The Four Ds: Design

Emilie Bouvier, "Fertile Soil." (Split Rock Lighthouse State Park; Two Harbors, MN)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Talking about how to develop an idea toward a sermon, I suggested that the preacher explore what each discovery from the text implies about God’s work to heal a broken world.

In a well-developed sermon, a statement of the solution follows from the statement of the problem. One is related to the other, and the language for both grows out of the text. Because each text says many things, the preacher develops multiple insights in order to decide which will be the basis for the sermon and which will be left for preaching another time.

After about four hours of work (two on discovery and two on development), the preacher has a discovery from the text that is developed enough to indicate that “there’s a sermon in there” somewhere. Next, one attends to design. “Design” for me means the actual writing of the sermon manuscript. Whether preachers write manuscripts or not, all of us have to decide what to say first, how to illustrate ideas, how much to complicate the point being made, how to close, etc. These are design tasks. In my practice, design takes about four hours. Many resources offer viable design options. When I get stuck or bored with my sermon designing process, I turn to these resources.

In the last chapter of his book, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible, Thomas Long suggests several ways that the text itself can give shape to the sermon.1  If a narrative text moves from conflict to resolution, the sermon could follow the same movement, presenting complications to the plot as they arise in the text. If the text is an epistle reading that states a conviction, imagines objections to that conviction, and answers them, the preacher follow the same logic in the sermon. If the text comes back again and again to a single theme, word, or phrase, the sermon can flow in the same way from hub, to wheel, back to hub.

Paul Scott Wilson’s The Four Pages of the Sermon2  offers a method of design that imagines four distinct moves: some trouble in the present time is found to have a parallel in the text, and the solution that the text offers is imagined by the preacher in terms of the congregation’s current circumstances. The structure of the sermon is usually chiastic (a, b, b’, a’) and the preacher can decide whether to start with the story of the world or the story of the text. Using Matthew 8:23-27 as an example, the moves of one sermon on that text would look something like this:
a   the world (problem): We quickly lose trust or faith when life is difficult.
b   the text (problem): The disciples, in the midst of a storm, were sure they were drowning.
b’  the text (solution): Jesus calmed the storm and demonstrated that he was worthy of trust.
a’  the world (solution): God acts on our behalf even when our faith is shaky.

In Preaching for the Church, Richard R. Caemmerer suggests that each sermon address God’s goal for the hearers, the malady that keeps them from that goal, and the means by which God has made that goal available to the people after all.3  The order for marriage in the Lutheran Book of Worship includes a three-sentence address to the congregation that follows this form, speaking first of God’s gift of human community (goal), then of sin which because of which “the gift of marriage can become a burden” (malady), then announcing that because God continues still to bless marriage (means), “we can be sustained in our weariness and have our joy restored.”4

Eugene L. Lowry, in How to Preach a Parable: Designs for Narrative Sermons, highlights four different ways to structure sermons so that suspense creates interest and interactivity on the part of the congregation. Sermons that are “running the story” will be a dramatic retelling of the text. They will include puzzles from the story and refuse to iron out the rough spots or fill in the gaps. Sermons that are “delaying the story” will start somewhere outside the story, probably with hearers’ experience, and then later in the sermon, invite hearers to imagine their lives in a new place, inside the biblical story. Sermons that are “suspending the story” will start with the biblical text, then hit the pause button, move to another text or something from the hearers’ context, then resume the biblical story to highlight how that story offers a way out of the dilemma the preacher has created. Sermons that are “alternating the story” will move back and forth from text to hearers’ experience as Paul Scott Wilson’s model suggests.

Notice two things about all of these options. First, all these designs take seriously the hearers and how the text and sermon will speak directly to their experience. The hearers are likely in the preacher’s imagination at every step of the process, but they surely must be present in the design step. Design requires empathy: Who will be listening? What will they hear? How will their experience of the text and the sermon be different from the preacher’s or from that of others in the congregation?

Notice too that these designs imagine moves of the sermon rather than points. The best sermons are not focused on staking a claim but rather moving hearers somewhere. The sermons themselves are in motion, carrying the hearers through twists and turns, forward movement, hesitation, advance and retreat, all to bring them face to face with the living God. 

1 Thomas G. Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 127-135.
2 Paul Scott Wilson, The Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999).
3 Richard R. Caemmerer, Preaching for the Church (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959).
4 Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis and Philadelphia: Augsburg and Board of Publication, LCA, 1978), 203.

This is the third in a series of four articles about the four Ds of sermon preparation: discovery, development, design and delivery.