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Designing the Sermon
Order and Movement in Preaching
By James Earl Massey, William D. Thompson
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1980 Abingdon
All rights reserved.
THE SERMON IN CONTEXT
"The real preacher," Walter Russell Bowie remarked, "is more than a maker of sermons. He is a medium of contact between God and the minds and hearts of men." Bowie was placing both preacher and sermon in context, calling attention to what makes the preacher strategic and what makes the sermon important. At the heart of the preacher's work must be a clear understanding that sermons are part of a larger statement and that those who design and deliver them must partake of a larger Life.
PREACHING AND REALITY
Bowie's words place an accent on "the real preacher" as one who draws vitality from God and shares it with others by what is preached. Real preaching will therefore have a definite ring to it and a distinct power in it. Real preaching will not allow for sermons that are abstract, arrogantly eloquent, or terrifyingly out of touch with life and God.
Real preaching is rooted in God's concern for persons. The basic message of Scripture is about a real God who seeks our good. Jesus had a lot to say about God's concern, his nearness, and his deeds. Jesus did not speak of God as an ideal or as a regulating idea but as Father, concerned about the human family and active in our world.
W. R. Inge once explained that "God is a fact, not an ideal." Preaching lives in the light of God as the first of all facts, and it heralds the truth that God is and that "he rewards those who seek him" (Heb. 11:6b). These are root matters by which real preaching lives. By such preaching, hearers are helped in gaining a proper worldview and selfview. By such preaching, hearers are affirmed, undergirded for life—whatever its paradoxes, tragedies, distresses, distortions.
Real preaching is an agency of the grace of God. The sermon therefore deals with what does not originate with us; it discloses and describes and invites, offering something more to hearers than a mere theological statement. Drawing from the larger statement about God's concern and grace, the sermon is designed and preached to "open men upwards," so that the reality of God's graciousness will affect all who hear, and at those levels where real needs are most acutely known.
It must be said, and with emphasis: real preaching is not merely concerned with the nature of religious experience; it helps the hearer to experience grace, that divine help which deals with human sin and crippling experiences. As Helmut Thielicke has rightly explained, real preaching involves helping hearers "meet the decisive, active Word," that "strikes us as an effectual Word ... [which] breaks off the old existence and starts a new one, bringing sins to light and forgiving them, changing God's rejection into an acceptance which gives me a new future and makes me a new creature in the miracle of the Spirit."
It is not incidental that there are so many narratives about sin in our Bible. Nor is it accidental. Sin has been, and continues to be, the human reality. But where sin abounded, grace abounds all the more (Rom. 5:20).
Real preaching will highlight what Scripture gladly reports: that there is mercy to match any misery, and grace to handle any guilt. None who study the Bible aright can miss the clear notice there of the "sin-grace dialectic." Interestingly, our knowledge of sin deepens as we learn more about grace, but that same message opens to us the way out of guilt and shame. Real preaching will always bear this double character and wield this double power, all of which is of "a radical consequence for the structure of preaching." We see ourselves truly only when under the light of grace. And it is by that light that our change can come and our needed help be received.
Real preaching therefore takes seriously the moral and spiritual climate of the times. It does not assume that proclaiming biblical statements is adequate, neglecting to probe and address those prevailing assumptions and beliefs which have determined the major problems of our times. The real preacher will seek to know just what dominates the thought life of those who hear the sermons, and will want to understand the loyalties to which the energies and time of the people are being given.
Our generation stands lost in a wilderness of secularity, relativism, proneness to question, and the loss of any felt need to be accountable. The judgment of sinful, selfish living weighs heavily upon life in our time, and the evidences of a diseased human condition continue to suggest the need for help from beyond ourselves.
Preaching both points to that help and brings it within reach. The sermon shines best when the skies are dark and wrong choices burden people with a heavy awareness of failure and loss. So we design our sermons and preach them—not to preserve a world or to protect it, but to create a new order through announcing hope for change and bidding all to accept and act upon that hope and need.
It is in this light that such texts as Romans 10:14-15 and I Corinthians 1:21 must be viewed. These verses make it abundantly clear that God's will and way stand so stoutly revealed through preaching that something would be missed in the world if preaching had not called attention to it. That something is divine grace, grace offered by the One who makes preaching breathe his concern and evidence his presence.
Preaching must be real to be vital. It must deal with real people with real needs, offering needed help from a real God. It must proceed according to realistic goals: informing, persuading, encouraging, reminding, sustaining, and giving as it moves toward those goals.
