As we established in the last post, the genre of the text of Scripture affects the tone of the text. By tone, or spirit, we mean the author-intended emotive design of the author. Thus, a Psalm feels like a song, and prophecy feels like a prophet has spoken. This is somewhat subjective, but it is real. There is meaning in the emotion of the text. This is important for the reason that once we identify the tone, the text-driven preacher must ensure the tone of the text is the tone of the sermon.
However, it is not true that one specific genre always communicates the same tone. For example, the epistletory genre of Galatians 1 is a good format for Paul to tell the Galatians, in terse direct language, that they have forsaken the Gospel. Letters can do that. However, think of the prophecy in Isaiah 1:1-18. The prophets usually selected poetry as their genre of choice. In Isaiah’s prophecy, God tells Israel to stop giving money and stop going to church since there was no heart behind their business. It is a strong, forceful rebuke. It is also direct and terse. So here is at least one example where the genre of the text is different but the tone is the same. So again, the tone of a genre is not always the same.
At the end of the day, tone is only part of the equation to consider when thinking about the implications of a specific genre on the interpretation and communication of a text. What really helps us understand the meaning that may be imbedded in a genre is the structure of the text. This is critical to the text-driven preacher. If one can identify the structure of the text, he can use it to create the structure of the sermon. So here is one of the most liberating thoughts in the world:
Each genre will have a certain tone and a certain structure. While tone is not always genre-specific, the structure of a certain genre is unique to that genre.
Think for a moment about how differently individual scriptures are structured.
The great stories of the Old Testament may span several chapters or an entire book. To understand and preach that story, one will need to understand its macro structure. After reading the story over and over, the best counsel is to look for the major turns in the story. The human author has embedded these explicitly. So one could argue that you don’t understand the story until you have backed away and seen it as a whole.
On the other hand, the Gospel stories are shorter. The individual stories may cover a whole chapter of the Gospel or even just a portion of a chapter. So, unlike the Old Testament narrative, the “feel” of the story is much different.
Both of these are different than an epistle. An epistle may be a more deductive, expositional dialogue that is worked out with multiple “points.” It is a proposition supported by points.
This may sound confusing. When we are structuring our sermons, can’t we just have one sermon structure for every sermon? Of course we can. Many of the greats did this. However, the problem is that there is meaning on the structural level. If you ignore the structure in the sermon preparation process, the danger is that there may be some meaning that is missed.
So how should we structure our sermons?
We should structure them like the text. Therefore, we have as many sermon structures as we do texts. This sounds daunting, but let’s digress for a moment to consider the liberation this brings! If we do not structure our sermons around the genre, then how will we structure them? What often happens is that we have a default sermon structure—we love a certain amount of points or a certain approach to preaching. But there is a problem with a go-to, default sermon form.
Boring preaching misrepresents Scripture, and boring sermon structure is the cradle for the boring sermon.
First, this can become boring. Reliability is a mark of faithful preaching, while predictability is its curse. When people see a sermon point coming a mile away, we have missed something. Second, there is not one single sermon form that fits every text. The text of Scripture is wild with variety. Preaching that is stale and predictable in its form misses that. Boring preaching misrepresents Scripture, and boring sermon structure is the cradle for the boring sermon.
So, by allowing the sermon form to be influenced by the text form, we have the sweet liberty of variety. We are not bound to our favorite, or the most popular, or our traditional sermon form. We have variety because the text has variety. We are not bringing creativity to the sermon, we are allowing the breadth of our creativity to come from the depth of our study. So friend, embrace the freedom of text-driven preaching by allowing the variety of Scripture to influence the variety of sermon form.
So again, we can have as many sermon structures as we have texts.
What I mean is that there are some things in a sermon that are static: a sermon will generally have a clear introduction, body and conclusion. However, the body of the sermon is fluid. We do not take a shape and lay it over the sermon, we actually reflect the shape that is in the text. So, in this way we are not only sensitive to the genre, we are allowing the shape of the text to determine the shape of the sermon. Of course, we are not trying to produce “form fundamentalist.” This is not a matter of slavish mimicking of the biblical form. The important issue is meaning. What does this text say? In speaking of genre, we are asking, “How does the structure of this text affect the meaning of the text?”
We do not take a shape and lay it over the sermon, we actually reflect the shape that is in the text.
So, at the least we are asking how genre influences meaning; at the most we are directly borrowing the shape of the sermon as the shape of the text.
So at the end of the day those of us who are chained to preaching the text find the almost exhausting liberty of sermon form. There are only as many sermon forms as there are Scriptures. What a thrill. So, how are we to understand the many forms of the text?
There are many ways to categorize genre, but for preaching purposes I have been helped by seeing nine biblical genres that have different nuances in terms of structure: Old Testament narrative, Law, Prophecy, Psalms, Wisdom Literature, Gospels/Acts, Parables, Epistles, and Apocalyptic literature. This seems like a lot, but there is actually a lot of overlap here. So, if the idea of honoring the genre in the sermon is new to you, don’t be intimidated.
Over the next several weeks, we will walk through each of these genres. Next week, I’ll address preaching the Psalms influenced by the structure of the genre.
Steven Smith is vice president for student services and communications at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. This article is part of a series on preaching the genres of Scripture. Follow Dr. Smith on Twitter @StevenWSmith.