Back there in seminary school, as Jim Morrison once said, we were taught to write and craft sermons across a variety of styles and layouts. The push from the homiletics department was towards texture and difference, and towards a courage to practice a number of sermonic formats. Part of this had to do with finding our own voice as a preacher. Certain types of sermons appeal to certain types of preachers (and parishes), and practicing different forms helped us locate our comfort zones. It also helped build a fluency with the available forms. The Bible is not one type of writing, but many, and publicly moving through a text using our same old favorite outline structure can turn into missed opportunities to say things in fresh and compelling ways.
The sermon is not always this style or that, but only sometimes.
Three common examples I have used:
- The sermon is sometimes a lesson. This has to do with the information within and around the text. In the lesson-type sermon, the preacher is clarifying things that may have been murky or otherwise unknown. They are walking their parish through the text in a way that helps it make more sense. This is a good format for disassembling old ways of thinking that may be faulty or misleading. The preacher can employ this style to help free people from old theological haunts, as well. The purpose here is clarification and understanding. In this setting, the preacher is “teaching.”
- The sermon is sometimes a medicine. This is about comfort and healing, about finding the life and hope in the text for the gathered people. We often imagine they enter the sanctuary ready for the next installment of our well-crafted series of sermons, but the reality is much different: they enter most often as a bruised and broken people, bringing with them the cuts and scars from the week before. The preacher most listen closely to the text and know when it is calling for hope above all else, and then to craft their message accordingly. This type of sermon covers the room in the grace and mercy of God. Its purpose is life and affirmation. In this way, the preacher is a voice of healing, and a guide into a way forward.
- The sermon is sometimes a prophecy. This is about those times when the preacher speaks a truth that has been overlooked or discarded. We’re in the realm of reminder and repentance here, of returns and rebirths. It may be that the congregation has fallen into a graceless relationship with the world around them and the preacher provokes with a sermon on what it means to be a people defined by the love that is seen in Christ. There may be an injustice that the preacher must take on, and this involves pointing it out and calling it by name, and calling their people to hear the voice of God for the voiceless and the discarded. This is a must for the preacher, but it need not be off-putting and negative; though it is an irritation of sorts, it can be delivered as a callback to the ways of God, and it can be done in a way that is productive and life-giving, and also attractive. The goal here is formation and also action, not shame and guilt.
How a text gets formatted into a sermon depends much on our willingness to listen to the voices and tones of the congregation. There’s a lost opportunity when we hole up and write these things isolated from the lives and stories of our people. But when we practice this, our sermons emerge as part of the congregational conversation, which is nice.
Take a look at your sermon notes and try and find the most often used forms of your messages. Are there different ones you might try? See what you can find.