index“If Scripture gives life, then our sermon forms should be the open windows through which the breath of life blows.”

Genre. All books on hermeneutics and many books on preaching discuss the various genres in the Bible. Understanding the various genres in Scripture is central to not only interpreting but also preaching Scripture. If you interpret a genre wrong then you can bet you will preach the text wrong.

Many preachers are taught two things when it comes to preaching: (1) how to interpret genres and (2) how to preach expositionally. Both are good and necessary. What many preachers are given is a template to apply to their text. Unfortunately, this template does not have much flexibility and usually fits better with one genre. Sometimes preaching a text with the same template can be like trying to fit a square peg into a circle – it just doesn’t fit. So how does the preacher preach expositionally with the various genres in mind?

This is exactly what Steven W. Smith, preaching professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Forth Worth, TX, helps preachers navigate in his new book Recapturing the Voice of God: Shaping Sermons Like Scripture (B&H, 2015). Smith’s argument is that while we want to exposit the text we are preaching, we don’t want to make the text fit an unnatural expositional template (which is often inspired by how epistle genre texts function). Smith asks, “What if a model of preaching is good for some texts but not all texts?” (10)

Exposition & Genre in Harmony

For Smith, preaching is fundamentally “re-presenting” the text of Scripture to a new audience. “Preaching is more than explaining Scripture, but it is no less,” writes Smith. “The question then is, do I have a sermon structure that allows me to re-present the text in the way it was originally presented?” (2) While this may seem like a small distinction, Smith’s nuance has big implications for how one preaches narrative as opposed to epistle. All genres are to be preached expositionally, but the template for each will look different. Instead of a template telling one how to preach a text, sermons need to “represent the form that is already in the text.” (10) When we preach a template instead of the text then we do not preach the text. In fact, Smith argues, to do so is idolatry. “If we compromise the text for a structure then we are practicing a form of idolatry that suggests that a sermon form is more important than the Scriptures.” (59)

This difference is due to the fact that texts within genres look different. While expositional preaching is a good “theologically driven philosophy of preaching”, on its own it is not enough. It needs to be flexible to the changing of the text as one moves through Scripture. What Smith is proposing is to preach expositionally but to do so through “genre-sensitive preaching.” That is, “to show a preacher or teacher how the genre influences the meaning of the text and give practical help for those who want to know how we can shape our sermons to reflect the meaning.” (2)

Far from cumbersome or burdening, Smith’s guidance on preaching texts (and not just templates) is very freeing for preachers. Smith writes,

This simple truth has given me more freedom in preaching than anything else I can imagine. If a text has four points, I preach a sermon with four points. When I preach a narrative that has no easily discernible points, then my sermon has no points….For the rest of my life, how to structure a sermon will always be a secondary question. The primary question is always, How is the text structured?” (20)

Allowing yourself to structure your message as the text presents itself is much more freeing because it feels more natural. You are not left trying to force a square peg template onto a circle text.

Sermon Development Through Genre

Chapters 4-12 of the book address how to read and allow the various genres in Scripture to shape your message. Smith categorizes the nine genres of Scripture into three main categories:

  1. Story: OT Narrative, Law, Gospels/Acts & Parables
  2. Poem: Psalms, Wisdom Literature, and Prophecy
  3. Letter: Epistles & Revelation

Each chapter is divided into three main headings: (1) interpretation, (2) communication, and (3) structure. Of course, since each genre is different, what is discussed under each heading for each genre is different. Smith breaks down each genre to its parts and helps the reader see how each genre forms a sermon in its own unique way.

Far from the typical treatment that genres receive in hermeneutics and preaching books, Smith is trying to do more. Smith is advancing the discussion and our thought process on genre all together. He is not just giving us the nuts and bolts to each genre but he is weaving them together with a theology and preaching philosophy for how to best preach each so that the text as it presents itself to the reader determines how it is preached.

Conclusion

Far from just “another” book on preaching method, Recapturing the Voice of God is a book that every pastor and teacher needs to have and read. Smith will help you take the next step in developing your sermons. This is a book that even seasoned preachers and teachers will benefit from. If you can see the relationship between genre and sermon structure the way Smith does then you will breath a breathe of fresh air into your preaching. You will never see or preach the text the same way again and your people eyes will be opened in new ways. Both preacher and parishioner will benefit from this book.

I received this book for free from B&H for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”