Preaching, Part 6: On Sermon Form, Preaching Style, and Making God and His Word Paramount in Preaching

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a preaching series from Southwestern Dean of Theology David Allen. To view the series, click here.

By sermon form I mean the way in which a sermon is structured, or arranged. Just as thought has to be ordered if it is to be intelligible, so sermons have to have some kind of order and arrangement if people are to understand them and benefit from them.

Are all sermon methods equally valid or desirable? Many today would consider expository preaching on an equal plane with virtually any other method of preaching, and perhaps just as many consider it less serviceable for preaching today than other methods such as topical or narrative. The renowned Spurgeon did not think so:

A sermon, moreover, comes with far greater power to the consciences of the hearers when it is plainly the very word of God – not a lecture about the Scripture, but Scripture itself opened up and enforced. . . . I will further recommend you to hold to the ipsissima verba, the very words of the Holy Ghost; for, although in many cases topical sermons are not only allowable, but very proper, those sermons which expound the exact words of the Holy Spirit are the most useful and the most agreeable to the major part of our congregations.[1]

What form should a text-driven sermon take? Today sermon form is frequently dictated by one or more of the following considerations: tradition, the prevailing paradigm in homiletics, culture, literary form, etc. Not all sermon forms are created equal, and some are based on a faulty understanding of biblical revelation and/or the human sciences. For example, the New Homiletic with its disdain for “propositional, deductive” preaching, its frequent elevation of the audience over the text, and its privileging of experience over knowledge, substitutes a narrative sermon form that oftentimes leaves the meaning of the text blurred or undeveloped. This is not to say that the New Homiletic has nothing to teach us about preaching, for indeed it does. However, due to the truncated view of biblical authority of many of its practitioners, it does not take seriously enough the text of Scripture itself as God’s word to us.[2]

But, before we settle on any sermon form, we better ask some key questions. Is this form commensurate with and faithful to the Gospel? Is this form justified by the text of Scripture and its genre? Is this form theologically valid? Is this form audience friendly? Sermonic form is never theologically neutral! Marshall McLuhan was right, even if couched in the form of an overstatement: “the medium is the message.” Form and meaning cannot be completely severed (a principle linguists acknowledge since all language is a form/meaning composite). Hence, the genre/form of the text should play a role in the choice of sermonic form. In other words, it will be pretty difficult to preach on a narrative text, and preach it well, using a purely deductive sermon form. Likewise, Paul’s epistles don’t lend themselves very well to story preaching. As Steven Smith, Dean of the College at SWBTS and Professor of Preaching correctly noted: “The medium of preaching is certainly a message in itself.” (Dying to Preach, 47, a book which is a must read, by the way!). This statement is true not only with respect to the various media (television, radio, digital media, etc.) where preaching is done, but as Steven Smith makes clear, with respect to the very form of the sermon and style of the preacher. Both sermon form and preaching style can inadvertently cause the audience to focus as much or more on the medium rather than the message. Bottom line: though the preacher himself, his style, and sermon form are necessary ingredients of the preaching event, they should never distort God and his word, diminish God and his Word, nor distract from God and his Word. We have this treasure in jars of clay, or, as I’m fond of saying, we have this treasure in peanut butter jars. People don’t buy the jar for the jar; they buy it for what’s inside. Help them to taste and see that the Lord is good! Never forget you’re just the delivery boy. You don’t write the news or edit the news, you just deliver it. Help them to hear this “Gospel” clearly.

Ultimately, sermon form should be dictated by theology. What one believes about the nature and sufficiency of Scripture will largely determine how sermons are structured. Text-driven preaching does not entail enslavement to a deductive sermonic form nor artificial outlining techniques such as a three-point structure, alliteration, etc. A good text-driven sermon that conveys the meaning of the text can be couched in a variety of forms. Scripture employs various genres including narrative, poetry, prophecy and epistles, and good text-driven preaching will reflect this variety as well. There is a broad umbrella of sermon styles and structures that can rightfully be called “expository” or “text-driven.”[3]

So, whatever you do in your preaching, make sure the people walk away having heard your sermon saying: “What a great God, what a great Savior, whose words are life to me.”

[1] C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 73.

[2] Narrative Preaching has come under significant critique in recent years, even by those who were once its ardent supporters. See, for example, Tom Long, “What Happened to Narrative Preaching?” Journal for Preachers 28.2 (2005): 9-14. In 1997, Charles Campbell’s bombshell Preaching Jesus: New Directions for Homiletics in Hans Frei’s Postliberal Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), and James Thompson’s 2001 Preaching Like Paul: Homiletical Wisdom for Today (Louisville/John Knox: Westminster, 2001), both leveled broadsides against the New Homiletic. See also David L. Allen, “A Tale of Two Roads: Homiletics and Biblical Authority,” JETS 43 (2000): 508-13.

[3] For a helpful discussion of this subject, see Dennis Cahill, The Shape of Preaching: Theory and Practice in Sermon Design (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).