Third in a series on preaching

Third 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.

A seasoned mechanic knows the “how,” the nuts-and-bolts of machines. There are many principles and rules determining how a motor works. The same is true of preaching and preachers. David Buttrick’s Homiletic: Moves And Structures endeavours to make preachers more conscious of the “how to” principles and rules of preaching and sermons. Here is more advice from Professor Buttrick on what to avoid in preaching and sermons and how to prepare and deliver sermons. If you agree with Buttrick and practice all or most of his advice, bless you! If not, then argue with him, test his advice, learn and grow in your preaching, and bless you too!

Avoid conceptual words, vague general terms like: goals, relationships, situations, desires, and the like. Instead use visual images or analogy. Instead of: In our homes, in daily life, we do not take time for God or prayer. Use language like this: At home, around a kitchen table, or when it’s tuck-in-time for bed, we don’t bow our heads much, do we?

Instead of flat verbs like look, see, or realize, revise, removed, omitting, spoke, use colour verbs having visual character like: peer, scan, peek, stare, study, puzzle, probe, gaze, take in, grasp, catch on, make out, savvy, penetrate, set out to, edit, scrapping, scratched, fit to scribble, frame, hand out, and the like. Use adjectives very sparingly, they only snuff out comprehension. Verbs & nouns are strong; adverbs have some power; but, orally, adjectives are weak words. Use pronouns like: you, we, us rather than human beings, or people. Use present tense and active voice most of the time, use passive voice when we are not concerned with agency or wish to imply indirect agency. Use mostly short, clear sentences, although mixing short with longer sentences works and is normal in ordinary speech.





Second in a series on preaching

Second 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.


Continuing with David Buttrick’s Homiletic: Moves and Structures, here are a few more words of advice. If I had to sum up what Professor Buttrick advises below in one sentence I would say: Keep your sermons short and simple or KISS. The advice to keep them short may be debatable however—especially among preachers who do not celebrate Holy Communion on a regular basis. Moreover, maybe a sermon needs to be longer, not shorter to increase the listeners’ opportunity to actually retain 35 percent of it. J I do wonder about the source(s) of Buttrick’s research, which he fails to cite. I also wonder how researchers do know what they say they know regarding their research—i.e. what methods do they employ and are they reliable? That said, his advice in using the 5,000 word vocabulary rather than the erudite 12,000 word one does have wisdom. Preaching is about communicating the Gospel clearly in order that folks listening really do hear and/or encounter Christ in the preached word.

Research indicates that in a reasonably good sermon, only about 35 percent of the language will be functional; the rest will have suffered instant erasure, dropping out of consciousness almost as soon as it is spoken. While such deletions are usually the result of weak starts and finishes to moves or, possibly, a lack of point-of-view control, some erasures are caused by regrettable language patterns. So, if we are to achieve, at minimum, a 60 percent retention of language, we will have to sidestep some common pitfalls. Also, it is thought that the graduate from seminary has about a 12,000 word vocabulary. Whereas an average congregational member will have a vocabulary of about 7,500 words. However for oral speaking you can reduce the common shared vocabulary of a congregation to about 5,000 words. The language of preaching should be the vocabulary of everyday conversation. Remember, the vocabulary of the New Testament’s koine Greek is not much more than 5,000 words. Unless we are eager to parade erudition, the limited vocabulary of preaching need not disturb us. Moreover, when we speak of important moments, the profound if often troubling moments in our lives, we invariably revert to simple words—i.e. the words we learned in the first 5 years of our lives. Slang words and phrases, if used in shared, everyday language can be used in sermons.

 To be continued…  










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.