Chapter 85

Say and Do

How to choose a sermon Style that helps hearers experience the truth

Not all sermons have the same form. There have been great preachers whose sermons usually looked the same. The content and mood varied, but the structure looked exactly the same. Frederick W. Robertson of Brighton, for instance, in my mind the greatest preacher in the English language—his sermons just about always had two points; the structure was the same. But most of us shouldn't try to ride the same horse in every race.

What is it I am seeking to do?

If I am teaching, the form will be a didactic one that calls for preview, clear statements, summary, maybe a list. Sometimes in a sermon you're just teaching, but in other sermons you're trying to create another experience. Some sermons are to encourage, to challenge, to inspire, to persuade, to correct, to clear up. What is it you're trying to do?

Is the form congenial to the text?

I had a sermon from a student who was using an either-or text: "Choose you this day whom you will serve." The text should have provided the structure for the sermon—either-or—but the student had three points. It was not congenial to the text. It was not congenial to the intention of the sermon.

If one is going to create or recreate the experience of the text, the text provides the form because when we're preaching we're not just saying something, we're doing something. Suppose your subject is freedom. We don't just go to the dictionary and get definitions of freedom. We want to preach a sermon that provides the experience of the things we're talking about. Good sermons do what they're talking about and talk about what they're doing.

One goes to forms in the text itself first. Even though some texts are difficult to follow as a form for proclamation, that is always the place to begin. If I don't follow the form of the text in the form of the sermon, I certainly want to choose a form that's congenial to the message and experience of the text.

It's true of any text. Some are more difficult than others, especially Proverbs because they have such closure. When it's so final, it's hard to get anything going. A Proverb is a conclusion, which is a tough place to start a sermon, though many sermons do. You can tell when an introduction was the first thing written in the sermon because just about everything is in the introduction. The rest of the message is a trickle.

The sermon form should be congenial to the text, to the message of the sermon, and to the experience to be created.

Narrative sermon forms

To have a narrative sermon form does not mean that the sermon has to be a story, like the story of David. It does not mean one has to tell stories. Not everybody can tell a story well, though most of us can tell them "well-er" than we do. A narrative sermon is simply one that moves with the proper amount of anticipation. The message can have a structured outline—1, 2, 3—and still qualify as narrative because the movement sustains interest to the end.

It doesn't have to be full of illustrations or stories to be narrative in its dynamic. It simply has that important ingredient of anticipation built into the structure itself.

Separating interpretation and form

The key to having an effective sermon form is to get what you want to say before you start working it into a sermon. In other words, let the study to get a message and the preparation of the form of the material be separate stages. This releases my imagination to ask, How can I get this across? The sermon is then free to take a variety of forms. I don't always have the same structure, the same old outline form that results from boiling a text down to its essential point and then outlining that point. That's not always congenial for people's experience of Scripture.

I want to be free with reference to form. How in the world will I say this?