In the African American Preaching Tradition the ability to “tell the story” is highly prized. It is also helpful when preaching to any ethnic group. There is something about stories that captures the imagination of the hearer in ways that no other method can. Stories grab the people and place them in the Bible story as they recognize parts of the story playing out in their own lives. Stories are powerful. However, how do we make the points of our sermon while keeping the integrity of the Bible story that we are preaching?
I was critiquing a sermon for a client the other day who demonstrated a very common and real problem in his sermon construction. The preacher told me that he just couldn’t get his mind around how to tighten the sermon up. He had worked on the sermon for a while and was not moving it forward to completion.
One of the first things I recognized while reading his sermon is that the introduction was far removed from the sermon itself. The introduction spoke about four characteristics of X (topic hidden to protect the client’s unpreached sermon). This seemed to be a natural outline to follow. However, then the sermon veered into parts that had limited relevance to the topic. Then the preacher brought in the cross before coming back to another characteristic of the topic X that he had not even spoken of before. Certainly inductive sermons are ordered differently than deductive sermons, but this sermon felt like a deductive sermon.
So this sermon introduced a number of characteristics in the introduction. Then it started to veer into unrelated topics. We have spoken at length about that problem and will not address it here, but remember to ruthlessly cut out irrelevant points. After that he had another major point related to the points introduced in the subject. No wonder it was hard to bring that sermon together.
I suggested that the preacher cut out the irrelevant points and use his own sermon outline that his introduction implied. This gives an important thought. If you are having problems with your sermon, ask yourself, what what is God trying to say through me in this sermon? Your main points will fall out of that. Then follow that outline.
I wanted to talk a little bit more about a thought described earlier. One of the biggest ways we preach more than one sermon is to attempt to bring a great point into our sermon that is not related to our main point. There are a few fundamental questions that you must ask of your sermon. You must ask if your main point is true, important, and needed by your particular congregation. If that is the case, then your point should help you decide what parts of the scripture to illuminate and which parts you must set aside for another occasion.
I was speaking to a preacher who had two or three powerful points derived from the text that he was trying to shoehorn into his sermon. But every attempt to put these points into the sermon took away from the larger point of the sermon. In those cases, we either must change our sermon’s point to this new emerging point, or set aside these true, valid, and even powerful points.
My point is that all of our points must be true, but truth is not enough. It must be both relevant and related to the point of your sermon. If you give three unrelated points to your people, some may remember one, most will remember none as they try to piece these “multiple sermons” into a whole when there is no whole.
So preachers, this means that some of your good material will have to wait until later. It mans that some of your shouting material won’t fit. It means that preaching one solid sermon elucidating one solid point that the people can take with them in their daily lives and that will foster change and transformation to ultimately make us better citizens of the in-breaking Kingdom of God takes precedence over other things.
In short, find your point. Make sure everything illuminates that point. And then preach that point. Use that great piece of exegesis when it is relevant to your main sermonic point.
Preachers who preach from a full manuscript have no choice but to answer yes to the question. However what about those of us who preach from an outline or from even fewer notes? Must we prepare a full manuscript? This is a good question. I think that the benefits of preparing a full manuscript whether you use it or not far outweigh the liabilities. I want to describe a few of the benefits.
You Spend More Time on Rhetoric
When you prepare a manuscript, you have a tendency to spend more time thinking about the “words” that will be used in the sermon. When I preach from a sparse outline, I often spend less time thinking about the words I will use. I think about the concepts that I will attempt to convey. Now some would argue that this is the point. When we spend less time brooding on the words that will be used, we have a tendency to exhibit more passion in the sermon. However, rhetoric is important and I think that the preacher should spend some time thinking about what words are best to convey the concepts of the sermon.
