhetorical situation (preaching in the context of the church) influence the design of the sermon?

Let us begin by noting that ecclesiology affects sermon design since we speak in the context of the church. All preaching is done in the context of the church. Although some preaching may occur “outside” of the church, all preaching speaks the church’s stories, uses the church’s language, and is part of the church’s mandate. Acts 2 records that the believers in Jerusalem “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (v. 42). The text continues, describing how they met each other’s needs, ate together and praised God, and ends by adding that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (v. 47).

The church grew through the preaching of the apostles. How did such powerful preaching happen? It happened in the context and in the language of the church of God. According to Richard Lischer, “Preaching is not represented as one person’s persuasive address. It is the cease­less activity of the church.”9 Preaching of necessity reflects the character of the church. The church is always in view even if only in the background.

This issue comes into sharp focus in the debate over “seeker sermons.” The term “seeker” is commonly used to designate those who are open to the Christian faith but who have not yet made a commitment of faith. Preachers who see themselves as speaking primarily to seekers and to those who are new to the faith will form their sermons differently from those who understand themselves as speaking primarily to Christians.

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church, once stated that he uses different styles to preach to seekers than he uses to teach believers. Warren uses different structures in differ­ent situations because of the perceived context. Warren sees his preaching in seeker services as directed primarily to those outside the church. This explains why Warren and most seeker churches primarily make use of topical sermons on Sunday morning. The primary audience is the seeker, and topical sermons are viewed as being more relevant to those outside of the church or to those who are new to the Christian faith. The debate over “seeker” sermons is really a discus­sion of the relationship between the church and sermon form!

Our view of the church and the purpose for which the church gathers will affect how we design our sermons. Is the church primarily a teaching station? If so, we will design didactic teaching sermons. Is the church a place to bring unbelievers for hearing the gospel? Then we will likely create topical sermons using a subject-completed pattern. Is the church gathering primarily intended to reinforce our identity as the people of God? In that case we may make great use of narrative and story. All of this is to say that our view of the particular rhetorical situation and its relationship to the church will affect the forms we use.

These are some of the reasons why it is impossible to leave our view of the church out of the process of sermon design. Our view of the audience to whom we speak and their relationship to the church will help to form our sermons. When the preacher stands to speak, the history, language, heritage and traditions of the church shape the words spoken.

No preacher stands alone. We must always preach in the context of the church. Even the most radical seeker sermon cannot ignore the presence of the church (usually the majority of people in a seeker service are believers). The fact that believ­ers are present is a rhetorical force that cannot be ignored. The sermon is part of an on-going dialogue, and that dialogue will affect the sermon design. The rhetori­cal situation affects not only the content of what we preach but necessarily (given the relationship of substance and form) the structure of what we say. The sermon forms we use reflect, at least in part, our view of the church.

Fred Craddock notes that it is “especially [the preacher’s] doctrine of man” that can affect preaching design.10 We must preach to people, and our understanding of the nature of humanity and of how people hear and respond will necessarily influence the form of our sermons. There is a close connection between homiletical form and anthropology.11

Every form reflects a view of humanity. Propositional forms reflect an emphasis on humanity’s rationality. Narrative and story see the essence of humanity as living in narrative. Inductive preaching understands that people approach life in a certain (inductive) way. These views of humanity are not mutually exclusive. People are rational beings, they do live in narrative and they naturally approach life in an inductive manner. But different forms will tend to emphasize one aspect over another.

Our view of humanity in sin will affect our form. If we understand people to be fallen and in need of salvation and inner transformation, we may choose forms that are more direct or capable of direct address. Some doctrines such as condemnation and “the horror of hell” demand a certain directness to our speech. Of course, even narrative and inductive forms, though more indirect, can be designed using direct address. Consider Nathan’s narrative to David in 2 Samuel 12 and the direct address he employed (“You are the man!”). You cannot get much more direct than that.

If our view of humanity is more optimistic (and unbiblical, i.e., “people are basically good”), we may design sermons more for their aesthetic impact. The sermon form may be more vague, open-ended and inconclusive. Our view of humanity affects our sermon form, and every sermon form reflects an anthropology.

LANGUAGE THEORY CAN AFFECT SERMON FORM

David Buttrick includes a chapter on language in his book Homiletic. He tells us, “The language of preaching is a connotative language used with theological precision.”16 He stresses metaphor, symbol and mystery.

Although it is beyond the scope of this article to decide the foundational issues involved in linguistic studies, it is important for the preacher to recognize the influence that the philosophy of language has on sermon form.

Sermon form, then, is not just a matter of what works. It involves significant theological issues that relate to the forms we use. Bryan Chapell reminds us that “preachers must learn the value of many types of communication, but appropriate usage requires us to understand the underpinnings of each.”17 We may not be able to resolve all the issues, but understanding what the issues are is important. The discerning preacher is aware of these theological concerns as he structures his sermons.

 

 

THEOLOGY OF PREACHING AND SERMON FORM

Another issue that thoughtful preachers must consider is the theology of preaching itself. Closely related to the issue of theology is the question of just what a sermon is to do. There is an interrelationship between theology proper, one’s theology of preaching and sermon form.

