by Rev. Holly Bandel on Thursday, February 8, 2018
Through my experiences of preaching, there is one thing I continue to learn over and over. Structure matters. I have experimented with a variety of preparation tools and structures in sermon creating. A loop, a circle, 5 moves, 3 points, and more narrative styles. Through the Preaching Excellence program, I have been mentored and mentored others on structure. I have come to realize that if the structure isn’t well designed, the sermon is hard to memorize and less understandable for its hearers.
Dr. Joe Clifford was my mentor for the Preaching Excellence group. He taught our group of colleagues about the way he outlines the structure every time he preaches. His wisdom and practice continues to affect the way I prepare and preach sermons. Our readings and study together of contemporary preaching practices reinforced this method.
After the experience of being mentored on structure in a sermon, I have more confidence in my preparation and preaching. When I have the trouble of memorizing or speaking a sermon out loud, I know it is the fault of the structure. Something needs to be added, deleted or rearranged to have a solid form. When the form helps the sermon flow, it is easier to preach the sermon and more clarity for the congregation in what I am wanting to express.
It has been a joy to be a mentor for two first semester preaching students. Both of them had little preaching experience. As we worked together and they preached in front of the class, I became more convinced of the power and necessity of a strong structure. As new students, it was good practice for them to focus on the exegesis of scripture. It was harder, though, to grasp the concept and necessity of form and structure.
A good opening and closing is a good start, but it is the middle where the structure really helps or hinders a message. I have had experience both as the preacher and the listener of sermons that have seems to drag or be too brief, ones where stories drone on or I may ask what’s the point. These troubles in sermon writing can be corrected with a solid structure.
In recent practice, I have been more in tune with how the sermon naturally wants to form out of the scripture and as a creative act of the Holy Spirit. This learning has also made me more sensitive to listening for the form of sermon writing in other preachers. A sermon preached on a psalm can take the form of a prayer or of a song with refrain. A parable based sermon may take the form of parallel stories both of scripture and of more contemporary experience. The letters of Paul may take the form of informal instruction in a community.
Jesus’ teaching and sermons took many forms and inspired both his closest friends and the broader crowd. As a growing preacher, this has become my model as well. In my preaching class in seminary, we did talk about Buttrick’s structure of moves. I think with all the other things that went into the class, everything else about structure of the sermon got lost. The five-move system has been my go to for many years. What I realize now is that I have been missing out on a more creative process of sermon preparation and delivery.
In our rapid communication age, people have grown accustomed to hearing short sound bites that catch your attention in an instant. This reality can make the art of sermon preparation and delivery more difficult in order to catch and keep the listener’s attention. The value of a strong structure to a sermon has gone up because of this reality. Decades and centuries prior to ours, preachers could count on a more auditory learning audience. The advent of all of our media resources has changed how we listen and hear producing a greater need for paying attention to the total structure of sermon making.
In the final beginning preaching class with my mentees, a woman preached and her form was so good, woven words and stories from beginning to end. It was so inspiring and relatable. I had this experience as if the Holy Spirit was there intervening and speaking to me as the mentor in that moment. I was so encouraged by the experience that it made me want to continue to grow and learn as a preacher.
I am grateful for this opportunity to do continuing education with the Center for Preaching Excellence and the Hardin Mentoring program. These experiences create in me a desire to hone the craft of preaching and trust in what God is doing every time I step up to preach.
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