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Preaching an Old West Theology

William Willimon in The Intrusive Word writes that “We ought to preach as if we were opening a package that could be packed with dynamite.” By that he means that we should expect dislocation, surprises, and jolts. Too often we package our sermons in a neatly finished package where we know all the answers and God always acts the way we expect. We create a world in the sermon that is much unlike our own world.

Good Always Wins?

Over my life I have seen many old Westerns. These were shows that dramatized our mythology of the conquest of the Western United States in the mid to late 19th century. These stories were interesting in that the Good guy always won. Right always came out on top. In short, the bad guy didn’t always get away with the money. That was comfortable for us to see, we want to believe that down here good will always win. We want to believe that I will not lose my job and if I do a better one is around the corner. We want to believe that we will qualify for that house. We want to believe that if we pay our tithe or plant our seed there we will live a life of luxury.

What Kind of World is in Your Sermon?

What kind of world do your people see in your sermons? Is it the imaginary world where money is no problem, or is it the real world that your people live in, where layoffs are coming even though the church record books show the financial giving was not at issue? Will we preach the imaginary world where you will always get a better job when you lose the one you have now, or will we preach in the real world where our people actually have to take job that are beneath their training? Will we preach the imaginary world where a cure for our ailments is guaranteed by God, or will we preach in the real world where faithful people die of ailments while some unfaithful people live on?

Too many of us are preaching that “old West” theology. Good always wins, Bad always loses. The people may shout about it, the people may sleep on it, but in either case, the people will not be equipped to live in the real world. I encourage you as preachers to struggle with the reality of real suffering before constructing this mythological world that belongs on late night television.

Three Points and a Poem – Revisited

signI 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.

Introductory Section

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.

Three Points

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.

The Poem

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.

Some Notes

  1. The three points should be progressively “intense.” You should be moving up the intensity scale as you preach the sermon.
  2. This is not the only way to preach a sermon. I would encourage you to try other methods.
  3. If you want to use this method, listen to Frederick D. Haynes III who is a master of this method.
  4. 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.

The Stages of Exegesis – Updated

I just realized that I do not have any posts that give an outline of my method for exegesis. Here is the basic process.

  1. Prayer – You should not open the Bible without praying for the guidance of the Spirit in understanding the principles found in the text.
  2. Initial Observations – Now before you really get into thinking deeply about the text you want to get the initial impressions. Read the text and simply note whatever comes to your mind. A title may come to your mind, a theme may come to your mind, and even a gospel song or hymn. Whatever comes to your mind write it down. Here you are at your most creative point. However you will need to refine these observations later.
  3. Analyze the Story of the Text – Here you look at the text as a story. Who are the players in the text? What role do they play? What do they do? Next where is God and what is God doing in this text? And finally where is humanity and what is humanity doing? What if the text is not a narrative? Well then you might look at the story “behind” the text. You miht look at the story of the author of the text. Now refine your observations from your initial read. Please note this comes from reading the text alone without any commentaries or other study helps.
  4. Analyze the History of the Text – What was going on at the time that can help you understand the text. Now you can begin looking at other resources like a good Bible dictionary. Here you want to know who wrote the text and what was the occasion that brought forth the writing?
  5. Analyze the Arguments in the Text – It is one thing to know what the text is trying to convey, but it is another thing to know “how” the author conveyed that truth. In other words what words were used to teach the truth? What illustrations were used? Preachers can often find the illustrations in the text itself.
  6. Analyze the Theology of the Text – What is the author of the text trying to say about God? What kind of God does the text project?
  7. Analyze the use of Power in the Text – Where is the power in the text? Who has it and how is it used? Does humanity have power? What kinds of power are in the text? Are they spiritual or temporal? What is the nature of the power? Is someone or something trying to take the power?
  8. Analyze the Senses in and from the Text – Look at the text for things that affect the senses. What do you smell in the text? What do you see in the text? What do you feel in the text? One might see a rugged mountain sloped downward when we see Jesus in the desert. This might be of use in our sermonic preaching. What about the smells. It might be interesting that the prodigal son saw the bright lights of the city as welcoming when he was coming, but by the end of the story, the were a repellant. Think about how the text affects your senses.
  9. Analyze the Feelings in and from the text – How does the story make you as a reader feel? How do the different characters in the text feel?

