Riding on the City of New Orleans,
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passin’ trains that have no names,
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.
Preaching a sermon demands a lot of thought. There is the exegesis of the text, which demands quite a bit of time and energy. Then there is the exegesis of the audience. How will the listener receive what God has said? In all of this, who has time to consider the genre in which the text was written? This is where Willie Nelson helps us.
The above lyrics are a simple demonstration of why genre matters. The lyrics of the song paint a picture, and they tell a story. The picture they paint is of a train moving from the North down to Mississippi. As the song progresses the listener feels the song. This is an obvious function of the genre of music as the musicians use the instrumentation of the song to help us understand the words. Now, you might think this is incredibly obvious, but think over that statement again, slowly. They used the instrumentation to help us understand. So, there is meaning in the genre of the music.
As the lyrics talk about “fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders” and later “the rhythm of the rails is all they feel,” the percussionist includes beats that help you feel the words. Now think also about that phrase, “feel the words.” We know this intuitively. What we say is the message, but how we say it is also a message. When we read something, we practice oral interpretation. This, in essence, allows the tone of our words to demonstrate the content of what is being said. And this is the issue: the tone.
… to make one feel the message is to help him understand the message.
To put these thoughts together: to make one feel the message is to help him understand the message. Therefore the tone of how we say something must be consistent with the content of the message. There is a difference in tone between the songs, “Rock-a-bye Baby” sung to the baby Saturday night, and “We Will Rock You” sung Saturday afternoon at the football game.
And this is the way it is with Scripture. When Scripture wants to rock us in the arms of grace, we have the affirmation of Psalm 23. The Lord is in fact our Shepherd. He is leading us. We know this from the lyrics of the song, but think about the genre. The genre of Hebrew poetry gives us a clue as to its content. Poetry is a wonderful medium to communicate the gracious way of the Shepherd with the sheep.
Now think about Galatians 1:6-24. Paul is trying to rock the listeners out of their complacency to see the danger of a false Gospel. So he tells them that he is shocked that they are leaving the Gospel and further that anyone who leads others astray should be damned. Strong words indeed. The genre is epistletory, a letter. And the genre helps. The biting tone of the letter allows Paul to speak directly to the needs of the listener with no fluff or interruption. He just lays it out there for them.
The genre of the text aids in communicating the message of the text.
The bottom line is that there is meaning in the genre. There is not a new meaning or a hidden meaning. Not at all. However, there is a subtlety to the genre that reinforces the content of the words. In other words, the genre of the text aids in communicating the message of the text. There is meaning in what God says, and there is meaning in how God delivered his words. You can understand all the exegetical nuances of a text, and you can understand all the theological nuances of a text, and still miss part of the meaning if you don’t understand the genre.
However, there is, I believe a more important issue related to genre than tone.
The genre of the text of Scripture affects the tone of the text. By tone, or spirit, we mean the author-intended emotive design of the author. Thus, a Psalm feels like a song, and prophecy feels like a prophet has spoken. This is somewhat subjective, but it is real. There is meaning in the emotion of the text. This is important for the reason that once we identify the tone, the text-driven preacher must ensure the tone of the text is the tone of the sermon.
However, it is not true that one specific genre always communicates the same tone. For example, the epistletory genre of Galatians 1 is a good format for Paul to tell the Galatians, in terse direct language, that they have forsaken the Gospel. Letters can do that. However, think of the prophecy in Isaiah 1:1-18. The prophets usually selected poetry as their genre of choice. In Isaiah’s prophecy, God tells Israel to stop giving money and stop going to church since there was no heart behind their business. It is a strong, forceful rebuke. It is also direct and terse. So here is at least one example where the genre of the text is different but the tone is the same. So again, the tone of a genre is not always the same.
