Chapter 7: Inductive Movement and Structure
Let us suppose that the conversation has taken place between the text and the congregation, in the person of the minister who not only knows the congregation’s situation in the world but who really belongs to that community himself. Let us further suppose that the sessions have been fruitful; the Word of God has been heard. How, specifically, is it to be shared? Or, in the traditional framing of the question, how is the point to be made into points, how many and in what order?
If one were to compare a large section of Scripture with a file of sermons based on that section, one of the most noticeable differences between the two would be the striking variety in the literary forms of the one as over against the dull uniformity of the other. The Bible is rich in forms of expression: poetry, saga, historical narratives, proverb, hymn, diary, biography, parable, personal correspondence, drama, myth, dialogue, and gospel, whereas most sermons, which seek to communicate the messages of that treasury of materials, are all in essentially the same form. Why should the multitude of forms and moods within biblical literature and the multitude of needs in the congregation be brought together in one unvarying mold, and that copied from Greek rhetoricians centuries ago? An unnecessary monotony results, but more profoundly, there is an inner conflict between the content of the sermon and its form. The minister is seriously affected by the conflict. The content calls for singing but the form is quite prosaic; the message has wings but the structure is pedestrian. Energy that should be entirely channeled in the delivery is thus dissipated in the battle of the sermon against itself. The hearers may detect the inner contradiction and neatly label the problem: the minister does not have conviction and enthusiasm; his whole life is not caught up in his words; David is trying to fight in Saul’s armor.
The importance of an inner harmony between form and content is illustrated in Nathaniel Micklem’s The Labyrinth Revisited, in which he explains in a brief preface why his philosophic theme should come to the reader in metric shape.
I wrote this book in careful, plodding prose,
Corrected every sentence; all was fit
For press and public, free from every pose
Or literary scandal, every bit
Tidy, exact. But when I finished it,
I felt that in the telling all the bright
Wonder was flown and quenched my vision’s light.1
Of course, some ministers have sought to break the monotony of the usual outline, but these refreshing alterations have been so rare that the minister has been self-conscious about the change and the attention of the congregation has, been stolen by the novelty of the sermon. And often these gropings after a new style are no more than tinkering with the introduction and conclusion, or perhaps, after a false diagnosis of the nature of the illness, taking into the content of the sermon large doses of undigested heresies or controversies simply to stir the drowsy listeners. There are, however, more constructive ways of keeping the passengers awake than by putting rocks on the road.
There is much to be said for variety and sermonic forms simply for the sake of granting relief to both speaker and hearers in an occasion that occurs every week. However, the taste for variety should not lead the minister to adopt structures for his material that violate not only the content but also his understanding of what the preaching experience is. How one communicates comes across to the hearers as what one communicates and they receive very clear impressions of what the speaker thinks of himself, his text, his sermon, his congregation, and the world. There is no avoiding the fact that the medium is a message, if not the message.
In the case of inductive preaching, the structure must be subordinate to movement. In fact, this subordination means that in most cases the structure is not visible to the congregation. Everyone understands, of course, that in pursuit of certain polemic or didactic aims, a preacher might wish that a series of clear statements be lodged in the memory of the hearers. He may, therefore, not only itemize these statements as he develops them, but repeat them in the conclusion. Such occasions are rare, and in the usual ministry, ample other opportunities are provided for instruction and polemics so that the pulpit does not have to be so used. Usually, for the skeleton to be showing, with a sermon as with a person, is a sign of malformation or malnutrition. The movement of the sermon is so vital to its effectiveness that a structure should be provided which facilitates rather than hinders that movement. And it is a clearly experienced fact that ‘points’, announced or otherwise made obvious, interrupt both the unity and the movement of a sermon. Some of the congregation, especially the young people, find the ‘points’ useful for estimating the hour and minute when the terminus can be expected. The process is simple arithmetic: time the first point, multiply that by the number of ‘points’ announced (“I have three things to say about this matter this morning”) and one has not only something to anticipate but a fair estimate as to when to expect it. The minister himself experiences the awkward presence of these ‘points’ in his sermon. For example, the transitions from the bottom of a point now thoroughly treated to the top of the next major section are at times so difficult that even the coupling of conjunctions, transitional phrases, and impressive throat-clearings will hardly bridge the gulf. Ministers who write their sermons from an outline often find the structure an obstacle. For this reason, not a few confess to writing the sermon and then outlining what they have written. While such a practice is considered by some practicioners as a homiletical crime, there is an instinct at work in this procedure that is fundamentally sound simply because it more nearly corresponds to normal communication.
