Preaching Articles

 In Part 1 of this two-part series, I offered ten commandments for biblical preaching. I stand by the convictions that I expressed in that essay and believe those commandments have something to offer biblical preachers. But some rules also are meant to be broken.

The art of preaching can be compared to the art of musical performance. Music operates according to sets of conventions: the musical key, the time signature, the musical genre, the instrumentation. To play music, a musician has to know and understand these conventions and play within them.

But sometimes music becomes even more creative when someone intentionally breaks the rules, such as when someone adds "more cowbell," as it were, or when Beethoven introduced a full chorale into a symphony, or when Bill Monroe married primal vocal harmonies to an up-tempo string ensemble, or when Leo Fender and Les Paul separately wired electric pickups onto solid pieces of wood.

In each of these cases, one or more conventions were set aside, but an even larger set of conventions remained in place. Innovation—like biblical creation—emerges when a small degree of chaos is introduced into a largely ordered and stable ecosystem. If the resulting turbulence is pleasing, the innovation is called a success, and it is continued. If the resulting turbulence is displeasing, we call that "disco," and we repent.

So the suggestion here is that you shouldn't break every rule at once, or all of the time. Just consider and reflect on what might happen if you break the rules.

1. You have heard it said, "You shall proclaim God's Word." I say...
There can be times when biblical preaching does not mean preaching on a biblical text. Yes, it sounds crazy. But a sermon series on the Apostle's Creed can be biblical preaching, since the Creed summarizes the biblical proclamation. Similarly, a sermon series on the liturgy (which is more than sung and prayed scripture) can be biblical preaching.

2. You have heard it said, "You shall not proclaim yourself." I say...
Sometimes you have to share your own faith. When I was on my seminary internship, a member of the church said, "We need to hear more about your faith and experience in your sermon. Not too much, but don't be afraid to let some of it in." The point is there is a degree of self-disclosure in preaching that is not only appropriate, but necessary. The best example I ever heard of this was when the organist died at the church I was serving, leaving a young boy motherless. The senior pastor spoke directly to the boy in his sermon and told about how hard it was on him when his own mother had died and left him motherless at an early age.

3. You have heard it said, "You shall not proclaim the season of the church year." I say...
There are times—even beyond Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve—when the messages of the assigned text (the text) and the church season (the context) are identical. Proclaiming the text in context means speaking directly to the marriage of the two. But really, preaching about the scribe Baruch on the occasion of Administrative Assistants' Week is going too far.

4. You have heard it said, "You shall have (at least) one point." I say...
Sometimes you can do more damage by having a point than by not having one. There are texts and moments in which the preacher might be best off admitting that he or she doesn't much like a text. Or understand it. Or hasn't finished wrestling with the text. Or finds it unsatisfying. Maybe, just maybe, once in a blue moon you could consider simply arguing with a text. This might be better than those sermons in which we simply pretend that the text says something other than what it does say.

5. You have heard it said, "You shall reflect on the implicit as well as explicit content of your preaching." I say...
There are rare moments when you will know that the implicit message that you send is the wrong one, but you have to send it anyway. A friend of mine was asked to preach at a wedding, but was told, "But we don't want you to talk about God." So, of course, she talked about God. There are times when you just have to plow ahead, and trust that the Holy Spirit will work salvation and healing.

6. You have heard it said, "You shall never be the hero of your own story." I say...
Sometimes, as Paul might have said, we have to speak as fools (see 2 Corinthians 11). There are times when the story is so perfect that you just have to use it. But be humble. Keep your head down. Cringe as you do it.

7. You have heard it said, "You shall love the sermon you preach with all your heart and have passion for it." I say...
Sometimes dialing it back a few notches will send a more powerful signal than will turning it the volume up to 11. As a whole, pastors still need to work not to send the message that they are preaching the life-giving, eternal Word of God, rather than the message that they are bored with their own sermon. But sometimes, you have to use your inside voice.

8. You have heard it said, "Your sermons shall have structure." I say...
See Commandment #9 and the accompanying explanation in Part 1 of this series.

