A Second Look at Inductive Preaching

by William H. Shepherd, Jr.

William H. Shepherd, Jr. is a doctoral student in New Testament and preaching at Emory University.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 19-26, 1990, pp. 822-823, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Some preachers think inductive preaching means being deliberately obscure; the congregation is invited to discover not the message in the text, but whatever it is the preacher is trying to say. A positive view of inductive preaching is presented.

Take a typical Sunday sermon, if you can stomach it. It begins with an anecdote, usually first-person, sometimes amusing. Then a generalization about "what the gospel is saying to us this morning." Throw in a metaphor or two, add stories to taste, stir round and round to its utterly predictable ending ten minutes later. Ask the preacher for an explanation and you catch phrases such as "overhearing the gospel" and "inductive preaching." In other words, some homiletics professor gets the blame. After all, they told us to sum it up in one sentence.

Complaints that preaching has become trivial, superficial and downright boring are as old as the pulpit itself. But recent criticism blames the inadequacy of homiletical theory: the teachers of inductive and narrative preaching have given the busy pastor an excuse for poor preparation, shallow logic and self-indulgent personal reminiscences. A retired pastor complained, "All we get anymore are rehashes of the gospel. Whatever happened to the sermon?" What happened is that the sermon changed. The question is, Are we happy about it?

Many point to Fred B. Craddock as the most influential contemporary homiletical theoretician. Craddock made popular the phrases "inductive preaching" and "overhearing the gospel," and if he cannot be held entirely responsible for the "sermon in a sentence," he believes such a sentence will help the preacher attain thematic unity. He also suggested that sermons be "narrative" or "narrativelike." So it is not surprising that Craddock gets the lion’s share of the blame in recent pulpit reviews.

John R. Brokhoff’s As One with Authority (1989) is a pointed rejoinder to Craddock’s As One Without Authority(197 I) Brokhoff an old-fashioned Lutheran who was Craddock’s predecessor at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, exalts the sacrament of the Word (he believes sermons should be longer) and turns back liturgical renewal (Eucharist once a month is plenty) The Word is not something overheard but something overwhelming. Like the retired pastor he also seems to ask. Whatever happened to the sermon?

Another of Craddock’s critics. William H. Willimon. wants to turn back the clock. In his CENTURY article "Preaching: Entertainment or Exposition?" (February 28) , Willimon commends expository preacher Peter Gomes, who says "any sermon worth preaching is worth 30 or 40 minutes." Willimon claims that "so-called narrative homiletics, preaching as story and inductive preaching" have trivialized preaching by reducing it to a series of disconnected stories. Preachers have capitulated to television-dominated congregations who prefer entertainment -- presentations "with emotional response but without thought" -- to logical discourse. Narrative preaching, says Willimon, is made to order for the MTV age -- it offers a jumble of images, it doesn’t worry about transitions, and it is mercifully short. Given Craddock’s influence and the homiletical heartburn of successive Sundays, we might be tempted, with Brokhoff and Willimon, to anathematize his name as we reach for the Rolaids. But first we should consider what Craddock has done, how it has changed over the years and how it has been put to use.

Craddock, in As One Without Authority, proposed inductive form as one option in gospel proclamation. An inductive form would lead listeners in a certain direction rather than stating and then proving a conclusion. It would give listeners freedom to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions. The sermon would be open-ended -- but not entirely, for it would point toward the preacher’s own reading of the biblical text; the inductive sermon re-creates the process of discovery of meaning in the text. Thus, the inductive sermon would still be proclamation, but proclamation that jaded 20th-century listeners could hear. "Perhaps it will not be taken as irreverent to say that the movement of a sermon is as the movement of a good story or a good joke," Craddock wrote.

