Clichés about preaching we learn in seminary

May 28, 2012

Believe it or not, in seminary, I did pay attention in my preaching class. It’s sad, given how central the ministry of the Word is to us Protestants, that we only had one required preaching class. Be that as it may, one thing our professor told us is that we should be able to summarize our sermon in one sentence. If we can’t do that, then the sermon is obviously too disjointed, too unfocused, too rambling.

I don’t entirely agree. What about the sermons I grew up with in my Baptist church—the three-point expository sermon?

There’s nothing at all wrong with them. They work like this: “Let me begin with a poem or funny story. Now here’s the first point I want to make about the scripture. Let me talk about it and illustrate it. Here’s the second point. Let me talk about it and illustrate it. Here’s the third point. Let me talk about it and illustrate it. Let me conclude with a poem or funny story. Let me invite you to do something. The end.”

My point is that if you’re going to summarize three-point sermons in one sentence, it stands to reason that it’s at least going to be long compound sentence, right? You might have to use semicolons to make it fit.

Three-point expository sermons are passé in mainline Protestant seminaries, which is a shame, because, as I said, there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re easy on the listener, because even if you doze off during one point, you can pick right up again with the next point without being hopelessly lost. I also enjoy verse-by-verse expository sermons, at least in the hands of preachers who can pull them off. Chuck Swindoll is a master at it. My concern is that in lesser hands, the verse-by-verse expository method can seem more like a Bible study than preaching.

What’s the difference? I’m not sure, but I know it when I hear it.

Something called “inductive sermons” are all the rage in seminary. Although I’ve never actually heard a Fred Craddock sermon (he was retired before I got to the Candler School of Theology), I think he’s primarily to blame for them. No, I’m kidding. I’m sure he’s great. It’s just that, based on his reputation, I worry that I would want to change careers if I heard him preach—like, what the heck am I doing trying to preach?

I’m not quite sure what an inductive sermon is. I think the idea is that instead of just stating your point up front, and then illustrating it and applying it to life, you slowly lead the listener to the main point at the end. I can see how these types of sermons lend themselves to one-sentence summaries.

I don’t know what kind of sermons I preach. I suspect they’re inductive. I don’t like to think about it too much. It’s like how, if you think about something that comes naturally, like breathing, breathing suddenly becomes difficult. I’m just happy and somewhat amazed that I have a new sermon each week—because I usually begin each week thinking, “What on earth am I possibly going to say about this scripture this week?” Or “What on earth am I going to say that I didn’t say last week—or last month?”

Anyway, the fact that I do somehow have a new sermon each week must be because of God’s faithfulness. (And for what it’s worth, I always enjoy my own sermons. I do! I hope that’s not conceited. It’s just that they always speak to me, if to no one else. If I didn’t like them, I wouldn’t preach them!)

P.S. In the future, I want to talk about another preaching cliché that’s currently fashionable: that preaching without notes or a manuscript is somehow better and more “authentic” than preaching with them.

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