In another year or so I will have been helping preachers sharpen, focus, and stamp their sermons into listeners’ minds for a decade. That’s not very long at all. Yet it is long enough to know some things I offer preachers are more helpful than others. Here’s one that seems more helpful than others when preachers actually do it. The trouble is, most preachers would rather ramble their way through lots of sentences and hope and pray one of them sticks. They simply have no idea which one it will be.
Your preaching sentence is often the focal point of your sermon. It can be used as a refrain that runs throughout the sermon giving it continuity. It can also be the point/concept you inductively build up to, and then deductively work from. Or it could be the final capstone on a long narrative work that brings the sermon together
Whatever you choose to use the preaching sentence for, it helps to have one. It is a one-sentence condensation of the key idea of your message. Tom Long calls it the focus of the sermon in his book The Witness of Preaching. I prefer preaching sentence as a title since it reminds you that this sentence needs to preach! It can’t lie dead on a page.
Here’s how to write a good one.
1. Do your exegetical and communal work first.
Understanding is best formed in community. You will explore two types of community’s in your sermon study: the community of scholars and the embodied community around you. Hold an open dialogue with the text, its original languages, the structure of the scripture passage, the historical background, and the critical commentaries that deal with it. Read a preaching commentary if it helps.
Then interact with that passage with a living community. Bring it up at the breakfast table. Share it with an administrative assistant and see what he thinks about it. Call a pastor friend and ask her what strikes her in the passage. Share it with a friend of a different political persuasion or Christian community. In short, do your work.
2. Let the passage get a hold of you.
Something has to ‘captivate’ you as Gadamer has put it so well. The truth we find in scripture has the ‘truth of play’ about it. In other words, be creatively playful with the ideas of the text. Try to imagine a world that the text is creating or suggesting. Then let it grip you like a good game consumes your entire being. How does this passage stake a claim on your life? Don’t allow yourself to live off of old repentance either. Ask how this passage might change the way you live in the world this week. If you can’t answer that, keep wrestling with God until he blesses you and dislocates something.
3. Put what you have learned from the passage into a sentence.
At first, it may come out more of a paragraph than a sentence. Keep whittling it down and paring it down to keep the punch, or even heighten the punch, of the sentence but make it more memorable. Get it into one sentence.
Here’s how this process looked with one sermon I wrote:
Mt. Sinai: Moses comes down to see the people with a golden calf. “Why did they craft the calf?” I asked. I asked the passage questions, wrestled with it and studied it, then walked around with it for a while.
A young woman spoke with me about her drug dealing boyfriend saying that ‘You can’t touch God. And God doesn’t hold me when I am hurting and lonely.’
I realized in that conversation something new about idols. Here was my first preaching sentence attempt after that realization:
If we think idolatry is something only other people do, we don’t realize how attractive idols are.
4. Whittle the preaching sentence down into a memorable form.
Shoot for a relatively condense form. Parallel forms often preach well but aren’t necessary. Make sure the sentence fits the way you preach. You should almost be able to hear yourself preaching the sentence. Here’s how that sermon sentence whittled down turned out:
I’ll tell you why idols are nice: I can touch mine, and it touches me.
Here are some tests to see if your preaching sentence is working the way it should:
- A preaching sentence should both explain and entice. It should require a little bit of explaining before or after it is spoken. Don’t cram every bit of your sermon into once long sentence.
- Don’t use a preaching sentence in the same way every sermon. Use it in the intro in one, the body in another, the conclusion in a third and the consistent refrain in the fourth. If you use a refrain every time, it gets tiring. If you always put your claim up front, people check out. If you always make people wait for the “hidden reveal” they will stop listening until about the time you usually reveal it.
- Ask a few people to put your sermon into a sentence. If it is consistently nothing close to your preaching sentence you likely haven’t focused your preaching well enough. This does not mean the spirit can’t do different things with different people. It just means a focused sermon will hit most people in similar ways. An unfocused sermon will hit everyone in different ways.
How have you heard preaching sentences used effectively recently?