Did you ever listen to a sermon that fell gelatinously all over the congregation? "Gelatinously"? Julian Huxley first used the term in reference to the perambulations of an invertebrate sea animal. Halford Luccock saw it as a fit description of a sermon without structure. 1 A gelatinous sermon lacks clarity and meaningful coordination. Now, to be sure, the gospel and the Bible that we preach contain profound mysteries that no amount of sermonizing can eliminate. But our preaching shouldn't compound the mysteries. It should help our listeners comprehend all they can of what God has said.
Too often, after listening to a sermon, the hearer says, "I heard the preacher say many good things, but I couldn't follow him—I didn't know what he was getting at or where he was going." The problem very well could be that the sermon was poorly structured or had no structure at all.
William J. Carl III writes: "Because we desire order and structure, we supply it even if it's not there entirely. We hear a lecture or a sermon and we unconsciously do our best to put together in our minds what the lecturer or the preacher is trying to say; or we tune out altogether. We try to bring order to sermons that otherwise might be 'without form, and void.'" 2
When people speak or write, they usually speak or write about something. If not, we generally consider what they say incoherent or meaningless. This is another way of saying that meaningful communication has a theme a focus, what Robinson calls "the big idea." 3 But to talk about something is to say something about it. If the something is the theme, then what is said about it is the elaboration of the theme.
Moreover, what one says about the theme moves in some meaningful way from beginning to end—it follows a progression or design. If the elaboration of the theme just "tumbles forth," it may confuse rather than inform or it may get sidetracked so that it does not say anything about the intended theme, possibly even becoming a theme of its own. The hearer may not be able to analyze what happened, but he knows something got lost.
Scriptural writers worked within this framework too. Either they were writing about something or they were not. Either we preach about something or we do not. And what the writers said and what we say about that "something" may be shaped in numerous ways: chronologically, as in biography; logically, as in argumentation; psychologically, as in persuasion; episodically, dynamically, or dramatically, as in a story; dialogically, as in conversation; et cetera. God forbid that we should preach so that the hearers have no idea of what we are talking about or what we are saying about it. It has happened, and more often than we care to remember!
Preaching and speech making always have been concerned with structure, but they usually have approached it topically, that is the topic has been structured. One reads, for instance, of the "two point" outline, the "question" outline, the "classification" outline, the "Hegelian" outline, et cetera. But this approach to structure hardly suffices for textual or expository preaching, 4 and not just because the classifications seem trivial.
In textual preaching, the sermon comes from the text rather than being imposed upon it. In other words, the text determines the theme of the sermon and how the theme is developed. This suggests that the structure of the sermon should also be determined by the text. Since the Biblical authors carefully arranged what they wrote, one can base the sermon's structure on the organization of the text. Sometimes one can strengthen the sermon by rearranging the parts of the elaboration of the theme in a particular passage of Scripture. The occasion for the sermon and the needs of the audience determine whether this rearranging is justified.
So much for the theory. The crunch comes when one attempts to put the theory into practice. Dogma on method is always dangerous; someone always has a "better idea." What follows, therefore, is suggestive. It is intended to show how analysis of the structure of the text can lead to the use of various sermon designs without doing violence to the text without arbitrarily forcing a given structure upon it.
R. C. H. Lenski suggests perhaps the most direct and fundamental formula: The theme of the text is the theme of the sermon, and the parts of the text are the parts of the sermon. 5 Some passages in Scripture naturally offer this sermonic design:6
Psalm 24: 3-6*
Theme: "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?
Elaboration: "He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of his salvation.
Conclusion: "Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob." One probably cannot come closer to preaching the text as a homily while at the same time observing the unity of the passage and its parts. The progression is straightforward—each part of the text is considered in its turn, one following the other.
Monroe's motivational sequence' has long been considered an effective design for persuasive speechmaking. Not that Alan Monroe invented the rules of persuasion; rather, he made the observation that good persuasive speeches contain five steps—attention, need, satisfaction, visualization, and action.
