Friday, October 8, 2010

In Search of the Sermon (Part Two)

As I indicated in the previous post, my homiletic consists of three simple principles and four easy moves. Last time I talked about the three principles that govern biblical preaching; namely, interpret the text contextually, theologically, and experientially. But how to you get from principle to pulpit? I do it in four easy moves.

First a word of homiletical context. Preaching today is divided into two broad categories: the so-called “old homiletic” and the so-called “new homiletic.” The chief difference between the two is the sermon’s objective. The old homiletic understands the purpose of the sermon as being to inform, while the new homiletic understands the objective of the sermon as being to move. The old homiletic focuses on the cognitive domain, the new homiletic on the affective. The model for the sermon in the old homiletic is the essay or the lecture; in the new homiletic the model is story. The old homiletic aims chiefly for the head, the new homiletic for the heart. The old homiletic derives its methodology from Aristotle’s Rhetoric, the new homiletic from Aristotle’s Poetics.

An example of the importance of this last statement can be illustrated with modern movies. I sometimes hear people say that movies are so predictable. There’s a predictable pattern to every plot: hero/heroine is introduced; hero has weakness; an unexpected turn of events occurs; launches a quest (the bulk of the movie) for something or someone to satisfy the weakness/need; hero hits rock bottom; a showdown occurs; happy (or at least satisfying) ending. “Why can’t Hollywood come up with something new?” they ask. Hollywood doesn’t come up with something new because you’re “hardwired” to expect this pattern, paradigm, plot in every story you hear. It goes all the way back to the ancient Greek theatre and the three-act play (setup, confrontation, resolution). Aristotle recognized the structure over 2,350 years ago in his Poetics and no one has improved on it since. It’s why we go to movies, watch stories on television, read novels…and listen to sermons that utilize this age-old paradigm. It's why, when Jesus wants to tell his audience about the destructiveness of greed and avarice, he doesn't say: "I want to talk to you today about greed, and I have three things to say about it, all beginning with the letter 'G.'" Rather, he says: "Watch out for greed!" And he told them a story (sometimes called "parable"), saying, "Once upon a time, the land of a rich man brought forth bountifully..." (Luke 12:13ff.). And so, when I say “new homiletic,” that’s what I mean. It is sermon as story rather than sermon as lecture; a sermon that utilizes this in-grained, “hardwired” structure in order to drive home the message of the Gospel.

I don’t have time (or space) to tease this all out here, but if you’re interested, see my article titled “Glimpses of Glory,” in Review & Expositor, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Winter 2002), 71-87. In it, I have a section on “The Old Homiletic and the New Homiletic.” I also include a new homiletic sermon that illustrates and employs the three simple principles and four easy moves I’ve talked about in these two blogs. A professor of preaching at one of the CBF-related seminaries emailed me some time ago to say that he had never understood the “new homiletic” until he read the article. Apparently, it’s helpful. Check it out.

And so, utilizing the new homiletic and this hard-wired plot structure, my take on the new homiletic involves what I call “Four Easy Moves.”

Move 1: The Gathering Move. The average listener will give you no more than five minutes to “gather” them to the text and the sermon. In that five minutes, you have to call their names; give them a reason to listen; or as Fred Craddock puts it, get them to buy a ticket on the train. Once they “buy the ticket,” they’ll take the trip. The preacher’s task, therefore, is to create either a point of contact or a point of conflict with the listener so that s/he will either think: “I’ve thought that myself!” or “Wait a minute! Not so fast! That’s not right!” Either way, you’ve got them. You’ve generated a “gotta know” in the congregation that will keep them “turning the page” in the sermon.

Move 2: The Biblical Move. If done well, Move 1 will not only have gathered and captured the audience, but will have created some cognitive dissonance, some dramatic tension, a “gotta know” that launches the sermon (and the congregation) on a quest to surface and satisfy the tension. And, of course, in a sermon, the primary place one goes to satisfy that tension is the Word of God, the Scripture. The distance between the 21st century (your audience’s context) and the 1st century (the New Testament’s context) is quickly overcome by the commonality of the human. After surfacing some issue, some problem, some crisis that affects everyone in the audience so that they have “boarded the train” with me, the “first stop” I make is the text: “You know, Jesus was faced with something similar when he….” And you’re off and running in the sermon. “All aboard!”

