Archives For Rhetoric

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?


Before I preach I nearly always ask God to cleanse my heart and purify my motives. It’s so easy to preach the right message for all the wrong reasons (cf. Phil. 1:15-17).

In a section dealing with division within the church at Corinth, Paul writes,

11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I followApollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. . . . 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Cor. 1:11-17)

Paul was called to preach the gospel not to win people to himself. In other words, “he was not sent to start a cult of people baptized by him” (MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, 33).

But even in his primary calling of preaching he sought to direct people away from himself and toward the cross. He says his preaching was “not with the words of eloquent wisdom.” That means Paul’s preaching of the gospel wasn’t characterized by “clever, skilled, educated, or rhetorically sophisticated speech” (Garland, 56). For Paul preaching wasn’t about “winning arguments and impressing an audience by rhetorical display rather than content” (Witherington, 103-104).

Why not? What’s the problem with that kind of preaching? It’s found in the reason Paul gives at the end of v. 17: “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”

Leon Morris explains that preaching “with words of eloquent wisdom”

would draw people to the preacher. It would nullify the cross of Christ. The faithful preaching of the cross leads people to put their trust, not in any human device, but in what God has done in Christ. A reliance on rhetoric would cause trust in men, the very opposite of what the preaching of the cross is meant to effect. (1 Corinthians, 48)

Or in the words of David Garland,

The problem with this style is that it earns the preacher the crowd’s golden opinions. Consequently, Paul is not defending his apostolic power in spite of his speaking deficiencies but attempting to undercut one of the values that has contributed to their divisions: the thirst for honor. Eloquence that elevates the status of the preacher cancels the power of the cross. (56)

Paul bent over backwards, as it were, even in his rhetoric, to point people away from himself and toward the cross and thereby foster unity within the body of Christ.

Perhaps we should do some self-assesssment in order to bring ourselves more in line with Paul’s cross-centered philosophy and practice of preaching:

  1. Does my preaching draw more attention to me than to Christ?
  2. Am I more concerned about how I preach than what I preach?
  3. Am I preaching to secure the approval of Christ or the approval of my listeners?
  4. Am I preaching in such a way that it encourages people to follow me or to follow Christ?
  5. Does my preaching encourage unity within the body of Christ or disunity?

Questions: What does preaching “with words of eloquent wisdom” look like today? What can we as preachers do to avoid emptying the cross of Christ of its power?

There are a lot of things to think about when preparing a message. But how many of us think about how we think? And let me go one step further–how many of us think about the way we are leading our listeners to think?

For example, should I begin my message by telling them what my big idea is and then proceed to lead their thinking out of that idea through further development. Or, should I begin my message by getting them to think toward the (yet unstated) big idea and then proceed to lead them into it by the time I reach my conclusion.

In other words, what is the shape or movement of my sermon with reference to my big idea (or proposition or homiletical idea)? And how do I want my audience to think about it?

Of course, what happens at the macro level in considering the shape of the entire sermon also takes place at the micro level in considering the shape of individual sections within the sermon.

For example, how am I going to get my listeners to think about my first main idea or point in the message? Should I move toward the idea? Away from the idea? Into and then back out of the idea? Should I circle around or perhaps work through the idea?

Or, if I’m honest, do I really have no idea? That, unfortunately, is the way some sermons come across. “What is his point?” the listener thinks to himself or herself. Or, perhaps more commonly, “I have no clue how that illustration or that cross reference or that bit of  historical background had anything to do with the point he stated earlier.”

That’s why we need to wrestle with the question of shape. We need to know at each moment where we are in relationship to our main idea(s). We need to consciously and deliberately employ shapes that communicate those ideas most clearly and effectively.

Four Basic Shapes

Here is one way to visualize the various shapes available to us. In his book Using Rhetoric John Jordan enumerates four basic shapes, patterns, or forms of developing the topic sentence within a paragraph. For our purposes (since we’re not writing a paper), think of the topic sentence as your exegetical idea, or homiletical idea, or main point. You can even think of it more broadly as any idea you want to get across in a message. And think of the paragraph as any unit of thought within the sermon (like the introduction or a main point) or the sermon as a whole.

1. The Triangle Shape

The topic sentence standing first makes the simplest and most reliable kind of paragraph organization. We naturally declare what we are going to say and then say it, thus forewarning and preparing our readers. Furthermore, this paragraph structure reflects the wide-spread method of thought, . . . operating in deductive logic, of moving from generalization to particulars. A generalization is made at the beginning of the paragraph, and everything in the paragraph derives from and supports that generalization. If everything cannot be derived from the topic sentence, then something is wrong with either the topic sentence or the paragraph. (123, emphasis mine)

2. The Wedge Shape

One can construct a paragraph on the inductive pattern by pouring in details and concluding with a generalization contained in a topic sentence. The writer then gives the illusion of actually working out what he wants to say in the course of the paragraph, before the reader’s eyes. Perhaps in his rough draft the writer actually is uncertain of what he wants to say. But by the final version this working out of the material must be just an illusion designed to encourage the reader to think with the writer. (123)

3. The Diamond Shape

[It is a paragraph] beginning with a topic sentence and ending with a similar sentence which repeats the idea in different terms and perhaps leads to the next paragraph. This type of paragraph expands from a generalization and then narrows back into one. Thus it benefits by using both modes of thought [deductive and inductive] , expanding and then narrowing, and leaves an impression of having nailed down the point. (124)

4. The Hourglass Shape

The topic sentence [is] in the middle of the paragraph, so that some of the details add up to the generalization and some derive from it. (124)

There you have it–the four basic forms or shapes for developing your ideas: triangle, wedge, diamond, and hourglass. They look great on paper, don’t they? In real life, however, things are not always so neat and tidy. There can be many combinations of these basic shapes in an actual sermon leading to more complicated and complex structures. That’s okay.

The question we should be asking ourselves is not primarily, “Am I using one of the four basic shapes above, and can I identify which one?”

No. The questions we should be asking are these:

  1. Is there a deliberate and purposeful shape to my sermon overall and to the individual sections within?
  2. Am I employing the best shape to communicate the idea of the text, to accomplish the purpose of the text, and to impact the listeners for Christ.

So, what kind of shape is our sermon in? We need to think about the answer to this question. In fact, we need to think hard about the answer to this question. The unity and clarity and effectiveness of our sermon, from a human standpoint, is at stake.

If you’d like to read more along these lines, I would recommend Dennis Cahill’s book The Shape of Preaching.