Flow, Structure & Moves
Firstly, a message needs a single clear focus. Hear this clearly again – messages don’t need more than ONE point or focus – one. Yes, one! Without being clear on this it is not worth moving on to consider structure. If you aren’t clear on what to say go back to part 2!
STRUCTURE: A FLOW, CONVERSATION, MAP, IMAGE, OR MOVES.
Secondly, a message needs structure. A structure need not be ‘a-b-c’ but it needs to involve ‘flow’. It could be a flow of logic, a conversation, a map, an image. Buttrick calls the units of structure ‘moves’ indicating that they are dynamic transactions of communication. We all have natural preferences here and it’s helpful to sometimes new ways of structuring your thinking.
Structure needs to be simple. We need to be able to hold the whole flow or structure in your head. If you cannot remember the structure/flow the hearers will not. Structure can even provide freedom to be spontaneous because you have to get back to the point.
Communicating the structure to the hearers at the start is an excellent strategy for those who require discipline. It can keep you on track and them on track. It can provides a contract you have to keep. Starting with “Today I’m going to say (a) then (b) then (c)” can be a useful strategy.
Some Helpful Structures For Messages
THE RULE OF THREE.
Goldilocks and the three…
The three little …..
A priest, a rabbi, and a pastor walk into a bar…
Luke 10. The Parable of the Good Samaritan
Luke 14. The Parable of the wedding banquet.
Luke 15. Three Parables. Lost …. Lost ….. Lost …..
The first item introduces a topic, the second suggests the pattern, and the third can either consolidate the pattern or unexpectedly surprise people by changing it or adding a twist!
The ‘three point sermon’ is incredibly durable. Charles Spurgeon preached thousands of them!
If you love freedom, then the idea of forcing yourself to follow this might make you sick. That might be all the more reason to discipline yourself to try it – for your hearer’s sake. It worked for Jesus! Hearers can generally not recall more than three moves/points/bases. It’s easy to remember. It’s a great way to start.
WHAT I’M GOING TO SAY, SAYING IT, WHAT I SAID:
This is actually a ‘one point message’ but it says it three times.
THREE STEPS AND A CELEBRATION:
Three points that flow as a journey or build on each other logically and are celebrated at the end. The celebration may be a restatement, an action, a ritual, a story that incorporates them, or a corporate recital of them by the hearers etc.
The same thing said three, four, five different ways, each growing in magnitude. This can be done strictly through the text, by analogy, or narrative or a combination of the three. I love this approach very much. It’s simple but has great scope. It is a great way to start because it depends on having a singular focus.
FROM ITCH TO SCRATCH:
What’s wrong (LAW), God’s solution (GOSPEL)!
THE FLOWER (SINGLE POINT THAT KEEPS RETURNING)
A single central point that the sermon keeps arcing away from with asides, illustrations, amplifications, narrative, and then you keep returning to it in the centre and repeating it. The map appears like a flower.
QUESTION, INADEQUATE ANSWERS, FINAL ANSWER
In this structure the final answer had better take us to Gospel and grace and take us to the cross, or it’s probably not going to be a Gospel message.
A single question or mystery, deepened and explored in various ways, finally clarified Biblically. Be careful that the question is clear – and if you do answer then the answer had better be clear too. Perhaps if you are very daring there might be a context in which the question is not answered. The Gospel of Mark’s original short ending may actually use this approach. Perhaps the hearer can answer the question.
NOT THIS, NOT THIS, NOT THIS, BUT THAT:
The sermon structure is like a list that eliminates possibilities to gradually lead to or illuminate God’s good news.
THESIS, ANTITHESIS, SYNTHESIS:
The Biblical worldview brings opposites in a way Lutherans call ‘dialectic’. Eg. law/gospel, humanity/divinity of Christ, bread/body, transcendent/immanent. This structure sees the preacher tease the hearer by comparing two opposites and then in the conclusion show how in God’s plan they create a greater reality.
