The Baptist minister Alexander Maclaren once said, “The Gospel is not a mere message of deliverance, but a canon of conduct; it is not a theology to be accepted, but it is ethics to be lived. It is not to be believed only, but it is to be taken into life as a guide.”
As ministers, we have a divine biblical mandate to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ as the Truth of the Word of God, our Source, and Substance for living the abundant life. The preacher should not only be a herald, evangelist, witness, teacher, and prophet. Preachers should be bridge builders who build a new connection between the text and the people.
The famed preacher Phillips Brooks remarked that “Preaching is the communication of truth by man to men. It has, in it, two essential elements, truth, and personality. Neither of those can it spare and still be preaching.”i Indeed, truth and personality are essential, but they are not the only necessary agents for preaching. Preaching demands perpetual preparation and a commitment to analysis and interpretation, typically structured through a homiletical outline.
The preacher called by God cannot extract Truth from preaching to communicate individually or to an assembly. As such, Dr. Fasol provides a brief, but broad definition of preaching: “Preaching is orally communicating Truth as found in the Bible in a way that applies God’s Word to life today.”ii Klaas Runia voices a dual thesis in The Sermon Under Attack: “If our preaching is to be Christian preaching, it has to be biblical preaching. If our preaching is to be truly biblical preaching it has to take the listener and his situation seriously.” Klaas Runia believes that people come to church with an expectation of the miraculous, namely, that God is present in His Word.”
Why this focus on study of the text? Because as a minister, chosen to speak for God, it is important to respect the content, purpose, and authority of the scripture.
In a sense, we should be like artisans who use the highest quality of ingredients to produce their works; as preachers we have qualitative ingredients at hand to skillfully craft sermons with biblical integrity. No manipulation, modifications or deviation.
In 2 Timothy 4:1-2, Paul admonishes his spiritual son with a mandate to preach the gospel:
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.iv
Paul beseeches Timothy to honor God and his calling by preaching the gospel like a herald with sincerity and integrity even when the listeners turn a deaf ear. He is to teach sound doctrine and preach the glorious gospel of Christ Jesus. Paul encourages Timothy to be faithful in preaching the Truth of God’s word on a full-time basis, whether it is under favorable circumstances or unfavorable distractions. In doing so, Timothy would have to patiently and passionately carry his new converts and congregants through the process of instruction by correction (convince or reprove), rebuke (reprimand, censure, or blame) and encouragement (exhort and encourage).
Many Christian preachers look for novelty in preaching, something unfamiliar or unusual. There is also the temptation to mimic or imitate what is popular and temporary. And it can be easy to fall into interpretation from a personal point of view, offering opinions rather than divine Truth. However, the scripture alone is relevant and it needs no human intervention to assist in its relevance. We are to report what has been recorded. Truth transferred unchanged.
Two styles of effective preaching can be seen as having been practiced by Dr. Gardner Calvin Taylor and John Chrysostom. Gardner C. Taylor, the late Pastor Emeritus of the Concord Baptist Church of Brooklyn, New York, was known as the poet laureate of American Protestantism and as the dean of Black preachers. Taylor was not so much a storyteller as an insightful, exciting performer of the text and a commentator on the state of the human soul. He was a peerless pulpiteer – authentic, passionate, and his eloquent oratorical ability captured the ear of many.
Taylor’s preaching style vacillated between the deductive and inductive format of preaching. He was a poetic genius, a political and social activist who used clear illustrations and metaphors to make the sermon dance. His style transcended the cultural context of the African-American church. Joel Gregory said of Taylor, “Although a rhetorical giant, Taylor displays an attitude toward preaching that is more like one of an ambulance attendant trying to get humanity some urgent help than someone who enjoys polishing the ambulance and blowing the siren.”
He was at once a performer of the text and a denominational statesman.
The performer and the preacher share a responsibility to understand and address the issues of humanness – those aspects of being human that are shared by all in the preacher’s congregation. The preacher must also be a student of human nature with an eye to discovering a truth of life in humanity which can then be shared with his congregation. That truth is first refracted through the preacher’s understanding of the word received from God, then presented to the congregation in the form of a sermon.
