Serving Sermons from a Bowl


Kenton C. Anderson


I recently spent a week teaching preaching in Seoul. I heard a lot of preaching while I was there, and while I didn’t know the words of the sermons I recognized the style. It was the preaching I heard in my childhood – dogmatic and didactic, logical and linear. It didn’t strike me as authentically Korean. There is not much I could recognize in the city of Seoul. In a full week there, I saw only two other faces the color of mine. The food was different, the language was different, the pastimes were different, even the cars were different. Everything was different except the preaching. That bothered me.

I believe that preaching is cultural. The message we preach is founded in Scripture and transcends culture, but the preaching of the message, is definitively tied to the expectations, assumptions, and languages of the cultural context. Preaching speaks truth into time – specific times and specific places, and therein lay my problem. I did not want to perpetuate the sins of the past. I did not want to teach Koreans to preach North American. I wanted them to preach in ways that fit their culture. I wanted to help them find their own voice.

It took a few meals for me to get it. Lunch each day was ordered in, delivered on the back of a motorcycle from a local restaurant. It was serve yourself – buffet style and so I loaded up my plate in my customary style, meat, noodles, vegetables, all in their appropriate places. I am a stickler when it comes to keeping my plate organized. My hosts, I noticed were not. They didn’t even use plates. Everything went into a bowl – mixed up and messy, all the tastes and textures combining into every single mouthful. The Koreans called it ‘tang.’ The Chinese call it Chop Suey. I call it different. This was not my preferred form of eating, but I’m from North America. Why should they want their food the same way I want it. As long as it is nutritional and all four food groups are represented, does it matter whether the food is ingested separately and sequentially or all together in one big mouthful?

The model I use to help students understand preaching looks very much like a plate – one of those disposable Styrofoam party plates, actually, with the pre-formed dividers. I believe there are four major elements in any effective sermon: engagement (the story), instruction (the point), argument (the problem), and application (the difference). My model helps the students integrate these four sermon keys, usually handling them sequentially, beginning with the story and ending with the difference. It is, to my mind, a helpful and logical approach.

But what if the sermon wasn’t served on a plate? What if one was to remove the middle lines and turn the sermon on its edge? What if the plate became a bowl? If the elements were stirred would the sermon suffer? If the message was mixed would meaning end up messed? Just how critical is linear form to effectiveness in preaching? Is our bent toward sequential clarity a cultural idiosyncrasy or is it a universal requirement? Must we separate the peas from the potatoes, or could they combine in the listener’s mouth for a more satisfying taste. I’m beginning to think that my predilection for sequential ordering might be more about where I come from than it is about what the listener needs. I’m beginning to wonder whether I should serve my sermons in a bowl.

So what would this sound like in an actual sermon? Well to start with, the preacher ought to make sure he or she is working with the right ingredients. The Canada Food Guide says that every Canadian should eat a balanced diet of Grains, Dairy, Meats, and Vegetables. Similarly, I think the sermon ought to include the four elements mentioned earlier:

Engagement: connecting listeners with the human story in the text

Instruction: clearly defining and declaring the point God wants proclaimed

Argument: giving the listener room to wrestle with the inevitable problem

Application: imagining the tangible difference intended by the message

Preachers like me want to handle these one at a time, but what if we got a little more creative? What if we scraped our well-ordered plate into a bowl and stirred it up a little. For example, maybe we might engage our listeners through opening with argument. Maybe we might paint an imaginative and compelling application before we instruct the listeners, or maybe the whole thing happens all at once.

An example? Last Sunday I preached the story of Namaan the leper from I Kings 5. I followed my normal pattern, beginning by (1) telling the story of this man who was forced to humiliate himself in pursuit of God’s healing. I then (2) made my point about how God often humbles us before he is willing to bless us. Next, (3) I helped the listener argue the point. After all, I know how hard pride dies. Finally, (4) I challenged people with a picture of an altered future where we would no longer be hindered from doing what God wants for fear of looking foolish. 1, 2, 3, 4 …all elements present and accounted for.

But what if I mixed things up a little. With a little creativity I can imagine a less linear lineup of the various sermon elements:

Namaan’s servant was intelligent. He understood what was going on. A little humiliation was a small price to pay given all that was at stake. “Look,” the servant said, “If the prophet had asked you to do some great thing, you would have done it without giving it a second thought, but here he asks you to do a little thing, a foolish thing, and you resist. I think you ought to do it. What would it hurt you to dip your toe in the water? What do you have to lose?” (engagement)

Sure, we’ve got nothing to lose – nothing to lose but our pride! As if that were nothing! Our pride is all I’ve got, isn’t it. Strip it all down and what else is there? Take away my friends, my money, my accomplishments – at least I still have my pride. Isn’t that what we say? “At least I still have my pride.” (argument)

And God says, ‘No, I want that too. I want you knee deep in muddy water, looking like a fool if that is what it takes for you to get this thing straight.’ There is no room for pride in the Christian life. I think that one of the primary tasks of the Christian is to grow to understand who God is, understand who we are, and to understand the difference. (instruction).

So Namaan got his feet wet. Not just his feet, but he got his whole self wet. Over and over he plunged himself in the river. He could hear them snickering on the riverbank because he really did look like a fool as he came up out of the water for the third, the fourth, the fifth time. He looked like a fool. Hey, he felt like a fool. But God promises to bless the humble fool. (engagement)

And that’s the thing, isn’t it. Are we willing to be humbled? Can you imagine what God could do through us if we were? Can you imagine what might happen if we could only get past our fear of looking foolish? What would happen if I could love my friends enough to tell truth to them even if they didn’t want to hear it? What would happen if I could care more about what God wants for me than for what I look like to others? (application).

And so on. I can imagine the sermon continuing to weave the various elements throughout the presentation, mixing the message for maximum impact. It is a chaordic form of preaching. The use of the four main elements give just enough order so that the sermon has purpose while still allowing enough chaos to bring the sermon to life.

I’ve got to admit, I’m not a big fan of Asian cooking. I’m guessing some of you might not find these suggestions to your taste either, but then since when did that ever matter? Preaching isn’t about the preacher’s preferences but about the listener’s need to hear from God. I believe we will need to become more inventive in our sermon structures as we preach to increasingly diverse congregations. I believe that non-sequential sermons could appeal to multi-cultural audiences. Serve your sermons in a bowl and see who comes to dinner.