“Preaching in Practice: Moving Beyond the Violence of Our Words:” Preaching — V Practice — Explorations in Theology

Rev Levi Jones wanted to present a fifth post in order to discuss preaching practice in the proposed theological framework of the first four posts. You won’t find here a one-size-fits-all method for every sermon. Instead, Levi offers some suggestive insights into the proper posture of the preacher in preparing for the task, as well […]

via “Preaching in Practice: Moving Beyond the Violence of Our Words:” Preaching — V Practice — Explorations in Theology

Preaching the Scales

As a child, your imagination is a curious and wonderful thing.  You can be a firefighter, a basketball player, a Rock star, a doctor, or anything else that comes to mind.  Each of those images shows success at your chosen career.  Saving a life.  Hitting the winning shot at the buzzer.  Carrying someone over your shoulder safely out of the burning building.  But, what one rarely imagines is the hard work, the patience, the years of training and learning, and the repetitive memorization of the fundamentals that allow for success in that field.

Certainly, when I have imagined myself as a preacher, it did not see hours behind a desk studying commentaries, writing page after page of notes and manuscript, polishing and editing, practice preaching and memorizing.  I saw the tip of the iceberg of “performing” the sermon but could not see the mass of work lying beneath the ocean’s surface.  I was often astounded by the preacher’s that seemed to conjure masterful sermons from out of thin air – like a magician.  There were plenty of times where the sermon, in those particular cases, were something like smoke and mirrors – dazzling but far from real.  But, in those cases where the sermon was powerful and moving, it was not always readily apparent how much disciplined work and effort went into that sermon.  It seemed effortless.

Imagine my surprise, especially when I first began preaching, to find just how unbelievably difficult it was to create sermons.  It was a struggle – like a child learning to dribble a basketball for the first time.  I hadn’t learned the fundamentals and I was a long way from mastering them.  In fact, as is often the case when learning a new skill, my desire to create something beautiful failed to match my actual sermons.  My desire still continues to outstrip my capacity to preach.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless I become satisfied and stop trying to improve and grow.

So, how does one become a proficient preacher?  Dr. Frank Thomas shared with us some of his wisdom about becoming a better preacher.  He said that preaching is like playing an instrument.  If you want to become a good musician, you have to learn the musical scales.  You have to learn the scales, the basics, the structure (like chords), so that they become ingrained in you.  The best preachers, like the best Jazz musicians, have mastered the fundamentals.

Dr. Thomas suggests that most of the time sermons are bad because of their structure.  Sermons, he goes on, can be fixed or made better by fixing the structure – in other words, in being intentional about the fundamentals of communication.  There are a number of structures that can be utilized for sermons.  Dr. Thomas suggests picking one (four pages, Lowry’s loop, homiletical moves, etc.) and mastering that technique.  That doesn’t mean that you can’t use other structures.  But, it does mean that you gain a certain kind of freedom by  mastering that structure.  And, here, is the definition of a master: “One who has made all of the mistakes and has learned how to make adjustments.”

Being a master preacher does not mean that you do not make mistakes, but that you are learning from your mistakes.  When you recognize that something wasn’t working in a sermon, it’s best to go back and check out the structure.  Start with the fundamentals.  Was there a better way to organize the sermon?  Was it all connected?  Was there a cohesive flow?  In other words, find a structure that fits you and become proficient at the fundamentals of that particular structure.  Don’t be afraid of mistakes, but learn from them.  And, if the sermon just seems to be falling flat, go back and look at the overall structure.  Don’t stop imagining the beauty of a finished sermon, but don’t think it’s possible (at least consistently) to preach at a high level without doing the disciplined, diligent work of mastering the fundamentals.

Preaching for a Change

I am currently working on a Doctor of Ministry degree in Preaching through the Association of Chicago Theological Schools.  I am deeply passionate about preaching as a medium for communicating the Gospel.  Preaching isn’t the only means for communicating, but it has been an important part of the Church’s life.  As such, it is good practice to reflect on what we are doing as we preach.  I do not pretend to be an expert, but write this as an opportunity for me to further reflect on what I am learning and offer it to others for their own reflection.

I have been preaching now on a somewhat consistent basis for nearly a decade.  The bags under my eyes are probably in part from several “Saturday night specials” and the stress of trying to say an appropriate word to the community of faith in the preaching moment.  It has become less stressful in some ways over time.  The consistency of my preaching has improved.  But, there were still moments when I preached a sermon that proved deeply meaningful one Sunday only to be followed up the next week with something resembling a soggy firecracker.  Even after I became acquainted with various methods for preaching a sermon, it wasn’t always helpful.

