The Four Pages: Ensuring Sermon Unity

The first thing the preacher needs to do, according to Wilson, is, on Monday, to ensure that the sermon is unified. The mnemonic device for this is the sentence The Tiny Dog Now Is Mine, although I suppose any sentence whose words begin with those letters (TTDNIM) will do.

On Monday, then, the preacher's task is 'to identify: one text from the Bible [on which] to preach; one theme sentence arising from that text; one doctrine arising out of that theme sentence; one need in the congregation that the doctrine or theme sentence addresses; one image to be wed to the theme sentence; and one mission. [words in bold in the original; pp. 35-6]'

Let's look at this in more detail.

One Bible Text
So the first thing we need, Wilson says, is one text from the Bible on which we are going to preach (pp. 36-7). In the Anglican Church we follow the Revised Common Lectionary. The texts for this coming Sunday (the fifth of December) are Isaiah 11.1-10; Psalm 72.1-7, 18-19; Romans 15.4-13; and Matthew 3.1-12. Thank you McCausland's for having this information. As I noted, I've already chosen my text on which to preach, and that is the gospel reading from Matthew.

Why one text? Wilson explains:
Some preachers try to link these various readings in the sermon. The practice may be satisfying to a preacher, but unless the link is immediate, obvious, and easily conveyed, such attempts to link readings are wasted on congregational members. They have pressing legitimate concerns from daily life and world affairs that they want addressed more than how one reading relates to another. Most preachers [moreover] do not have enough time in the sermon to expound more than one text; to refer anywhere in the Bible is appropriate, but one main text is all that most listeners can manage. [p. 37]
Preaching a sermon in ten to fifteen minutes is not like giving a lecture or writing an essay on the Biblical texts for the day; people simply don't absorb and digest lots of information in one go when we say it to them out loud. It takes a lot more time than most preachers have to bring all the readings together, and, even were the time at hand, the case is, as Wilson says, that people have more urgent needs than to know why the readings for the week all hang together.

My Text: Matthew 3.1-12.

One Theme Statement
The next step is 'to identify a focus or theme statement. [p. 37]' Wilson discusses the concept of having a theme statement - a controlling idea as a focus for the sermon - at length, because it is a difficult element to get right, as well as being contested by certain schools of preaching (that is, that a sermon even needs such a thing). Wilson's point is that a theme sentence 'is... a statement of what the preacher chooses as a handle for the text and as an organizing principle for the sermon. [p. 39]'

Wilson develops the idea some more, conveniently summarising it at the end of the section. The 'quick rules to guide formulation of the theme sentence or God-statement [are]: Keep it short. Make it a declarative sentence (not a question). Make God the subject of the sentence. Focus on God's action of grace. Use strong, active verbs. [p. 44]'

Since, as Wilson observes earlier, God is the proper object and focus of preaching (p. 44), the theme sentence, as a tool to ensure the unity of the sermon, should focus on God's action in the chosen text. The action may be obvious, or it may have to be inferred. The other important thing to note is that the reason God is the subject of the theme statement and the reason strong, active verbs are used is to keep the burden of doing something on God, instead of transferring it, as often happens, onto the hearers of the sermon.

Of course Wilson notes a number of caveats regarding the theme sentence, the most important of which is, in my view, the fact that it is not a substitute for the sermon itself (pp. 38-9). But for Wilson it is important to have a concrete statement of activity from which to start, or else God is likely to be absent from the sermon.

My Theme Statement: Jesus makes us his people.

One Doctrine
The next step is to choose a doctrine which emerges from the text and which relates to the theme sentence. In other words, the doctrine selected needs to be integral to the text to be preached. Wilson points out that many passages are connected with or form the basis of more than one doctrine, giving the famous (and somewhat well-worn) John 3.16 as an example (p. 45). The theme sentence, in such cases, may serve as a guide as to which doctrine ought to inform the sermon.

But it is important to use the doctrine to improve the sermon, not to turn into a complex doctrinal treatise, nor to use it as an impressive display of the preacher's knowledge. In many cases the use of a doctrine will have only an indirect impact on the sermon, providing focus and clarity. At its best, the proper use of the chosen doctrine makes a sermon 'more simple, clear and deep. Simplicity that is superficial is worth nothing, but simplicity that emerges on the other side of complexity we should treasure as knowledge grounded in experience. [p. 47; see pp. 45-7]' In other words, the chosen doctrine will illuminate the sermon as light fills a room; it is the means by which everything else is made clear, but you will not necessarily perceive the thing itself - and it is not always proper that you should attend to it, but most times you are better off looking at what it is illuminating.

My Doctrine: Election (in this context, 'election' refers to a decision or action on the part of God to choose a, and in the end all, people, with whom he will be in relationship).

One Need
The fourth step, Wilson writes, is to 'identify a need that [the chosen] doctrine will meet in the congregation. [p. 48]' This will help keep any reference to the chosen doctrine concrete and pertinent. (As an aside, I do not believe abstraction is necessarily bad, but it is not the proper mode of discussion in a sermon.)