Now after having gone through these steps you are ready to move to the sermon. Simply summarize and synthesize all of your work into two pages and then you are ready to move on to structuring the sermon.

Updated 11/23/08

Steps to Learning to Whoop

Many people contact me wanting a step by step method to learn to whoop, here is the outline of a method.

1. Listen to Other Whoopers

The first thing that one should do if you want to learn how to whoop is listen to other whoopers. Just like if you want to learn how to play jazz, you must listen to others who do it well. Please note that there are different levels of listening. The first level is merely for enjoyment. Here you simply listen for things that you enjoy or that “speak to you” on some level. Another level of listening however is critical analysis. Here you seek to understand what is happening. You listen to the whooper trying to hear the pitch changes. When does the whooper change pitch. When does the whooper change the volume? Does the whooper only get loud at the end? Does the whooper get loud and soft? Another question one might listen for is a sequence of pitches. Does the whooper make use of a sequence (sometimes called a riff in music)? What about rhythm? Does the whooper change his or her rhythm?

Along with the critical analysis, the budding whooper should listen to a wide variety of whoopers. Listen to the traditional C. L. Franklin, Caeser Clark, and Jerry Black. Listen to the Harvard Whooper. Listen to the young whoopers like Marcus Cosby or Rudoloph Mckissick Jr. And listen to the whoopers who have a style totally their own like Leory Elliot. Listening to a wide variety of whoopers will help you find who you are as a whooper.

2. Sing

The next thing to do is to sing. There is a connection between singing and whooping. Listen to Jerry Black as he sings and then listen to how he whoops. There is a connection. Now you may not ever sing a solo, but you need to sing as a member of the congregation and as you go along. Sing spirituals, sing the great hymns of the Christian faith, and sing the Gospel Songs. Sing Andre’ Crouch and Fanny Crosby.

The important thing is that whooping has a lot in common with singing. listen to a whooping master and a great gospel singer. You will find that they both make use of vocal dynamics. They go from loud to soft and vice versa. They both make use of rhythmic changes. They speed up or slow down as needed. they both make great use of timing. They both improvise. Etc. Listen to great preachers and singers and sing.

3. Practice

Finally, you want to practice. Don’t go up into the pulpit without having practiced whooping. Personally, I think that all preachers should practice more. When I used to play the trumpet, I would practice 30 min – hour a day just practicing playing. Perhaps preachers should spend 30 minutes to an hour a day just practicing their presentation skills. Be that as it may, if you are to whoop, you probably should practice it. Practice in your car, practice in your shower. Jasper Williams notes that many have learned to whoop while sitting on the toilet. You want to practice. As you practice you must critically listen to yourself. Jasper Williams notes that when it sounds good to you it is ready for use.

4. Incorporate Whooping in Your Sermons

Finally, we should look for opportunities to incorporate “whooping” into our preaching. Without forcing, slowly put some musicality in your preaching. Add rhythm to the way you say some things. Explicitly hit a note when preaching. Don’t force it. Do all your forcing in the practice room, but when you get out in front of the congregation, just preach and let it happen.

5. Whoop with Integrity

Please to succumb to the temptation of using whooping to cover up a lack of preparation. Perhaps we all have heard whoopers who obviously haven’t done the preparation necessary to preach an effective sermon to the people of God. Then these preacher simply start whooping and the people go wild. However, during the week when pain and trouble come the people haven’t been given the tools to deal with the world because the preacher decided to serve slop and then try to put cream over it. We as preachers have been called to give the word that is needed, a sweet whoop does not discharge us of this duty. If you whooop, please whoop with integrity.


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