As Dr. Taylor said, “One of the great sustaining strengths of the preacher is to be found in the fact that he or she is part of the human condition, seeing and experiencing ecstatic joys and knowing the cold chills of the floods of sorrow.” We are speakers on behalf of a gospel that has to open up the secret places of the human heart, to declare the complexities of the human dilemma.
Going back further in time, an effective speaker in the expository tradition was John Chrysostom, an early church father during the Byzantine era, who preached during a time when those under authority refused to trust the preacher as their instructor. The hearers of the message listened to the preacher for pleasure, not profit. However, Chrysostom did not allow the unskilled opinions of outsiders to deter him from sharing the gospel.
In examining his sermons, when one thinks that Chrysostom will keep the reader steeped in exegetical work and come to a dead end, he weaves in a story to illustrate his point and awakens the hearers’ consciousness. Chrysostom, as well, typically waits until the near the end to give his thesis. In his Homilies on the Second Epistle of Saint Paul to Timothy, Homily IX, Chrysostom does a masterful job as an expositor, placing the pieces of the textual puzzle together and giving a clear picture of what his intent was for writing, while providing scriptures from other epistles to confirm his point. It takes skill to hold someone’s attention, to grasp the reins of the text keeping the hearer or reader in suspense without giving up on the conclusion.
As captivating as his sermons were, one must bear in mind that he was not writing or preaching for entertainment; he was writing and preaching for transformation. In following an exegetical model, he presented an interrogative for each movement and answered it before transitioning to the next movement. His exegetical model for this sermon was hermeneutical, homiletical and historical.
Bryan Chapell argues that expository preaching occurs when, “The main idea of the sermon (the topic), the divisions of that idea (the main points), and the development of those divisions (the sub-points), all come from truths the text itself contains. No significant portion of the text is ignored. In other words, expositors willingly stay within the boundaries of a text (and its relevant context) and do not leave until they have surveyed its entirety with their listeners.”
Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today centers his thoughts on four essential marks of biblical exposition. These marks include the necessity of accurately interpreting the text, the necessity of the sermon’s central idea and the sermon’s main points to be derived from the text, the necessity of the sermon’s application to come from the text, and for the text to be brought to bear on the congregation.viii An accurate definition of biblical exposition is to interpret and explain the text, in its context rightly and to bring the text to bear upon the lives of the congregants.
Referring to Taylor’s words that “The preacher must also be a student of human nature with an eye to discovering a truth of life in humanity which can then be shared with his congregation,” there is always an attraction to the familiar predetermined patterns of doing church without taking into account changes that occur within society. In this context, imagine a group of men and women living in a large warehouse. They were born in this warehouse and grew up in it. Everything they need is in this warehouse and it is all they know. There are no exits to the warehouse, just a dirty window that has never been cleaned.
One day, one of the children cleans the window and all of his friends began to gather around. They’ve never known that a world exists outside of the warehouse. They see several people gathered together pointing upward, excited by what they see, but all the children can see is the roof of their warehouse. The people outside are amazed by an airplane and the heavens above them, while the people in the warehouse only see the roof of the warehouse.
But what if some of the children cut a hole in the warehouse and enter into the unfamiliar world of God’s creation? If they return to the warehouse to testify about what they have seen and heard, the adults in the warehouse will convince those who saw out of the warehouse how unsafe it is outside, because in the warehouse the adults are in complete control. Our members are crawling out of the warehouse being exposed to transformative preaching. Preachers have too often been the adults who fear the progress outside of the warehouse, which is our pulpits.
William Willimon stated that “Sunday keeps occurring even when preachers do not feel like they want it to.”ix However, busyness does not mean productivity. Richard Hays mentions that “We do not need a different set of values. Our need is for good habits and a commitment to specific tasks that keep us faithful.x In some cases, the cleric’s search for significance has caused him to neglect soul care. Instead of seeking employment in other places beyond the discipline of his gifts and calling, the clergy may be in need of soul care. Without soul care, the minister will self-destruct.