He continues:
Every effective sermon must have relevance and address a need in the lives of the congregation. This is not necessarily the need that the preacher thinks a congregation has, for example, "My people need to know more about the Bible," or, "They need to know more about this doctrine." The need also is not necessarily a need that the people in the congregation feel or perceive themselves to have - for instance at Christmas to have fine gifts. Rather, the preacher ideally addresses the real need of people. ... Each time we preach we should try to identify some need in the congregation that our message seeks to meet. [loc. cit.]
One way of doing this, Wilson suggests, is to ask what question the theme sentence answers from the perspective of the people in the pews (loc. cit.). Thus, for example, one question my theme sentence, above, might answer would be, 'Does God love me?' A more precise question might be, 'Has God chosen me?'

Wilson is careful to point out that the need to be addressed in the sermon cannot be just any need; to ensure the unity of the sermon the need must stem from the theme sentence and the related doctrine (pp. 49-50).

My Need: Has God chosen me? (Another way of putting it would be, 'We need to understand ourselves as chosen by God.')

One Image
The fifth step is to choose what Wilson calls the 'dominant image'. The image is dominant not because it is the only one in the sermon - there being 'as many images in a sermon as there are pictures for the mind to see [p. 50]' - but because it reappears throughout the sermon. Wilson notes that it can sometimes take a few days in the process for the dominant image to become clear.

The purpose of the dominant image, as with all of the other steps we have been taking for the purpose of unifying the sermon, is to improve the sermon's effectiveness by giving it a coherent shape, vivid verbal imagery, and concreteness. Having such an image will help because, Wilson points out, '[m]uch of human thinking is in mental pictures, and most people remember best what they can visualise. [p. 51]' The image becomes most effective, Wilson suggests, when it also ties into the theological claims of the sermon (see pp. 50-1).

Since I haven't written any of my sermon yet, I will wait to determine what its dominant image will be. One possibility is 'water'; in my chosen text (Matthew 3.1-12), John the Baptist is busy baptising people in the river Jordan, so the image of water can be found in the text. Water is likewise a good image from our world. (On sources of images, see pp. 53-6). But for now I will set this step aside and return to it if I discover an image growing naturally out of what I have written. At any rate, the dominant image must tie into the steps we have already taken; there is no use choosing and using a dominant image which has nothing to do with anything else we are talking about.

One Mission
The last thing to do before the actual writing of the sermon, Wilson says, is 'to determine... what mission or action of Christian service the sermon might invite [p. 56]', although this, too, may not come to mind first thing: 'it is not too soon to start thinking about it [the mission; loc. cit.].' The mission should derive, of course, from the theme statement, the doctrine, and the identified need (and, in so doing, derive, at least indirectly, from the text). Wilson has two things to say about the mission of the sermon which bear repeating.

The first:
[First,] we identify specific ministries that God commands or wills, things we are to do. ... [Next,] we identify the manner in which God enables us and others to perform these ministries - not that we must, but that we are privileged to have the opportunity. We might also make a suggestion concerning how listeners might express their thankfulness to God in the coming week - again as an invitation and example, not as an obligation[.] [p. 56]
The second:
By mission I [Wilson] mean primarily one act, one action of ministry that listeners may contemplate doing as a result of the sermon. This act of mission is merely an example or symbol of other actions that the congregation could contemplate. [loc. cit.]
So, whatever the mission is, it should be framed at some point as an invitation, as something which can be done as an expression of thankfulness. The mission is also simple and symbolic: simple, in that it can be put forward in the sermon without having to be explained in great detail; symbolic, in that it is representative of any similar acts of ministry, and not to be taken as the only mission which the text encourages or to which the congregation is called.

Again, I am not clear as to what mission I should choose, but during the writing of my sermon, I will be keeping my eyes peeled, as it were, for something which comes out of what I have already chosen to be subjects of the sermon.

Moving On
With these six steps taken care of (or at least simmering away, waiting to be expressed during the course of writing and revising the sermon), it is time to move on to each of the four pages in turn.


  1. So you're preaching this weekend too eh? Me too! :)

    P.S. Thanks for the add to your blogroll.....You're on the list over at A Year in the Office now that I figured out how to make the widget visible. :)

  2. Why thank you, good sir. Are you preaching on the gospel? I preached on the equivalent passage from Luke last Advent, so it will be interesting (for me, anyway) to see how a sermon composed more strictly according to the 'four pages' method goes than the one I wrote that year.

  3. I'm a little confused on the doctrine part of the equation. I think it is because there are so many options to choose from. There isn't a list of doctrine to choose from (if there is I'd be happy to see it). could you expound on that at all?

    1. The idea in The Four Pages of the Sermon is that the doctrine chosen is one that arises naturally out of the text. More than one doctrine might be drawn out of any given text.

      In the example I gave, I found (I hope) that Matt. 3.1-12 realised election. Of course no doctrine is based on a single text from Scripture, but is based on a synthesis of many texts. In any case, since my example sermon was from that text, I chose a doctrine that appeared to arise out of the text, and didn't spend a lot of time explaining the doctrine of election with reference to many other texts.

      I hope that has cleared things up a little; but I'm afraid that this post was little more than a reductive sampling of the book from which I drew the process.


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