Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Beyond three points (2)

I am grateful for the last (generous) comment and share concerns that sermon structure is 'synergistic' with content as well as 'less is more'.  In dealing with 'three point sermons' I recognize we move into the arena of rhetoric with assumptions about informing and persuading hearers. Augustine is (rightly) credited with applying Cicero’s three rhetorical purposes (appealing to mind, heart and will) to the act of preaching. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the role of persuasion was paramount with sermons dominated by rhetorical structure (with John Broadus very influential in N. America). Three points became so common, Fred Craddock (the most eminent critic) says such sermons began to collapse under the weight of their own popularity. 

Craddock went on to claim that in the last part of the twentieth century this structure could not cope adequately with a changing church and world. Questions about the preacher’s authority and right to persuade; questions about the use of text – was it always right to squeeze all text into three points; and, for him, the most important question about the listeners. Did they not deserve the right to be more active participants? “Does the priesthood of believers not apply to preaching? After all the message belongs as much to them as to the preacher"(i).

Mentioning Craddock immediately gives a green light to moving into debate about three point propositional preaching – so-called 'old homiletic'- and narrative inductive preaching (new homiletic) that moves like a story. This debate has sometimes been hostile with expository preaching associated with the former. Sound, biblical expository preachers are assumed to be deductive drawing out truths clearly to inform and persuade.  Only old homiletic can be trusted!  I could stay specifically on this issue, which has occupied much recent homiletics literature. It does raise important questions about persuasion and authority in our preaching.   

However, the full conference theme runs: Beyond three points: Preaching at the Crossroads.  Indeed, conference organizers have asked participants to offer papers answering: 'Where is the challenge at boundaries and intersection of biblical text, contemporary life, faith, culture, worship, in a pluralist, egalitarian culture?'

Crossroads are sometimes marked by a signpost.  I have been thinking how to express wording on a signpost.  What different directions do you see facing the western church?   Perhaps there are more than two?  And how would you name them?  That's what I am wrestling with at the moment.  There are so many challenges in contemporary change how can we sum them up?  Perhaps we can't.

In the light of this much bigger crossroads issue dealing with whether a preacher uses three points or not seems to be a minor mechanical side-line.  Surely much more is at stake than how sermons are designed!  This is what I am working on. Any thoughts on the crossroads and names on the signpost are very welcome!

[i] Craddock Fred in Martha Simmons ed., Preaching on the Brink  p 69.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Beyond three points (1)

One of my major projects ahead is a conference at Vose Seminary in Perth with the intriguing theme: Beyond Three Points: Preaching at the Crossroads.  Unsurprisingly, I  have spent some time reflecting on this theme.

At first sight it seems to open up the big debate about sermon design and delivery of content.  Three points is a particular classic sermon structure that identifies points as headings for an outline, which then often has sub-headings.  Sometimes dubbed '3 heads and 9 tails' or '3 points and a poem' it has much to be said in its favor.  It communicates clearly and sometimes memorably (depending on the points!)  Some cultures use it powerfully.  Cleo LaRue says that black preaching especially enjoys using it.  I have known some preachers employ three point structures all their lives almost without deviation, and to the benefit of their congregations too.  Recently, at a retirement service one of the dominant themes, heard from all three churches represented that this minister had served, was of his powerful three point preaching.  A little fun was made (!) but mostly there was very healthy respect for the clear, thoughtful preaching over 39 years.   3 points especially suits the teacher-preacher who opens up Scripture and applies it with clarity and repetition.

Beyond three points sounds like something of a slap on the wrists for such preachers as though their style of design and delivery needs to be replaced.  As though three point preaching should be left behind as less relevant.  Past its sell-by date, contemporary preachers now need fresh structures.  This, of course, is part of a massive discussion about the role of the so-called 'new homiletic' which regards three-point outline preaching as deductive linear left-brained teaching ('old homiletic') as compared with inductive preaching inviting hearers on a journey of discovery with narrative movement.

I could easily fill a few lectures examining this debate.  However, I fear it would be too domestic. Just talking homiletics to preachers.   In spite of much literature on preaching styles I don't see glorious revival in the western church, do you?   However, I think this theme opens up a much wider concern about where the church is going and preaching needs to go with it. 

I am working on it, as you will see. All comments are appreciated!

Thursday, June 6, 2013


Following my last posting about the unhappiness of power struggles in local churches, I have had a (slightly provocative) suggestion that a group be formed of concerned people called Group Against Control-Freaks in Churches (or Gacfic).   I realize in other church structures the bishop or superintending minister may be given this responsibility and discharge their authority effectively.  But in Baptist church life the strength of gathered believers having mutual responsibility with a high degree of autonomy can also be a weakness.  Hence, GACFIC! 

In spite of the immediate appeal of a such a group trying to sort out power struggles, I see some immediate difficulties.  I am sure you do too!  Who would be its members?  How would they operate?  Would they publish case studies?   Speaking the truth in love not only requires spiritual resources of moral courage, discernment, patience, oodles of prayer and, of course, love.  It is best done in relationship for few of us are prepared to hear hard truth from 'outsiders' who we guess have probably already drawn their conclusions before entering the situation.  Indeed, at worst GACFIC might be considered the ultimate group of control freaks sorting out others' problems.   Possibly, the thought of being referred to a special meeting of GACFIC might make a control-freak think twice.  However, I have heard of situations where he or she is so dominant the small gathered community is terrified of upsetting him or her, and any advice from 'outside' has no chance of acceptance. No chance.

I guess we do not need to add another structure but to keep marveling that in the wheat and tares growth of the kingdom God keeps trusting us wherever we are to recognize the immense dangers of asserting self-control and, instead, to grow up more mature in Christ.  Spiritual renewal with openness to God's will and purpose, found in Scripture and discerned in corporate prayer remains the main hope for more mature togetherness!