Rhetorical Goals and Strategies: The Why and How of Preaching

September 25, 2014

It’s easy to get in a rut. I know from experience. Sermon after sermon comes off the production line packaged in the standard format with little to no clear purpose driving their delivery.

Questions like “What is the goal of this sermon with reference to my audience?” or “What are the best methods for communicating and achieving that goal?” are often overlooked or undervalued. (Just for fun and to make a point, I will sometimes ask my homiletics students on the spot why they are preaching a particular sermon only to be met with a blank stare. To my own chagrin I can identify with that stare.)

Sermons that lack a sense of purpose also tend to lack unity, clarity, and fervency. In many cases, especially within the context of an expository book series, sermons without purpose degenerate into little more than informational lectures; listeners may leave with their heads full but with their hearts largely unchallenged and unchanged.

Just because we have a clearly identifiable purpose for preaching a sermon, however, doesn’t mean our objective is compatible with the original purpose of the Scripture writer. In some cases we end up cutting against the grain of authorial intent and tearing up the text in the process. Our sermon purpose must be informed by the text and consistent with the text.

So let’s say you have a definite goal in mind for preaching a particular sermon, and you’ve done your best to make sure it’s in sync with the passage. Great! You’re one step ahead of the pack. But that’s not enough. It’s at that point you should start asking yourself this question: “In light of my target audience, time constraints, and the nature of the occasion, what is the best way for me to accomplish that purpose from a rhetorical standpoint?” In other words, how do we get from point A (where we are) to point B (where we need to go, or in this case, where we want our listeners to go)?

I wonder how many preachers interact with this question when preparing a message, and to what extent. It’s an important question, one we don’t want to overlook. We need to be thinking carefully about our rhetorical strategies (i.e. the means we employ to accomplish particular objectives), because it’s possible to have a good sense of what we want to accomplish without having a clue about how to accomplish it (in concert with the work of God’s Spirit).

Of course, the fact that someone has given thought to his method doesn’t necessarily mean his method is legitimate. Pragmatism can easily influence the preacher when he wrestles only with the question “What works best?” and not with the question “What rhetorical strategies are exemplified and, therefore, sanctioned by the authors of Scripture?”

For example, a preacher presenting the gospel of Christ should have belief in Christ as one of his sermon objectives (cf. John 20:30–31). That does not mean, however, that because the goal itself is unarguably biblical that any old means of pursuing it will do. No. Any approach that employs deception or manipulation is clearly contrary to Scripture and must be rejected. In general, any rhetorical device that would undermine the character or compromise the integrity of the message itself should be rejected.

As expository preachers we may be passionately committed to saying what God said. And well we should. But are we also committed to saying what God said in a way that is consistent with why and how He said it?


Kerry McGonigal

Posts Twitter Facebook Google+

In Adam by birth but in Christ by grace. That's my story. Husband to one and father of three. Pastor, homiletics teacher, and passionate proponent of expository preaching. If you like what you've read and want to be notified of future posts, take a second and subscribe via RSS or email (on the right sidebar). Opinions expressed here are my own.

3 responses to Rhetorical Goals and Strategies: The Why and How of Preaching

  1. Thanks, Kerry. Interesting post.

    Here are some questions I had. I’d be curious to see some follow-up on rhetorical strategy in more detail. Maybe some of these questions would be useful avenues to explore:

    * So if pragmatism is not a solely legitimate means for determining rhetorical strategy, how much (if any) influence may pragmatic factors contribute to a legitimate choice of methods?
    * Is it possible to develop rhetorical strategy without allowing pragmatic factors to influence that decision in any way? If not, how does one control the amount of influence pragmatic factors play in the decision process?
    * Are there rhetorical strategies that are always inappropriate?
    * Are there rhetorical strategies that are always OK?
    * What is a rhetorical strategy, anyway?

    As I look back over these questions now, I wonder if maybe they would all dissolve if we were discussing the particular methods one might choose to achieve a particular goal for a particular sermon…. it’s possible that this is only interesting as an abstract exercise. But of course, I’d hate to be strictly pragmatic about all of this =-o

    So, anyway, feel free to ignore any of these questions that might not look to be useful.

  2. In terms of arriving at the purpose and methods for the sermon, I’ve found that sermons usually coalesce for me as follows (1) exegesis: arriving at the structure and argument(s) of the text, (2) synthesis: narrowing to a particular focus/purpose of the text, (3) quandary: vague attempts to crystalize purpose and methodology for presenting the focus/purpose of the text, (4) clarity: after lots of prayer and contemplation of God, myself, and my audience, the purpose and methodology for the sermon becomes clear, (5) first pass: I begin to lay the structure/create the arguments, (6) first-mid pass: usually in the middle of writing it out, the best method for presenting the purpose becomes clear.

    I think there’s a healthy bit of pragmatism in preachers that says: “God has put me here to persuade people to act on the Gospel (2 Cor. 5.11), and I want to use the most effective means to achieve that end.” But I think you’re right that this pragmatism has to be bounded by the ethics of Scripture and the integrity of the message.

    I might also add (and perhaps this could be subsumed into one of your categories) that our pragmatism must be bounded by an understanding of how people in our context make serious life decisions. In other words, if we know that our culture makes major decisions such as buying a car or where they will vacation after a long process of evaluation and contemplation, we’d do well to allow listeners to evaluate and contemplate as we persuade them toward action (I’m thinking specifically here in terms of evangelistic preaching, but I think the same principle applies elsewhere). By forcing an on-the-spot decision, we may unnecessarily drive our hearers (1) to claim assent to something they really don’t understand or (2) to flatly reject something that they simply haven’t had a legitimate opportunity to make a decision in their normal manner.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Saying what God said how he said it | Conservative Christianity, Worship, Culture, Aesthetics – Religious Affections Ministries - September 26, 2014

    […] Read the whole thing: Rhetorical Goals and Strategies: The Why and How of Preaching | Preaching & Preachers. […]