Not only does inductive preaching demand of an outline that it be subordinate to movement; it demands that the outline, however it may look on paper, move from the present experience of the hearers to the point at which the sermon will leave them to their own decisions and conclusion. It bears repeating that a preaching event is a sharing in the Word, a trip not just a destination, an arriving at a point for drawing conclusions and not handing over of a conclusion. It is unnatural and unsatisfying to be in a place to which you have not travelled.
Let the preacher, then, first of all know where he and they are going, whether this be in the proper sense a conclusion or whether this be a point at which he stops, leaving each person to draw his own conclusion, as Jesus often did in the parables. 2 Whatever the nature of this destination, it will be the fruit of preparation and lively engagement with the Biblical text, it will be clear to the minister, and it will be the beginning point for the sermon preparation proper. He dare not start with the introduction. If he does so, one of two errors will likely be committed. In case his conclusion is not clearly in mind, he will commit all the blunders of a guide who does not know where he is going if the conclusion is well in mind, beginning sermon preparation with the introduction will produce an introduction that has the conclusion in it, destroying all anticipation, and being in fact a brief digest of the whole message.
One begins, therefore, with the terminus. Perhaps a statement of the conclusion could be written at the bottom of a sheet of paper. The question now is, By what route shall we come to this point? Shall it be brief, or will brevity leave some unprepared to assume the responsibility that begins at the end of a sermon? Shall it be slow or fast? The complexity of the matter and the type of listener will determine this. Shall we go with singing and laughter, or are we to tiptoe in hushed reflection? Are we going to battle, to school, to a forum, to a reunion, to a strange city, to work, to rest, or to a new mission? Will all or some or none arrive ready for the trip? Do they want to go? All these questions, and more, are but ways of planning the trip which, on a sheet of paper, will be called a sermon outline. Above everything else, the minister wants all, if possible, to make the complete journey. He wants to sustain anticipation so that, while the trip will not be the same experience for everyone, all will stay to the end. He desires also that it be an experience for the whole person, all faculties being engaged.
Such an image of the sermon does, of course, find somewhat artificial the traditional structuring of a sermon into three appeals: to the mind; to the emotions; to the will. While all these facets of human capacity are involved in inductive preaching, they are involved in the more natural and normal way; that is, together. This psychological pattern is supposedly based on the natural process which salesmen understand to be the ordinary way customers come to the point of making a purchase. But the salesman-customer analogy is totally inadequate to carry the full dimensions of the preaching event. In addition, this trinitarian formula probably fits very few people. Observation and experience indicate many rather normal people place emotion earlier on the agenda, with intellect limping along later, giving reasons for the course already taken. One reason we need the preaching of the Gospel is that people are not living by this neat formula. Among the hearers will be many who have felt one way, thought another, and who cannot remember that their present situation is the result of any clear decision of their own will. This is tragic, of course, and the preacher would have it otherwise, but he is the minister of, the preacher to, these people as they are and he wants to communicate. The outline is made for man, not man for the outline.
