Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In Search of the Sermon

I concluded my intentional interim a few months ago, and now my wife and I are faced with a dilemma: Where do we go to church on Sundays when I'm not preaching? I recognize that for most people, this is not such a dilemma. They either attend the church nearest them (because that’s where their friends go) or they attend the church across town (because they like the show there better, or because they like the people there better). But I don’t go to church for either of those reasons (the “show” or the camaraderie). Let me be frank: I go for the sermon. I get up on Sundays and get dressed and drive, sometimes considerable distance, in the desperate hope that I will hear today a word from God which the preacher discovered in, and delivered through, the Holy Scriptures. To paraphrase Bill Clinton in the presidential campaign of a few years back, “It’s the sermon, stupid!”

But alas, the sermon has fallen on hard times. I don’t mean by that that preachers aren’t preaching; I just mean that it’s not a sermon. I used to tell my homiletical students: The difference between a sermon and a speech is the text. Without a serious engagement with the Scripture, it’s just a speech. And I’ve heard a lot of speeches masquerading as sermons lately! There was the one about…well, I shouldn’t go there lest the preacher be reading this. It’s a rare thing these days to hear a sermon that actually engages the Scripture in the service of the sermon. Most preachers begin not with a text but with a topic, and then pillage the Scripture for a text with which to prop up and support what they’ve already decided they’re going to say; in which case the text is not the basis for the sermon, it’s merely the excuse for it. It’s too bad, really, because most preachers spend as much time on their topical “speeches” as they would a sermon had they actually developed one. It’s not a matter of time; it’s a matter of location. Start with the text! Let me explain.

When I teach preaching, I teach a homiletic that was hammered out not in the classroom but in the congregation. It’s not some “preaching project” or research paper done for a homiletics class and then immediately forgotten. It’s what I did, and do, each week when I preach. I call it Preaching: 3 Simple Principles; 4 Easy Moves.

The principles are these:

(1) Interpret the text contextually (both historical and literary contexts). The underlying assumptions for this are that the author’s meaning of the text is the meaning; the preacher’s task is to score the same point with your audience that the original writer scored with his; and how a writer says something is as important as what he says (pay attention to the text’s genre).

(2) Interpret the text theologically. At the end of the day the text is finally (and always) about God. A sermon is not a little “pep talk” or “self-help session.” It’s a word about God, and if it isn’t, they why am I listening? Find the theological “freight” the text is carrying and make it the “freight” of your sermon. I call this the sermon’s “Governing Theological Theme” or GTT.

(3) Interpret the text experientially. A sermon should take the congregation somewhere, not just give them a few little “talking points” to remember. A sermon is an experience, not a lecture. It happens in the heart as much as the head. (For those who have studied preaching, the first half of the sermon’s history was dominated by Aristotle’s Rhetoric; this new kind of preaching, sometimes called the “New Homiletic,” grows more out of Aristotle’s other major work, Poetics.). To achieve this, the preacher should think more in terms of plot rather than points. The sermon identifies some “plot tension” (issue, problem, question) that exists either explicitly or implicitly in the text and then launches a quest to surface and satisfy that dramatic tension.

The moves are…well, I’ll talk about those next week.

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