Preaching as Pointillism: My Homiletical Preferences, Principles & Aspirations
What is the purpose of a sermon? Or, perhaps better, ideally what should be the purpose of a sermon? For centuries this question has been vigorously discussed by laity and clergy alike, and the nature of the discourse has ranged from intensely academic to unflinchingly practical. Far be it for me to try to answer the question in a single blog post. Such an attempt would be not only ludicrous, but would almost innately smack of arrogance. What I can share is my own homiletical philosophy, flawed as it may be. So readers don’t misunderstand my intentions here, let me state it plainly that I’m not arguing what I think are the objectively superior preaching principles in every conceivable context. As the sub-title suggests, I am explaining my own preferences and principles–all things being equal.
It may be helpful to begin by acknowledging my influences and perspectives, which some might see as biases and prepositions. My dad likes to joke about the Bob Uecker school of baseball. Its tagline is, “See what I did? Don’t do that.” That pretty well describes how I approach my Pentecostal background’s preaching. Sermons were the pinnacle of the service. Despite routinely going at least an hour and a half, they rarely delved deep into the biblical text. There was an awful lot of eisegesis. That is, projecting foreign concepts onto the text rather than drawing meaning out. There were way too many tangential anecdotes, punny jokes, sports analogies, half-baked ideas, self-referential musings, embarrassing stories about the pastor’s family, and emotionally manipulative rhetorical techniques. Little wonder I’m Anglican and am strongly influenced by the Reformed homiletics.
As a general rule, I’m not a fan of overt topical sermons. Whether they’re about justification or parenting, worship or abortion, racial equality or social justice, I’m usually disinclined toward a thematic approach. I’m also not big on sermons that start with a biblical passage, but end up just using it as a launching pad to a topic. I call them exopical because they’re half exegetical, half topical. So-called “Gospel-centered” sermons aren’t high on my priority list, either. You know the ones. They try to make every passage explicitly about the Gospel and every sermon tries to convey the totality of the Gospel, which is usually confined to Jesus’ death on the cross for the forgiveness of a sin rather than the full redemptive narrative from creation to consummation. *rubs temples*
My hope and aspiration for any sermon is that the listener will be saturated by Holy Scripture, not the assorted musings of the preacher. God’s Word is life-giving. It speaks with greater wisdom and illumines the human condition far better than anyone else can. That’s why I want people walking away feeling like they know Scripture better. What I love, then, are sermons that are thoroughly and unapolgetically exegetical. That is, a sermon that centers on the biblical text and tries, insofar as one is reasonably able, to draw out the original intent of its authors and redactors. Such an approach digs deep, exploring a text’s context. It distinguishes between interpretation and application, insisting that we must first make a concerted to rightly understand the biblical text before we can possibly rightly apply it.
The pastor who for me exemplified exegetical sermons was Dan Orme. I’m thankful to have caught the final couple years of his lucidity before the dementia really set in. During one of University Church’s weekly Sunday lunches I sat down with Dan and asked about his homiletical philosophy. From that conversation came my four-part methodology. First and foremost, I endeavor to explain the biblical text in light of its literary and original cultural-historical. Second, when helpful and appropriate I explain how the Church Fathers or major theologians have understand the text. Third, I try to extrapolate transcendent principles and facts. Finally, I strive to explain how those principles and facts might be discerningly applied in our own complicated cultural-historical context. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it.
A good analogy for my overall homiletical philosophy may be Pointillism. When you look from up close each dot of pure color is distinct, and can look kind of messy. Yet when you take a step back something emerges. The dots somehow blur together to form a beautiful picture. The sum is greater than the parts. In much the same way, I don’t like when a sermon tries to accomplish everything or neatly tries to knock out a whole issue. I just want it to contribute a few dots here and there. Over the course of several years a larger picture emerges. With such an approach, a church’s sermons will portray the full breadth of Scripture’s redemptive narrative and the full depth of the christian life. It’s a much more subtle and long-term outlook, but one I think is deeply formative.
What do I mean by the full breadth of Scripture’s redemptive narrative? Well, you know how in some churches every single sermon is somehow about the cross? I mean the opposite of that. The cross is great but it literally isn’t everything. What about the incarnate Word’s birth? Surely the cross is no more important than Jesus’ life and ministry. Doesn’t everything hinge on Christ’s resurrection? Don’t forget His sending of the Holy Spirit or His coming again. Once you’ve gotten there, what about the covenants He fulfilled, the Law, and the prophets? What about the poetry and wisdom literature, laments and epistles? And we’ve still not even touched basic framing issues like creation and the fall. In my opinion, far too many preachers are one-trick ponies who try to make everything about one event, motif, attribute, or doctrine, thereby ignoring the fullness of Scripture.
What do I mean by the full depth of the christian life? It’s quite simple. We live during an era of Christ’s already-not yet Kingdom. As such Christians will inevitably encounter the full spectrum of human emotions and experiences. Over time sermons should prepare the covenantal people for life and death, love and hate, hope and fear, joy and sorrow, renewal and corruption, tranquility and anxiety, clarity and confusion, grace and judgment, thanksgiving and lament, rest and fatigue, relief and agony, growth and stagnation, faithfulness and disobedience, peace and conflict, invigoration and apathy, truth and lies, humility and arrogance, creation and destruction, blessing and curse, success and failure, delight and disappointment, praise and slander, commendation and rebuke, kindness and wrath, acceptance and rejection, trust and doubt… All of it.
OK, but what about the practical nuts and bolts of duration and rhetorical strategy? I see no need for it to exceed 30 minutes. Let’s be honest. When a sermon goes upwards of an hour it’s usually because the pastor is a) trying to cram in way too much, b) unnecessarily repeating things, c) using way too many jokes, anecdotes, and analogies, or d) didn’t adequately think through things beforehand. As Dan once put it,
I value the preaching of Scripture, but there’s nothing sacred about an extended sermon. Most pastors go half again as long as they need to simply because they’re lazy. They’re making it up or figuring it out on the spot and forcing their congregations to suffer through the process. It’s poor spiritual leadership.
Following in Dan’s footsteps, I love manuscript sermons. Just reading what has already been written. It doesn’t have to come off as academic, dry, or impersonal. In fact, if done well it can be quite accessible–even conversational. Plus it saves a lot of time and requires the prep work of study and prayer be done beforehand. It’s more difficult, and that’s precisely why I like it. It requires the preacher to step up.
Lastly, I’m serious when I talk about sticking to the biblical text. As well-intended as they may be, I don’t particularly care for sermons that end up being something of a weekly, public diary. The same holds true of systematic and historical treatises coming from the pulpit. I don’t want to hear about Federal Headship vs. Seminalism or arguments for and against the Filioque clause, let alone the battle royale between Calvinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism. Shoot, I wouldn’t even like a sermon about the Trinity. Those issues can and should be explored with vigor, but my preference is that would happen in another context such as Sunday School or small groups. It’s really quite simple but I’ll say it again: My hope and aspiration for any sermon is that the listener will be saturated not by the assorted musings of the preacher but by Holy Scripture.
Confused? Need an example of what I’m talking about? Here’s my first sermon from December 19, 2011: Sermon #1: Luke 1.26-38