Al though there are several preaching styles, nearly all sermons these days fall into two broad categories: textual and topical. Given that numbing lack of variety in form, it is no wonder many congregations (and not a few preachers) have grown bored with the sermon as the centerpiece of Protestant worship.
Perhaps it is time to recover two elements that were once hallmarks of great preaching: imagination and creativity.
Textual sermons begin with the text. The preacher chooses a single passage does not move beyond its original meaning. This includes several sermon types including expository sermons, Bible teaching, homily, and many exhortative sermons. “Scripture cannot mean what it never meant” is the mantra of the textual preacher, who works hard to present exactly what the original writer is thought to have meant.
Topical sermons begin with a subject. They make freer use of the text while speaking about a particular topic, such as the doctrine of grace, the Christian view of marriage, social justice, or sexual morality. Topical preachers take the gist of a text and develop a sermon around it, sometimes using several texts from various parts of the bible to support the topic.
These sermons all rely on propositional argument. They often consist of “three points and a poem,” meaning that they present a central thesis supported by several (often three) propositions and a bit of illustrative material (that’s the “poem”—stories, video, quotations, etc.).
Both forms are good and certainly have their place. Yet there are many other sermon forms used by highly respected preachers of the past.
For example, Dr. Martin Luther King’s celebrated sermon “A Knock at Midnight” is a straight-up allegory based on Jesus’ parable of the importunate friend. King acknowledges that he is abandoning the standard, historical interpretation of the text, which concerns persistence in prayer, to find an alternative meaning. He then uses elements of the story as symbols for the moral state of America, its leadership, and the church in the mid-twentieth century.
King was a highly effective preacher who practiced something like Midrash, the Jewish tradition of interpreting a text imaginatively. This interpretive method sees a biblical text as laden with meanings, some yet to be discovered, and not merely as wagon used to carry a single theological proposition.
This imaginative style of interpretation is very much in keeping with the holiness tradition of preaching I recall hearing years ago. Yet as preachers and their audiences became more intellectual, creative preaching was all but abandoned. Preachers became historical-critical scholars, and congregations came to expect Bible lectures on Sunday morning.
To be sure, a preacher must have a grasp of biblical hermeneutics, theology, and the history of Bible interpretation. We don’t look for novel interpretations, and we don’t impose our own ideas upon it (at least we try not to). But an experienced preacher may well go beyond giving history lessons on Sunday to preach in more creative and persuasive forms.
Here are ten types of creative sermons that may push the preacher to greater imagination and creativity, and may help draw hearers deeper into the text.
An allegorical sermon, like King’s “Knock at Midnight,” uses elements of a biblical text to signify other concepts. I recently heard a great allegorical message by Lenny Luchetti on the subject of the church, using the story of Jacob, Rachael, and Leah. The historical meaning of the Jacob story has nothing to do with church shopping or religious consumerism, yet Luchetti powerfully developed his thesis using the idea that “radiant Rachael” represents the ideal church that everyone desires, “less-than-lovely Leah” represents the real-life congregations that we all get stuck with, and Jacob is the church member trying to reconcile vision with reality. Allegorical sermons work best with a familiar scripture, probably a narrative or perhaps a poetic text.
2. Open Letter
An open letter is addressed to one person or group but meant to be “overheard” by everyone. Open letters sometimes appear as op-ed pieces in a newspaper, addressed to a prominent leader or celebrity. Martin Luther King Jr. also used this form in his “Letter to American Christians,” an open letter fictitiously attributed to the apostle Paul. The open letter is a good way to address controversial topics without embarrassment to the hearer because the communication is ostensibly directed at a third party.
A monologue casts the preacher the role of a character from Scripture, literature, or history. The preacher remains in character for the entire sermon, which is a speech delivered by that character to the audience. The preacher might choose to appear in costume as well. The advantage of a monologue is that it instantly creates a dramatic setting and hooks the reader. Monologue can be difficult because it calls for the preacher to maintain the character and recite the entire message. A speech by David based on Psalm 51, a “Skype call” from the apostle Peter, or a training session for leaders from John Wesley could be subjects for monologue sermons.
A dialogue is similar to a monologue except that there are two speakers. In a dialogue, the audience of the message is the other person involved in the dialogue. The congregation “listening in” to the conversation. A dialogic sermon can be done dramatically, with each speaker in character, or naturally, with the speakers as themselves. A dialogue can be a good way to explore a controversial or hard-to-understand subject because each speaker can present a different point of view and question the other speaker.
5. Tag Team
A tag-team sermon is similar to a dialogue in that there are two (or more) speakers but different in that the speakers address the audience rather than one another. In a tag-team sermon, the speakers simply take turns presenting elements of the message. People with different areas of expertise can make an effective tag team: for example, a biblical scholar and a pastoral counselor, or a local pastor and a missionary, or a man and a woman. This is more of a preaching technique than a sermon form. Even so, it requires a bit more creativity and imagination than a simple textual or topical message.
A narrative sermon is a story told with running commentary by the preacher that adds insight, interpretive information, and application. The simplest method is to retell a Bible story while adding details, supplying thoughts or dialogue for the characters, describing the setting in more detail, and commenting on the principles, discoveries, or truths that emerge from the story. As people read less and depend more on audio and video for information, imaginative storytelling is likely to become a more popular form of preaching.
7. Biographical Sermon
A biographical sermon tells the story of a person’s life, usually a biblical character or prominent historical person. It is similar to a narrative sermon but includes a broader story—not just one episode but an entire life.
8. Dramatic Reading
Here the preacher reads a piece of literature adding dramatic emphases through voice, movement, and gestures. The reading could be a biblical text, a sermon written by another preacher, a poem, a story, or another literary form. The preacher might briefly introduce the reading and may give a brief closing comment, but the real work is done by the text itself.
I recently heard Steve Emery deliver a dramatic reading sermon on the subject of prayer. The sermon was a story written by Ethel Barrett, a Christian storyteller who was popular in the 1950s and ’60s. After a one- or two-minute introduction, Steve read the story verbatim, creating voices for the various characters, adding dramatic pauses, and using his deep bass voice to bring the story to life. It was highly effective.
In a recitation, the preacher quotes a piece of literature verbatim. It could be a passage of Scripture, a poem, or even another sermon. In this case it is obvious that the preacher is reciting another person’s work, so it may be done with or without a specific introduction. The preacher need not be “in character” as the originator of the work, but the value of the recitation lies in adding dramatic emphasis through the use of voice, movement, and gestures.
My father, Norman G. Wilson, occasionally recites the Sermon on the Mount as a sermon. The only introduction given is the introduction in the text itself, read by another person, “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.” Then Dad begins reciting the text, speaking as if the words were his own. People listen closely to a recitation, possibly to see if the preacher will do it perfectly! It is a remarkably effective way to get people deeper into a text.
10. Creative Essay
An essay is nonfiction writing that relies heavily on the author’s experience or point of view. As such, nearly every sermon is an essay. A creative essay, however, takes the personal and literary nature of the form more seriously. While most textual and topical sermons are developed using conventional rhetoric, a creative essay may rely on personal narrative, creative imagery, literary quotations, or other methods. A creative essay might be used to critique a popularly held idea, to offer a manifesto, or to make observations on the current state of church or society. A creative essay would most likely be read verbatim.
Textual and topical sermons will likely remain the staple of American preaching for some time. Yet the recent rise of narrative preaching demonstrates that audiences are now as suspicious of facile propositions as they once were of imaginative allegories. Perhaps it’s time for creative preaching to make a comeback.