COHERENCE in the sermon is determined, to a large degree, by whether or not the parts of the sermon are properly arranged. In his book The Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House), p. 78, R. C. H. Lenski says:
The essentials of a properly arranged discourse, which includes the sermon in its front rank, are three, (1) Unity; (2) Organization; (3) Progress.
Organization results when the material for the sermon is gathered into various "parts." Here it will help to borrow an illustration from Lenski but change its application just a bit. Organization may be pictured as a series of triangles, each one representing a part of the theme.
Progression results when each part is arranged in an order or sequence from first to last. In other words, the triangles are numbered in sequence.
If one moves from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4, progress is made. As applied to the sermon, we say the sermon has good progression—it moves in an orderly way from beginning to end.
Unity results when each part is clustered around the theme. The triangles are so arranged as to point to a given center.
Unity has always been stressed in the classical works on homiletics.
M. Rue, in his book Homiletics (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House), devotes a section to "The Structure of the Sermon" and "the consideration in this section is the element of unity" (emphasis his). He then goes on to state:
A work of art may express a variety of ideas, but it cannot remain a work of art unless this variety is held together by the unity of a single idea. The sermon, too, may and should present a variety of thoughts; yet it dare not be a barrage of heterogeneous and arbitrarily assembled elements but must form an organic unity.— Page 390.
In the words of Halford Luccock, how many times has a sermon "collapsed gelatinously all over the church auditorium"? So many good things were said, but to what end?
To check a sermon for unity ask the following questions: Are the main divisions subordinate to the theme? Are they a part of the theme—do they, amplify it? Are the main subdivisions subordinate to their main division? Are they a part of that division—do they amplify it? Some have pictured a sermon as a stream with tributaries running into it. The main stream is the theme and all the tributaries are the parts.
When the sermon "looks" like that, it has organization, it has progress, and it has unity. If you are tempted to minimize the importance of structure and arrangement in the sermon, remember Lenski's statement:
Of course, it is true that an excellent sermon may be preached without an excellent inner structure. The preacher may have a fine personality, an excellent voice, natural force, trained eloquence, and a striking way of putting things. Such features may make his sermon excellent. But none of these, not even all of these, features excuse the structural fault. Excellence in one or more points never makes up for inferiority in other points. In fact, a flaw in a great diamond is more deplorable than the same flaw in a cheaper stone. (Page 7:7.)
And, it might be asked, what if you don't have a "fine personality, an excellent voice, natural force, and trained eloquence"? You can still go a long way in proclaiming the Word of God effectively if what you say makes sense—if it all comes together into a meaningful whole! Unity is to coherence what simplicity is to clarity.
But all this has to do with the "topical" sermon. What about the "textual" sermon? It has every thing to do with the textual sermon. In these basic considerations, what applies to one applies also to the other. Remember, a topical sermon deals with a Bible topic, a textual sermon deals with a Bible text. Herein lies a basic difference and herein lies a basic similarity also.
Traditionally, a distinction has been made between a "textual" and an "expository" sermon. A textual sermon is one that deals with a short passage from Scripture, a verse or two, while an expository sermon deals with a longer passage—several paragraphs, a chapter, or at times a book of the Bible. I fail to see the point in that distinction. Preaching from a text is expository preaching, but so is preaching from a topic provided it is Biblical. My terminology, then, is "topical" and "textual" rather than "topical" and "expository." But whatever the terminology, we need more preaching that expounds the text of Scripture, and the next article will help to show how that may be achieved.