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The original Chinese article here.

The last blog talks about the possible things the audience needs in order to understand a sermon. Professor Thomas Long gives four possible answers from the last blog. Here, he proposes four different answers of his own of what the audience needs.

First, Long states that the audience needs some kind of clue which answers the question, “What is this sermon about?” The tool by which they can learn the message is repetition. I have said in my exegesis classes that each passage, if our division of it is right, probably has one major point with a range of possible meanings within it. Yet, we do not depart from that major point into other “impossible meanings.” Yet, in my preaching class, I turn my attention to whether they all generally get that point. A lot times, when people are confused, they ask, “What’s your point?” The trouble with the sermon is that the audience does not often talks back until quite a while after the event. Therefore, the preacher ought to make his point clear as day so that there is no mistake as to what he is trying to say. Since he suggests repetition as a tool, our next question to ask is “What is worth repeating?” Based on my years in the pulpit, I would say two possible things are worth repeating, either the main issue or the main question. We may pick either one, but not both at the risk of confusing the audience. It is not that many in the audience cannot grasp the repetition of two simultaneous things, but there is always a risk when we add more into the mix.

Second, Long states that the audience needs framework. If a sermon is a nicely crafted piece of clothing, the framework is the best coat hanger on which the craftsmanship can be displayed. For those who think that if we preach using a storytelling style, we do not need an outline, Long would say, “Nonsense”. Long is a big advocate for outline. All outlines are not only exegetically based, but are in some sense, homemade. Each pastor has his own audience and pastoral situation which can inform him of the kind of outline is needed. Long lists some sample outlines that follow the following patterns. The patterned outline (e.g. three-point outline) creates a rhythm in the audience’s mind. The jewel pattern creates an impression that goes around a single point through different perspectives. The then-and-now outline (my own preferred framework for preaching biblical narratives) bridges the ancient and the modern worlds. The Hegelian pattern shows a thesis-antithesis-synthesis logic. The “guessing game” outline asks the big question “Is the answer this, that, or some others?” to which the sermon answers with an either-or solution or “a bit of both” solution. To me, these are all excellent patterns that will serve the preacher for a long time. The important thing for me is whether the passage under scrutiny fits this or that framework better. Sometimes, there is no right answer. Other times, the answer is as clear as the argument of the biblical passage.

Third, Long uses “follow-ability” to describe the hearing need the audience. This means that the sermon is not hard to follow in that the audience would not get weighed down by the large chunks of information. I think the best way to do this is to provide adequate transitions. The repetitions stated above can be good transition tools. Transition basically serves to show (but not necessarily tell) the audience what has gone on before and what is coming next. This is an important quality because by transition, we break up parts of the sermon into digestible portions much like the way we chop pieces of meat before stir frying so that we do not eat such a big chunk. Transition is the means by which the preacher keeps the audience from indigestion.

Fourth, Long talks of illustrations. He has named three different types: analogy, example, metaphor. It is natural to think about illustrations “after” our discussion on transitions. Storytelling style of preaching is attractive, except it also presents special risks to both preachers and listeners. Stories themselves are open to misunderstanding especially if the listener has an overactive imagination. The way to keep the illustrations from running away is to put a fence called transition around it so that the illustration is fenced in within its own section. That section with its own illustration should function alone by itself without contamination of other sections. Clear transition which divides up sections can protect illustrations. Now, we move on to the three illustration types. Analogy includes the word “like” in order to concretize an otherwise abstract concept into everyday life experience. Example should serve as the kind of exhortation that shows how certain principles work out in action. Metaphor, which Long considers the most dangerous of all illustrations, contains a condensed narrative which plays itself out in a singular figure. Sometimes its rich narrative world is sufficient to be used throughout the sermon starting at the beginning all the way to the end. In Proverbs, for example, a saying can have huge narrative world behind its metaphor. The preacher’s job is to trace back into the world of the story from the metaphor.

In conclusion, the suggestions above are very helpful only if the exegesis is in place. These tools can be misused when the preacher does not take the text seriously and focus on something substantial. The satisfaction of leaning on “traditional” (whatever that means) interpretation will do more harm than good when the preacher uses these rhetorical tools to express wrong ideas.

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