Let’s Read: Small Preaching—Constructing the Sermon
By Davy Ellison
In many areas of life preparation is the key to success. In my current role in the College I spend a lot of time in late August and early September encouraging students to prepare for the year ahead. I want them to think about, plan, schedule and complete all of the tasks that they will face in the months that lie ahead. Indeed, the very act of undergoing theological education is preparation for service—hence the name of our course: the Preparation for Ministry Course.
Part two of Pennington’s Small Preaching is all about preparing for, or, as I have chosen to term it, constructing the sermon. It seems to me that Pennington’s advice could be summarised under two broad headings.
Writing it Clear
First, Pennington encourages preachers to give due attention to the process of writing sermons. No matter what one takes into the pulpit with them on a Sunday (a full manuscript or simply an outline) writing should be part of the preparation process.
The primary reason this should be so is because “Writing is thinking” (p. 40). Pennington argues: “Writing does not merely represent thought processes. Writing is the means through which thought is created! It is only through putting words together into sentences and paragraphs that thinking actually occurs. There is no other way” (p. 40). This is perhaps an overstatement, especially given oral cultures are not void of thoughtful reflection. Nevertheless, the principle is that the act of writing encourages more thoughtful consideration of content. It is all about when and where you want the refining of your sermon to take place, “you can either do this clarifying and refining thinking before you get into the pulpit—by doing the hard work of writing your way to understanding—or you can do the first draft of your thinking in front of an audience” (p. 41).
Chapter 9 employs the helpful illustration of sculpting to convey the big picture and fine detail necessary in writing a sermon clear. The preacher must constantly work on the big picture of the sermon by frequently returning to the detailed presentation of the content. One way in which Pennington does this is by “Snack Writing” (Chapter 10). Personally this methodology does not fit with my personality and method of sermon preparation. I work best with several larger chunks of uninterrupted time to write sermons clear—but it may be something that works for you.
Arguably the most difficult aspect to implement when writing a sermon clear is the killing of our darlings. The warning is that “Long and wordy sermons are the habit of the immature, not the mature. They are an indicator of laziness in preparation, not skilled labor” (p. 55). Moreover, “rarely if ever will a first draft be the best and most effective form of those thoughts” (p. 55). Therefore, as preachers, we must be prepared to edit ourselves and leave material lying on the study desk. As we noted last time round, less is always more when it comes to preaching.
I resonate with much of Pennington’s argument on writing a sermon clear and my practice is to write out a full manuscript for every sermon I preach. In fact, I bring it into the pulpit with me. This does not negate the need to practice delivering it and memorising some of it so I can maintain eye contact. But writing it out in full always helps me construct a better sermon.
Thinking it True
Second, Pennington urges preachers to think their sermons true. By this I not only mean that the content should be accurate but also that it should be streamlined, direct.
One way in which to think a sermon true is to be attentive to the different rhythms of learning (Chapter 11). The realisation that people learn in different ways should encourage the preacher to present the content of sermons in different ways. Of course, the variety of events and circumstances in which preachers find themselves sharing God’s Word will sometimes dictate how the material is to be presented. So too with certain texts and themes. But patterns of learning should inform our patterns of teaching.
Simplicity of presentation is one key element in good teaching, yet it requires deep wells of study. Pennington contends that “simplicity in preaching that is rooted in depth of understanding. The unseen portion of our preaching provides ballast and gravitas, a felt weightiness and meaningfulness” (p. 60). A mountain of study should stand behind each preaching moment, but it does (should?) not all need to make it into the pulpit. This means that we must think all of our study true in order to present a clear and simple sermon.
Somewhat related to the above two points is the experience of doubting our work. This Pennington terms the Saturday night feeling: “This Sermon Stinks” (p.62ff.). Many of us would rather avoid this feeling, but perhaps it is something we should embrace. Indeed, it is “truly inevitable if you want to produce good work because creative work is a process of struggle toward the good. As frustrating as TSS [This Sermon Stinks] is, without it you can’t really produce anything of substance, as all writers and artists and other types of creators can testify” (p. 64). Concern for the standard of our work is a key part of the creative process.
It is vitally important that preachers carve out time in pressurised weeks to make space for thinking. If we do not do this we are in danger of not handling and communicating God’s word effectively.
Part two of Pennington’s book calls for care and attention in constructing the sermon. He calls readers to write their sermon clear and think it true. Hopefully the below reflective questions will encourage you to apply these lessons to your sermon preparation.
- Reread or listen back to a recent sermon—how clear was it? Take time to rewrite it with the aim of clarity.
- Look back at a selection of recent sermons. Do you construct your argument in the same manner each time? In what way could you vary the presentation of arguments in those sermons?