Shop Talk #1: (Diverse) Creative Tension

This post will be the first in a series I’m calling “Shop Talk.” It won’t be a continuous series, instead, it’s something I’ll come back to from time to time. But the idea is to spend some time “talking shop” about the art and craft of preaching. Hopefully these posts can foster some helpful conversation between preachers. And if you don’t preach, it might let you in on a few trade secrets.

Have you ever found yourself pulled into a TV show that you weren’t planning on watching? You saw the first two minutes and all of a sudden you have to watch it all the way to the end to see what happens. The reason that happens is because of something called “creative tension.” And creative tension is a part of every successful narrative art-form: novels, plays, movies, TV shows, etc. And I would argue that it plays a big part in successful preaching as well.

Good preaching, the kind of preaching that moves both the mind and the heart, is built like a good narrative. And, because of that, it is built on creative tension. This is the key insight of Eugene Lowry’s important book, The Homiletical Plot. He asks preachers to, “Recall if you will when you first felt a homiletical idea ‘happen’ to you. There was an excitement you felt, a tension which took hold. And you knew even before the sermon was formed, that you had it! At that time the tension perhaps was only latent to the actual sermon, but the tension was evidence of a discrepancy perhaps known only implicitly. In whatever way the sermon worked itself out, it was a matter of a plot moving toward resolution.” In other words, you have to give the congregation an “itch” that the rest of the sermon will attempt to “scratch.”

And Lowry isn’t the only preacher to recognize the importance of creative tension. Andy Stanley, who preaches to a church of over 24,000 people, (literally) highlights the centrality of creative tension in his popular-level introduction to preaching, Communicating for a Change: “Now, if you’re reading this book with a highlighter in hand, I would encourage you to highlight this next sentence. Don’t transition… to the next section until you feel like you have created a tension that your audience is dying for you to resolve.”

Sermons live and die on their ability to create tension and resolve it. Because a sermon without tension is really just an exegesis paper. A good sermon has to have creative tension. But there is more to think about when it comes to creative tension if you are preaching to the same congregation every week.

Remember in elementary school when you learned about narrative tension? You learned that there are three basic kinds of tension that you can find in any narrative:
1. Tension between a person (or people) and another person (or people)
2. Tension between a person and their environment
3. A person in tension within themself.

I think there is a similar phenomenon when it comes to preaching. Tension can arise in different ways and between different entities. But problems can arise when preachers rely on the same creative tension every week. All of a sudden your sermons become like an episode of the Power Rangers – it’s the same story every week.

For example, one preacher I knew followed this basic pattern in every sermon: First, this particular sin is bad. Second, your life would be better if you stopped sinning in that way. Third, this passage of scripture reveals a way for us to avoid that sin.

Every. Week.

The only things that changed were the particular sin he talked about and the passage of scripture he used. In fact, his sermons became so much alike that he started using the same illustration for “different” sermons. And the problem was not so much that he used the same illustration over and over again – the bigger problem was that the same illustration fit every sermon he ever preached.

And the reason his sermons sounded so much alike every week was because he only relied on one source of creative tension. The tension that drove his every sermon was the tension between scripture and us as individuals. It was the tension between the sinfulness of our lives and the righteousness envisioned in scripture.

But that is certainly not the only tension available to the preacher. Here are just a few potential sources of creative tension for preaching that I could come up with:

1. Tension between Scripture and individuals
2. Tension between Scripture and the church
3. Tension between Scripture and contemporary culture
4. Tension between the church and contemporary culture
5. Tension between the church and individuals
6. Tension between individuals and contemporary culture
7. Internal tension within Scripture
8. Internal tension within the church
9. Internal tension within the world
10. Internal tension within individuals

It seems to me that effective preaching doesn’t just employ creative tension. It also varies the source of that tension in order to keep congregations on their toes (and the edge of their seats) and to communicate the gospel in the most robust way possible.

So, preachers (and listeners of preaching) what do you think? Do you agree that preachers should vary the source of their creative tension? Are their theological reasons to use the same source of tension over and over again? What sources of tension did I leave off the list? What source of tension do you find yourself most drawn to?

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2 Responses to Shop Talk #1: (Diverse) Creative Tension

  1. Mason says:

    Hey David,

    I think you’re right. Although I have some reservations about Lowry’s method – I don’t like the idea of imposing an outside form on the biblical text. With Lowry’s method what ends up happening is every biblical text, regardless of it’s own unique movement, has to have the same sort of 5 step process from itch to scratch (which is really Aristotle’s description of how narrative works). Instead, I would want to biblical text to determine it’s own movement. Lowry’s come under fire in the last 4-5 years for that very reason as the homiletical community begins to move away from focusing on specific sermonic forms. But I’ll always appreciate Lowry because he helped me see how the sermon can function as a “meaning event” rather than just a persuasive argument.

    In terms of using a variety of tensions, I think you’re exactly right. What I really appreciate about your post is that even though you give a variety of possibilities for where the preacher might identify that tension, most of them seem to revolve around the relationship between scripture-church-individual. And I think that’s a good thing.

  2. dma05b says:

    Thanks for commenting, Mason. I’m glad you mentioned the push-back Lowry has gotten recently. I was vaguely aware that his method had been critiqued but I was unsure of the exact nature of that critique – your comments are helpful.

    Part of the reason I have so enjoyed reading Lowry is that he so aptly describes my own experience of sermon prep. I find myself saying, “Yes! That’s exactly what happens, that’s exactly how it feels to find a ‘generative’ tension.” But he has challenged me to hone that process – his insights about tension as “ambiguous” rather than oppositional and the importance of deeply analyzing that ambiguity rather than papering over it with an illustration or shallow reading of the problem have been tremendously helpful.

    As far as my post goes, it seems to me that preachers tend to see the same tension in most texts. Personally, I have to force myself not to make every sermon about the tension between the Church (that is, our local church) and Scripture. I tend to read every text as having something to say about “How we do church together.” Rather than it having something to say about “How you personally live your Christian life.” But it seems to me that both are valid and needed at different times. Do you find yourself gravitating towards a particular tension?

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