Preaching Points: Avoiding the Sermon Travelogue by Hershael York
Being a preaching professor is similar to getting paid to tell a mother her baby's ugly. After all, a sermon is not spontaneously generated, but born of a certain gestational period culminating in an intense, sometimes tearful travail. Finally delivered of their homiletical offspring and prepared to present their progeny proudly to the public, young preachers can be devastated to learn that not everyone—especially a jaded preaching professor—appreciates the beauty of what he or she has produced. After two decades of homiletical obstetrics, I can say the majority of sermons I hear, similar to babies I see, do indeed have a beauty of some kind. Preaching has three distinct parts—text, sermon and delivery—and few preachers are bad enough to mangle all three (though I certainly have given it my best shot on occasion). I usually can find something to admire in any biblical sermon. Most preachers are serious about the text, for instance. After all, they have spent their lives or a good portion thereof acquiring the biblical knowledge, language skills, theological comprehension and practical experience required to know what the Bible says. I rarely hear sermons that totally miss the point the biblical author intended. When it happens, however, nothing else much matters. No charm of homiletical wizardry or engaging communication skills can make a valley of dry bones live. The Spirit uses the Word; and devoid of it, the Spirit will not use our personalities as substitutes. The most common errors I see—and commit myself—come at the levels of sermon construction or delivery. Preachers either lack organization, fail to illustrate points adequately or use so many verbal bridges such as um, ya know and like that they uglify rather than beautify the product of their labors. One particular mistake is so perfectly transcendent in its impairment of sermon and delivery, so ruinous in its effect that it can shroud whatever attractiveness the sermon otherwise might have shown. It's the sermon travelogue. Few preachers may have heard of the sermon travelogue, probably because we love to do it and frequently indulge ourselves. Anytime we describe the process of preaching—our thinking, planning, spiritual preparation or delivery of the sermon itself—within the sermon, we violate a primary rule of preaching by making ourselves or our sermon the point rather than the text. Sermon travelogue takes many forms, such as: Spiritual: "I was planning on preaching from Genesis 36, but I just didn't have peace in my heart; so I prayed, and the Lord led me to John 3:16." Homiletical: "Let me illustrate this with a story." Historical: "Before I went to seminary, I would have taken this verse out of context. Transitional: "Now I want to move into my second point." Rhetorical: I'm going to do a little inclusion here and tell you the end of the story I started in my introduction." Perorational: "And in conclusion…" You may be thinking this doesn't sound so bad. After all, aren't preachers supposed to "tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, then tell 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em"? Frankly, no. The second step of "telling 'em" will suffice; here's why. When I preach, I do not want anybody thinking about my sermon or me, but rather about the text and how it reveals God. The paradox of preaching is that the better I preach, the less they notice me. The better my sermon, the less attention it calls to itself. So I must remind myself not to say, "Let me illustrate this with a story." Rather, just begin the illustration. Don't blurt, "I will conclude with this." Just conclude! I need not tell them the process of putting together the sermon; I just need to preach the sermon. Not only does this oral discipline save a lot of wasted time, but it tightens the sermon and keeps the listener connected and engaged because his or her mind does not have to filter out or be distracted by meaningless phrases that contribute nothing to the explanation of the text or point them to God. When I preach, I do not want people thinking about my sermon's trip through the birth canal. If my heart is right, I don't want them admiring my sermon for it's structure or eloquence. I desire them to have an encounter with the living God who has revealed Himself in His Word. I don't want them to think my baby's beautiful, but that my Savior is. This article was used with permission from Preaching.com.