I forgot how uncomfortable it can be to test-drive a sermon structure you’ve never used before. Before you buckle up and take a new design out for a spin, here are some tips to get you–and your hearers–home safely.
1. Keep Your Goal in Mind
I find the best way to use sermon structures effectively is to have a clear sense of what you are trying to shape in the hearts and lives of your hearers before you ask which structure helps you get that done. In other words, figure out what you are trying to say before you figure out how you are going to say it.
So the structure isn’t the most important thing about a sermon; the structure helps you do the most important thing: bring God’s Word to God’s people in a moment of grace.
When you go to try a new structure, make an intentional choice. Pick one that seems to help you accomplish the goal you have in mind. Of course, since the structure is new to you, you aren’t exactly sure how it’s going to play out. But not knowing all the details won’t stop you from making that choice intentionally.
Once you know the goal you have for the faith and lives of your hearers, keep that destination clearly in mind as you experiment with a new structure. Be willing to change structures if the one you chose just isn’t working. The first time I tried to preach a Relational Structure, it ended up being a Multiple Story Structure. That’s OK. It just means it might take you more than one try to get the hang of something new.
Keep the goal of your sermon in mind, and make sure the structure serves the goal.
2. Pay Attention to Transitions
If I have trouble remembering what comes next in the sermon, it’s probably a structure problem. If the transitions don’t keep the flow moving naturally, the structure itself will be less effective for the preacher and hearers.
In fact, you can identify many sermon structures simply by the transitions. As you move from Oops! to Ugh! in a Lowry Loop, or from the first inadequate answer to the second, better-but-still-inadequate answer in a Question Answered design, or from one side of a seemingly contradictory truth to the other in a Paradox Maintained sermon, the transitions all sound and feel identifiably unique.
[Side note: I like to play a Sunday afternoon game with my 9th-grade daughter where she has to guess the sermon structure from worship–and tell me her reasoning (Best. Dad. Ever.). A few weeks ago I started the sermon by saying, “I’d like to share three stories with you today …” She had the Multiple Story Structure nailed before I got through my first sentence.]
All that is to say, transitions are the most unique and identifiable part of any sermon structure. So if you are preaching a structure that is new to you, spend some extra time paying careful attention to how one section of the sermon flows naturally into the next.
Transitions are a roadmap for your hearers; if you are less familiar with the terrain, make sure the map makes sense to you before you try and take your hearers on a tour of the surrounding countryside.
3. Give Yourself Extra Time
You’ve got four weddings and a funeral scheduled, and the voters meeting got moved on top of the confirmation parent meeting, and that’s when you have three unexpected crisis counseling sessions. We’ve all had those kind of weeks.
At the risk of being obvious, that’s not a week to try out a new structure. When time is tight, you want a comfortable sermon flow you know inside and out. Chances are, you’ll be lucky to have a complete outline by Sunday morning, so you need to know it well.
Plan an extra 20-25% for prep time if you are using a less familiar structure. You’re going to have to do more rewriting and even some rethinking. Your patterns of preparation are refined through well-worn usage to get the product you are currently producing. Try something new and the old process just doesn’t work the same.
And that’s OK. In fact, it’s exciting. Who wants to preach (or listen to!) the same sermon week after week? Just plan ahead, cut out an extra meeting or two, pencil a rewrite into your calendar, cancel a staff meeting–intentionally plan margin. With a new structure, you just might need it.
4. Trust the Process
Have you ever taught a kid how to ride a bike? It seems completely ridiculous that moving forward would keep you from falling over. Your first reaction when that bike starts to wobble is to back off, protect yourself, slow down; and that’s when you bite the dust.
Preaching a new sermon structure is like that.
You’re trying to make the thing work. You get a little forward momentum, and all of a sudden it feels like you are going to crash and burn. It doesn’t hold together the way you thought it would. The transitions don’t feel natural. It’s like you got up on the bike for a second, you saw the 3D treasure chest at the bottom of the magic picture, and then, all of a sudden, you lose perspective and come to a grinding halt.
