Preaching Biblical Sermons: Three Contemporary Strategies
Raymond O. Bystrom. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred Press, 2006. 171 pages.
This book is a call for preachers to embrace a variety of sermonic forms” (2). A decade of teaching biblical studies, an almost equal length of time in pastoral ministry, and then some sixteen years of teaching Pastoral Ministries at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California, have nurtured in Raymond Bystrom a deep passion for helping contemporary pastors preach sermons that engage post-modern hearers and are deeply biblical in both content and form. Bystrom’s means of inspiring a broadening of preaching styles is to summarize and evaluate the sermon forms championed by three giants of contemporary homiletic theory: Fred Craddock, Eugene Lowry, and David Buttrick.
Older homiletic theory assumed that the chief purpose of a sermon was to convey information, and so it encouraged “discursive” sermons which relied heavily on key points clearly stated at the outset, developed by means of logical propositions, rational arguments, and illustrations. All three of the homileticians discussed in this book react strongly against this model of preaching and propose alternatives that focus on the listening process and on human experience rather than just on human learning. Craddock promotes “inductive” preaching which avoids spoon-feeding listeners information but aims to create interest and ownership by leading listeners on a journey of discovery through the biblical text and through the intersection of the text with contemporary life. Lowry proposes that sermons be shaped according to the five stages of an effective narrative: an opening which grabs the listeners’ interest by introducing some problem, ambiguity, or conflict inherent in the topic or biblical text; a detailed exploration of the problem; providing clues to the resolution of the conflict or ambiguity; proclaiming the gospel in such a way that it directly addresses the ambiguity; creating closure by suggesting the consequences of the Gospel’s intersection with the human condition. Buttrick proposes a “motion-picture strategy” for preaching, seeing the sermon as a set of five or six scenes or moves connected like the scenes of a movie and designed to form a congregation’s faith consciousness.
The three main chapters of the book follow a similar pattern: the theology of preaching which informs each homiletician’s proposal, a sample sermon by that scholar followed by Bystrom’s insightful analysis, a detailed summary of each respective scholar’s proposal regarding sermon form, one of Bystrom’s own sermons which implements the sermon form under discussion, a concluding evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal. Pastors interested in recent homiletic trends, in expanding their preaching style, in acquiring insights into the practice of preaching, and in being nurtured by some truly inspiring sermons, will do well to read this book.
Readers might wish for a bit more critical evaluation of the three homiletic giants. In the post-Enlightenment modern era when science and reason prevailed, not surprisingly, homiletic theory emphasized preaching that was rational and focused on forming Christians by means of communicating information about biblical texts and Christian doctrine. In our post-modern period when human experience prevails, the pendulum of homiletic theory has shifted dramatically towards preaching that helps listeners experience the Gospel. The concluding chapter could offer a bit more critical analysis of post-modern preaching theory based on the conviction that the formation of God’s people requires preaching that emphasizes both experience of the Gospel and sound intellectual explication of the biblical story and core Christian convictions.