A Sermon Preparation Method

A Sermon Preparation Method

I am going to advocate here for an old approach to sermon preparation that some think has run its course. I have tried to make the case for it before and failed to convince anyone. The skepticism I met when I tried has been primarily simple, out-of-hand dismissal, and that is partly what motivates me to give it another, relatively more public try. It guides my preparation for every sermon, and I think it never received a fair hearing. First though, why dig into this?

A common critique of a Lutheran sermon is its predictability: first comes the Law, and then, at the 40% mark, the Gospel. A 40/60 relationship assures a proper, even Waltherian predominance of Gospel over Law. There is a lot to say about this critique.

First, “faithful but predicable,” which is what I would call it, is a lot better than many alternatives. For example, there is the sermon in which the pastor decides, this time, to read the congregation the riot act. That is worse. Then, there is the rambling sermon devoid of all structure, which is sure to confuse Law and Gospel, although perhaps no one notices. That is worse too. I consider the sermon which makes the hearer’s reception of the Gospel dependent on his or her activity in carrying it forward worse as well. There are a lot more, but this list is limited to what I personally hear and, for better or for worse, I almost exclusively hear sermons preached by Lutheran pastors. After a few of the worse ones, I find the “faithful but predictable” sermon of a diligent seminarian downright refreshing.

Second, Law and Gospel may not be a distinction intended as a sermon structure, but you are not very well going to awaken in the hearer a real knowledge of their sin after you have forgiven it. It should be clear that the “Law,” in “Law and Gospel,” is the 2nd use, the theological use, the “mirror.” When we talk about preaching “Law and Gospel,” whether we make it structural or in some other way build the proclamation around it, that Law is the Law which accuses, and it must come before the Gospel, since an accusation after the Gospel undermines the absolution. This is not really a statement about the third use, except for this: In the stereotype of a Law/Gospel sermon, which is so casually critiqued, the Third Use of the Law really is M.I.A.

Moving along, the stereotypical Lutheran sermon, even if it is drab, is hardly the worst of our problems. Innovation is not high on the list of things we should be expecting from our pulpits. Faithfulness is. Contemporaneity, which is to say relevance, is. Clarity is. These can all be achieved in the Law/Gospel sermon. None of them, I would contend, is fixed simply by a departure from it.

Nevertheless, I am not at the end of the line of those willing to critique sermons either. That is clear at this juncture. And I do not think the stereotype I am defending is the end-all, either. I only mean to acknowledge how preaching is actually very difficult to do well. I am more inclined to try and shield, if only a little bit, the pastor who recognizes this reality and “keeps it simple,” rather than to go after him. But I promised I would advocate for a method of sermon preparation here, and this is because there is, in my opinion, a decent way to make it better. 

The method is Kerygma-Intention-Idion-Goal-Malady-Means-Theme-Line-of-Direction. Some of the readers will recognize Goal-Malady-Means as the signal words of a tired, old method, but I give it this long name to make a point. If you only pick up those three parts, you have only taken one step in the method, and not even the first one. I am going to walk the patient reader through it now and include some of my own remarks. It is not my method, but I have been practicing applying it for about a decade.

Kerygma-Intention-Idion is the first step. This is your textual study. Kerygma is about figuring out the Gospel proclamation of the text. All through the Kerygma-Intention-Idion-Goal-Malady-Means-Theme-Line-of-Direction method, the key is finding something particular, if not even unique, about the Biblical text. The Gospel might treat a specific sin, use a particular metaphor, focus more on the work of Christ or the promise of the Father, focus toward Christ’s active or His passive obedience, and/or it might even steer toward something enabled by the Gospel, like the blessings of living among the people of God. The point is, the Kerygma is the specific Gospel of this text. Then comes Intention. This is, for me, one of the hardest parts of the method. Here, you are asking what the original intention of the Biblical text is. This is easier to figure out in an epistle or a prophetic work than, for example, in the Gospels, with their layers of authorship (the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to instruct Luke to record Jesus saying…), but it is helpful for getting a handle on the text to figure this out. In contrast, I find it incredibly useful, and quite straightforward, to identify the Idion of the text. This is what makes the pericope unique. Included here are literary genre, tone, argument structure, and anything else which jumps out. I sometimes also include (although maybe it is not proper to do so) any notes about how a text might be heard. If the reading is really well known or will obviously trigger something for my hearers, I note it here. The Idion is so great, because it can be transferred to your sermon. Is the tone aggressive or soft? Your sermon can be that way too. Is it a story or a reasoned argument? Your sermon can be one or the other.

The next step is Goal-Malady-Means. This is where you acknowledge how, in the best situations, you should not preach the same sermon to two different congregations. Most of my preaching these days is vacancy preaching, and I find it extraordinarily valuable to know if I am preaching to 5 or 100 people, to 20-somethings or retirees. The Gospel is the same, but the lives are different and so is my personal interaction with those lives. Most preachers have the same crowd every week, but the texts do not. This step is about applying the text to your unique audience. The best starting point often seems to take the perspective of the Kergyma you have figured out and look for the malady in their collective lives it might connect to. The Malady is really important. Some texts will send you after the hearers’ whole life - this means going after original sin. But most require you to be narrower, to focus on their greed or idolatry, their adultery or covetousness. If you know them, it can be even more specific. But if you have no malady, they will become numb to your Law preaching. The Means is the Kergyma. This is the Gospel which pairs with the Law, the work of God to heal them of their malady. The Goal is something to help guide you in the next steps. It is where you try to answer the question of what will be different in the listeners’ lives after this sermon. A bad goal is, “There will be no more sin.” A better goal knows how this is neither the first nor the last sermon they will probably hear.

Theme and Line-of-Direction are the last part, and they go together. They are especially key for making the sermon memorable. The first is exactly what it sounds like: you need a theme. It can be a concept or an action. It is usually better to draw it out of the Kerygma, so the sermon centers on God’s redemptive work rather than the person’s repentance. At any rate, for the theme you need to find a question you use to interrogate it such that the answers come from the text. If it goes well, you have a 1-2-3 punch. You get two or three or four (usually three) answers from the text which parallel one another grammatically, making them memorable.

This is the basic outline for your sermon. I usually try to develop at least three or four ideas for Theme and Line-of-Direction, and then let them all rest overnight. The best one usually floats to the top. Once it has, I develop the outline in more detail and try to arrange distinct dogmatic statements into each section. If I cannot do this, I figure the sermon has a failed structure and look for a new Line-of-Direction or even a new Theme.

The outline you have when you use this method is always what I have just described, with the addition of an introduction. The purpose of the introduction is to get the theme into a person’s mind. In a good sermon, it can also return at the end to help wrap things up, but I find this is not always successful. It also serves another purpose at the same time: I often use the Introduction to draw out the Malady. I need the hearers to listen to the sermon like it matters for their salvation, and I find an Introduction which draws on their lives is the most effective place to latch-in. This is, of course, also sometimes determined differently by the Idion of the text, but often it works.

I am honestly not sure what is so terrible about this method. I rather think it has been misunderstood. It is extremely faithful to the Biblical text. The only restriction on a preacher’s outline is it requires him to have one. It also significantly helps the preacher to not bore his hearers to tears with the same sermon every week, independent of what text is up in the Lectionary. This method was originally shown to me by my vicarage supervisor. A few years back, we published his article “The Path from Text to Sermon” in Feasting in a Famine of the Word. Respectfully, it is worth your attention.

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