The following is an excerpt from Steven W. Smith’s recently released volume, Recapturing the Voice of God: Shaping Sermons Like Scripture. In his Introduction Smith discusses how the rationale for the book hangs on two axioms: 1) Preaching is re-presenting the Word of God; and 2) The structure of a text influences its meaning. From these two axioms he concludes:
Therefore, we preach the Word of God as influenced by the voice of God. By “voice of God” we mean genre. This is saying what God says, the way God says it. The question is, how can I capture the voice of God while I am preaching the Word of God? To ignore the genre is to miss some of its meaning. The humble ambition of this book is to show a preacher or teacher how the genre influences the meaning of the text and give practical help for those who want to know how we can shape our sermons to reflect this meaning. This is genre-sensitive preaching.
This raises two questions. Are we arguing for imitating the text? No, not imitation. We are not imitating but re-animating the text. In other words discovering the meaning imbedded in the genre and allowing it to influence the sermon. More on that later. Secondly, isn’t it enough to preach the Bible verse by verse without any attention to genre? The problem is that could possibly lead to forcing texts into pre-determined forms, forms that do not allow the text to breathe and miss some of the meaning.
Not every preacher wants to be an expositor. I get that, but that is another discussion. For now one could wish that those of us who claim to be expositors would not mask the meaning of the text under the guise of explaining it. We can’t suggest we are taking the homiletic high ground by preaching “exposition” when all we do is walk through a book serially while drawing points from a text with the same capriciousness that one would pick a topic at random and assign a text that had some semblance of that topic in it.
Perhaps this paper-thin veneer of “exposition” as a pre-made template laid over a text is the reason so many younger preachers are walking away from it.
Please hear my heart: I’m not implicating my brothers as much as expressing my own frustration and failure. For years, maintaining a homiletic form kept me further from the text, not closer. I was too naïve and, perhaps willful, to admit that the form of the sermon did not accurately re-present the form of the text.
There has to be a better way. There is. We should let Scripture breathe.
If Scripture gives life, then our sermon forms should be the open windows through which the breath of life blows. As preachers, we are conduits whose task is not to filter out what is unpalatable—as if God’s Word was somehow too explicit for a modern world. To allow the text to breathe means that we allow the shape of the text to drive the shape of the sermon. This commitment flows from our doctrine of inspiration. If the content of the Word of God is inspired, and the shape of a text influences its content, should not our sermons be re-presentations of what God already presented? It is not the task of the preacher to flatten the literary genre in a quest to mine out theological truth. The structure of the text is actually part of the message, and we must pay attention to it.
For those of us who believe in inspiration, preaching really is a re-presentation of a text of Scripture. This truly is exposition. Our simple proposition is that the shape of the sermon should be influenced by the shape of the text. It is as simple as that. And since Scripture has many different genres, it is as complicated as that as well. If God is gracious, reading this will free you to let the text determine the sermon structure and be a primer to aid when the practice of genre-sensitive sermons gets complicated. And it does get complicated. So we will attempt to toggle between a work that is informed by recent scholarship yet has the daily application to the preacher in mind. Thus you can keep it at your elbow in the study when preaching through a specific genre. This is just an introduction so you will want to use the bibliography in the back for further study. Preaching, for me at least, is always daunting. This is written in the hope of washing the feet of other preachers.
I don’t have all the answers. Later today I’m going to fight my flesh as I prepare the next sermon. I certainly don’t know the way to preach each text. And this is part of the point. There is a thrill to being forced to think through each genre of Scripture on its own terms. However, I do want to stand on the shoulders of our predecessors who helped us with sermon form and enable us to get closer to the text. I do want to imitate Jesus, who was the exact voice of God. We are not perfect; we are weak prophets with a burning desire to get closer and to be clearer.
In an effort to get closer and clearer, we will study the genres of Scripture—their shape—so that the shape of the text informs the shape of the sermon. In this way we are recapturing the voice of God while we preach the Word of God. May he be gracious as we get closer and clearer.
About the Author:
Steven W. Smith (PhD Regent University) is vice president of Student Services and Communications and professor of preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Dying to Preach (Kregel, 2009).
See our video interview with Steven Smith here.
Download Introduction and Chapter One here.