At the end of the day, tone is only part of the equation to consider when thinking about the implications of a specific genre on the interpretation and communication of a text. What really helps us understand the meaning that may be imbedded in a genre is the structure of the text. This is critical to the text-driven preacher. If one can identify the structure of the text, he can use it to create the structure of the sermon. So here is one of the most liberating thoughts in the world:
Each genre will have a certain tone and a certain structure. While tone is not always genre-specific, the structure of a certain genre is unique to that genre.
Think for a moment about how differently individual scriptures are structured.
The great stories of the Old Testament may span several chapters or an entire book. To understand and preach that story, one will need to understand its macro structure. After reading the story over and over, the best counsel is to look for the major turns in the story. The human author has embedded these explicitly. So one could argue that you don’t understand the story until you have backed away and seen it as a whole.
On the other hand, the Gospel stories are shorter. The individual stories may cover a whole chapter of the Gospel or even just a portion of a chapter. So, unlike the Old Testament narrative, the “feel” of the story is much different.
Both of these are different than an epistle. An epistle may be a more deductive, expositional dialogue that is worked out with multiple “points.” It is a proposition supported by points.
This may sound confusing. When we are structuring our sermons, can’t we just have one sermon structure for every sermon? Of course we can. Many of the greats did this. However, the problem is that there is meaning on the structural level. If you ignore the structure in the sermon preparation process, the danger is that there may be some meaning that is missed.
So how should we structure our sermons?
We should structure them like the text. Therefore, we have as many sermon structures as we do texts. This sounds daunting, but let’s digress for a moment to consider the liberation this brings! If we do not structure our sermons around the genre, then how will we structure them? What often happens is that we have a default sermon structure—we love a certain amount of points or a certain approach to preaching. But there is a problem with a go-to, default sermon form.
Boring preaching misrepresents Scripture, and boring sermon structure is the cradle for the boring sermon.
First, this can become boring. Reliability is a mark of faithful preaching, while predictability is its curse. When people see a sermon point coming a mile away, we have missed something. Second, there is not one single sermon form that fits every text. The text of Scripture is wild with variety. Preaching that is stale and predictable in its form misses that. Boring preaching misrepresents Scripture, and boring sermon structure is the cradle for the boring sermon.
So, by allowing the sermon form to be influenced by the text form, we have the sweet liberty of variety. We are not bound to our favorite, or the most popular, or our traditional sermon form. We have variety because the text has variety. We are not bringing creativity to the sermon, we are allowing the breadth of our creativity to come from the depth of our study. So friend, embrace the freedom of text-driven preaching by allowing the variety of Scripture to influence the variety of sermon form.
So again, we can have as many sermon structures as we have texts.
What I mean is that there are some things in a sermon that are static: a sermon will generally have a clear introduction, body and conclusion. However, the body of the sermon is fluid. We do not take a shape and lay it over the sermon, we actually reflect the shape that is in the text. So, in this way we are not only sensitive to the genre, we are allowing the shape of the text to determine the shape of the sermon. Of course, we are not trying to produce “form fundamentalist.” This is not a matter of slavish mimicking of the biblical form. The important issue is meaning. What does this text say? In speaking of genre, we are asking, “How does the structure of this text affect the meaning of the text?”
We do not take a shape and lay it over the sermon, we actually reflect the shape that is in the text.
So, at the least we are asking how genre influences meaning; at the most we are directly borrowing the shape of the sermon as the shape of the text.
So at the end of the day those of us who are chained to preaching the text find the almost exhausting liberty of sermon form. There are only as many sermon forms as there are Scriptures. What a thrill. So, how are we to understand the many forms of the text?
There are many ways to categorize genre, but for preaching purposes I have been helped by seeing nine biblical genres that have different nuances in terms of structure: Old Testament narrative, Law, Prophecy, Psalms, Wisdom Literature, Gospels/Acts, Parables, Epistles, and Apocalyptic literature. This seems like a lot, but there is actually a lot of overlap here. So, if the idea of honoring the genre in the sermon is new to you, don’t be intimidated.
Over the next several weeks, we will walk through each of these genres.
This article originally appeared on www.stevenwsmith.net as a two-part blog post.