The Function of Sermons

I am currently writing a text A Turn towards the Listener. The following is an excerpt from the section entitled, “Changing the Function of the Function.”

In homiletics, the terms “aim,” “purpose,” and “function” are often been used to describe what the preacher intends the sermon “to do.” Preachers intend that sermons accomplish certain ends; realize particular consequences. Preachers intend to persuade hearers to become and consequently to act. The most oft used definition of a function statement comes from Tom Long, Witness of Preaching. Quoting David Kelsey: “Part of what it means to call a text ‘Christian scripture,’ is that it functions to shape persons’ identities so decisively as to transform them … when it is used in the context of the common life of Christian community.”[1] Advocating that biblical texts say things that do things, and the sermon is to say and do those things too. Content and intention are bound together (focus and function), and no expression of proclamation is complete without them. Long writes, “A function statement is a description of what the preacher hopes the sermon will create or cause to happen for the hearers. Sermons make demands upon the hearers, which is another way of saying that they provoke change in the hearers. … The function statement names the hoped-for change.” [2] Function statements raise the question of how the preacher’s words will be taken up, acted on, or become embedded in the practices of the congregation.

For a pragmatic sermon, let me propose that all function statements only use behavioral or affective verbs. I’m not against cognitive acts. Let’s assume that what we are doing makes sense. We are using clear and meaningful language. Let’s assume that our words communicate content in clear and logical ways that increase congregational understanding. Let’s assume that our words will “remind,” “clarify,” “teach,” “analyze,” “enlighten,” “illuminate,” “investigate,” “examine,” and a host of other words that are appropriate for thinking people. And for Peirce, understanding a concept is the same as belief that will lead to practice. After the congregation understands, then what? Select a strong verb that reflects the answer to the question, “So what?”

Affective and behavioral functions go beyond feelings and reactions and become a way of being for people. Let’s use active verbs like “affirm,” “exhort,” “warn,” “challenge,” “encourage,” “delight,” “inspire,” “support,” “promote,” “hearten,” “stir,” “motivate,” “arouse,” “provoke,” “aggravate,” and a host of other words that prompt the hoped for change in people’s lives. Only then does the message have “meaning” in a peircian sense. Subsequently, the function of sermons will be judged by their transformative effect “over time” in the life cycle of a church.

People can have bad habits that they sustain for a surprisingly long time. These habits are funded by “inadequate definitions, misleading theories, and other bad interpretations.”[3] Since bad habits die hard, our function statements must activate intentional and concrete practices. If our aim is to “fix” belief so that people are prepared to act, then our functions must be effective and affective from the outset and our teaching must become proclamation.

[1] In: Thomas Long, The Witness of Preaching (Westminster John Knox, 1989), 106.

[2] Ibid., 108-109.

[3] Lyne, 87.



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