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Basic Sermon Structure (part one)

Three architectural laws nearly every sermon should follow.

There is no single mold into which all sermons should be poured. Good habits of preaching do not develop like a good golf swing, in which the instructor says, " Do it this way every time! " Nevertheless all sermons should follow basic guidelines for the sake of clear and relevant communication.

All sermons should follow basic guidelines for the sake of clear and relevant communication.

I write from the perspective of the " the big idea. " That is, every sermon has one central thesis, homiletical proposition, or " big idea. " This grows out of a long-standing tradition of rhetorical theory and practice as well as a sound hermeneutic that attempts to represent the biblical author's intent for the sermon's passage.

One of the definite advantages of the " big idea " is that the sermon has a single thesis. The sermon moves down one road toward one destination. Thus, listeners need to grasp only one imperative, one principle or one truth, rather than seek to filter out a few helpful ideas amidst disarray. Yet, too often, I listen to sermons designed to have one " big idea " that actually have several " big ideas " or that wander off the main road without returning to the main road. As listeners, we do not hear those sermons as a single thesis. We hear them as " a few comments from the tour guide. " But nobody steps back to say, " So, that's our beautiful Truth National Park. We hope you enjoyed the trees and the peaks and the valleys, but most of all we hope you enjoyed the big picture of the park. "

The guidelines in this series of articles are basic, not designed to give the sermon flash or flare. They purpose to give the message clarity and relevance.

First guideline: Every sermon has three main parts: the introduction, body, and conclusion. These take different shapes, but there is some common ground. As we look at the purposes for each part, we will see why an introduction, body, and conclusion are essential in nearly every sermon.

Sermon Introductions

Sermon introductions aim to:

  1. Capture the attention of the audience almost immediately.
  2. Show the audience why they should listen.
  3. Introduce the narrowed subject (or the entire big idea) and the sermon.
  4. Build rapport with the audience and whet an appetite for God's Word.

In aiming for these purposes, the introduction will develop a need for the message. Hopefully, the introduction will create an appetite for God's Word. As listeners gain a sense of the applicational promise or what's at stake for their lives, they should want to hear from God's Word.

The Sermon's Body

The purpose of the body is to explain and apply the truth of the biblical passage. The body of the message is what some might call the meat or substance of the message. Here is the explanation of the biblical text and its implications for belief and practice.

In terms of the strategic communication of the sermon, the body supplies the answer to the focus question raised in the introduction, the solution to the problem raised in the introduction, or God's perspective on an issue. If the introduction whetted an appetite for God's Word, the body aims to supply the nourishment.

Sermon Conclusions

The purpose of the conclusion is to prepare people to respond to the truth of God's Word.

Though the sermon should not save the application for the conclusion, the conclusion must point the way to a concrete response or application.

Application takes various shapes, depending on the text and the purpose of the sermon. Typically, application comes as change or affirmation of belief, values, attitudes, or behavior. If the entire sermon preaches toward a change in values, don't specify a change in behavior. Sometimes behavioral change follows value change, but the two are not the same. So the conclusion wraps a ribbon around the entire sermon to give it unity and to specify a response.

The late Keith Willhite served as chairman and professor of pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary, and is author of Preaching with Relevance Without Dumbing-Down (Kregel).

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