When I was a kid I used to love to assemble models. Apparently, I wasn’t alone because K-Mart and Wal-Mart dedicated entire aisles to these plastic icons of automotive and military history. Excitement gripped me as I tore the plastic off the box. Soon, I was separating components from their plastic prison.
The first challenge was the basic assembly of the parts. The glue in these kits could be used in chemical warfare, but assuming I survived the fumes, a monochrome muscle car stood before me. Now it was time to make it my own. I could paint it any color I wanted. Decals were included, and the sky was the limit. The result was as close as I would get for many years to owning a car. I had a whole fleet of them. (Don’t even get me started on all the spacecraft I owned…) As I look at my shelves today, the muscle cars are gone and books abound. The preaching section of my library continues to grow. As before, there is no shortage of models. In the world of preaching (called homiletics), a model is an essential take on what the sermon should look like.
Car models were very useful because they gave me a quick way to get started on my masterpiece. Hasbro, Revell, AMT, and ERTL gave a barebones structure. They decided what was essential about a 1969 Ford Mustang. They set the table for a custom classic in your room. Some of my friends were happy to simply start playing with the assembled pieces, but this was not the intended purpose. At this early stage, the best work is just beginning; it’s not yet a classic.
Church folk could download sermons and read them on their own time. However, they need a pastor to make the connection.
Sermon models come in various forms. At the extreme end, on a Saturday night, one could download a sermon someone else preached three years ago. I have also seen colleagues carry the suggested sermon from a kit directly into the pulpit. Models are useful, but they are designed as a first step to crafting a local masterpiece. Church folk could download sermons and read them on their own time. However, they need a pastor to make the connection. The best models give us an angle from which to approach the task of preaching. They give us vessels capable of delivering the message.
Preachers are tempted to abuse models because they have a hard time getting started. Last year, in an article for Grace and Peace, I presented a model for advance planning of preaching. This gives us more time to hear what the Spirit is saying. But there are still those passages and topics that challenge us to the core. Holiness preaching can be the greatest challenge of all.
The students and pastors I encounter in my preaching courses are often intimidated by the concept of holiness preaching. They don’t know where to begin. Many of us have pet holiness passages that are clearer to us. You can tell because we preach on them every few months. In these sermons, we focus in on entire sanctification or being filled with the Spirit or the process of growing in grace. Often, we gravitate toward one of these images and preach on it with passion. But in almost all other sermons, holiness is curiously absent. Folks listening to us on one Sunday get this laser-focused sermon that makes holiness seem like the most important thing. But on most Sundays, we preach only what’s in the passage. If words like “holiness” or “sanctification” don’t appear, they are utterly absent from our sermons. This practice sends a mixed message over time. People may hesitate to respond to our “holiness sermon” because it doesn’t fit with what we’ve talked about all year. We may lack a model that is robust enough to carry these messages, connecting them with clarity.
John Wesley can help us. He liked to let the Bible interpret itself.
John Wesley can help us. He liked to let the Bible interpret itself. His theology was rarely systematic, seeming to always rise out of the collective theology of the books that form God’s Word. He was always seeking insight into the biblical-theological whole. This provided an overall unity in his preaching. What is it that God is communicating to us in the grand sweep of the Bible from cover-to-cover? There are theological threads running through nearly all narrative, poetry, history, and discourse in the canon. By regularly reading through the Bible (guided as he was by the Book of Common Prayer Daily Office), its overall message came to be written on his heart. We have come to call this message: the radical optimism of grace. From Genesis to Revelation, we see that human sin has birthed a broken world full of broken people. But nothing can stop God’s grace from forgiving, healing, restoring, and empowering fallen people who submit to God’s plan. Through the cross and resurrection, even creation itself will be restored in the fullness of the Kingdom. Therefore, we always have hope. We can live in the joy and strength of Jesus, even in our darkest hour. This biblical-theological vision for life can be the backdrop for all of our preaching. It belongs in the box for a more effective preaching model.
Without the foundation in the Hebrew Bible, we don't make connections.
Why is this so important? I actually know some pastors who almost never preach from the Old Testament. The theology can vary at times from the New Testament, so why wrestle with it? Most likely, their people struggle to understand a lot of New Testament content. Yet, without the foundation in the Hebrew Bible, we don't make connections. At other times, I’ve heard sermons on the First Testament that never reference the Good News. The principle from Isaiah or Proverbs is transferred straight from Ancient Israel to the post-modern marketplace. No references to the cross, resurrection, or grace. You “should, ought, must” obey God. Don’t be stubborn like the Israelites, etc. Or, we try to preach Paul without considering what the Gospels tell us. We shortchange the canon when we ignore huge chunks or treat each piece in isolation.