You Spend More Time on the Theology
Theoretically, if you are not preparing the manuscript, you can spend more time thinking about your theology and perhaps the theology in the sermon. However, what often happens is that certain areas of “conventional wisdom” can more easily seep into our sermon when we don’t truly think through the implications of our theology for our sermon. When you prepare a manuscript you are sitting there looking at your theology in the sermon and thus it requires you to more fully engage it. This is important for we don’t want to say anything about God or truth that is not true.
You Have some Exposure to the Whole Sermon
Instead of only focusing on certain aspects of the sermon, you must be exposed to the whole thing when you prepare a full manuscript. There are times I will simply write down something like “Going to Sunnydale Story” in my notes for preaching. Because I know the story so well, I can simply write that down and save time. However, when you do that, you spend less time thinking about how the story fits into your sermon. You spend less time thinking about what aspects of the story to emphasize and what parts to leave out. Solid preaching requires adequate thought about every portion of the sermon.
Provides Something Substantial for Your Archives
This is a biggie. When you want to know what you preached last year, do you go to a piece of paper with three lines scribbled on it, or a full manuscript? A full manuscript allows you to really look at your text choices. You can look at what stories are commonly used in your sermons. You can analyze your sermons in a much deeper way. Finally, one can easily take each sermon and turn them into a chapter for a future book.
It Tends to Lengthen Preparation Time
Yes this is one of its liabilities, but it is really a great benefit. I have gone back and forth on this, but let us assume that you are preaching to 100 people for 30 minutes. That is 50 hours of all of your congregante’s time. Are you spending enough time on your preparation? Are those 50 hours being wasted in your church? Preparing a manuscript will help to push you towards answering this question in the negative. Preparing a manuscript takes time, but the benefits are too great to ignore.
When people ask me about preaching without notes, many assume that you must write out the whole sermon and then memorize the sermon. These preachers are looking for a method that will help them memorize such a large amount of material. However, preachers should recognize that many, if not most, preachers who preach without notes actually memorize something that looks like an outline rather than memorizing a large amount of material.
The key to keep in mind is that these preachers are largely memorizing “what” they will say rather than “how” they will say what they will say. By that I mean they have a number of concepts in mind that they have memorized. They then articulate those concepts in the sermon. The key is that the words of the sermon are not memorized ahead of time, only the concepts of the sermon.
Now the “outline” that is memorized can be in a number of forms. The first of these is your common “deductive” approach. Here you take the main sermon concept and break it down into pieces. Each piece is a part of your sermon. If those pieces are big, then you must break those down into pieces. This approach is taught in the very helpful book by Charles Koller entitled How to Preach Without Notes. I think this is a very effective method, but I would be careful not to make your outline too complex. The three points and a poem outline form probably belongs here. Many people who preach such sermons have simple points that are easily remembered.
Another way to “outline” the sermon is a inductive method. Here you are not attempting to start with the main point of the sermon and break it down, but you are attempting to slowly build up to the main point of the sermon. OFten this is done with a number of pieces and/or images that slowly reveal the main truth in the sermon. Joseph Webb’s book entitled Preaching Without Notes is a very helpful book that seeks to teach this method. Another way to outline a sermon like this is the “sequence of images” approach that Hugh Litchfield presents in his work Visualizing the Sermon: A Guide to Preaching Without Notes. The key behind this type of outline is that it is usually simply a series of images or stories that the preacher presents while slowly revealing the reason behind the sermon.
Bible Story Outline
Finally, you can think of the sermon as the representation of a Biblical story. Here you simply tell the story of the sermon and intersperse comments in the story. The key is to attempt to eliminate the difference in time between the past and the present. We help to bring the people into Biblical world.
The key to effective preaching without notes is not to have an extremely good memory that can help you to memorize a 45 minute sermon word for word, but to memorize an effective outline and then learn how to enlarge the points without notes by reliance on your preparation and the Holy Spirit.
I feel like starting with the quote from Mark Twain who said: “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” There are many who think that the three points and a poem deserve to fall off the landscape of possible sermonic choices. They see it as an artifact of a bygone era that much like the horse and buggy needs to be set aside for more “effective” modes of presentation.
