“What was that all about?” That is the question we hope one spouse does not ask another on the way home from church. Unfortunately, it is more common than we might think. Sometimes entire discipleship programs are built around helping people try to discern together what the sermon was all about. I listen to a lot of sermons every week from undergraduates, graduate students, ministry leaders getting their doctorates, and preachers I coach. I have come to have an intuitive sense for when the preacher finally ‘finds’ their sermon. It often happens while they are in the middle of preaching. Some times it comes right at the moment the listener thinks the sermon should be winding down.
It has happened to all of us. We think we have a sermon, it made sense on paper, or in our brief run throughs. Yet in the moment of preaching it, we feel like we are trying to swim in our winter clothes. It just does not flow smoothly, and seems to flounder around. Typically, the reason is we have not reached clarity in our preaching preparation process. We thought we had clarity, but if we had to define it for others it would not have been as clear.
Austin and Searle were two linguistic specialists who came up with a theory about words and what they do. Three categories guided them: words say things, words do things in their saying, words effect things. It seems simple at first, but it is difficult to always pay attention to.
Tom Long applied this to preaching with two suggested sentences for preaching preparation in his book The Witness of Preaching. First, the focus statement. Write a single sentence that describes what your sermon is trying to say. Think of this as its content. Second, write a function statement, what the sermon is trying to do to the listener in the sermon moment. Think of this as if the sermon was a verb (challenge, encourage, equip, motivate, inspire, etc).
I have found that Long’s omission of the third category tends to shortcut preaching’s applicability and practicality. So I ask students to write one more sentence, a future statement. That statement should be a clear picture of the change in the community that could happen if everyone believed and lived the sermon you are about to preach.
If you can clearly state these three (focus, function, and future) statement in a way that communicates to the average person in your congregation you will rarely have someone say “what was that all about?”
Below is a quick walk through of each with some guidance to follow for your preaching.
The Focus Statement: Content
The structure I give my students and preaching coaching clients to use for their focus statements does not come from Long. But I have found it helps people achieve a better focus statement that is God centered. Fans of Haddon Robinson might notice the similarity of Long’s concept to Robinsons’ “Big Idea”. But neither one really guides the preacher in what the sentence should be about, or how to make sure it does not devolve into self-help mumbo jumbo. So structure your sentence this way:
God’s character gospels the human condition.
Each piece of that a summary sentence can be explained in specific ways unique to the passage. The scriptures are always about God. God is always the subject even when God remains hidden or is only implied. So make sure your focus statement is about God’s activity and God’s divine initiative. It will help prevent an anthropological sermon.
The sermon should gospel the listener, not guilt the listener. That does not mean we avoid naming sin. Yet at the end of the day the good news of God’s mercy should triumph over the warnings of God’s justice. How does the good news of God take specific form through this passage and in this sermon?
The human condition is the passage’s diagnosis or revelation of the fallenness of our human condition. We long for hope, but we despair. We long for relationships, but we isolate. We long for fulfillment, but we numb ourselves with entertainment and addiction. We promise faithfulness, but deliver inconsistency. All of these are general thoughts that might come from some passage. But what comes from this passage?
Each of these may emerge out of order in your sermon study, but putting them in order for your focus statement will help you make the sermon content crystal clear, and theologically compelling.
Here is an imperfect example of a focus statement: Because of Jesus’ work for us, God does not merely endure us, he enjoys us.
The focus summarizing the content, or what the sermon is saying.
The Function Statement: Affect
This is one of the areas where Long’s Witness of Preaching makes a great addition to the “Big Idea” concept that has been common to preaching long before Haddon Robinson wrote his book. Words do something even in their saying. For example, when I promise something, a social contract has been formed. When I say “I do” in a ceremony with my fiancée, a covenant has been made. Saying the words does something. When I say, “I forgive you” there is a content, but there is also an immediate reality shift.
What does this sermon want to do to the listener during the sermon?
Long does not require this focus statement to address the affect of the listener, but I have found it helpful for preachers to make this clear. If the sermon was a verb, what would it be? (convict, inspire, motivate, celebrate, etc.). If the immediate effect is you come up with is to remind, inform, or guide you are often simply restating your focus (content) in a new way. Stating the affect, the mood of the sermon helps preachers avoid the old mistake of passionately pounding a fist on the pulpit while shouting “God loves you!”
Here is an imperfect example of a function statement: To convince the believer of the Father’s smile, and invite the nonbeliever into the enjoyment of God.
The function summarizes the affect, or what the sermon is doing.
The Future Statement: Effect
The truth is even when listeners can answer “what was that all about” they cannot always answer the other question that comes up in the car or over Sunday lunch: “What do we do with that?” As the previous generation of preaching professors used to ask, “Yeah, so what?” So I have added this statement to Long’s suggestions for nearly a decade because it is the category of Austin and Searle I have watched the clarity it adds to preachers sermons
A sermon that cannot envision the future consequences of its suggestions has not yet been fully formed. It is not enough to leave it completely up to the imagination of plumbers, electricians, elementary school teachers, cubicle workers, lawyers, and doctors to figure out how to live out the gospel in their world. They need help beginning that imagination process.
How would life look in the future if everyone listening fully believed it and consistently lived it?
Writing this statement forces the preacher to play with the imagination and to dream. Writing a future statement presses the pastor past “I need to find something to say” toward “we need to find a new way to live.”
Here is an example of an imperfect future statement: Imagine a church where the smile of God radiates from the heart of every believer, where the kindness of God is extended to every sinner, and the enjoyment of God is the thing we look forward to the most.
The future statement summarizes the sermon’s effect. Think of this as what the sermon partners with God’s work in creating.
What is your sermon partnering with God’s word and work in saying, doing, and creating?
When a preacher’s focus is unclear (or never written) often their sermon wanders around in the dark, sometimes for twenty minutes before it gains traction.
When a preacher’s function is unclear (or never discerned) often the sermon mood is completely mismatched to the sermon’s content.
When a preacher’s desired future is unclear (or never envisioned) often the sermon was “nice” or “good” or “interesting” even “brilliant” but the listener has no idea how to live into it, how to carry it with them into the future.
I recently coached a pastor of a church that runs about 2000 in weekly attendance and has planted seven churches that are all expanding and doing well. The pastor’s report after working on these three sentences for a preaching season was that it “cracked the code” for him. It finally helped him figure out why some sermons flew and others flopped. We will still have swings and misses. That is just the way it works. But more often, our sermons will at least make contact if we know what we are swinging at.
Try it out on your next sermon. It will take some time. It takes some discipline. Yet when 100 people are in the room, there are 50 kingdom hours invested in listening to my half hour sermon. It is worth the effort. And given all the effort we already give to a sermon, making sure it becomes focused, comes across in the right tone, and is effective in changing lives is worth the doing for ourselves.
© 2020, David Ward
David Ward is Professor of Homiletics at Indiana Wesleyan University and the general editor for WesleyanSermons.com. He is also the author of Practicing the Preaching Life with Abingdon Press.