The theology of preaching, or what a sermon is to accomplish, affects the forms we choose to use. Purpose in preaching cannot help but be related to the structure of our sermons. When the purpose is informational, certain forms will be used; when the purpose is to create an impression or cause something to happen in the life of the listener, then other forms may be chosen.

In traditional homiletics, the purpose of a sermon was to bring an idea or concept across the homiletical bridge, which connected the text with the listener. Traditional forms served this purpose well. The sermon was intended to convey an idea, which would be written as a proposition. This approach parallels what George Lindbeck has labeled the “cognitive model” of doctrine,18 which stresses the objectivity of doctrinal truth claims.

But more recently the emphasis has been on the sermon as an event or experience. It is more a feeling, an emotion or an event that is to be brought across the bridge. The focus is more on what should happen in the sermon rather than on informational content. This parallels what Lindbeck calls “the experiential-expressive model” of doctrine. This model focuses on “non-informative and non-discursive symbols of inner feelings, attitudes and existential orientations.”19 This view of doctrine is reflected in David Randolph’s definition of preaching as “the event in which the biblical text is interpreted in order that its meaning will come to expression in the concrete situation of the hearers.”20

The sermon, then, is often seen primarily as an event. Many homileticians have rightly noted that a sermon is far more than the transfer of information (e.g., “The Greek word here means . . .”). The sermon is not static but dynamic; something should happen during the preaching time. We are to preach the text, not just about the text. It is in this theological soil that narrative, storytelling and other more innovative forms have taken the deepest root. Sometimes in this approach the fact that the Bible does say quite a bit (i.e., contains propositional truth) is overlooked.

The preacher’s approach to preaching in terms of function is directly related to sermon form. When it was thought that a proposition must be communicated, a rational, discursive form predominated. Didache reigned. But if feelings and attitudes are what need to be communicated, nondirect, inductive preaching may be best.

Those who advocate an experiential expressive approach to preaching will probably gravitate toward a narrative or story form of preaching as the most effective means of communicating on this level. Some have recommended that these forms be used exclusively.

But it is not necessary to choose between cognitive and expressive models for homiletics, because sermons commu­nicate on more than one level. Both ideas and feelings and attitudes can be part of the sermon purpose. Sermons are both conceptual and eventful. As Long points out, “Biblical texts say things that do things, and the sermon is to say and do those things too.”21 A sermon should have both a focus and a function (to use Long’s language) or an idea and a purpose (as Haddon Robinson puts it22).

If we understand sermons as both word and event, then some sermon forms may not be appropriate (at least on a regular basis). Sermon forms that are overly vague, ambiguous and open-ended may be reject­ed as not communicating the idea of the text, while strict arguments or the exclusive use of propositional forms may fail to do justice to what the sermon intends to do.

Yet a variety of sermon forms are possi­ble. At times a narrative sermon will work, at other times a more didactic approach will be best. Our approach to sermon form should be as varied as the Bible’s own approach to genre. The intention of the text and the intention of the sermon will govern the choice of sermon form.

 

 

THE IMPLICATIONS OF THEOLOGY FOR SERMON FORM

What, then, are the implications of theology for the design of Sunday’s sermon? What conclusions do we come to? Though the results are at times obscure, some broad issues emerge.

The concern for form is unavoidable. Sermons must be designed, and preachers must ask questions about the forms their sermons take. Although the content of the sermon must be given priority, the preacher will not be unconcerned with structure. It will not do to say, “This is the form I learned in seminary.” The preacher must ask, “Which form most faithfully communicates the theology of this text?”

Second, form is not theologically neutral. The message is not just what is said but also how it is said. An essential interrelationship exists between content and structure, message and medium. Sermon form is a theological issue.

Some forms may be judged inappropri­ate on theological grounds. Sermon forms that are overly ambiguous and open— ended may not be compatible with the belief that God has spoken to us with clarity And a consistent diet of purely discursive sermons may not do justice to the intent of the Scripture.  

 

 

_________________
Dennis M. Cahill is Senior Pastor of Christ Community Church in Piscatawy, N.J.|

From The Shape of Preaching by Dennis M. Cahill. Copyright © 2007 by Dennis M. Cahill. Baker Books.

 

 

Foornotes:
1
Long, “Form,” 144.

 

 

2Karl Barth, Homiletics, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Donald E. Daniels (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991), 121.

 

 

3Long, “Form,” 145.

 

 

4Richard Lischer, “Preaching as the Church’s Language” in Listening to the Word, ed. Gail R. O’Day and Thomas G. Long (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 122.

 

 

5Long, “Form” 145.

 

 

6Ibid.

 

 

7Davis, Design for Preaching, 3.

 

 

8Thomas G. Long, interview by author, August 6, 1996, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey.

 

 

9Lischer, “Preaching as the Church’s Language,”128.

 

 

10Craddock, As One without Authority, 3.

 

 

11Lischer, “Preaching and the Rhetoric of Promise,” 69.

 

 

12McClure, “Theories of Language,” 292.

 

 

13Ibid., 293.

 

 

14Ibid.

 

 

15Ibid., 294.

 

 

16Buttrick, Homiletic, 184.

 

 

17Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 136.

 

 

18George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), 16.

 

 

19Ibid.

 

 

20David James Randolph, The Renewal of Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), 1 (emphasis added).

 

 

21Long, The Witness of Preaching, 84.

 

 

22Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 107.