Vague Outlines: The form of preaching
In seminary I was taught there was one way to preach. Big idea preaching made sense to me–it focused on unpacking one big idea (thus the name) so that people had something they could walk away with. It also provided a formula, so all you had to do each week was plug in the components and go–kind of like homiletic algebra. It’s been about seven years since my last preaching class, and while I still naturally veer toward something akin to big idea preaching, I’ve also found great benefit in varying both my preparation and my approach to sermons. This is an area where the work of Fred Craddock has been very helpful to me.
In his book, Craddock on the Craft of Preaching, he says, “One should not preach any one particular way all the time because you can’t win all the races with the same horse.” He goes on to explore this premise with much greater depth of thought as to why different forms are important. He encourages, “in thinking of the structure of a sermon, it is very important to think of the shape of the gospel.” Not only the big gospel, but the good news that is present in whatever passage we are preaching. One of my issues with using big idea preaching all the time is that sometimes there just isn’t one big idea. By limiting our explanation of the Scripture we may limit what the Spirit is able to say to the minds and hearts of the listeners. Increasingly I try to be faithful to the form and purpose of an entire passage when I preach–sometimes this leads to one big idea and other times it leads away from that.
I don’t claim to be a preaching expert, but here are a few approaches that have worked well for me. I’d love to hear what works for you.
Reaching the Destination
Sometimes in studying a passage the ending of the sermon seems clear almost immediately. When this is the case I write that part of the sermon first (well, I outline it, I don’t manuscript sermons) and then work backwards, unpacking how to best help people arrive at the destination. I used to do this with mazes. Instead of beginning at the beginning, I started at the end and worked backwards. Then, when I got stuck I’d go to the beginning because I had a clearer picture of how to get to the end. I’ve found when the destination is the most clear part of the sermon it works in a similar way.
Two (or more) in One
There are some passages that lend themselves to multiple points that aren’t directly related. There are a few options when this happens. One is to pick one of the points and ignore the others. A second is to preach multiple weeks on the same passage. A third approach, and one I’ve used a few times now, is just to talk about everything that’s there without trying to weave it together with a concocted theme 0r by using three words that start with “p”. When I do this I’m up front with people and tell them that the passage has led me to share a few things that aren’t directly related–other than the fact that they’re found in the same passage. The response has been positive when I’ve done this and it’s interesting because talking to people it’s as though they heard entirely different sermons.
One of the things Craddock spends time on is honoring the form of the Scripture being used. “Biblical preaching asks not only what the text says but how it says it.” This is something I’ve tried with narrative passages. I have enjoyed it, but it does take a lot of work. It’s not a formula you can plug things into quickly. It is very different from most other forms of preaching because the sermon takes the form of a story more than a lecture. This doesn’t mean you need to write a novel and share it as a sermon–it could be multiple stories strung together or parables or even a more direct sermon with a well thought out subtext. I like this because it is challenging. You have to think very carefully about how it all fits together and what is really being communicated.