First in a series on preaching

To be continued…

First in a series on preaching

WARNING: This is a post primarily for preachers. Readers who are not preachers most likely shall be bored beyond belief, because this is “shop-talk” about the art and craft of preaching.

Every once in a while, we preachers take a refresher course or workshop or read a book on preaching. In the old days, when I was in seminary, homiletics courses often got assigned to the more flexible professors who were willing to teach it, even though the field of homiletics was not their specialty. Although my Profs didn’t specialize in homiletics, nonetheless I am grateful to them for what they taught me in my homiletics courses. We had two professors in particular who were excellent preachers. Nowadays, professors do specialize in homiletics and the field has gained more respect in seminaries. Along with this, the field itself has evolved over the years.


One of the still fashionable methods of preaching is the narrative or story sermon—sometimes also described as the inductive rather than deductive sermon. Inductive preaching begins with the particular and moves to the general; whereas deductive preaching begins with the general and moves to the particular. According to homiletics specialists like Dr Fred Craddock—if I’ve understood him correctly—the narrative sermon makes preaching as much an event engaging both preacher and listeners as it is a focus on the content of the sermon.

Right now I’m reading a book that I likely should have read a couple decades ago, when it came out in the late 1980s; Homiletic: Moves and Structures by Professor David Buttrick—better late than never, I guess. This work is, among other things, an attempt to build a new homiletic from scratch on up. I’m not convinced Buttrick accomplished that—however; there is much to be learned from this volume. Buttrick presents here a phenomenology of language, wherein he studies how sermons work or form in the consciousness of a congregation. Every preacher knows that oral language is different than written language. Buttrick insists that this principle is absolutely crucial in preparing and preaching meaningful sermons. Therefore, he is full of advice on the dos and don’ts of what he calls language moves and structures in the sermon. A move is a single idea developed in the sermon consisting of a) a beginning, b) the main body of the idea, and c) a conclusion of the idea. Buttrick thinks there should be five to six moves in a sermon. The structure of a sermon concentrates on how the moves fit into and serve the whole sermon. Here then are some words of advice from Buttrick on what to avoid in preaching, which he claims are based on research, yet I find that he is short on citing the sources of his research. I’m not necessarily endorsing all of Buttrick’s don’ts here. For example, the use of very is more common in everyday conversations among people I encounter than Buttrick gives credit for.

 AVOID beginning sentences with words like: this, these, those, that, one.

Use it at beginning of a sentence only when immediately following a sentence with a firm noun, never have 2 or more it sentences in sequence. All of these result in instant erasure of consciousness.

Avoid intensifiers like very, really, just, indeed. Written they work to add emphasis, but not orally.

Avoid delaying words or phrases like: actually, we can see…, we can see, however, that…, it is clear that…, it is evident that…Such words and phrases work in written scholarly works, but not in oral sermons.

Sentences beginning with numbers like: first, let us…, in the third place, we can…, will delete from consciousness.

Thus and therefore are seldom used in ordinary conversation, so should be avoided in sermons. As should other words not used in ordinary language.

Do not over use syntactical rhythms like: repetition, doublets, and triadic clauses. Unless disciplined, they can sound through an entire sermon, so that every different idea will be cadenced in the same way. Thus, for example, sin will sound the same as grace; Christ will sound the same as evil.