As fundamental as earth, wind, water, and fire are to the classic understanding of the material universe, integrative preaching offers four functional elements to the composition of an effective sermon. These elements describe the four poles of the cross-formed axis, describing both the shape of the sermon, as well as its most significant intentions, providing substance and structure to the preaching that results.
Every sermon needs to start with a story. The story serves to engage people, gathering listeners and giving them reason to listen. The story is the subjective element of the sermon (human), integrating problem and picture, and offering a compelling visual display of the struggle that requires our attention.
Theologically, stories emphasize the value of incarnation. God storied himself in human flesh, so displaying how our stories can embody truth. Every text has a story, which is to say that every text has an embedded human theme.
Storytelling is commonly disparaged as mere entertainment, as if this were solely for the pleasure of the listener. But the power of story is more fundamental than this. To "entertain" is to hold attention and who among us does not aspire to this. Stories are engaging because they are offered in the form we live our lives - one thing after another.
The massive influence of narrative media - movies, television, and podcasts, puts the lie to the idea that stories are more juvenile forms of presentation. In fact, every aspect of our public discourse, from the way we hear the news to how how we understand 'reality' is offered in the form of story.
Look for the place where their story (original audience and characters) overlaps with our story (our listeners and ourselves) and his story (the grand story of redemption). The most effective story integrates these three levels of story.
Storytelling is much more than illustration of the primary proposition. Jesus' own preaching forever affirmed the intrinsic value of story itself to teach and deepen truth.
Stories must be shaped for telling, so that the story does not erase, absorb, or misdirect the listener. Stories poorly told can negate the engagement that we aim for.
It might help for us to think like moviemakers, discerning between plot driven scenes that deliver characters, setting, climax, denouement, and shots which offer sensory-driven content like sight, sounds touch, and smell.
We need to learn to speak with a sense of immediacy, offering a present-tense vitality - a dynamic sense of what could be if we were to listen to God and actually live out what he is asking of us.
With the people engaged through story, the preacher follows with a big idea. This theme - a single, simple conceptual expression of the sermon's instruction - will discipline the sermon content and demand the listener's response. Derived faithfully and evidently from the biblical text, the theme serves as the cognitive element of the sermon (head), integrating point and problem, while expressing a truthful response to the challenge of the sermon. The theme is like the "homiletical idea of the sermon."
Theologically, commitment to instruction displays our embrace of God's work of self-revelation. God is making himself known in the world, in part through preachers who instruct people in his Word.
Instruction acknowledges the central importance of the intellect in human transformation. Romans 12:2 says that we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. Through instruction we redesign the neural pathways of the brain, training the mind’s default settings. While it is not enough to simply think correctly, we will never live well until we think well.
Any biblical text will propose several ideas, some of which are big enough to preach. It can feel like we are cheating the text when we try to distill a single proposition for the purposes of communication. Yet this underappreciates the unity of the biblical text. At its core, the Bible offers one big idea - the reconciliation of the creation to its creator, from which every sermonic idea finds its center and its source.
Not all ideas are persuasive. Ideas can be unconvincing, muddled by confusing logic, unreasonable warrants, irrelevant facts, or disreputable endorsements. The presence of any of these will discredit the proposition entirely. A great theme will clarify rather than obscure, through careful definition, appropriate division of thought, the quantification of reality, and through compelling restatement. Great thematic preaching will critique, seeking to approve, disprove, and improve the propositions offered elsewhere. A great theme helps us to think with the mind of God.
1. Define the Terms
2. Order the Argument
3. Differentiate the Components
4. Reinforce the Claims
Preaching needs to proclaim something. Until the sermon offers a subject plus a complement (what we are talking about along with what we are saying about what we are talking about), there is nothing for us to argue about. Until there is something pro-claimed - something to argue about - we haven't really preached.
Having established the theme, the preacher moves to a crescendo moment of conviction in the gospel. The preacher leads the listeners to a recognition that the sermon happens in the presence of God. Having heard from God, what is it that we are compelled to say to God, to confess to him, to thank him for, to ask of him? Conviction is understood in both senses of the word, deepened commitment to truth as well as a forensic sense of accountability.
Theologically, the conviction element acknowledges God as the source of authority and accountability in our preaching. The demand of Scripture is to bring people to a place of submission to the Truth. If we miss this moment, application will be merely moralistic.
In conviction, the sermon comes to a crescendo in a big moment where the listeners must contend with the gospel and confess themselves to God. Under conviction the preacher builds the tone as the sermon comes to climax in an unrepeatable moment in God's presence.
Leading to a moment of conviction ensures that our preaching offers something more than mere moralism. When our listeners have met with God, their response will be something better than legalistic. Application will derive from our encounter with the living God, and not solely from a desire to do better or be better.
The gospel is the place where the theme reaches its natural consequence. The gospel appreciates the impact of the point and expresses the prayer that is appropriate. It is through this conviction that we come to know God even as we are also known by him. This is the hinge point (the doxology) of the sermon.
God is working to restore his people to relationship with him. Preaching, then, is a relational exercise intending to encourage reconciliation between God and humankind. To this end, the preacher clears space for a compelling holy moment in the sermon where the listener meets God.
Convicted by the gospel we are led to worship. Having encountered the person and will of God, we are compelled to respond with praise and adoration. We will be changed by this.
Now that the listeners have met with God, it is time to send them out on mission. As the affective aspect (heart) of the sermon, the mission works to integrate the prayer and the picture, describing an alternative vision for the listener's way of life and being. This sermon needs to inspire change, a new and renewed way of kingdom living in the world.
Theologically, we understand the resonance of inspiration, appreciating that the God who breathed the Scriptures into being, similarly inflates the listeners being through the breath of his Spirit. The Hebrew word for Spirit is the same word for ‘wind’ or ‘breath.’ Filled with this Spirit, we fill the sails of God's intention with this wind.
More than merely moralistic application, a sense of mission is the element that inspires the transformation intended by the gospel. We have heard from the Lord and nothing will ever be the same.
The inspiration that we offer just be expressed in concrete, actionable terms. Listeners need a solid picture as to what this will look like on the ground? Can we describe exactly what this will look like and how it is that people can respond. The mission is real and it must be expressed in real terms.
Preachers always have to guard against trying to make him or herself look good by the quality of the listener's response. Manipulation is a ‘hands-on’ forced behaviour, The temptation to manipulate people through fear, guilt, or hype may effect a short-term outcome, but will always fall short of the lasting intent that God has in mind.
In the end, great preaching will feel like something more than hypothetical, as if all the application has to happen sometime in the future. Great preaching will inspire mission, a present-tense sense of holy expectation and opportunity for the difference that God intends.