The best stories, whether from books, movies, or friends, all usually have one thing in common: you do not know the end at the beginning. None of us knew that Bruce Willis was dead. None of us knew if Jack would die, though we knew the Titanic was going down at some point. Did you think Private Ryan would want to stay on the battlefield while having an option to go home? Not knowing the outcome is what draws us in, it is what grips our attention.
Sermons can be delivered in a similar fashion. Our last blog tried to show the advantages to structuring your sermon with explicit "points". The draw back of point-based sermons is they are a predictable structure and can communicate that the sermon is merely about transferring information. Sermons are more than a transfer of information. They are events where listeners hear from God through a flawed Bible-preacher.
Listening to a sermon can be a similar experience to that of listening to a great story. After all, the Bible we preach from is one epic story. Delivering sermons in a similar fashion to delivering stories is a way to structure your sermons in what can be a more attention-grabbing way than a point-based structure.
Much like a great story, sermons should create a reason in the beginning for listeners to pay attention. In the beginning of The Bourne Identity Jason Bourne is plucked out of the ocean, can't remember anything, and has a chip of some kind under his skin. This gives moviegoers all kinds of reasons to watch the movie. Who is this guy? Why is he in the ocean? Why is he so skilled at fighting? This tension hooks moviegoers in for multiple Bourne movies.
Imagine if in the beginning of your favorite movie you were told everything that would happen, including the surprise ending? It takes all the fun out of it! When preaching, however, we often tell listeners exactly what the sermon will cover in the introduction. We bring listeners to a resolution before even beginning. You do not have to show your cards all at once like this. In fact, listeners probably don't want to see your cards.
This kind of preaching could be called inductive preaching or Problem/Solution-Driven preaching. You have a starting point and the whole sermon builds to make an argument for some truth, often addressing a problem, all from a main biblical text. Steps are taken throughout the sermon that listeners see as movement towards a resolution of some kind. For instance, here is what a sermon of this nature could look like:
Tension: If God demands perfection, is there any hope for imperfect sinners, like you and me?
Step One: God demands perfection.
Step Two: We are imperfect.
Step Three: Probe the tension that God demands perfection but we are imperfect. Is there hope?
Resolution: Jesus' perfect righteousness is given to us through faith, by his life, death, and resurrection.
The example sermon above probes a single tension ("So What?" Moment) with the aim to resolve it by the end, and listeners are longing for the resolve. There are at least two basic ways Problem/Solution-Driven sermons can be preached. Like the one above, a Problem/Solution sermon can be delivered like a rubber band that is being stretched to the max. The preacher may raise a question and spend the entire sermon building tension. The whole sermon feels like a balloon being filled to the popping point. This is how many great stories work.
Another kind of Problem/Solution-Driven sermon is delivered like the slow burn of a match. For instance, let's say a preacher asks, "If God is good, then why is evil so pervasive in the world?" Rather than probing that tension, the preacher could slowly unpack the answer, like releasing the carbon dioxide out of a coke/soda/pop bottle.
Sermons like these must begin with tension built around a clear theme, drawn from a biblical text. Without a clear focus, listeners will not know where and why a sermon is moving. Listeners need to see what kind of problem the main biblical text is addressing, even if they do not know the solution yet. In the body of the sermon, take logical steps towards the resolution by way of explaining different parts of the main biblical text. This way the sermon is driven and shaped by the Bible. Lastly, do not say, "Amen" without complete resolve. Show exactly how the Bible provides a resolution.
Simply put, don't tell listeners in the beginning that Bruce Willis is actually dead, that Jack will die, and that Private Ryan is an amazing soldier. Take them on a journey to discover these things. Do what the Bible does. Let your listeners experience the story with all of its ebb and flow. Hold them in the balance sometimes. Just don't let them go without the Bible's ultimate resolution: Christ crucified for them.