9. You have heard it said, "You shall not structure every sermon the same way." I say...
How can you break a commandment that says not to do something the same way every time? Do you do it the same way every time just to break a rule? Hmmmm. "This is a head-aching problem," as my friend Hae Kwon Kim once said. But try this: if you are doing a seven-part sermon series, maybe having the same structure for those seven weeks would be a good thing.

10. You have heard it said, "You shall read a snippet of the text on which the sermon is based at the start of your sermon." I ask...
What would happen if instead of preaching about a lament psalm, you fashioned your entire sermon into a lament? What if your sermon became a prayer? Or a praise psalm? In some sense, this is what was happening twenty years ago when the idea of the "story sermon" became popular. Instead of an exposition of a text, the sermon became a story that in some way embodied the text's message.

Go, and do likewise.

Rolf Jacobson is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary. He also serves as Associate Editor of Word and World, the seminary's quarterly theological journal. His works include Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms (Augsburg Fortress 2008) and Many Are Saying: The Function of Direct Discourse in the Hebrew Psalter (T & T Clark 2004). His articles have appeared in Theology Today, Word and World¸ Interpretation, and other places. He chairs the Society of Biblical Literature Book of Psalms Section. He is a frequent speaker and preacher.

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Talk about it...

David Buffaloe

commented on Aug 15, 2012

Great article, and good points. Thanks!

Marc Daniels

commented on Aug 15, 2012

Not sure what I think about this article. There are some good points, but... For #5, why would you even agree to preach a wedding that you couldn't mention God. It would do a lot more for the credibility of the preacher and the Gospel if you would politely decline instead of being underhanded about it. And for #4, why not just shelve the text until you can have the time to wrestle with it enough to have a message? And as far as #1 goes, why not preach a series on the Scriptural passages that under-gird the creed? Maybe I should just thank the Lord that I'm in a denomination that allows me freedom in what I preach?

Mike Ingo

commented on Aug 15, 2012

Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:2) Just saying

Mitchell Wright

commented on Aug 15, 2012

The Holy Spirit doesn't conform to our ideology the final analysis, preaching should always lift Jesus up.

John E Miller

commented on Aug 16, 2012

Mitchell Wright, you are right! I feel sorry for this young man carrying such a burden of complicated and convoluted ideas about the simplicity of the Gospel. Mike Ingo - good thought!

John Modgling

commented on Aug 16, 2012

"You have heard that it was said, but I say..." so does this guy think he is Jesus or something? Preach yourself? Have no point? I'll tell you what buddy, you keep preaching your church creeds (with no structure), and I'll keep preaching the Bible.

Randy Miller

commented on Aug 20, 2012

I read this twice... I found myself wondering why such a focus about what others think in terms of what to say in a sermon? Agreeing with Mr. John E. Miller. Is it the desire to fit into someone else's expectations or desires? In this case, academicians who so struggle with 'propriety' that they delude the mere hint of the spirit's work through the mystery of preaching?..... #1 What does one think the Apostles Creed is based upon? The New York Times? Why avoid the obvious? It's based on scripture. #2 I honestly, without criticism here? do not understand how one could consistently preach to the same congregation for an extended period of time without ever sharing your faith? What does that even look like? I shudder to think...#3...Really? sigh... #4. What's the point? Pun intended...#5 I agree with Mr. Daniels. Plus why not use the opportunity of declining the invitation to witness to the relevancy of the Gospel to a wedding? Please tell me that the one making such a request of your friend did not know her... in other words intimating from their past experience with her that she would indeed consider such a request. #6 The spirit within you will convict you if you are including a personal story for self-gratification or to enhance your 'rep' in the eyes/ears of your listeners... if one needs a rule for self-restraint... #7 Passion is heart... Passion is fervor, Passion is conviction, Passion is NOT Volume. This point needs to be re-written..."As a whole, pastors still need to work not to send the message that they are preaching the life-giving, eternal Word of God, rather than the message that they are bored with their own sermon."... Come again? I think this is just a typo... the word 'NOT' is NOT needed. Points 8 and 9... Irrelevant ... #10. Yes, a good reminder.

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