Everyone acquainted with the New Testament knows that the apostle Paul engaged in a great deal of persuasion. He was an evangelist. He traveled far and wide to win people to Christ—to persuade them to become followers of Jesus. It should not surprise us, then, to find these steps to persuasion in his writings. When Paul wished to correct believers or to renew their faith, he used persuasion.
Romans 6: 1-14
Attention: "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?
Need: "By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
Satisfaction (of the need): "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
Visualization (expansion of satisfaction to show assurance of victory in the future): "For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Action: "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace."
In this sequence the attention step serves as the introduction, not only gaining the attention of the hearers but focusing their attention on the theme—the Christian life and the problem of sinning. The elaboration of the theme comes in steps three and four, satisfaction and visualization.
Logic and reasoning are not foreign to the writers of the Bible. True, the Hebrew and Greek ways of thinking may have differed. But mankind is a rational being, and in every culture people draw conclusions by inference from other conclusions. So when the Scripture presents truth in a rational way, utilizing logic, we would best recognize it as such and let the sermon develop with the text.
Without dwelling at length upon the intricacies of the logical process, let us consider two basic ways of thinking we commonly use: 1. Inductive reasoning, which draws general conclusions from specific instances, and 2. Deductive reasoning, which applies general conclusions to specific instances.
INDUCTIVE: ROMANS 4:1-3, 18-22
Introduction: "What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.'"
Instance 1: "In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations; as he had been told, 'So shall your descendants be.'
Instance 2: "He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead because he was about a hundred years old, or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb.
Instance 3: "No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.
Conclusion: "That is why his faith was 'reckoned to him as righteousness. '"
DEDUCTIVE: HEBREWS 10:19-25
General Conclusion 1: "Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and
General Conclusion 2: "since we have a great priest over the house of God,
Specific Application 1: "let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Specific Application 2: "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and
Specific Application 3: "let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." In a passage such as this, where the theme is not explicit in the text, it may be found in the larger context of the passage or by inference from the passage itself. The heading to this portion of Hebrews 10 in my version of the Revised Standard Version reads, "Our access to God the ground of our hope." This heading summarizes what the verses say and serves very well as a theme. In verbalizing a theme in this way, one has to be careful, of course, not to read into the text something it does not say.
Any consideration of sermon design or structure must not overlook the recent emphasis upon the sermon as story. The story mode is a structural reality in Scripture whether or not one agrees with all of the assumptions and presuppositions of "theology as story" from which story preaching got its impetus. In fact, for the most part, the Bible is a storybook. It comprises the story of God's people, Israel, in the Old Testament, and the story of Jesus in the New Testament.
In the parable sermon and the story sermon, the whole sermon consists of telling a story. This communicates very effectively, carrying with it an internal dynamic and progression. The story holds the interest of the hearer and captures his empathy as episode follows episode and suspense succeeds suspense until the climax. Through the story the message comes across forcefully. But the story-sermon movement has had its excesses. Not every sermon can be presented as a story. The mode does not fit all of Scripture, including some of the most important portions. As much as we may decry "moralizing," a good portion of the Bible consists of moral instruction. It is prepositional and calls for a clear, unambiguous "this is the way, walk in it" proclamation.
Moreover, to tell a parable or a story for fifteen to twenty minutes and keep the interest of the congregation, while at the same time making the "message" clear, takes special skills that not all preachers possess. Although serious study and training will help, this ability is basically a gift. For those who wish to develop this approach, Milton Crum's Manual on Preaching8 offers some exciting possibilities. He sees sermon development in terms of a "process," moving through situation and complication to resolution. Five factors give this process vitality and the dynamics of a story: (1) symptomatic behavior—a description of some commonly experienced behavior that needs to be changed by the gospel; (2) root cause—of the symptomatic behavior; (3) resulting consequences—of the symptomatic behavior; (4) gospel content—the word from God that offers an alternative to the old ways of believing and perceiving; (5) new results—which follow the new way of believing and perceiving. Interestingly enough, though not surprisingly, this process can be found in Scripture:
1 CORINTHIANS 15
Symptomatic behavior (situation): "Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?" (verse 12). (The human tendency to doubt the supernatural—the wisdom and power of God.)