This is a common approach of the Book Of Proverbs. Present two alternate approaches/worldviews/attitudes. Compare and contrast point by point. Eg. ‘legalism says this, grace says that, legalism does this, grace does that, legalism feels like this, grace feels like that…’ This approach needs to rise to a great crescendo at the conclusion!
Read a bit, comment, read a bit comment. This is an excellent way to preach providing you truly have soaked up the text, done good exegesis, and you plan to end clearly on the heart of the text. There are many things to consider in commentary style preaching but this is an excellent one for those who do not know the Bible well.
Tell the story, delve deep into the story, relate the story to now. Or just tell a great story. Have fun with a story. Have others act out a story and comment. Or tell a story and stop with questions for the hearers!
FOUR DISJOINTED POINTS:
If you have four points that do not relate to each other or interact in some way or have some sort of flow or journey, then you do not have a message – you have a problem. Simplify!
Tips For Presenting The Message
Be comfortable with yourself.
Don’t imitate your favourite preachers.
Authenticity matters more than cool or clever.
Avoid trying to be cool / hipster or whatever the latest word for it is!
A good question can entrance the heart, soul and mind.
Avoid moralising. Viciously eliminate ‘should, ought, must’.
Prune Prune Prune.
- Discard all that is interesting but not to the point.
- If you have to, grieve what you left out, but cut it.
Think about 100 words per minute (but check your own pace).
- So a 2000 word manuscript will take 20 minutes.
Write for the ear.
- A message is not an essay to be read ‘word for word’ like a robot.
- If you’re just going to read me an essay them email it to me instead.
- I want to see your face and relate to you.
Practice (or even write it) out loud – it’s not a newspaper article.
Talk to the people.
Know your content well.
- Know it well so you are free from the manuscript/notes.
- If it helps, practice it out loud but not too much.
- Read the whole thing from a page is usually unhelpful in most contexts (just read critical bits or quotes).
- To the postmodern hearer robotic reading without eye contact or engagement is unhelpful.
Use Appropriate Self Disclosure – Admit Weakness.
- Just as in pastoral care we need to consider the use of appropriate self-disclosure to develop empathy and trust. It’s also an excellent witness to faith when used well.
Ask questions of them – invite discussion.
Invite them to ask questions of you – see where it goes!
Don’t be afraid to not have the answer!
Consider the place of discussions, interviews, panels, discussion where helpful.
Interaction is good – especially for smaller groups.
Vary pace, pitch, tone, style.
Involve hearers in any way possible.
Ask hearers to read/recite scripture, antiphonally performing scripture, creedal statements, points etc.
How easily bored are they? Is it a sin to knowingly bore them in Jesus’ name?
Don’t get ‘too clever’ for yourself. Think ‘failsafe’ and simple.
The simpler the approach the less stress for you too.
Vision, sound, song, participation, involving people, actions etc!
Is the verse you are considering act-able, recite-able, chant-able, yell-able?
Honour the tension between planning and spontaneity:
- Failing to plan is planning to fail – the Spirit works through prior reflection.
- On the other hand trust God’s Holy Spirit that something can change in the moment.
Some of us naturally communicate and think in symbols and multimedia. I almost always communicate visually or creatively – that’s just who I am. But use visual aids carefully. Communication aids can get in the way of the message. We need to think carefully about their use.
Never start with an apology. Don’t start with “I’ve was told that starting with a joke would help, but it’s not so good, um, here goes…” or “Sorry I am not as prepared as I would like…”
It’s not so helpful to start with a huge slab explaining the background of the Bible text and ensuring people are fully ‘up to speed’ on the exegetical background. Some of this detail may be helpful later, but start in THEIR WORLD, with things that stimulate or concern THEM.
Beware of the ‘two or three starts’ syndrome of inexperienced speakers… A joke, then a story, then an attempt to begin bridging to the text – before anything real has even been said.
- Engage from the first second.
- Launch straight into something stimulating and helpful!