PREACHING GOALS AND SERMON DESIGN
The ultimate goal in preaching is to connect the hearer with the grace of God, and nurture that hearer in the life that grace makes possible when it is accepted and regarded in full. Nothing less than this basic objective is worthy of any pulpit, and nothing other than this concern can rightly qualify as Christian preaching. Christian preaching is always rooted in the purpose Jesus announced for his coming: "I come that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). A preaching ministry maintains focus and balance when that purpose of Christ is kept central in all sermon planning.
But there are immediate goals for specific sermons, and these determine the focus and design of individual sermons at a given time. A sermon can be preached to offer a solution to a problem, or to instruct in an essential doctrine, or to prescribe a cure for some spiritual or social ill; it can be planned to support a cause, or to sustain hearers and keep them "on their feet" while living under pressure. In each instance of focus the preacher should be concerned with being understood, effective, and successful in securing the intended response from those who hear the sermon. The particular purpose of each sermon should be reflected in a design planned with that response in view.
Those who preach must develop a basic orientation to the need for sermon design. This will keep the preacher process-oriented as the pulpit work is projected and planned. Any sermon worth hearing will grow out of a heart and head whose feeling and thought have been projected toward some clear end to which the speaking will move.
Biologist C. M. Child once wrote: "Structure and function are mutually related. Function produces structure and structure modifies and determines the character of function." All of which is to say that design is related to what one intends to do.
Speaking about what one intends to do by preaching, there is that useful story W. E. Sangster delighted in telling about a certain seminary student and his defective sermon. The student had preached in class before his fellow students and the professor. It was something of an omen if the student was afterward asked by the professor to come to the office and bring the manuscript of the sermon along for discussion. That student was so asked, and he went in to see the professor. He placed his sermon manuscript down on the teacher's desk and sat down beside the desk in silent horror. The professor sat in silence too, studying the sermon sheets. Finally the student broke the silence, pleading anxiously, "It will do, Sir, won't it? It will do?" To which the professor displeasingly replied, "Do what?"
It was with the need to keep the sermon focused on a goal that Sangster reminded us, "Preaching is meant to do things." There are specific responses we seek in preaching, and if we are to achieve a determined end, we must design the sermon with that response or end in view. The design is to structure the sermon message, yes, but more centrally to relate that message to the hearer's life, touching intellect and emotions both, prodding thought and feeling and essential action. A timely, properly planned sermon can help effect this end.
"Design" can be a noun, indicating a product or a form. It can be a verb, indicating a process or function. But whether it is seen as product or process, behind the one or the other stands the designer, someone working with an end in view and a plan by which to reach it. The preacher must be a designer to achieve the goals of the gospel and handle the preaching task with some growing competence.
This means that the sermon design should have a clear aim and logical structure. The sermon idea or theme should be outlined in a reasonable sequence, the materials so organized and arranged that a buildup is achieved in the hearer's understanding and feelings, so that a climax of impression results and the time of hearing will lead to definite action in faith and life. The sermon design is therefore ordered for the sake of an experience; it is planned to make the hearing a "happening." The design should have focus, balance, logical sequence, emphasis, supportive detail, strategic illustrative support, and calculated impact through a climax of impression.
An effective design will have a point to make, an idea to express, a scene to share, a cause to promote, a doctrine to set forth and apply, an action to inspire, a feeling to arouse, a direction to point out, a divine promise to share, a caution to give, a person to claim. Design is vital in sermon planning and delivery.
AN OVERVIEW OF BASIC SERMON FORMS
The situational nature of the sermon has always allowed the widest latitude for handling its structure, arrangement, and design. Although the most appropriate design begins with the preacher asking the question of what the sermon should be planned to achieve, the final details of that planning can be as individual as the occasion for the sermon and the preacher who must address the persons involved as hearers in it. Having admitted this, it is nevertheless necessary to say that in the long history of Christian preaching certain basic forms of sermonizing have been isolated and regarded as modular.
1. The most popular and traditional sermon form is the topical (or subject). This design highlights the truth or importance of a topic or theme, letting the logical points or facets of that topic control the sequence of treatment and timing of the application. The topic can be chosen from any one of a number of sources, but it is usually backed or supported by a related scriptural text. The topic might be a phrase ("The Prodigal Son"), or a sentence ("The Sacred and the Secular Are Inseparable,"), a question ("And How Does It All End?"), or even just one word ("Easter"), but in each instance the subject or topic provides the source of focus and control. The treatment derives from the logical order suggested by the topic the preacher chose.