Your first reaction will be to scrap this silly new structure and revert to your go-to sermon outline just to get it done by Sunday. (That’s one reason you need more time, time to start to succeed, and then to fail, and then to work through it.)
Sometimes, you really should scrap this draft and start over with a different structure. And sometimes you need to trust the process and shape the sermon in ways that others have found helpful, even if you don’t quite see it yet.
If the goal of your sermon fits the new structure, don’t give up too easily. Trust the process. Don’t evaluate the structure based on what you imagine will go wrong; try it out and evaluate what actually happens.
5. Don’t Judge By Feel
When I preached that new sermon structure a few weeks ago, I realized something that is often hidden from my conscious experience: I evaluate a sermon while it is happening.
How are people responding? What non-verbals are they sending? Did they get quiet and focused at the right spot? Did they laugh when that tension was released? Did they experience the Gospel where I thought they would?
All of these and many more minute data points are observed and processed in the act of preaching. The preacher uses that feedback loop to pick up pace, dwell longer on a topic, make a clarifying statement, or rephrase on the fly.
But that feedback loop is tuned to the sermon structure. When you are familiar with a structure, you know the contours of the whole, what to expect when, and how you can make natural adjustments based on the input you are receiving from your hearers.
I found that my feedback loop was disrupted when I preached a new structure. I felt slightly disoriented as I engaged the people and evaluated their response. I didn’t have a set of expectations on which to evaluate the sermon. I wasn’t sure how it was going, or even how it went.
I imagine most preachers have a sense about whether they preached the sermon they intended or not. Of course, we trust the Holy Spirit to work in the Word whether we have a good day in the pulpit or not. And since the hearers bring almost as much to the sermon as the preacher does, we can’t take too much credit (or blame) for what gets heard and lived out.
But still, there are times when you leave the pulpit with a prayer of thanks, and other times when you leave praying for divine intervention; some sermons “work” while some “fall flat.”
When I preached a new structure, I discovered I wasn’t able to evaluate the same way I usually do. If I trusted only my experience of the sermon, I might never use that structure again. But I sought input from trusted listeners and was able to evaluate based on their input as well as my own.
When preaching a new structure, don’t jump to conclusion based on your experience of the sermon. Your sense of the sermon will be less accurate precisely because the structure is new.
6. Get Right Back in the Saddle
The first time I tried to preach a Relational Structure, I ended up defaulting to a more familiar structure because it just wasn’t working. It took me almost a year to try again.
I used that Relational Structure four weeks ago in a sermon, and it went–well, it was hard to evaluate exactly how it went. But outside input leads me to believe it went just fine.
This weekend I am preaching, you guessed it, a Relational Structure sermon again. I didn’t force it, but the goal of the sermon and the topic at hand seemed to make it a natural possibility. So I opted to preach that new structure again soon after I gave it a shot for the first time.
You probably aren’t surprised that the process went a lot smoother this time around. I had a much clearer idea of what should go where, and how to make the transitions seem natural and obvious. The structure shaped what I wanted to say in ways that helped me say it and, I think, will help the hearers experience it.
The second time around is way more natural than the first.
Obvious, right? Just remember that obvious truth the next time you use a structure that’s new to you. The first couple attempts might be a bit bumpy, or even painful. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get right back in the saddle.
Your hearers will be grateful you did. And so will you.
Looking for a new sermon structure to try? Consider experimenting with Frame and Refrain, Question Answered, or Metaphorical Movement structures. These and many more are described succinctly at https://concordiatheology.org/sermon-structs/.
This post is included as part of Appendix 2 in the book Preaching Metaphor: How to Shape Sermons that Shape People, now available.
To learn more or to see sermons included in the book, visit www.findmynextstep.org/preaching-metaphor.