Why Genre Matters in Preaching

By Dr. Steven Smith

Riding on the City of New Orleans, 
Illinois Central Monday morning rail 
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders, 
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail. 
All along the southbound odyssey 
The train pulls out at Kankakee 
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields. 
Passin’ trains that have no names, 
Freight yards full of old black men 
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.

Preaching a sermon demands a lot of thought. There is the exegesis of the text, which demands quite a bit of time and energy. Then there is the exegesis of the audience. How will the listener receive what God has said? In all of this, who has time to consider the genre in which the text was written? This is where Willie Nelson helps us.

The above lyrics are a simple demonstration of why genre matters. The lyrics of the song paint a picture, andthey tell a story. The picture they paint is of a train moving from the North down to Mississippi. As the song progresses the listener feels the song. This is an obvious function of the genre of music as the musicians use the instrumentation of the song to help us understand the words. Now, you might think this is incredibly obvious, but think over that statement again, slowly. They used the instrumentation to help us understand. So, there is meaning in the genre of the music.

As the lyrics talk about “fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders” and later “the rhythm of the rails is all they feel,” the percussionist includes beats that help you feel the words. Now think also about that phrase, “feel the words.” We know this intuitively. What we say is the message, but how we say it is also a message. When we read something, we practice oral interpretation. This, in essence, allows the tone of our words to demonstrate the content of what is being said. And this is the issue: the tone.

… to make one feel the message is to help him understand the message.

To put these thoughts together: to make one feel the message is to help him understand the message. Therefore the tone of how we say something must be consistent with the content of the message. There is a difference in tone between the songs, “Rock-a-bye Baby” sung to the baby Saturday night, and “We Will Rock You” sung Saturday afternoon at the football game.

And this is the way it is with Scripture. When Scripture wants to rock us in the arms of grace, we have the affirmation of Psalm 23. The Lord is in fact our Shepherd. He is leading us. We know this from the lyrics of the song, but think about the genre. The genre of Hebrew poetry gives us a clue as to its content. Poetry is a wonderful medium to communicate the gracious way of the Shepherd with the sheep.

Now think about Galatians 1:6-24. Paul is trying to rock the listeners out of their complacency to see the danger of a false Gospel. So he tells them that he is shocked that they are leaving the Gospel and further that anyone who leads others astray should be damned. Strong words indeed. The genre is epistletory, a letter. And the genre helps. The biting tone of the letter allows Paul to speak directly to the needs of the listener with no fluff or interruption. He just lays it out there for them.

The genre of the text aids in communicating the message of the text.

The bottom line is that there is meaning in the genre. There is not a new meaning or a hidden meaning. Not at all. However, there is a subtlety to the genre that reinforces the content of the words. In other words, the genre of the text aids in communicating the message of the text. There is meaning in what God says, and there is meaning in how God delivered his words. You can understand all the exegetical nuances of a text, and you can understand all the theological nuances of a text, and still miss part of the meaning if you don’t understand the genre.

Dr. Steven Smith is vice president for student services and communications at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. This article is part of a series on preaching the genres of Scripture. Follow Dr. Smith on Twitter @StevenWSmith.