The topical or subject sermon continues to maintain its popularity because of the obvious benefits this design allows. It is not incidental that "in the history of preaching, topical sermons have outnumbered all the rest." Together with an obviously wider range of variety of topics to choose and use, this design also allows for the most innovation on the preacher's part: the number of "points" in the structure is not necessarily restricted or predetermined; one can be doctrinal, devotional, evangelistic, meditational, and so on; the preacher's own personal bent can find freedom; and the ability to achieve and maintain unity is helped by a determining topic. These are some of the main reasons for the popularity of the topical or subject sermon form.
2. The second-most-used sermon form is the textual, a form of design determined mainly by the divisions or sequences of thought in a single text or short passage from Scripture. Although it is possible to treat a text topically, creating a blend traditionally labeled textual-topical, the scales are usually tipped to the textual side or to the topical thrust. In most cases where a blend is sought, both the text and the topic are reflected in the sermon structure and sequence of arrangement.
An excellent example of a purely textual sermon is Karl Barth's "Look Up to Him!" based on Psalm 34:5. This sermon, delivered to prisoners on or near Ascension Day, took its outline and progression and subject from the text itself, with two main points:
I. Look up to Him—Jesus Christ, our Savior
II. The results of looking:
a) momentous change in us through Christ
b) the release from shame and fear before God
The design is simple and straightforward. "Homiletical fundamentalist" as he was, Barth combined application with the making of his statement; the biblical word was itself seen as the relevant issue, so that additional interest-gathering factors were not sought nor applied. "He believed that when God's revelation is proclaimed to men it gathers its own interest and makes its own applications, and no further illustration or application is needed or proper in Christian preaching."
Referring again to the research volume of contemporary models, "The Doctrine of the Trinity" by Donald M. Baillie is a clear and forceful example of a textual-topical sermon. The sermon form and focus are influenced by both the text (Matt. 28:19—"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost") and the topic.
3. A third sermon form is the expositional, the design of which is determined basically by an extended passage of Scripture. In true exposition the thought and treatment are controlled by the textual passage. "God's Inescapable Nearness" by Eduard Schweizer is basically expositional in form. Based on Philippians 4:4-8, most of the biblical base is covered in the treatment the preacher has given.
Most teachers of homiletics agree that an expository sermon has predetermined matter to be presented, namely a biblical text or passage or book, but not all agree on the variety possible in the manner of treatment. The exposition should be influenced by the nature of genre of the passage to be treated, and when one observes this rule, then the manner of treatment will necessarily vary from sermon to sermon. A passage from Romans, for example, might be explanatory—chapter 6 is a primary instance—so the treatment should conform to the style, tone, and thrust of the teaching presented there. A passage can be argumentative, as I Corinthians 15, so the exposition should deal with the point the Apostle Paul wrote to settle a controversy. A biblical passage might be a narrative, or a dialogue, in which instance the manner of treatment might well take a different turn from the direction other writing forms dictate. In any case, the expositional sermon will center attention upon some one emphasis in a text or passage, purposefully treating a teaching, an insight, a promise, a hope, a warning, a character, an experience, a meaning, a prophecy, a virtue, a key word, and so on. But whatever the length of the passage, and whatever the style of the source, the expositional manner can have variety and value when it remains focused, interesting, and life-oriented. The best exposition draws attention to the light that is in the Word of God, while at the same time calling attention to the human situation and promise of hope because of that light. When this balance is maintained, the exposition will always serve human experience, meeting human needs rather than merely centering on a passage. Like all good preaching, exposition must be designed and delivered to make hearers understand, feel, and act.
The three basic classifications of sermon forms discussed above are traditional in the history of homiletics. There are other ways to classify sermon types. W. E. Sangster, in his Craft of Sermon Construction, has treated sermons along three lines of difference: their subject matter (content), their structural type (arrangement or design), and their psychological method (how the preacher seeks to "put it over"). However classified, sermonic elements do tend to overlap, making for mixed types more often than not. "The ideal sermon will be as biblical in content and as functional in meeting a definite need as possible."
Excerpted from Designing the Sermon by James Earl Massey, William D. Thompson. Copyright © 1980 Abingdon. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I. THE SERMON IN CONTEXT,
II. DESIGNING THE NARRATIVE/STORY SERMON,
III. DESIGNING THE TEXTUAL/EXPOSITORY SERMON,
IV. DESIGNING THE DOCTRINAL/TOPICAL SERMON,
V. DESIGNING THE FUNERAL SERMON,
VI. STUDYING THE METHODS OF MASTER PREACHERS,
VII. THREE ILLUSTRATED DESIGNS,
FOR FURTHER READING,