The Four Ds: Discovery

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

There may be as many ways to get from text to sermon as there are preachers making the trip. As a teaching assistant in Richard Lischer’s introductory preaching classes at Duke Divinity School, I learned what Lischer termed the “Four Ds” of sermon preparation: discovery, development, design, and delivery.

Together, these activities create a process that unearths multiple ideas within a text while also bringing focus and flow to the sermon itself.

Think about the discovery process leading up to a trial. The process involves getting access to documents related to the case and deposing witnesses and other interested parties. People engaged in discovery are curious. They track down leads, many of which will have no relevance in the long run. Nonetheless, they listen, and they do not close the door too quickly on new information. In the discovery process leading up to a sermon, you are gathering information.

If you have been preaching for a while, you probably have a process for discovery already. What is it? Could you describe it, or teach it to someone? If your process works well, that’s great. If all your sermons are sounding the same to you lately, trying out new discovery practices can help you see what you might be glossing over in biblical texts.

For most of us, discovery on the way to a sermon involves (1) reading the text and (2) reading about the text. If overall sermon preparation takes about ten hours, “discovery” would be about two hours of that. I suggest spending one hour to 90 minutes reading the text and another 30 to 60 minutes reading about the text. Some preachers say that this is not nearly enough time. Others complain that they never have ten hours for sermon preparation, and that their discovery phase amounts to a few minutes to get one idea they can develop. I propose about an hour for reading the text because I experience one hour as enough time to be surprised by a text. With less time, your reading becomes focused entirely on “getting an idea,” and you have the same relationship to a text as a medical doctor who interrupts a patient in the first thirty seconds of an interview: the text is a problem to be solved rather than the bearer of news that you need to do your job. If you spend more than 20 percent of sermon preparation time in discovery, the other parts of the process required to produce an engaging, focused sermon may suffer. Reading the Text

How can you spend a whole hour just reading the text? If you are done with reading the text in three minutes and ready to move on, try slowing yourself down with activities like these:

   1. Outline the text. Start simply, maybe by mapping out the beginning, the middle and the end. How does it start? Is there any parallel structure from one part of the text to another? Is there any trouble in the text? What evidence of conflict do you see? Is the conflict resolved? Are things better or worse by the end? How do you know?
   2. Who are the people in the text? Have you seen them before? Do you know anything else about them? Studying Bible notes, with their cross references to texts with the same characters, can help you here. Who is named? Who is unnamed, and what do you make of that?
   3. Have you heard something like this somewhere before? Does the text have parallels elsewhere in the Bible? Maybe it is a text from the gospels that we know also from another evangelist. Maybe it is a Pauline text that echoes themes elsewhere in Paul. Maybe the echoes you hear are from the Old Testament to the New, or vice versa. Track down similar texts. Look at how they are the same as your sermon text and how they are different.

Reading about the Text

At some point in the discovery process, most of us need a little help from our friends. Who can remember from one lectionary cycle to the next how much money 10,000 talents is? How will information about household structures in antiquity clarify the ambiguous speech in Paul’s letter to Philemon? Sometimes we need more than a Bible and its notes. Commentaries, preaching helps and other secondary sources offer additional information as well as verification for discoveries that one’s own reading of the text has surfaced.

Two realities argue for using secondary sources sparingly. First, too much reading of other people reflecting on the text often has the effect of stifling one’s own voice and shutting down one’s own engagement with the text itself. We come to think about our favorite authors, “My ideas are never as good as theirs,” so we spend less time with the biblical text and more time with the commentators, until we are hardly reading the Bible at all. Our lack of time with the biblical text comes to reinforce the notion that we never have any ideas until we read an expert. A vicious cycle thus distances us from the scriptures and locks us into reliance on secondary sources.

Spending all of our discovery time with commentaries is also perilous because it will yield sermons that do not connect with hearers. We become the neighbor who thinks you want to spend an hour listening to him narrate his pictures from a trip to Yellowstone. As Barbara Brown Taylor observes, “Much of our direct communication from the pulpit is like a travelogue to someplace our listeners have never been. We may do a masterful job of telling them about the various points of interest in God’s country-the architecture, the museums, the geography, the politics-but when it is all over and the lights go up, they have been on our trip, not their own.”1 When it is disconnected from a development and design process that asks why particular bits of information about the text matter for the sermon, discovery based in poring over secondary sources can lead to sermons that sound like commentaries rather than good news.

For the moment, let’s say that you have avoided these pitfalls and have a couple of hours’ worth of work done in discovery. You know some things you did not know at the start of your work. You may even have been surprised during the time you spent with the text. Now you take your notes and surprises, and you start to ask what kind of sermon is taking shape. In other words, you turn your attention to the second D, development.

1 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Preaching the Body,” in Listening to the Word: Studies in Honor of Fred Craddock, eds. Gail R. O’Day and Thomas G. Long (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 209.

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