Root cause (complication): "Do not be deceived: 'Bad company ruins good morals.' Come to your right mind, and sin no more. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame" (verses 33, 34).
Resulting consequences (complication): "But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied" (verses 13-19).
Gospel content (resolution): "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ" (verses 20-23).
New results (resolution): "There fore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (verse 58).
The theme for this sermon is found in the "situation"—the symptomatic behavior. The elaboration of the theme follows through the other four dynamic factors.
Eugene Lowry's The Homiletical Plot9 also provides help for the task of story preaching. Lowry's "plot," or process, comes through analogy with drama. The unfolding of the plot corresponds to the unfolding of the drama. He says: "Because a sermon is an event-in-time— existing in time, not space—a process and not a collection of parts, it is helpful to think of sequence rather than structure. I propose five basic sequential stages to a typical sermonic process. . . . The stages are: (1) upsetting the equilibrium, (2) analyzing the discrepancy, (3) disclosing the clue to resolution, (4) experiencing the gospel, and (5) anticipating the consequences." This process may also be found in Scripture. Note that the theme is in the last section of this construct rather than the first—"What it means to be a son of God."
Upsetting the equilibrium: "I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no better than a slave, though he is the owner of all the estate;
Analyzing the discrepancy: "but is under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; when we were children, . we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe.
Disclosing the clue to resolution: "But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his son born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
Experiencing the gospel: "And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'
Anticipating the consequences: "So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir."
Both processes illustrated above work very well with narrative portions of Scripture—historical narrative, biography, parable, et cetera. I have intentionally applied them to nonnarrative passages to show that they are not limited to just storytelling. The process can bring the dynamics of the story to preaching generally while at the same time giving the sermon a shape that keeps it from falling gelatinously all over the place.
Remember that these matters of structure, or shape, or process form only one part of sermon preparation. This article on structure has not considered hermeneutics, exegesis, language style, application, or matters of delivery, et cetera. All of these are vital to the work of preaching. It would be a drastic mistake to major in sermon design to the neglect of everything else. I recommend that preachers in general and young preachers in particular not try to be clever when it comes to structure. Keep it simple and clear. Use whatever seems most likely to give clarity and movement to the sermon. When preaching textually, use whatever the passage has to offer. This will make the sermon all the more Biblical. Save your "creativity" and cleverness to make the content interesting, vital, and challenging.
Above all give attention to the question, "So what?" There must be an urgent reason why you are preaching this particular sermon at this particular time to this particular audience. The gospel today must have a biting relevance.
1 Halford E. Luccock, In the Minister's Workshop (New York: Abingdon Press, 1944).
2 William J. Carl III, "Shaping Sermon by the Structure of the Text," in Preaching Biblically, Don M. Wardlaw, ed. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983). By the way, this book offers a number of intriguing possibilities for sermon development and design.
3 Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980).
4 In subsequent usage in this article, the word textual is used to represent preaching from a pericope or Scripture portion. It is used for both expository and textual, replacing the traditional distinction of expository as preaching on a longer passage and textual, a shorter one.
5 R. C. H. Lenski, The Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1968 [original printing, 1927]).
6 Subsequent outlines are set forth more in keeping with Clyde Fant's "oral manuscript" directional phrases or sentences rather than the traditional major divisions and subdivisions (A, B, C, et cetera). Clyde E. Fant, Preaching for Today (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).
7 Alan H. Monroe, Principles and Types of Speech, fifth edition (Chicago: Scott, Foresman,
8 Milton Crum, Jr., Manual on Preaching (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1977).
9 Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980).
*Bible texts used in this article are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946, 1952 © 1971, 1973.