As he ponders the movement of his sermon to achieve the desired experience, the minister would do well to reflect on dramas seen, stories read, conversations shared. What was the nature of the movement that carried the participant along to a complete experience or, at least, to the point of being convinced that he had things yet to do if his life was to be complete? What was the format? In one case, interest in a person or event is assumed, as with the assassination of a president, and the format is simply the narration of the events involved. In another, the reader or observer is brought to interest by the presentation of a series of experiences, the outcome of which is uncertain. In yet another, a flashback is used, opening with some penultimate scene such as a murder trial, and then the events leading to the trial are brought forward by “remembrances”. Or perhaps two persons representing entirely different value systems are joined by business contract or marriage bond and the ensuing struggle enlists interests and almost visceral participation. The variety of structures is endless, many of them brilliantly devoted to no loftier aim than to entertain, to make money. Has the minister thought that the loftiness of his theme, the eternal significance of his message, has rendered unnecessary such efforts toward gaining the involvement and participation of the hearers? Should it not rather be the reverse: having such a theme, can he do less than those who screw all their powers to the task of making the evening entertaining?
Perhaps three brief examples of the vital function of movement in the total experience of sharing a message will enlighten what has been said and free us to move on.
It is common knowledge that, despite its wide familiarity Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven continues to grasp the reader and hold him even beyond its last powerful line. Poe has written an essay in which he describes the process of writing a poem. 3 His first composition was the stanza which he thought would be ultimate but which finally became penultimate. Then, Poe says, his task was to create a series of stanzas that would bring his readers to be able to experience that stanza. He realized preparation of mood as well as mind were vital. It was only later, after much careful work, that he came upon the way to begin that experience for his reader, not too suddenly, setting up resistance, and yet without wasting words: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered. . .” Every stanza provides an experience of its own, yet quickening anticipation of the next, until the last haunting syllable. Even then, the appetite is not completely satiated nor feeling exhausted. And so it should be; the readers have the right and the responsibility to bring something of their own to the occasion.
Thomas de Quincey, an English writer of the eighteenth century, chose as his principal medium the essay and as his principal subject matter the social, political, and ethical tidbits that were either overworked or tossed aside as of no consequence. De Quincey, however, saw in small matters the major stuff of ordinary life and wished to highlight the fact that for most of us, life is a number of small incidents or decisions that make or break us. It was, of course, necessary, if he kept his readers with him all the way, to come to his point obliquely. After all, a direct and obvious discussion of what is generally regarded as a trifle is to have one’s essay tossed away, unread. Movement into his thesis was vital to the communication of that thesis in such a way that the reader would be engaged by it and hence would ponder it. The following example shows how one man moves with sustained interest and surprising force to a point that, handled otherwise, would have sounded like another dull preachment about “life’s little things”.
For, if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begun upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time.4
A third example is drawn from the New Testament. In a series of parables, gathered and preserved in Luke 15, Jesus defends his ministry which had come under heavy fire from those critics who recognized unsavory characters in his circle of disciples. Jesus presents his own work as the joyous recovery of the lost. As there is no tragedy quite like being lost, there is no joy quite like being found. The celebration is too much for one family; friends and neighbors are called in. But while neighbors rejoice, a son and brother in the family most touched by the drama of lost and found is unable to celebrate. To him, a concerned father explains the party in these words: “For this my son (‘your brother’ in v. 32) was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24) Our present concern is to notice only the arrangement, the movement of ideas. An entirely different story representing another set of values would be expressed if the order were: “This my son was lost, and is found; he was dead, and is alive again.” As it is, the listener is brought to sense the abyss of lostness by placing the word “lost” out beyond the word “dead”, and the height of joy in being found by locating “found” beyond “alive”. The order and movement of the phrases says there is that which is worse than death and that which is better than life.