Some preachers would promote the dialectic method. Others would promote a narrative form. Still others think that we should not go to the scripture with a set form in mind and should let the text guide the sermonic structural choice.
But what is the three points and a poem method,and what are you attempting to do in each section? First there are three sections to the sermonic form. The first is an introduction. Here you want to give all of your background data that you have found that is relevant to the sermon. You want to talk about when the scripture was written and to who. In addition, you want to apply this to the lives of the people.
I was listening to a sermon on I. Corinthians where the preacher compared the background to the background of the people who he was addressing. He attempted to eliminate the time difference between the Corinthian church and the present church so that they can see that the text was referring to the present context.
Sometimes people are confused when I use the term “Introduction.” I do not mean introduction to the sermon per-se. I mean an introduction to the life and times of the people in the text and an attempt to realize the importance of it. This will definitely include what you traditionally think of as “introduction,” but it includes more as stated above.
After the introduction is the guiding statement of the sermon. Here we take what we have done in the introduction and use it to come up with a compass for the sermon. This is almost always a practical question. You can get at this question by looking at the Seven Interrogators: Who, What, When, Why, Which, How, and Where. Once you come up with the guiding statement, the sermon writes itself. An example is “How to Stand in the Midst of Trouble” based on Ephesians 6:13. Please note that this may or may not be the sermon title. In addition, be sure to state that clearly before moving to the next section of the sermon.
Here, you already have the text, you have the guiding question. Now you simply need three answers to the question that you just presented. A few words here. First, the answer should be explicitly or implicitly in the scripture. People should not wonder how you made the connection. It is possible someone may disagree with your application, but they will at least know the connection you tried to make. Second, you need to illustrate each answer with a biblical, historical, or contemporary story. Here you want to drive the point home by illustrating it. Next, you need to tell people explicitly how to accomplish the point. Finally, you must explicitly define what you mean by the point.
So using the example Ephesians 6:13 and our guiding statement “How to Stand in the midst of Trouble” we have three points. First put on the full armor, second, prepare for the day of evil, and finally, you just stand. Looking at the points, the first one says to put on the full armor. We would explicitly show that it is in the scripture. We might then illustrate and define the point. We might talk about armor in battle and why it is used and why it is important, we might talk about the battle we are in with Satan. We will definitely tell that we are not talking about battling with guns or swords. In addition, we must clearly tell people HOW to put on the full armor. That is the first point.
Then we might look at the second point which is to “prepare for the day of evil.” This is only implicitly in the text so we have to explicitly point to it in this section. Note that the text says: “so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground.” This implies that if you are going to stand in the future, you have to prepare for it in the present. Go ahead and state it that clearly if you have to. Then once again you want to tell people how to do that today. In addition, describe the point fully.
The third point is to just stand. In it we have two sides, “having done all” and “just stand.” You might give a story of perseverance. Remember to tell people how to do this. You may not like these three points, get three more. I don’t think I would preach it as it stands, but I just use it as an example.
By poem, I don’t mean a poem per-se, but a celebration. Here you want to celebrate the answering of the question. In our example, we want to celebrate that we will stand. We want to celebrate that no matter the pain and heartache, that we can make it through it. You do this by gathering materials like poems, hymns, spirituals, gospel songs, and scriptures that are what I call “shouting materials.” These are materials that emphasize God’s power over our circumstances and our ability to persevere.
The point here is that you are ending with a “celebration.” I think it is interesting how many sermons have good beginnings, a solid middle, and then die out in the end. You need to end strong, and you do that by celebrating the Good news that God is on our side.
- The three points should be progressively “intense.” You should be moving up the intensity scale as you preach the sermon.
- This is not the only way to preach a sermon. I would encourage you to try other methods.
- If you want to use this method, listen to Frederick D. Haynes III who is a master of this method.
