People who have listened to a lot of preaching tend to expect preaching to be like what they’ve heard, and preachers tend to preach in ways that they’ve seen and experienced. Without a broad exposure to various forms of preaching, preachers and listeners can view certain preaching styles as real preaching and other styles as not preaching at all. To help us increase our appreciation of different ways of preaching, I’m sharing a slightly modified version of a book review I wrote a few months ago. It’s about a rather short book called Determining the Form: Structures for Preaching, written by Wesley Allen and published by Fortress Press in 2008.
This review points out that these preaching forms are not mutually exclusive. A faithful and effective sermon can draw from and combine two or more forms. A conversation yesterday reminded me of this. After I had preached for a church in the Memphis, TN, area, a seminary student who had recently read Allen’s book asked me which of the preaching forms my sermon had followed. I responded that my preaching form in that sermon had been a freestyle mixture of forms; it had drawn from the four pages and valley forms but had not fit completely in either one.
Preachers are called “not simply to preach the Word, but to effect a hearing of the Word.” Standing on this conviction, Wesley Allen presents a concise, well-organized introduction to sermon forms. The author teaches homiletics and worship at Lexington Theological Seminary and serves as an elder in the United Methodist Church. Prior to his seminary position, Allen spent eighteen years in “parish and campus ministry” (LTS website). He holds a bachelor’s degree from Birmingham-Southern College, a Master of Divinity degree from Yale, and a doctorate in New Testament from Emory; and he is a widely published author in the fields of homiletics and biblical interpretation. This book appears in the “Elements of Preaching” series, of which Allen is the editor. Determining the Form seeks primarily to teach new preachers and secondarily to increase the toolboxes of pulpit veterans.
Chapter One lays out a rationale for discussing sermon forms and points out that the “what and how” of preaching should go together; the “how flows from the what.” The how is the form, which the author defines as “the overarching rhetorical structure of the sermon—the intentional ordering of ideas and imagery designed to convey a specific gospel message and offer a particular experience of that message to a particular congregation.” After a brief history of forms in preaching, the chapter presents the need for preachers to know and use multiple “forms that over time engage the whole person of the listener.”
Chapter Two presents three “rhetorical qualities that should be part of every sermon regardless of the particular rhetorical strategy employed. These qualities are unity, movement, and climax. A sermon should be unified in its message and should have a narrow focus; sidetracks detract from clarity. In terms of movement, a sermon should, like a movie, have “a beginning, a middle, and an end.” The movement needs to be slow and clear. The parts of the sermon should be connected and should lead to a climax. In the language of Eugene Lowry, the climax is the scratch for the itch presented in the sermon’s beginning. These three qualities are more than “add-ons to proclamation. They are its vehicle.”
Chapter Three provides a case study of First Kings 19:1-15a. Allen’s exegesis of that text leads him to “use God’s recall of Elijah to help focus the congregation’s understanding of the church’s mission.” Each of the remaining chapters considers “how a particular form functions in the abstract and then [shows] how it might work to achieve this particular sermonic claim based on this particular biblical text.”
Each of the remaining chapters begins with “a diagram or flow chart so that readers get an introductory visual impression of the movement of the form and relationships of its parts,” explores the form’s “logic and purpose,” and evaluates the form’s strengths and weaknesses. After discussing each form, the author presents a filled-in version of the opening model. Those seven forms are propositional lesson, exegesis-interpretation-application, verse-by-verse, four pages, valley, new hearing, and negative to positive.
The propositional lesson form has also been called the “university sermon” and the “three-point sermon.” It is “deductive and topical,” calls for exegesis in preparation but uses “logic unconnected to the logic of the text” in the actual sermon. A sermon in this form presents an argument, stating the thesis in the introduction and proceeding with points supported by illustrations. This kind of sermon has a didactic, persuasive purpose. The form has three weaknesses. First, it reduces “every biblical text… to logical propositions, thesis, and subpoints.” Second, “people do not learn and listen in a deductive mode as much as they do in an inductive manner.” Third, the points frequently “become multiple mini-sermons.” This form, however, can be effective “in the black church” and in this “post-Christendom, post-denominational day” when people listening to sermons need instruction.