The very nature of inductive preaching renders it impossible to suggest “the” outline pattern. Unlike the inductive preaching of the 1920’s which imitated the problem-solving pattern of science, here induction embraces a range of human needs, faculties, and experiences beyond problem-answer activity. However, a few suggestions may help those who wish to begin to employ such movement in their preaching. First, it is to be remembered that preaching is oral communication, and, as was pointed out earlier, there are great differences between oral and written communication. It is to invite problems, therefore, to devote the major part of preparation to writing outlines and manuscripts and a minor part in preparing to share orally what is written. It is reasonable that one operate as much as possible in preparation as one will operate in delivery. This does not mean “practicing” the finished sermon. This can make the actual preaching a flat and deadly anticlimax. Oral preparation is working at how to say it, not how to outline it or write it. A tape recorder can be helpful if one imagines sharing an idea, a story, an argument with a friend. Play back the tape and observe the order of ideas. Better still, by talking through parts of the sermon with someone the minister himself can sense the flow of his ideas. Again, this is not after writing the outline; preparation is not yet that far along.
Second, by playing back a tape. or reflecting on how ideas were shared in conversation, or sitting alone and imagining the preaching event itself, as the sermon unrolls, list by words, phrases of brief sentences the ideas in the order of their occurrence. They may be numbered straight down the page but not structured into any outline. The question is, does the material move along, evoking ideas and sustaining anticipation until the end. Is it, in the proper sense of the term, a good story?8
Third, look for the transition points, the moments in the telling of it that will be marked by “And yet”, “However”, “But”, “On the other hand”, “Beyond this”, “And”, “Therefore”. If we maintain the image of a trip, the transitions mark turns or changes in the direction and in the elevation of the road. There will be slow turns (“however”, “and yet”) , sharp turns (“but”, “on the other hand”) , straight stretches (“and”) , uphill drives (“moreover”, “in addition”, “also”, “beyond this “”in fact”) , and arrivals at the top (“so”, “therefore”, “now”) If it is observed that the ideas are invariably joined by and, the minister should be warned thereby. Any traveller knows that long, straight stretches of road are dangerous because they induce sleep. Beyond the monotony, however, such a level movement of material indicates an oversimplification to the point of unreality. Life does not move along with each new page in the diary beginning “and and and so. . .” If people with such lives sit before the pulpit, now, at least, a new direction is offered. The Gospel interrupts the flow of their personal history and says, “But. . .”
Fourth, underline these transitional phrases or set them slightly to the left, or type them in capitals. They are not ‘points’ of course, but they will function quite well as pegs on which to hang series of ideas, preserving the hard-won flow of material. In the event a fellow minister sees the ‘outline’, however, one should be prepared for comments reflecting surprise, curiosity, and maybe jests about the poverty of thought in ‘points’ entitled “However” and “Yet perhaps”.
By looking at these transitional expressions, the preacher can readily see the movement of his thought and the format which provides its shape. One can almost feel the progression of thought by such phrases as:
“It seems. . ., but still. . .”;
“Of course. . ., and yet. . .”;
“Both this. . ., and this. . ., yet in a larger sense. .”;
“Certainly it isn’t the case that. . ., however. . ., so perhaps. . .”;
“You have heard it said. . ., but. . .”
Some sermons will move in a circle, a statement being made, pursued, then stated again, the latter now seeming an entirely different statement from the original. Sometimes the text will not appear until given at the end, the movement to it being adequate preparation for the reception of it. Perhaps a sermon may be a carefully prepared trip to the edge of absurdity, the congregation being led to see the true nature of a prejudice or a selfish charity. The preacher may devote the message to a defense of the indefensible, each stage of his development moving his hearers progressively in the opposite direction. He may take a route exactly parallel to the path his community is going toward ethical compromise or denial of the Christian mission, and yet the minister knows that if he dealt with the issue in a direct and obvious way, heated emotions would hinder clear reflections. The listeners will transfer the sermon to the issue just as Jesus’ hearers were able to perceive that he was talking to them.