It’s my belief that biblical preaching is the proclamation of divine truth from the Bible with the intent to persuade an individual or group of people to come to faith in Christ and, as such, it must begin with spiritual formation. I consistently practice meditation, Lectio Divina, reflection, and prayer. These should be the sine-qua-non of pastoral ministry.
Sermon crafting was once a private affair for me; however, now that we have multiple seminarians on our staff, we craft sermons in community alongside our Director of Worship and Arts. Each person is given their assignment and what they are supposed to contribute as a synopsis of ideas and events merged with the Biblical text, hymns, contemporary gospel songs, and homiletical templates for marrying the message and musical presentation. Although our church does not follow a lectionary, the blend of scriptures and songs chosen are combined to reflect the rich history and heritage of pulpiteers, practitioners, and psalmists in the African- American Church culture. The choosing of a text can be based upon the liturgical calendar, conflict in the community, or challenges within the church.
Crafting sermons in the African-American tradition builds the sermon with content and intent that includes the emotional element. The emotion and celebration of the African-American preaching style and context are not only based on tradition. It is based on the power that the word gives the African-American listener – hope in a hopeless context. This style of preaching, whether it is rhetoric, social justice, ethics, and or pastoral care, demand results and response.
We preach the entire canon of God without exclusion. Most of my preaching, presentation, and delivery is expositional, narrative preaching. One of the most profound and picturesque homiletical plots is the loop developed by Eugene Lowry in which he uses a strategic quad that creates a loop through the conflict in the biblical text, the complication, sudden shifts and the unfolding. This format allows the preacher to communicate effectively without forcing points that are not revealed in the text, as well as bringing closure for the hearer. However, just as I preach certain books of the Bible and not others, I do not always use Lowry’s Loop or preach expositional narrative sermons every week. The approach to and outcome of the text would be predictable.
There are too many preachers who will not engage in the study or dialogue of accurate biblical interpretation. In fact, sermon preparation for a pastor is tedious and consuming work if it is done correctly. In my case, Mondays used to be set aside as a mental health day for me; however, these days I find myself starting the process of crafting all over again. It takes nearly 20 hours of my week to bring crafting to its fulfillment.
During preparation, the preacher must not only exegete the text but also exegete the culture and those who will be listening to the sermon. For me, this requires reading the Bible aloud in sermon preparation. Those listening to the sermons are used to hearing messages communicated to them each day in a certain way and, if the communicator of the gospel misses accurately interpreting the listener, his message will fail to produce the desired effect.
My style of preaching is expositional narrative preaching because our church context lends itself more towards storytelling. I usually open the sermon after the text and subject with a quote or interrogative that is provocative in order to grab the attention of the hearers. In writing my sermons, I keep these five characteristics in mind: connecting Personally, Emotionally, Practically, Intellectually, and Spiritually. I also keep in mind these two guidelines in developing the thesis of the sermon: What is the subject of the text? What am I saying about the text? The answer to these two questions merged together should reveal your C. I. T. (Central Idea of the Text).
The discovery and disseminating of sacred truths from the Bible that transcend race, gender, class, and denomination are essential to proclamation and transformation. Biblical preaching is the proclamation of divine truth from the scripture with the intent to persuade an individual or group of people to come to faith in Christ and/or to grow in their discipleship. The triple threat of utilizing logos (the content of the scripture), pathos (the emotion that arises from the Word), and ethos (the truthfulness of his/her speech) is essential in preparation and proclamation to address the human need, salvific need, and the moral need of the hearers.
In the African-American context and culture, worshipping believers expect to experience the presence of God in a way that is warm, inviting, and inclusive of all who attend.
I suggest that those who are serious about biblical preaching that is transformative should shy away from being an exhibitionist or extemporaneous proclaimer. We must embrace our own discipline and the painstaking labor, by being meticulous during the tedious process of sermon crafting. Potential candidates for the Kingdom of God need to hear the Truth of the word of God through a vessel that will point them to the cross and not their opinion. The effectiveness of biblical preaching comes through repetition. It is not style or personality alone that characterizes transformative biblical preaching, but a commitment to the preparation that produces a substantive message.
Christopher Hartwell is founder and senior pastor of Crossroads Community Church in Pearland, Texas