In this excerpt from Small Preaching, Jonathan T. Pennington compares the process of sermon writing to the art of sculpture.
A few years back, my wife and I had the opportunity to drive around the beautiful North Island of New Zealand. In addition to exploring the stunning scenery, one of our most memorable adventures was serendipitously getting to meet and privately tour the property of one of the Kiwis’ most famous sculptors, Terry Stringer. As I reflected later on this remarkable experience and read a bit more about sculpture, it struck me how much writing sermons is like the art of sculpture.
Sculpture—defined as the craft of carving, modeling, or welding material to form a three-dimensional piece of art—is one of the oldest and most enduring forms of human creativity. The process of sculpting involves both blocking and chipping. Blocking, in which one is laying out the image of what the shape and form will eventually be, is the larger planning and envisioning work that takes more time and wrestling. Chipping is the small-scale chiseling, incising, and abrading. Chipping comes by the little hammer blows, bit by bit bringing the shape and form into reality.
This dual process of sculpting describes well the process of good sermon writing. We need to both block and chip our sermons.
When standing before a large piece of marble, a sculptor must have a vision of what the final shape will be, at least generally. As the process unfolds, the sermon writer has the advantage of being able to rearrange paragraphs and chapters; the sculptor, not so much. But in both instances, a general vision, plans for certain lines and cuts, an elbow here, a nose there, are necessary first steps. Blocking in sermon writing is a fluid and flexible process, but it must result in a shape and outline that will guide the actual work of writing.
Sculptors in ancient times often used a technique called “pointing” to produce a copy of another sculpture. Pointing involved building a wooden frame around the original sculpture and using strings to measure the distances between different points on the image. This process enabled one to make an exact copy or a proportionally smaller or larger one.
So too, sermon writers can and should plot out the general shape and relative relationships of points to each other in the piece. Even though we are not merely copying, we should “point” our sermon writing before we embark on its production. For me, this looks like constantly rearranging the sections and moves of a message to find the right flow and structure.
But we also need to do another kind of sermon writing: chipping. Chipping is the minute work. It is the shaping of the earlobe/sentence, the sandaled foot/paragraph. Chipping is the placing of the chisel end on the face of the stone and striking a measured blow. And then doing it again. And then again. And then again. Chipping is the repeated rewriting that will shape a formless rectangle into an elegant arm and beautiful face.
Life is busy and demanding. We often long for more time. And when we do have a block of cherished time, we often waste it. The key to using our sermon-writing time well is to find the proper rhythm between blocking and chipping and to realize that a lot of good sermon writing happens through chipping, not through blocking.
The rhythm is this: We need occasional large blocks of time so that we can lay out the form and shape and direction of our sermon. Blocking times—initial and then periodic—are times given to brainstorming, reading, researching, jotting, outlining, and envisioning. But then we need short, daily, consistent chipping times. Chipping times focus on the small portions of sermon writing, the paragraph and the section. If we sit down with a manageable chipping goal and simply swing the sentence hammer over and over for a short amount of time, we can produce a lot.
I invite you into the sculptor’s studio. Dream, envision, block. Then start chipping and keep chipping. The result may very well be a beautiful marble sermon whose impact may last longer than you.
This post is adapted from Small Preaching: 25 Little Things You Can Do Now to Make You a Better Preacher by Jonathan T. Pennington (Lexham Press, 2021).