The point must be clearly understood that these various movements in preaching are not games of hide-and-seek or cat-and-mouse. The sole purpose is to engage the hearer in the pursuit of an issue or an idea so that he will think his own thoughts and experience his own feelings in the presence of Christ and in the light of the Gospel. An oblique approach is not the trick of a coward; it is often the powerful vehicle of a man whose primary concern is not to appear every Sunday as Captain Courageous “telling them off” but to communicate with men who will have to continue after the sermon is over thinking their own thoughts, dealing with their own situations and being responsible for their own faith. Some preachers do, of course, think of the Gospel as a searchlight and there is for them an uncontrollable joy in turning that beam down dark streets and watching the sinners run. However, now that most of the sinners have stopped running, the fun is sharply reduced. Why not a method that invites a man to walk again down the street where he lives but this time in the presence of a Third? It may be that he will see his street as never before, his heart burning within him as the Lord is made known to him in the sharing of the Word. He may decide to change that street or to live it anew, but the point is, he will decide because he has been permitted to decide.
It will probably be true that the preacher will discover many of his sermons will have two transition poles rather than the usual three points. This is not because he is trying to be different or that sermons have to be shorter these days. He will often use such a format for the same reason Jesus did. Jesus preached in a society that had, through long association, custom, and familiarity become blind to the message in the Scripture they possessed, deaf to the voice of the God they possessed, and unaware of the presence of the Kingdom they planned to possess. The culture in which men preach today is quite similar, with its Bible belts, praying together to stay together, attending church to fight communism, and easy identification of material gain and the favor of God. In such situations, preaching has to address these easy assumptions and blind familiarities; the text of Scripture has to fight its way through the “almost Scripture” that is everywhere to be found and passes for Biblical support of custom and prejudice. Hence the format “You have heard. . ., but. . .” of Jesus and the need for a similar structure in our time. It can be done without messianism.
He who preaches inductively will need to be prepared for frequent comments from the congregation to the effect that his sermons seem to be long introductions with a point stated or implied at the end. 9 The minister may interpret this a number of ways. He may reflect critically upon his sermon: is he being too subtle and inconclusive? He may recognize that the congregation is having to adjust its own psyche and ear to hear this man who speaks as one who has no authority. He may be mildly pleased that this remark indicates his sermons are interesting and move in a way natural for the listener. He may, however, detect that for which he had hoped: his congregation cannot shake off the finished sermon by shaking the minister’s hand. The sermon, not finished yet, lingers beyond the benediction, with conclusions to be reached, decisions made, actions taken, and brothers sought while gifts lie waiting at the altar. Those who had ears heard, and what they heard was the Word of God.
In each of these examples, a poem, an essay, and a parable, movement performs two functions. First, the movement sustains interest and preserves the anticipation necessary not only to hold attention but to prepare the hearer’s mood or mind set to grasp and participate in the central idea when it comes. Secondly, the movement is integral to content, to what is being said. Change the order of the phrases and ideas and you have a quite different message. There is a content-force in movement that cannot be replaced by increased volume or multiplied words or other common efforts to recovery by quantity of sounds what had been lost by improper or ineffective movement of ideas. A sermon is in bad need of repair if the composer of it discovers that the component parts can be switched about with only slight alteration of meaning and hardly any loss of power.
Perhaps this is the point to pause and address the objection that has probably arisen; namely, that this view of preaching calls for more artistic ability than most ministers possess. To be sure, ministers differ in artistic ability and those at both ends of the scale have special problems: at one end, the problem of communicating; at the other, the problem of communicating the Gospel. Most ministers, however, possess more capacity for artistic expression than they realize. In many cases, traditional instruction in homiletics has not encouraged latent gifts, with the result that the capacity was either not developed, or if it was, it found expression in areas other than preaching the Gospel. This may be a result of that common notion of art which identifies it with embroidery and sets it over against truth. If in one’s mind art and truth are so juxtaposed that the increase of one means the decrease of the other, then art must forfeit the contest for the sake of the Gospel. However, in our present consideration, “artistic expression” means simply the careful unfolding of an idea in a way consonant with the content and mood of that idea. In other words, homiletical structures should not be allowed to violate and distort the finer sensibilities that seem naturally to make the adjustments appropriate to the subject matter. If “art” in this sense seems to take a disproportionate amount of time in sermon preparation, it can be safely assumed that this time will diminish as the process of unlearning clears away artificialities that obstruct communication.