John Wesley’s example helps us paint in broader strokes. We have a little more work to do, but we have a hermeneutic of Good News that is larger than this one verse. We must decide how the radical optimism of grace is a bridge from this passage to contemporary life. It’s one of the larger, more important pieces that help any good model hold together.
If Wesley is our guide, we won’t just preach narrowly focused “holiness sermons.” We will relate every message to our holiness tradition. In the broadest sense, EVERY sermon can be a holiness sermon. Each preaching opportunity can present a grace-infused picture of life in the Kingdom. Messages can become movies that show the radical optimism of grace incarnate in redeemed, regular saints. Our holiness message becomes a way of letting the Christian Scriptures bring life into focus. Another way of looking at this: we are called to preach the Gospel, not near-sighted sermons on individual passages. The best preaching always puts a particular text in its canonical context in light of the Good News about Jesus, the Christ.
Some models are more helpful than others. At a classic car museum in Sarasota, Florida, I came upon what I thought would be the mother lode. Die-cast metal model cars with removable rubber tires and a working steering column! But when I opened the box, I found the complexity overwhelming. Also, many parts still had the rough edges from the die, which required much filing to become truly useful. Models that try too hard fail. I like to keep things simple whenever possible. When Saul’s armor is too heavy, a slingshot will do.
That’s the appeal of the Four Pages of the Sermon by Paul Scott Wilson. In this model, four pieces fit together to proclaim the gospel each week:
Page 1: Trouble in the Text
Page 2: Trouble in the World
Page 3: Grace in the Text
Page 4: Grace in the World
The strength of this model begins in allowing Scripture to define both the problem of sin and God’s resolution.
As with any model, the more detailed it tries to be, the less useful it becomes. I focus on the big picture of this model, supplying our Wesleyan theological vision for the grace portions. The strength of this model begins in allowing Scripture to define both the problem of sin and God’s resolution. It challenges us to preach the larger gospel message each week. If we simply preach our study notes, we don’t have a sermon. If we decide what a passage means based only on one chapter, we may short-circuit the Good News. This model does not allow us to stop with putting burdens on people, either. We focus on how God will be at work through us in the world when we receive this week’s offer of Good News (graceempowered living). In other words, we can succeed in proclaiming the radical optimism of grace in its largest context in our particular mission field. The model gets us started, providing a helpful framework to avoid problematic preaching. Yet, it has great flexibility and can be customized. It can be used to support narrative sermons, which flow through these movements experientially. Or, it can support the best kind of expository sermons, which provide larger biblical-theological connections for particular pericopes. More pessimistic movements have often hijacked the message of grace. It’s time for grace-oriented preaching to embody a bold message of God’s power to transform lives.
My bias is that holiness can best be experienced in response to grace.
My bias is that holiness can best be experienced in response to grace. God’s invitation is a positive one: to leave ways of the flesh behind and press on toward the goal of our high calling in Jesus. When we proclaim the larger message of grace, people are drawn out of the darkness into the light.
I call this hybrid model: Optimized Preaching. The Four Pages give us a basic, but challenging structure. We put the text in its largest context and unleash the radical message of grace. It helps us avoid the temptation to cram in too many unrelated but interesting insights from the text. They might get stuck in between the real “teeth” of the message, bogging things down. It encourages good exegetical hygiene, you might say. It guides our interpretive work to produce more sermon-ready insights. Sermon unity is also key if people are to receive grace from the Word. Wilson says we need one text, one theme, one doctrine, one need, one image, one mission. To keep this in front of him, he uses the following phrase and acronym: “The Tiny Dog Now is Mine” (TTDNIM). Use this as a helpful guide but don’t strain it each week. Sermon unity is the point. Our model is taking shape.
On the other hand, a crisp, monochrome Chevy Nova is no fun. So, with advanced planning, time with real saints, and prayerful reflection, God can help us paint on local color. Familiar faces, relevant storylines, honest questions, and timely testimonies give traction to lofty concepts of grace. When real people see themselves in the story of grace, real ministry begins. No preaching book can do this for you, but the Holy Spirit can do amazing things.
There is a video to accompany this article by Timothy, you can access it here.
TIMOTHY STIDHAM lives in NW Indiana with his wife and two teenage daughters. He leads New Hope Community Church of the Nazarene and teaches Advanced Homiletics at Olivet Nazarene University.
Editor’s note: Tim plans to continue his thoughts on optimized preaching in a second article. Look for it in a future issue of Grace and Peace Magazine.