- If your focus is a question start by asking it.
- If your focus is a story, don’t do a long intro, start telling it.
- If your focus is a statement/slogan, start by saying it and getting people to yell it with you.
The best messages often also end back at the start. This is called an ‘inclusio’ (like brackets around something). So if you started with a personal story, you might return to it and apply the message to it.
Ensure you end in a timely way rather than dribbling off slowly! I always ask presenters to think about their LANDING PAD – where and how will you land. People often only remember the beginning and the end (this is called the ‘position effect’. Give people verbal cues as to how you’re progressing and that the end is coming. An ending may be a summation, an action, a response, or simply the theme or point. Lead people to prayer!
Our culture is still a place where story works. True stories work. The best stories are not out of a book or website. The best stories are simple recounting of the Gospel’s work in your or your community’s life. The key here is to ‘keep it real’.
Are double edged swords and may be useful If you have never told a joke in presenting then why not try it sometime? But it must make the point – a joke for a joke’s sake is not good preaching. Scripture usually supplies the best humour (irony/satire) if only we point it out!
TECH & GIMMICKS
Never use a communication aid (Prezi, Glo, iPad, Sway, board, play, powerpoint) unless it is natural for you. Bad communication aids are NOT communication aids! Please don’t become the bumbling presenter with the iPhone linked to PowerPoint that fails and makes you lose the point. Just keep it simple.
Remember that children now learn powerpoint in year two. They are NOT impressed by it. Gaudy or unprofessional PowerPoint will lose you credibility instantly. Never use ‘WordArt’ (especially if you just heard of it now). Avoid the tab to change fonts. Better to keep it to white writing on plain black and not waste time trying to look cool. Hearers are used to multimillion dollar global promotional campaigns – don’t bother competing with that.
Be careful as the video can create ‘internal monologue’ for the hearer that takes them off topic. Avoid multimedia unless you are sure it has exactly the meaning you think (and not a different one to them).
Never ever use multimedia to attempt to ‘be cool’ or connect – it will fail the message. Avoid that YouTube video that freezes mid-frame leaving you gutted. I suppose there is a place for videos – but they better be really good – and right on the point! One time to show videos might be if your own community prepared them? Or perhaps they can be used as people enter a space to orient them, but not during a Gospel message.
Or I could just say what I really think… Basically, in church messages avoid videos. In chapel messages avoid videos. Just no. Really, no. I can watch TV at home, YouTube on my smartphone, or Netflix on the bus. Just send me the link, don’t make me sit and watch it! Videos are what old people play when they think they’re really in touch (not realising that they just totally missed the meme). There’s nothing worse than watching you up front getting all teary about that video with the whiney Coldplay song which I don’t relate to. You missed me. I’m already soaked in video and it doesn’t impress anyone anymore. It’s so 1990s, OK Boomer? Especially please spare me those weird videos with words flowing over a screen to music. Just email me the words; it would be much quicker than making me watch words slide over the screen like dying bin chickens while my bum goes numb and my brain cells atrophy. If you love me then talk with me, converse with me, ask me a question! Don’t dumb me down. Don’t waste my worship time with passivity. Truly I say to you, the Gospel is face to face, the Gospel is relational – Jesus didn’t come on video – be incarnational!
Internalising The Message
- Pray your message.
- Read it a few times.
- Practice giving your message out loud without the hearers.
- Visualise more than memorise – know the flow.
A Heart Prepared To Speak The Word
What does it mean for you to come with a ‘prepared heart’?
Rather than be legalistic about what a ‘prepared heart looks like’ consider this from a Gospel perspective!
Perhaps sometimes a prepared heart sometimes looks nervous, shattered, broken, or unwilling?
Remember and avoid the ancient heresy of Donatism (that the effectiveness of sacraments depends on the righteousness one performing them). On the other hand a preacher that will not work on growing spiritually is in grave danger.
What tools are in our toolkit of grace to prepare us for the gift of preaching?