From where, then, does a preacher get an outline pattern or structure for an inductive sermon? By this time it should be obvious that there is no single model available as is true with the traditional form of preaching:
One might experiment with the possibility, since the traditional form is deductive, of inverting the structure to make it inductive.
Here, at least, one has the impression of movement up to, rather than down from, a point. However, if the sermon had several points, all the old problems with points would re-appear. The preacher might also discover that while his format looked inductive on paper, his own mental habits and patterns of development of ideas were the same as before. It probably is wisest, therefore, to be less concerned about how the sermon looks on the paper and be more attentive to the arrangement of the ideas. Outlining as such has enjoyed too much prominence in the history of preaching and of teaching homiletics, obviously for the reason that a sermon has been viewed as a rational discourse rather than as a community event.
If the minister feels lost at first with a body of ideas without a skeleton, he may adopt the form in which the Biblical text is presented. 5 Amos Wilder has written most helpfully of the forms of early Christian rhetoric. 6 Many oral and written forms lay at hand and were employed by the Christian community for communicating the Gospel. In addition, modifications or entirely new forms were created because not every mode of discourse is equally congenial to the Gospel. It is a very real question whether the later decision to use the forms of Greek logical discourse did not of itself radically affect the nature of the message, the type of audience to which it would appeal, and eventually the constituency of the Church. Even if the adoption of Greek rhetorical forms for sermon outlines was a wise choice in the mission to the Hellenistic world, certainly after nineteen centuries, the time has arrived for critical review of sermon form as well as content.
If the speech-forms of the Bible were adopted, sermons would be strengthened by the fact that the text would not be forced to fit a new frame. In other words, narrative texts would be shared in narrative sermons, parables in parabolic form, biography in biographical sermons, and similarly in other speech models. However, Wilder properly warns against trite imitation.
For example, that because Jesus used parables we also should use illustrations from life, or because the New Testament has a place for poetry we also should use it. All this is true. But there is rather the question of what kind of story and what kind of poetry. Nor should we feel ourselves enslaved to biblical models whether in statement, image, or form. But we can learn much from our observations as to the appropriate strategies and vehicles of Christian speech and then adapt these to our own situation.7
One reason for a discriminating selection of speech-forms, even from the pages of the Bible, is the radical difference in the speaker-hearer relationship in our time as over against authoritarian societies. Preachers today cannot operate on the assumptions regarding the hearers’ view of the speaker that prevailed in prior centuries when it was generally accepted that authority resided in a few, not the many. And especially is our society different in that the authority figure in most communities is not a clergyman, as it once was, but very like the scientist, whether or not the community knows one personally. For this reason Wilder’s warning needs to be doubly heeded, for all the rich variety that the adoption of Biblical speech models would bring to the pulpit.
1. Op. cit., p. 1.
2. For example, ci. the discussion of the parable of the Marriage Feast (Lk. 14; Matt. 22) in Eta Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables, trans. John Sturdy (New York: Harpers, 1966) , pp. 88-96.
3. ‘Philosophy of Composition”.
4. “On Murder”, De Quincey’s Works, Globe ed. (New York: Houghton, 1882) , Vol. VI, p. 573.
5. The familiar insistence of Hermann Diem that the sermon stay in the text, moving as it moves. Warum Textpredigt? (Muncheo: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1939) , pp. 197-221.
6. The Language of the Gospel.
7. Ibid., p. 13.
8. As M. Mezger properly characterizes a sermon. “Preparation for Preaching”, op. cit., p. 177.
9. K. Barth’s theological objections to introductions cannot be accepted as valid in view of the modern speaker-hearer relationship. Prayer and Preaching, pp. 110-111.