- Koller’s How to Preach Without Notes provides a more complex structure than I am describing here, but he does provide some very useful tools for creating this kind of sermon in Chapter 7.
Peter Mead, at Biblical Preaching.Net, gives two options for turning a text into a half hour sermon in this article. Mead provides two options. The first is to carefully plan how to drive the main point into your people. This would include tactically deciding how you will present the idea. Mead succinctly summarizes this option as follows:
Option 1 is to take half-an-hour and make that main idea so clear, so transformative, so evident from the text, so applicational for each life.
Option 2 is to simply throw together information about the text, or other things irrelevant to the point, that obfuscates the point of the message.
I think this is an important thing to ask about everything that we are preaching. Is the tidbit that I am about to add to the sermon actually helping to drive the main point home, or apply the point, or celebrate the point? If it is not, then set it aside. Over the course of your preaching ministry you will probably have a chance to brig it back, but it is not a helpful part of the sermon you are currently working on unless it serves the point of your sermon.
Many books on preaching only emphasize the preparation of the sermon. However, few deal with the issue of presenting the sermon. In the book Best Advice for Preaching Mitties McDonald de Champlain provides some things to keep in mind when preaching the sermon. Explicitly Champlain describes the purpose of his presentation as “How to be good news while preaching the good news is the concern of this chapter.” The first section of the chapter describes the goals of the preacher in seeking to preachthe gospel.
The first goal of the preacher is to be authentic. Here the preacher seeks to be “open, honest, relevant, and real” (pg 100). As I have noted before, God has called you as the preacher for a reason. We must be that one that God has chosen to preach the Gospel through. In addition, de Chaplain emphasizes that being authentic would include nonverbal as well as verbal communication.
Use Natural Delivery
Here we seek to spend no time thinking about delivery while we are delivering the sermon. This is tied to the previous goal of being authentic. While I agree with this point, I think that we should spend time thinking and even practicing delivery in preparation. I have spoken about practicing the sermon like practicing the trumpet. To state it clearly, I would say, think about and practice your delivery before the time of sermon presentation. Then when it is time for sermon presentation, just “let it rip.”
The preacher should incorporate the expectations of the congregation into their presentation. de Chaplain notes that if a congregation is used to a preacher standing behind the pulpit, then the preacher should incorporate that into their presentation. There is a natural tension between this goal and the previous two. One might argue that if we are to be authentic and use natural delivery why would we consider this issue? I think that what we must do is keep these two ideas in tension. We should remember that the sermonic moment is a combination of Spirit, Congregation, and Preacher thus all three of these should play a part in determining how the preacher will present the Gospel.
The other day I was listening to a preacher close a sermon about pain. The sermon talked about the pain and struggles of this life. In typical African American style, the preacher closed the sermon with a “celebration.” Here the preacher resolved the pain by pointing to being “hooked-up.”
The preacher then looked through the congregation and talked about someone who lost a child, but now they have 2. Someone who lost a job, but now they have a better job. There was someone who got diagnosed with a disease, but there was a misdiagnoses. And then the close came with “weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
Too Quick a Jump to the Gravy
The first problem I felt however was that there was a too quick jump to the gravy. A jump that didn’t take into account the necessity of experiencing pain. The emotional release will be forced or superficial if the fullness of the pain is not experienced.
One of the things that a sermon can do is help to model correct thinking. Correct thinking would not limit the need to experience pain. Sometimes our people think and/or act as if it is a sign of lack of faith to grieve. Whether one has been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease or has experienced the loss of a loved one, grief and pain are necessary and needed. Some of us may even question God, all of this is needed. We cannot in our preaching make people believe that they will not experience pain in this life.
Joy Tied to Good outcome
Another problem I felt was that the experience of joy was tied to a good outcome in this world. The one who lost a child now has two. Setting aside the problematic and incorrect thought that one child could replace another, the joy comes from a good out come down here. The person should be happy because they got a better job. They should be happy because they got hooked up down here.