His theories were not taken as irreverent, but were enthusiastically embraced. Theologians were already enamored with story. Narrative theology came into vogue, followed by narrative preaching -- understood variously as preaching about narratives, preaching with narratives and giving sermons narrative form. Craddock, too, in Overhearing the Gospel (1978) , endorsed "narrative" sermons -- not that narrative should replace logic, or that sermons consist only of stories, but that the sermon has "the scope that ties it to the life of a larger community" and touches "intellectual or emotional or volitional" concerns while "conveying the sense of movement from one place to another" and "thinking alongside the hearers." The features of inductive preaching were here, though Craddock had dropped the term. Instead, he tried to combine it with a number of theological ideas -- community, tradition and universality -- under one rubric, "narrative."

The adequacy of that rubric for the entire range of faith has long been in question. But critics have misread Craddock on this issue. Willimon cites a "classic article" by Richard Lischer, "The Limits of Story," as testimony to "what story and narrative preaching cannot do," while failing to note Lischer’s distinction between Craddock and those who equate preaching with storytelling. Nor does he note Craddock’s apparent discomfort with "narrative": his careful qualification of the term, his use of the unwieldy adjective "narrativelike." In his most recent work, Preaching (1985) , Craddock dropped the terms "narrative preaching" and "inductive preaching" entirely.

The main current of subsequent homiletical theory, however, has exalted narrative at the expense of induction, despite increasing discontent with narrative as a theological category. Some speak of the inherent power of storytelling. Paul Scott Wilson, for example, argues in Imagination of the Heart (Abingdon, 1988) that stories put the preacher in touch with our shared human imagination. But Wilson abandons movement toward a goal: the "sermon in a sentence" comes quite early, the narrative images spiraling around it in successive waves.

Others are not quite so enamored with stories but continue to speak of narrative sermonic form. David Buttrick in Homiletic (1987) advocates dropping the use of all but the briefest stories in order to avoid distracting from the central message. Nevertheless, he speaks of sermon structure in terms of "plot," which, he claims, is not limited to stories. Here, as with Craddock, "narrative" has to be so carefully qualified that its use is at best, a metaphor.

Amid all the enthusiasm for narrative as a theological and homiletical category, "narrative preaching" came to embrace and overshadow ‘inductive preaching." Those infatuated with stories may wake up one Sunday to find themselves in the middle of Willimon’s sermonic hodgepodge, while critics of narrative theology may inadvertently throw out the inductive baby with the narrative bath.

Willimon lumps narrative and inductive preaching together, but directs his ire against the former: narrative sermons with little but entertainment value. That he does not understand inductive preaching is shown by his claim that "we preach a string of disconnected images without any transition . . . . because . . . we do not want our hearers to make the connections." The truth is exactly the opposite -- we want the hearers to make the connections themselves. Willimon’s alternative to narrative triviality, "to engage in thoughtful, often painful reassessment of our circumstances; to think it out, to consider the evidence and to act on our verdict" actually invites an inductive process. The way forward is backwards -- not to old-fashioned exposition, but to truly inductive preaching.

Willimon’s confusion points out a widespread conceptual defect among those who would preach inductively. In our typical sermon, a "theme sentence" is announced and illustrated with a myriad of disconnected images. This statement of "what the gospel is all about" is treated as a starting point rather than a goal: this is what the Bible means, take my word for it , no sense in getting into the details -- let’s talk about how Uncle Harry learned this lesson. The congregation is not led to see how the message was derived from the text and applied to the church. Worse yet, some preachers think inductive preaching means being deliberately obscure; the congregation is invited to discover not the message in the text, but whatever it is the preacher is trying to say.

Buttrick, Wilson and others pigeonhole the sermon into one form. Sermons constructed according to their advice would all sound the same. Craddock, on the other hand, never intended inductive preaching to be an exclusive form. The beauty of an inductive method is that each sermon will have a different form, depending on the biblical text preached. Narrative sermons can work well -- with narratives -- but a narrative preacher can’t handle Romans. An inductive preacher recognizes that a sermon on Romans requires a form different from one on Acts. Each sermon becomes unique, as each text is unique. If preaching has become trivial entertainment, perhaps we can blame narrative homiletics or a host of other factors. But let’s not blame inductive preaching without having tried it.