Two weeks ago we read a challenge by one of our pastors and seminary students to make Easter more exciting than the Superbowl. I do not think that preaching alone can accomplish that goal by any means. I do think, though, that preaching needs to be a part of it. The problem? Most of our preaching starts high in energy and ends low in energy. It starts high in humor and ends low in joy. We need to recover structures for sermons that help us to start with energy and end with energy so that we walk out of the preaching moment with higher hope than when we walked in.
To help us do that I want to lay out for you the basic concepts of Eugene Lowry’s Homiletical Plot. It is the one book I wish I could have every experienced preacher read. It is a little more difficult to get through than your average book written by a church growth pastor who wants you to preach like them. At the same time, it is deeper, more transformative, and more helpful for preaching in the long run. Robert Gelinas, pastor of Colorado Community in Aurora, CO once told me he re-reads the book every year. He has been pastoring long enough to make that rather impressive.
Gene Lowry argues that what makes preaching narrative is not a story or a string of stories. Contrary to popular thought what makes a sermon structure narrative is the flow of thought that follows something similar to a plot lines. Plots introduce characters, then show us the conflict between them and the world, then show some clue that will resolve the conflict, then leave the tension mostly resolved in some sort of satisfying conclusion. Here’s how that works in sermons in Lowry’s mind:
Stage 1: You upset the status quo. Introduce a conflict, a tension, a problem, or a deeply felt human itch. It might start as simply as this “I want to read to you the most offensive passage in the New Testament” or like this “I have a friend who really does not like Easter.” Ideally the upsetting or itching stage is born out of deep study of the text. The problem you introduce is a key problem for the text.
Stage 2: You analyze the conflict. Lowry calls this the “discrepancy.” Sometimes the conflict in our sermons is a discrepancy between how life seems on the surface, and what scripture tells us to believe. At this stage, the goal is to get people to stop giving polite church nods and truly feel the trouble with the world as it is, or the claims of scripture, or their own lives.
Stage 3: Disclose a clue to resolution. The gospel comes through in every text in scripture if we search long enough for it. With eyes to see, we can discern the good news of God’s holy love in both testaments even in the genealogies or Leviticus’ rigid rules. The preacher’s job is to find the clue that resolves the conflict or discrepancy the people feel so very deeply.
Stage 4: Experience the gospel. What makes this model so open toward celebration and hope is that it asks us to help people experience God’s good news in ways similar to experience in a good story. We experience Lincoln’s loneliness and burden in Steven Spielberg “Lincoln.” We feel the moral dilemma’s and the beauty of grace in “Les Miserables.” Good preaching should do the same. We find ways to help people experience intellectually, emotionally, and volitionally the good news at as many levels as possible.
Stage 5: Anticipate the Consequences. The good news changes us. The particular slice of the good news that our scripture passage of the day highlights for us points us toward the future in our own lives. The bible doesn’t offer us dead truths to be believed in coldly. It offers us ways of living with God in the world warmly. Help your people see a new way to live. Help them embrace it. And do it with a celebration of what that world could look like if they did.