It has helped me to learn about two different frameworks in a sermon.  The first framework is the structure of the sermon, which can take a variety of forms: Preaching as Celebration, Deductive, Inductive, Lowry’s Loop, Buttrick’s Homiletical Moves, etc.).  These were different ways of structure the content of a sermon.  There are many wonderful and helpful tips you can learn from a variety of these methods.  But, for me, there was still something missing.  This is where the second level of structuring illuminated my confusion and consistency in preaching.  The emotive and cognitive flow, which sounds self-evident, was something that I did not always shape well and which left sermons flatter than a Dr. Pepper that’s been sitting open for two days.  Not only did I need to structure my content; I needed to structure it to honor the emotive-cognitive arch was connects with the “intuitive” core of a person and community.  This is the double meaning of the title for this post.  Despite being inconsistent in the past, let’s become more consistent now.  And, let’s preach in a way that opens people toward a response for transformation.  Let’s preach “for a change.”

The Enlightenment was a period that was primarily focused on the cerebral comprehension of a text (i.e., scripture or any other work).  The Historical Critical method for understanding a text was the primary means utilized for getting at what a text meant.  In other words, the text held one meaning and it was the author’s original meaning, which could only be mined and understood if we were able to uncover all of the historical, factual contexts of that particular scripture.  In no way do I want to demean many of the wonderful discoveries about the historical world of scripture that emerged from that quest.

But, as Fred Craddock and many others pointed out, this created a homiletical (preaching) method that focused on an audience’s head but often left their heart disengaged.  As such, the audience could mentally assent or “believe” in a “fact” about scripture, but their lives were sometimes unaffected by these “beliefs.”  There was a disconnect created in the person through this focus on preaching as teaching for mental comprehension and assent.

So, how do we join head and heart?  Dr. Frank Thomas offers a helpful way of approaching both head and heart, cognitive and emotive, in the sermon.  His framework, which I will call the emotive/cognitive arch of a sermon, helps keep these two pieces together throughout the sermon.  Thomas points out that the emotive and the cognitive parts of ourselves cannot truly be separated.  When the emotive is in the “driver’s seat,” the cognitive is in the “back seat” asking if this experiential part of the sermon is connected to the rest of the sermon.  Vice versa, when the cognitive is leading, the emotive is asking how this connects to our lives.  It is helpful to keep in mind that both are at work; it’s just a matter of which is in focus at any given moment.

The emotive-cognitive arch has a helpful pattern for helping hearers engage in the sermon and move to a point of celebration.  The emotive-cognitive arch has an alternating pattern which has three positions: emotive over cognitive, cognitive over emotive, emotive over cognitive.  This is the three-fold pattern of the emotive-cognitive arch, which can be utilized within a number of homiletical methods (Lowry’s Loop, Craddock’s Inductive method, 3 Points and a Poem, Four Pages, etc.).  Let’s think about why this pattern is important for experiential preaching.

First, we begin with the emotive in the driver’s seat.  There are a number of ways this can be done to create emotive connection (i.e., a story, a familiar song, poetry, a joke, a physical demonstration, etc.).  The emotive connects with personal, communal experience, which creates identification and interest in the sermon itself.  If this happens, then the hearers are more open to following the preacher through the rest of the sermon.  Although the emotive is driving, the cognitive is acting like a GPS for the sermon.  Does this story connect with the rest of the sermon?  Is this going somewhere?  Does this story have a bunch of fluff?  Is this an appropriate analogy or metaphor?  Is this theologically coherent?  The cognitive shapes the emotive element, but the emotive identification at the beginning is important for the hearers.

Second, the sermon shifts to the cognitive, with the emotive helping in the background.  Here, the cognitive element is the opportunity to do some of the teaching, educating, exegetical pieces that are often necessary to comprehend the text.  This is where things like tradition, theology, philosophy might come to bear on a particular text.  But, in case we might get to “heady,” the emotive is walking alongside us asking us to make these concepts connect with our lives.  Images are the emotive vehicles of language.  As such, we can couch the theological, exegetical, historical, philosophical elements of the sermon in images that continue to allow the congregation to connect with the cognitive content.  However, images can help us keep from over-explaining.  If we have to over-explain something, it might suggest that we aren’t familiar enough with a particular topic.

