The Four Pages: Making Movies

I'm looking forward to next Sunday, the fifth of December, for I will have the opportunity to preach the sermon at my church that day; it has been a while since I last preached.

During the course of my theological studies, I learned a method of sermon composition called the 'four pages', set out in a book called The Four Pages of the Sermon (published in 1999 by Abingdon Press) by Paul Scott Wilson, who teaches preaching at Emmanuel College, one of the affiliates of the Toronto School of Theology.

I have found this method to be most useful in the writing and evaluation of my own sermons, in that I find I am more likely to say something worthwhile (this is not always immediately evident) and I find that when I receive feedback about my sermon, it is more likely to reflect what I actually said.

The 'four pages' are figurative, referring to what may be considered four elements which may or may not be found in any given sermon; it is Wilson's claim that a sermon which has all four of these 'pages' is more likely to accomplish the tasks of the sermon, one of which is to inspire hope and joy in its hearers. A sermon may consist of no more than one or two actual pages of writing, but include all four of the 'pages'; conversely, it may be ten pages long, literally, but consist of, figuratively, only two pages.

The process of writing a sermon according to the four pages is, ideally, supposed to take about a week, Wilson writes, to make the process more manageable and to make the sermon easier to revise. On each day from Monday to Friday, the preacher does some work on the sermon.

Follow along as I compose a sermon according to the four pages this week. I am preaching on Matthew 3.1-12. To make the process clearer, I will provide examples in the post on each day's work for the passage.

Before I begin, a few words on the title of this post. What does the making of films have to do with the composing of sermons? Let's see what Wilson has to say.

He writes:
Movie making is a hobby easy to conceive. Yet movie making as a method of sermon preparation is not as easy to imagine. Instead, we unconciously may invoke many of the hard-won lessons of essay writing and apply them to our sermon compositions. Some of these lessons are good for sermons ... . As long as we prepare our sermons by conceiving of our task as equivalent to writing an essay... [that] concept will influence our preaching, often in negative ways, because we will unwittingly apply the rules of writing, which are not always effective for spoken presentations. ... [I]f we shift the mental image of sermon composition from essay writing to movie making, we will see a tremendous change in how we arrange our thoughts. ... [I]f we imagine that we are directing a film we allow ourselves to think and compose sermons in a visual manner - which is how most of us think in any case. [Italics added for emphasis.] [pp. 10-1]
One might say that we often find sermons boring, not because of their content, but because they are written according to a mode of thought, the essay, which does not come naturally to us and which does not engage us easily. It is one thing to read an essay; it is another to hear it read aloud.

Wilson continues:
What if people in the church pews on Sunday were to view the content of our sermons as movies that they are seeing in their minds as we speak? What if we were to evaluate our past sermons as biblical and theological films, if were were to play the videotapes in our homiletics classroom - not the videotapes of us standing in the pulpit actually preaching, but the videotapes of the pictures we are presenting through our words - what would we learn? ... [One] problem is that preachers need help making pictures and appealing to a full range of the senses. At one extreme are text-centered preachers whose language is so far from being concrete that the only drama congregations experience is that of pages being read and turned - there is nothing for them to "see" besides the preacher in the pulpit. On the other extreme are preachers who equate creativity with focusing the videocamera from place to place or zooming from person to person - there is much to "see" but nothing connects. [pp. 14-5]
The four pages promise more imaginative biblical sermons. We are surrounded in our culture by videocassette [now DVD] and digital recorders, satellite dishes and cable television, computers and the internet, and all of these have combined to make society more visual [and this is even more the case in the ten-odd years since this book was first published]. I [Wilson] have already expressed my hope that preachers will think of these pages primarily as visual pages like scenes from movie scripts or like web pages geared for the eye and ear, with heavy use of video clips, rather than as written pages. Technology makes it possible for individuals now to download images from their videocameras directly into their computers, and preachers similarly might conceive of downloading their own biblical and relevant contemporary movie scnese directly into their sermons. [p. 28]
As the week proceeds, ask yourself as you read what I post about my sermon: is it sufficiently like a movie? Does what you read appeal to your eyes? Your ears? Do you meet flesh-and-blood characters, and do they speak directly? Can you picture the scene in your mind's eye? The more the sermon I write resembles the pages of a film script, the more effective it will be at conveying its message, or so I hope.


  1. Interesting post, I wish I could be there on Sunday. Rock the house!

  2. Thanks, Keith. Will do!


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