We live in an era where the Christian life is about getting hooked up. The only problem is that we don’t always get hooked up down here. Ask Paul who never had the thorn in his flesh taken away, even though he greatly desired it taken. Ask Zacherias who died between the porch and the alter. Ask John the Baptist who’s head was on the plate in a banquet.
The simple fact of the matter is that sometimes Grandma will die. Sometimes we will lose our job. Sometimes bad things will happen. We cannot in our preaching give the impression that good will always win in the end “down here.” Sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous languish. Sometimes the fornicating pastor gets the big church and the faithful one gets fired from his modest one. Yes it is true, you may not get that house. It is not guaranteed to you.
Importance of Incarnation
The realities of this thought makes the incarnation even more important. Jesus didn’t sidestep the pains of this life to live in a lap of luxury. Jesus came and lived amongst the poor. Then Jesus died and even felt betrayed by God which wrenched from his lips the cry “My God My God Why?”
The good news is not that we do not have to have pain. The good news is that Jesus is there with us in the pain. The good news is that Jesus helps us to endure the pain. And the Good news, yes, is that Jesus overcame the worst that life can give and now offers that to us. Yes we will have pain in this world, but we have someone to walk with us, talk with us, and to tell us that we are his own. Yes we will have pain in this world, Jesus has overcome the world. And yes, “weeping may endure for a night…but joy comes in the morning.”
In the Winter 2003 edition of the African American Pulpit there is the sermon The Worms Got Him by Dr. Caesar Clark who is one of the great African American preachers.
We will look at this sermon at another time in that there is much in it to learn about the genius of the Black pulpit. What I want to look at here is the interesting device that Clark uses in his first move of the sermon. Here Clark summarizes a lot of information and background data for the hearers.
The sermon text is Acts 12:5 and Acts 12:20-24. Clark zeros in on the following quote “He was eaten of worms and gave up the ghosts, but the word of of God grew and multiplied.” Here Clark wants to emphasize the distinction between the group that is eaten of worms (dies) and the word of God which grew and prospered.
Clark begins the sermon by taking the congregation on a walk through the Herod families graveyard. As he walks by each tombstone he gives a wealth of data derived from the Bible and other sources. The epithets on each tombstone were taken from the Bible itself. For example, Clark notes that Herod Antipas’ epithet was “that fox.”
Presenting Background in an Interesting Way
What is very helpful about what Clark is doing is that he gives people the background necessary to understand and experience the sermon. But he gives it to them in an experience. He doesn’t just tell them the history. Very few like or understand history, but he calls people to come and walk in a story. Clark reminds us preachers that we need to find a way to connect the ancient story to the people. Clark is a part of the African American tradition which always seeks to bring people into an experience with the text.
So next time you are thinking about simply reciting the background of a text, why not attempt to create an experience with that background. You will have a stronger sermon and the people will retain your points better.
When you have a main question or a thesis, you need to translate that thesis into a sermon outline. There are Seven Interrogatives that you can ask of your thesis to help you flesh out an outline.
- Who? – The first interrogative is to introduce a sequence of persons to be “enumerated, identified, classified, or included in the application of some principle. You connect it with one of the following preposition: “to, from, against, by, with, through, in, on, over, under, behind, of, before, or after.”
- Which? – Here you “introduce a sequence of things, choices, or alternatives.” You also can connect it with the prepositions defined above.
- What? – Here you “introduce a sequence of meanings, implications, definitions, particulars, characteristics, inclusions, or exclusions.”
- Why? – Here you “Introduce a sequence of reasons or objections.
- When? – Here you Introduce a sequence of times, phases or conditions.
- Where? – Introduce a sequence of places.
- How? – Introduce a sequence of ways.
The preacher would simply take the theme and then ask these questions. Each question can help to create a different sermon based on the theme.