Sermons Classified by Subject Type

Many individuals may feel that there is a good sermon inside them, and this may well be true, but it is a rather different proposition if you are faced with preaching twice a week to the same individuals for more than a decade. The preceding comment is both a justification of, and explanation for, W.E. Sangster's second chapter in his book 'The Craft of Sermon Construction'. He is aiming to be an antidote for the opinion that states that the 'Holy Spirit should lead' and that therefore any planning and method going into a sermon, or series of a thousand sermons, is unnecessary and aspiritual. His claim is that by learning to craft a sermon or series of sermons there may be no 'new-thing' that is done but that the overall quality will improve because of the preachers more methodical approach.

The majority of the chapter is spent in defining six classes of sermon content that Sangster considers to be classical: Biblical Interpretation, Ethical and Devotional, Doctrinal, Philosophic and Apologetic, Social, and Evangelistic. He does explain that there is scope for overlap and that a well crafted sermon may well have elements from multiple classifications but that ultimately a sermon will fall into one of those six categories. Sangster believed that to focus on one of these six categories to the exclusion of the others would lead to monotony and would leave certain vital truths untouched. He does in both cases suggest that Biblical Interpretation may be the exception to that rule. The remainder of the chapter is then devoted to an explanation of each subject type.

Biblical Interpretation

It should be noted that Sangster classifies a sermon as being Biblical Interpretation if it comes from a series of sermons that are working through a book of Scripture. He readily owns that even if a sermon is not directly from scripture it should still not be out of harmony with scripture. Thus a Biblical Interpretation sermon has as its principle goal the deeper understanding of a particular passage. Sangster also owns that if one were to pick only one of the six sermon types then Biblical Interpretation is probably the correct one; noting that ultimately all truth comes from the Bible[1]. He urges deep study of the Bible at both an academic level and a spiritual one and suggests that it yields its greatest abundance for those that can balance the insight of textual criticism with reverence for the Bible.

There are clearly many advantages to consecutive Bible study and Sangster details them. Firstly he notes that preaching from the Word provides authority. Secondly he notes that the Bible is an easy source of almost infinite preaching material. Thirdly he notes that systemic exposition of whole books prevents the preacher from being biased in his selection of subject and also it shows that he has been unbiased in topic selection. Fourthly he observes that if the preacher uses his Bible it will encourage the congregation to do the same thing.

Have stated the advantages to Biblical preaching Sangster proceeds to list the perceived disadvantages of using the Bible as the sole source of sermon material. He suggests:

  1. The Bible lacks credibility with many people and that therefore using it can diminish their willingness to accept the message.
  2. The Bible is not apologetic; certain facts such as the existence of God are taken for granted that Sangster believes should not be.
  3. The Bible does not directly involve itself with the pressing social issues of today and that therefore the preacher must extend upon it.
  4. Sangster notes that Jesus did not confine Himself to strict Bible exposition and therefore suggests that as followers of Him we should not either.

Ethical and Devotional

This class of sermons is that which principally aim to exhort people towards ethical behavior or recount examples of believers that have exhibited ethical behavior. He holds this in stark contrast to those which emphasize 'the blood of Christ' which he considers to be long-winded and profane. His central argument for the value of this category of sermons stems from an analysis of the forty-four standard sermons of the Methodist Church which, he states, contain a large amount of ethical material. More generally he notes that the gospel is to be manifest in changed lives and that to claim a changed life in the absence of visibly changed ethics is hypocritical. His parody of the 'faithful Negro preacher' and 'chief lay official' complete with broken English is a poignant reminder of the effect of taking our ethical cues from our culture rather than the Bible directly.

Doctrinal

Sangster defines doctrinal sermons as those which aim to teach. This populist definition is given principally because he is trying to dispel the notion that doctrine is necessarily dull. He does observe that perhaps those that are inclined to teach doctrine are those which tend to be dry but attempts to show that this is not because of the subject matter. He suggests that those that believe they don't need doctrine should be asked 'How does the cross save?' He also recounts a story of a minister that claimed not to be dogmatic only to discover that on certain matters (such as the existence of God) he was indeed dogmatic. In contrast to the apparent dullness of doctrine Sangster notes that in unstable times there was a growing group of people that wanted to understand what the faith actually was.

