Fred Craddock’s As One Without Authority (1971) marked a significant shift in the way preachers were thinking about the form of the sermon. Craddock began by addressing the problems facing the preacher in an age when people no longer accept religious authority. Critiquing the traditional approach to preaching, the three-point sermon, he suggested that one of the reasons so much preaching was ineffective is that listeners have changed — they are in many cases more sophisticated and less open to a traditional authoritative mode of preaching. He recommends an inductive rather than a deductive approach to preaching. Instead of simply offering a thesis and then exploring and defending the thesis in three or more relatively balanced points, he argues for beginning with questions that will grab the listener’s attention because they are pertinent to the lives of the listeners.
Craddock’s argument has been dismissed by many who want to hold to a high view of preaching, since at first blush the emphasis on the listener appears to advocate for relevance over faithfulness. Rather than placing our confidence in God’s self-communication in Scripture and through preaching, the focus appears to shift to the preacher’s ability to communicate. With confidence in God, objectors maintain, we need to keep our primary focus on faithfulness to the biblical text, which argues for classic expository preaching where the preacher carefully and faithfully “unpacks” the text for the listener.
It is difficult to argue with a call to be faithful to the text or with the affirmation that our confidence must be rooted in God’s initiative in communicating through the sermon. And it is true that far too many preachers are so focused on connecting with listeners that it is difficult to find much about the Bible or even a mention of God in their sermons. (It is especially sobering how many churches that claim to hold a high view of the Bible have little if any reading of the Bible in their worship). Yet we need not choose between “classic” expository preaching and pastoral or experiential preaching. This is not only a gross oversimplification; it misses the deeper question that needs to be asked.
The question is not simply How might we communicate more effectively? but How do we understand what is being communicated? As children of the Enlightenment, we find it natural to make a distinction between the form and content of a sermon. “Rightly handling the word of truth” puts the onus on the preacher working hard to be faithful to the text’s meaning. As a result, we end up critiquing sermons based on whether the preacher got the content right. While we might be troubled by weak form or delivery, the far graver sin would be that the content should misdirect the listener away from the biblical text rather than bearing witness to the gospel.
This approach, in spite of its declared intent to communicate the message faithfully, fails to account for the way in which form is not neutral but is both communicative and formative. Craddock makes this point clearly: “the separation of form and content is fatal for preaching, for it fails to recognize the theology implicit in the method of communication” (As One Without Authority, p. 3).
The issue isn’t simply about choosing whether we focus on the listener or on the text, whether we prioritize relevance or faithfulness. Instead, this is a question of recognizing the relationship between form and content. Listeners learn just as much, if not more, through the form of the sermon as they will through the content. Sermons that are always about finding something new in the text teach the listener to look beyond traditional interpretations and encourage a somewhat gnostic approach: the preacher is leading the congregation on a quest for a hidden knowledge, which only the privileged few might discover. Sermons whose form makes a stark contrast between grace and the law can help emphasize the centrality of grace, but they also embed the conviction that there is a fundamental contradiction between grace and the law. Sermons that are always about engaging the listener’s emotions through stories or humor (as vessels for communication) might reinforce the idea that true faith is measured by the emotive response it elicits. And sermons that always come in a balanced structure of three points impose a symmetry on the text while reinforcing the belief that with careful attention we can understand and grasp the truths embedded within the text.
While the three-point sermon might appear to be a helpful tool in allowing preachers to organize and communicate their thoughts in as straightforward a manner in possible, it teaches the listener, or better simply reinforces, an Enlightenment epistemology isolating a purely cognitive knowing from a more grounded or situated knowing. It conveys the notion that we go to the text to have our thinking informed rather than going to the text to allow God to encounter us and call us to repentance. As a result, in spite of the expressed desire to be faithful to the text, it encourages the listener to adopt a posture of standing over the text, seeing it as a resource to be mined for information or guidance that can subsequently be applied to our lives. And what is more, over time it is inevitable that communities of listeners adapt to particular forms and judge the quality of sermons (and their importance) by how well they follow or fit the accepted form within their community.
The form of a sermon is not secondary to the content in terms of interpretation. The assumption that we can separate form and content implies a hermeneutic in which the reader/preacher is able to engage with the text in an objective, neutral manner. This approach to preaching appeals to our post-Enlightenment sensibilities because it puts us in a position of discernment (or authority) over the text. Yet when preachers consistently work with the same basic form to their sermons, it inevitably shapes their reading or studying of the text because it shapes the questions with which they approach the text.
If we are always looking for a new or unique understanding in the text, we will usually find one, regardless of whether it is coherent. When we are looking for something that will move or connect with our listeners, then that will shape which parts of the text we pay attention to or which parts our sermons focus on. When we are looking for three basic points to a sermon, we look to the text for the practical principles we can glean from it.
Adopting a primary form in our preaching (or simply laying out the passage point by point) may help speed the process of writing sermons, but over time it shapes the hermeneutical framework used in reading the text — serving to reinforce what preachers and their listeners already believe. Instead we are called to take seriously the shaping power of the form of the sermon, and to allow the text to both question and guide us toward sermons in which form and content challenge and reorient both preacher and listener, consistently calling us into the strange new world of the gospel.