The exegesis-interpretation-application form is also called the “Puritan Plain style” and consists of a foreshadowing introduction followed by three main parts that focus on “biblical exegesis… theological interpretation, and… hortatory application.” The exegesis part is inductive, and the other two parts are deductive. This kind of sermon focuses on the theological interpretation but climaxes in the application. The form’s strength is “its ability to function didactically… However, too often this type of sermon is more informational than inspirational.” It also “can become three separate lectures,” and preachers frequently omit the middle section.
A verse-by-verse sermon “works through the biblical text for the day from beginning to end, allowing the structure of the text to determine the structure of the sermon.” After an introduction, the preacher exegetes a portion of the text, makes an application, exegetes the next portion of the text, makes another application, and continues this process through the chosen text. This form “draws on the form and logic of the biblical text” and counters “biblical illiteracy,” but it suffers two weaknesses. It “is not appropriate for all occasions,” and its users “can easily allow the divisions of the text to win out over the unity of the text.”
The four pages form, after an introduction, “moves from the ancient text to the contemporary context by way of direct analogy” and “has a clear turning point in which the direction changes.” The “pages” are the problem in the text, the problem today, the good news in the text, and the good news today. The order of those “pages” can vary. This form’s main strength is its simplicity, which also can be a weakness. “Viewing every biblical text in terms of sin –> grace or law –> gospel is somewhat reductionist” and can “diminish the full scope of the Christian faith.”
A valley sermon is “simple in structure” but “emotionally complex;” after an introduction, it goes “down into the depths of an issue, problem, or question and then” hinges and moves upward “with the good news that addresses, solves, or answers that was introduced in the first half.” The biblical text generally appears at the hinge, and the sermon ends “with a climactic image.” This form has “great potential for engaging hearers intellectually and emotionally and inspiring a behavioral response,” but it can suffer “difficulty with creating an ascent that is able to overcome the experience of the descent.”
The new hearing form can be helpful when a preacher wants to counter a commonly held perspective. Without a “separate introduction,” the sermon’s first movement introduces the topic and establishes a widely accepted view, which the second movement rejects. The third and final movement is the climax, claiming “about half of the time of the sermon,” and should provide an experience of the sermon’s claim. This form has an instructional strength but has a weakness; it “has the potential to open minds but will rarely do much to move the heart.”
The “Negative to Positive” form inductively moves from an introductory question through a series of rejected answers to a “proposed answer—at least a third of the sermon.” Such a sermon requires consistency in argumentation. “To reject a set of possible answers on one basis and to accept another on a different one is not fair to the issue nor does it really aid the congregation in making a theological or ethical judgment.” This form “can leave hearers in their heads and not move them into their hearts or inspire use of hands unless imagery is used well.”
Determining the Form is a book with multiple strengths. It presents sermon forms as options from which a preacher can choose instead of presenting them as mutually exclusive options that demand a preacher to choose one over the others. It can breathe life into the preaching of ministers “stuck in a… rut” (Brosend). The book is concise (Wilson) yet easy to read. It covers well a vast amount of literature from the field of homiletics but, catering to students and busy preachers, avoids excessive jargon. The book’s balance is impressive, providing almost equal attention to the seven forms. The author maintains a steady focus to present a clear overview of strategies. The guiding three qualities of “unity, movement, and climax” are employed throughout the book to provide coherence. Two final strengths are the figures that visualize the forms and the example sermon plans that demonstrate how the various forms can be implemented. For all these reasons, I agree with Lee Ramsey that Determining the Form should be a mainstay of the introductory class on preaching and a welcomed refresher for the busy pastor who hungers for a renewed appreciation of sermon structure and content” (Ramsey). The book also can empower listeners to more fully appreciate and participate in diverse preaching forms.
Brosend, William. Sewanee Theological Review 53:2 (2010), 234-36.
Ramsey, G. Lee, Jr. Homiletic 34:1 (2009), 47-48.
Wilson, Paul Scott. Interpretation 64:2 (April 2010), 218.
I wrote the original version of this review as an assignment in the Sermon Development and Delivery course taught by Dr. Dave Bland of Harding School of Theology.