Finally, the sermon switches back to the emotive as the front-runner.  This is the move toward celebration as we have resolved the complication (topic for another day) in the text/sermon.  Again, just because we are using the emotive, that does not neglect the cognitive piece.  The cognitive is still asking if the emotive elements are connected to what came before.  Is it connected with the text?  Is it connected with the situation, complication, and resolution in the sermon?  Does the celebration make too large of a leap for people to follow?  The emotive at this final part of the sermon allows us to move the cognitive part of the sermon toward the heart, engaging the whole person.

Dr. Thomas concludes that utilizing both the cognitive and the emotive in a sermon allows the congregation’s intuition, the place of core beliefs and behavior, to be changed.  The congregation has the opportunity to respond positively or negatively to a sermon (in other words, this isn’t emotional manipulation).  But, by combining both the emotive and the cognitive, it calls for some kind of response.  And, it also provides the opportunity for change.

One final note.  This post doesn’t mention the work of the Spirit in the sermon.  And, if we aren’t careful, we might conclude that the sermon doesn’t need the work of the Spirit.  That is far from true.  The Spirit should be a companion in the process of preparation, preaching, and participation.  But, for this particular post, I wanted us to diligently think through methods of how we structure sermons so that we might lessen the barriers that we mistakenly create when constructing and delivering a sermon.  And, I believe that preaching which engages the experiential center of people’s lives, both the cognitive and emotive elements, has a greater possibility of becoming deeply rooted in the lives of our congregations.


Reflections on The Choice by Dr. Frank Thomas

The Choice is the unfolding of Dr. Thomas’ discernment process in making important choices.  But, it is also more than that; it is also a demonstration of his preaching as decision process.  The book wrestles with the idea about making wise choices that emerge from a life lived “inside-out” rather than “outside-in.”  In other words, living out of our God-given passions.  Making choices out of our deepest, God-given passions allows us to be “victors rather than victims” to our circumstances.  Every situation (usually) offers us some kind of choice.  Inability to see options, to see choices, renders us prisoner to those various circumstances.

The recognition of choice does not solve the dilemma that faces us, however.  Rather, this is where the difficult work begins.  “How do we make a wise and good decision?” must then be asked.  We may be able to communicate what we think we want, but are we deeply aware of “what we want, really?”  In other words, the choices that we make reveal our deepest convictions about life, about ourselves, and about God.  Do these choices line up with the things that we say we believe?  Or, are we fractured people whose choices run counter to those beliefs we say we hold?  Our choices say a great deal about our implicit convictions.

Another hindrance or barrier to making wise choices that come from our deepest passions is fear.  Fear of the new and unknown future, fear of the risk of failure, fear of our own inadequacy, and fear that rationalizes other options can bind and arrest us from progressing toward the future to which God is calling us.  Forging new patterns of life is difficult; it is even more difficult when “success” is not guaranteed.  Dr. Thomas suggests that defining our choice helps us move past fear.  We are called to serve and to “renew our yes” to that calling.  It is at the intersection of service and our deepest passions where we find our vocational lives, our calling.  God continues to draw us to those places, if we would only say, “Here I am, send me.”

The final sections move us toward “executing the choice” and “releasing the choice.”  One of the most powerful things that I have found to be true is that I cannot do this journey without community.  Dr. Thomas asks if we have a “teachable spirit.”  In other words, are there those that walk alongside us providing accountability, challenge, encouragement, and wisdom?  The Christian community is called to do this for one another.  Of course, engaging in community can also be painful, even in the Church.  Yet, it is through sharing our brokenness that we are shaped for God’s new future.

In “releasing the choice,” we are reminded of the integral foundation of prayer in making wise choices.  Relying on our own strength and power to accomplish God’s future for us may very well land us in more difficulty.  To inquire of the Lord, to listen and wait, is the work of discipleship.  We follow where Jesus leads and the same is true in discerning the various choices set before us.  We cannot discern God’s voice if we do not inquire of God and listen carefully in each situation that present itself.

The role of backstory in preaching is that it is the contextual soil from which sermonic flora germinates.  Every sermon, interpretation, hermeneutic is contextual.  We are not a tabula resa when it comes to engaging in these activities.  We cannot interpret in a theological or experiential vacuum.  Instead, we bring these experiences to bear on both life and text.  The backstory in The Choice demonstrates the place from which these particular sermons to this particular community at this particular time arose (although it has been somewhat de-contextualized by virtue of being written).

I noticed several connections in the book to the lectures for class.  First, the power of human agency in choosing was evident.  Sermons are trying to get to “core belief,” which is also the center from which we intuitively make choices.  Sermons begin and end in an act of listening.  Wise choices begin there as well.  Also, the sermon is intended to end in celebration; there is a similar celebration that emerges when we begin to live out of our deepest passions that come from “core belief.”