This week I’ve been trying to offer some nuanced critiques of approaches that we can easily take to preaching. The verse-by-verse and word-by-word approaches seem to honour the text, but can often fail to communicate the the passage effectively. Topical preaching seems to honour the need for relevance, but there is no direct correlation there. Today I’d like to address one more text related issue: the standard sermon shape.
There is a sense in which most messages are going to have some similarities. They tend to have introductions and conclusions with something in between (typically, though not always!) The Bible tends to be read and explain and applied in something like that order, albeit with lots of variation possible. Most messages are either deductive or inductive in broad shape, or some combination of both. All of this is fine.
However, there are some standard sermon shapes that can be imposed on any passage. Perhaps three points and a poem. Perhaps a problem, solution, application approach. You may have another default shape that comes to mind. Why do I think it is better not to default to a standard sermon shape?
1. It does not recognize the diverse nature and shape of biblical texts. I remember cringing during a sermon on a Psalm. I was studying the Psalms at seminary and loving the diversity, the poetic artistry, the powerful and emotive imagery, etc. Then I heard someone preach a Psalm as if it just a logical argument. First point. Second point. Third point. It didn’t just fall flat, it felt like an assault had taken place. Supposedly paralleled truths had been ripped out of their setting and the Psalm lay in ruins in the preacher’s wake. If we are going to default to anything, why not default to reflecting the shape of the text in the message? You can always choose a different approach, but that is a safer default.
2. It undermines the power of the genre. A narrative text is powerful. So is a discourse section or a poem. But all are powerful in a different way. For instance, a narrative works by engaging the reader/listener with character association, with plot tension and resolution. It doesn’t sit there waiting to be pillaged for three parallel theological statements or descriptive labels. I. Noddy’s Contention. II. Noddy’s Conversion. III. Noddy’s Contrition. IV. Noddy’s Contribution. I think we’d do well to leave that kind of approach alone and look for how we can actually communicate what a passage says, while also honouring the way that it does what it does.