Philosophic and Apologetic

Sangster memorably describes these sermons as those that start before the Bible. That is to say that the Bible has certain presuppositions built in. A philosophic or apologetic sermon is one in which those presuppositions do not exist and where through reason or logic one attempts to persuade an individual of the value of verity of those presuppositions. He specifically calls out that these are sermons in which the Bible is not to be quoted as to do so pre-supposes the answer to the question. He states that answers to burdened souls with questions such as 'Is God there?' or 'Does God care?' cannot reasonably be answered from the Bible. Rather that it is the preachers responsibility to master philosophy sufficiently that they can shed some light upon the dark road.

Particularly with regard to the issue of suffering Sangster believes that one must preach with caution. To mention problems too frequently might cause the congregation to ponder matters which are problematic; to mention them infrequently might leave vital questions unanswered. His solution is to note that as a preacher matures and suffers over time they will develop the skill and discernment to tackle this subject adequately.

Social

Sangster candidly admits that social preaching was a raging issue during his time. On the one hand there were those that argued that the church should not be involved in the social evils of the day; on the other were those that believed it was the only legitimate occupation of the church. To understand his argument fully one needs to realize that British Methodism was an offshoot of the Church of England. England has no separation of Church and State. The House of Lords is part populated by Church of England bishops. Further much of the CofE hierarchy came from British aristocracy whilst Methodism was most popular amongst the British working classes. Thus the subject matter of the Methodist pulpit was not just a matter of homiletics but also of politics.

Given this background it is easy to see the thrust of Sangster's assertion that it was the responsibility of the church to tackle the social ills of the day. It should be noted too that this fits with Sangster's eschatological position. He states that the Reign of God on Earth will begin once the Earth is organized peacefully and fairly enough for Him to reign. Indeed Sangster notes that is those that do not accept his eschatological position that most readily object to his assertion that the church should be intimately involved in social engineering.

Evangelistic

Sangster singles out evangelistic preaching alongside Biblical interpretation as a mainstay of pulpiteering. He defines Evangelistic preaching as the delivery of a message whose sole purpose or principle purpose is the conversion of the unsaved. He notes that many 'controversialists' would claim that Evangelistic sermons coupled with Biblical Interpretation is an adequate sum-total of preaching. Sangster even concedes that provided those two classes are broad enough then the statement may have merit. He notes too that some of the other classes of preaching either presuppose (doctrine and ethics) or prepare for (social and philosophical) evangelism. His aim in this class of sermon is to draw a distinction between the rational preaching of the other classes and the more emotional (or will-based) appeal of an evangelistic sermon.

Given his definition of evangelism it is perhaps not surprising that he also has to devote significant space to countering the charge of over-emotionalism. How does one directly deal with the emotional will of man without being overly emotional? Is a profession made amidst a sea of bathos likely to withstand the storm of the tempest? Whilst owning that the task is hard Sangster is still adamant that ultimately the sermon must be preached which demands a verdict.

Conclusion

In summary I should note that whilst I am too young to have been alive with Sangster much of my church experience has been gleaned amongst the 'controversialists' that Sangster railed against. We would own with Sangster all of the advantages of Biblical Interpretation; the benefits of consistency, lack of bias and comprehensiveness of truth. We would agree too of the need of a purely evangelistic sermon; one where the simple truths of God were laid out without presupposition and where the need for a response was made clear. It is in the remaining four that we would view things differently. There can be no direct argument against ethics; clearly the walk of the believer should match their words. However we would argue that the basis of our salvation is the blood and that our sins are washed away by it. Ethics should then stem from our desire to be transformed into the image of Christ; not from a fear of retribution. Again doctrine cannot be argued against as such; however we would expect doctrine to be readily gleaned from the Scripture we are studying. In contrast the Methodist 'codified body of doctrine' in which the teachings and decisions of a council were handed down as a body of belief we would consider unnecessary. The remaining two categories are ones in which I would argue that we should trust the Holy Spirit to have delivered the truth It needed to deliver; if God does not feel to defend His existence, then neither should we. If we are confronted with a burdened soul then to presume that our own logic is of more use to them than those of their creator I consider ludicrous in the extreme.

It is probably in the field of social action that Sangster's approach and ours would differ most markedly. Sangster viewed himself as an architect of a new world order. The members (mostly poor) of his flock were those he was aiming to win equality for within this new world order. He believed that social justice was the setting that was required to promote the spread of the Gospel. In contrast I would argue that the role of the preacher is to preach the Word of God. I do believe that God raises up some to go into the political realm to further the cause of the downtrodden; but that isn't preaching - that is electioneering.

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