Move 3: The Theological Move. Because every sermon…every sermon…is first and finally about God (else it’s not a sermon, just a little “self-help talk” or something), the primary freight the sermonic “train” carries is theological. I usually try to capture it in as few words as possible and write them large on the top of the page on which I’m working on the sermon. Big, large, grand, God-words like “grace,” “judgment,” “forgiveness,” “hope,” “salvation,” etc. Everything in the sermon serves that central, governing theological idea. That’s the “point” of the sermon, if you’re used to thinking in terms of “points.” I don’t think in terms of “points.” My sermons don’t have “points;” they have a plot. But my sermons do make a “point;” and it is always a singular point, and it is always a theological point. I call this the sermon’s Governing Theological Theme or “GTT.” It’s the “gatekeeper” that determines what gets into the sermon (every story, every illustration, every bit of information) and what doesn’t. If it doesn’t serve the sermon’s GTT, then it’s out. Period.

Move 4: The Homiletical Move. Just as Aristotle in his Poetics aimed more for the heart than the head, more to move than to inform, so also does this final move in the sermon aim to drive the GTT home to the heart. As Fred Craddock says: “The longest journey anyone ever makes is the journey from the head to the heart.” And so in the final movement of the sermon I use story that gathers up and draws in and drives home the message to the congregation’s hearts. I intentionally try to create an experience that moves the sermon from mere “idea” to existential reality. If the GTT is about, say, “grace,” I don’t want them to “understand” grace; I want them to experience grace. I want them to leave “graced.” Most of the stories I use in Move 4 are my own (rather than stock stories) simply because only that which has happened to me will likely happen through me. I keep a journal and computer catalogue of such stories (hundreds after 40 years of preaching) so that finding just the right story is always within reach. Of course, you can always lie and tell someone else’s story as though it happened to you (see my blog “May I Drop a Footnote”), but I don’t recommend it.

Well, there it is. “Preaching: Three Simple Principles; Four Easy Steps.” If you find it helpful, I shall be grateful. If when I come to hear you preach, you preach like this, I shall be back!


the purple said...

Dr. Stacy

Thanks for the two posts on a subject that is of great interest to me, namely preaching.

I couldn't agree with you more that story drives the message. Lining up a sermon in this way certainly engages the listener more quickly than a three point alliterated outline. I never did care for that stuff. Not that I have preached a lot, but that type of thing or a topical message just leaves me wanting more of God.

I am curious—given all the hype about narrative these days and the fact that people are hardwired to plot line, how do you see your 4 moves with regard to expository preaching? Do you have a desired length or limit to the Scriptural portion of the sermon—an ideal?

Lastly, I see difficulty at times with the heart-head issue. I always aim for the heart but I there is a delicate balance I think even if the theology is there and resonating with everyone. In other words I've lost people in move three having stayed there too long.

Looking forward to reading the article.

Ric Garcia

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Thanks, Ric! Glad the posts were helpful.

I don't do "expository preaching" if by that you mean verse-by-verse sermonizing. In my experience, much of that preaching (certainly not all!) is not very attentive to the original context of the text, just a cover, really, for playing "free association" with the text. Too often when the preacher says, "Now, this is what this means," what he really means is, "Now this is what this means TO ME." I don't think I can move on in a sermon to talk about what the text MEANS until I've given appropriate attention to what it MEANT. I'm old school in that respect; I still think the original author's intention is primary. I know that finding that is more difficult than merely playing "free association" with the text (lots of time spent negotiating the distance between "then" and "now"), but in my judgment it's worth the trouble.

Of course, sermons can be both inspiring and informing; indeed, they should be! As you said, balance is the key.

Thanks for your thoughts!

Ron Cava said...

Dr. Chevis Horne was ahead of the curve in some ways back in the mid-1980s. He was constantly reminding us to "paint pictures with words." He also encouraged us to remember that the purpose of the sermon is to impact the will of the person to take some action, a spiritual endeavor relying on the power of the Spirit. Thank you for reminding and updating us.

Ron Cava