Airplanes and Cliffhangers

If you’ve grown up in the church like me, you’ve probably noticed pastors of all types seem to follow a similar sermon structure. Of course, there are particularities between pastor, but if I asked you to name how a sermon is structure, you’d probably tell me X, Y, and Z.

Let pull back the curtain and reveal to you that, surprise surprise, there is a method to the madness. Having attended a Christian university, I took a class called Homiletics (“homiletics” being the fancy word for the study of how to preach) taught by the boisterous and awesome Dr. LC Sutton.

Of course I’m simplifying it, but LC taught us that sermons should be ideally broken into three “moves”. These moves were essentially three big points supporting a piece of Scripture. And each move should contain a simple illustration tying a complex idea to a relatable story.

LC also warned us to be very cautious of “false landings” when segueing between these moves. Essentially, what that meant is that you didn’t want the congregation to be led to think the sermon was wrapping up… only to continue on for seemingly forever.

Clearly, false landings in an airplane are scary, so they should be avoided in sermons, too!

The move framework isn’t at all a bad one, and it’s why it’s stood the test of time for decades now in the homiletical circles.

But… I think it could be better.

The thing about sermons is that they tend to be very prescriptive. “This is what the Bible is saying here, and this is how you should apply it to your lives.”

It very much talks at you but not necessary with you.

And the thing about speaking at somebody is that there’s a huge underlying assumption:

What you are saying is correct.

But what if you are saying isn’t correct? What if you have no idea what a piece of Scripture is saying? Or what if a piece of Scripture is so full of nuance and poetic language that you can define it a million ways?

I think it’s okay to toss out a question and let it be what it is. Sometimes asking the question is all a person needs. We don’t always need to give answers.

Some might bristle at this idea, but actually, this is how the ancient Jewish community used to do things. They didn’t follow the typical sermon structure but instead would come together and wrestle with what the Word said. Everybody from the respected elders to the crazy uncle would have a say in what they thought.

Now, I’m not at all suggesting we toss out the concept of a sermon in favor of an open dialogue, but when we approach these in this new light, we can encourage a dialogue amongst members after the sermon, throughout the week.

And so if we move to a structure like this, maybe we move to purposefully manufacturing cliffhangers.

How can we let the Word linger in a person’s mind?

How can we give them just enough to chew on that they hunger for more after they walk out the building?

Leaving a wanting for more, not worrying about false landings.

Cliffhangers. Not airplanes.

Or, at least, not airplanes all the time. It might sound like I’m suggesting to totally toss out the old framework, but I’m not. I loved LC’s sermons, and a lot of my favorite sermons follow that old framework.

So, I don’t know, mix it up? Maybe do a little bit of this and a little bit of that?

If you’re reading this thinking, “I’m not a preacher, so this isn’t relevant to me,” well I’m not a preacher either. I switched from being a Preaching major to a Business Admin major shortly after completing this Homiletics class.

(Yes, I totally get all the irony wrapped up in that last statement.)

But there’s still relevancy for us. It’s this idea that maybe the best thing we can do to spiritually connect with other people is to ask questions and not necessarily concern ourselves with giving answers.

This is an idea that goes well beyond preachers.

Because we are all preachers. Like the Jews of old, we wrestle with the Word amongst others despite not standing behind a podium.

So maybe we all need to think about creating cliffhangers.

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David Hundley

David Hundley

Principal machine learning engineer at a Fortune 50 company, 5x AWS certified, 2x HashiCorp certified, 1x GCP certified, M.A. in Org Leadership, PMP, ChFC, CSM