I was a preaching student at Johnson University in the mid-eighties when I first became acquainted with the revolutionary method of constructing sermons known as inductive preaching. Students in those days who experimented with this new, provocative way of preaching quickly realized that the new approach was not just a cosmetic improvement over the traditional approach, but a complete overhaul of the structure of the sermon. Inductive preaching challenged the pulpit status quo as it stood in stark contrast with the magisterial and often impersonal nature of traditional homiletics as rooted in Aristotelian logic. Naturally, not everyone back then shared the same level of excitement regarding this new method, but many did, and those who did often talked about the anachronism of three-point sermons.
Traditional or deductive homiletics starts with an a priori general truth in the form of a thesis or pronouncement, and moves toward the specific evidence or experiences that support or illustrate that general truth. However, inductive preaching flips that thinking process upside down and starts with the particulars of ideas and experiences that are immediately relatable to the listener, moving logically toward a meaningful conclusion or general truth which the listener is led to anticipate or discover on her own. Whereas the inductive approach provides a “hook” right from the beginning that keeps the listener actively engaged in the search for the applicable general truth, the deductive approach leaves the listener passively listening and absorbing the ideas that are communicated down from the pulpit. As these issues were debated in preaching circles in the eighties, the more overzealous promoters of inductive preaching believed that this new method was going to shake and awaken many in the pews who have long been put to sleep by boring, lifeless, traditional sermons. And it did.
All this commotion and excitement about preaching started when Fred B. Craddock, a distinguished alumnus of Johnson University, published a book in 1971 titled “As One Without Authority.” In this book, which has become a preaching classic, Craddock flipped the thinking process of sermon construction from deductive to inductive, elevated preaching to an art form, and passionately challenged preachers everywhere to work at freeing biblical preaching from the grips of Aristotelian logic.
I have had numerous delightful opportunities over the years, both as a student and as a faculty member at Johnson University, to hear Fred Craddock preach. I remember vividly his sermon on the genealogy list found in Matthew chapter 1 and how his carefully crafted words breathed life into what, to many, appears to be just a long and inconsequential list of dead people. I remember how this style of preaching kindled in me the anticipation and desire above every other to preach Christ.
As the news of the passing of Fred Craddock was announced this past March 6th, a CNN news article carried the title “Fred Craddock, ‘a preaching genius,’ dies at 86.” In paying tribute to Craddock’s legacy, the CNN article provided a YouTube video clip containing a few of Craddock’s famous witticisms: “I am short, I have a weak voice. I don’t have high energy level. All the preachers I listened to growing up in the church were full of thunder and lightning; all were 9 ft. tall, and loud, and energetic; and I sound like the wind whistling through a splinter on a post. And I just thought how can I compensate for what I don’t have? So, I built a lot of detours, developed some compensations, but in the course of it, [ I ]found that people heard me.”
As I watched the old professor speak these words, the idea came to me that maybe the genius in Fred Craddock really started to take shape and to be cultivated when he made the commitment and took the determination to desire preaching above every other desire. His commitment to preaching was strong enough to motivate him to think deeply about what an effective sermon should sound like, both in terms of what it says and how it says it. As both a preacher and a brilliant academic, he understood the limitations of traditional preaching methods and was familiar with the various modes of thinking that were written about in the scholarly literature. He sought, therefore, to find a thinking mode that was more in tune with the artistic dimensions of preaching. But more importantly, he saw in the teaching of Jesus something that reminded him of the engaging role of storytelling in effective communication, a craft he said he learned from his father growing up in rural Tennessee. But that was not all. He also thought deeply about his own limitations and sought for ways to build “detours” to circumvent these limitations. This high sense of critical awareness and ability to think deeply about one’s limitations and to find ways to overcome them is what psychologists describe as metacognition. Put quite simply, Fred Craddock was determined to make good on his commitment and desire to preach engaging, transformational sermons.
As we reflect upon the legacy of Fred Craddock, we clearly hear his challenge to all of us practitioners of the Word. It is a challenge to treat preaching as a craft, to think deeply about the message we want to share and how best to share it. It is a challenge to flee from mediocrity and to glorify God and extend his Kingdom with the best of everything that we have. And when we are able, by the grace of God, like Craddock, to build “detours” around our limitations, then maybe, just maybe, those who are provoked to transformation by our words will see the genius of the master teacher reflected in us.
Written by J. Jerome Prinston. Dr. Prinston is a professor of Hermeneutics at Johnson University Tennessee.