R.L. Dabney’s Rules for Preaching

I’ve just finished reading T. David Gordon’s “Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers,” and I can tell you that it is causing me to reevaluate my own preaching!  In his opening chapter, Gordon introduces R.L. Dabney’s “Seven Cardinal Requisites of Preaching, ” which is found in his Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric, and maintains that most modern preaching rarely contains all seven, is lucky to contain three and often contains none.  Here are the rules and their tests of application. See what you think.

1. Textual Fidelity – Does the significant point of the sermon arise out o the significant point of the text? Is the thrust of the sermon merely an aside in the text? Is the text merely a pretext for the minister’s own idea?

2. Unity – If ten people are asked after the sermon what the sermon was about, will at least eight of them give the same (or similar) answer?

3. Evangelical tone – Do the hearers get the impression that the minister is for them (eager to see them richly blessed by a gracious God), or against them (eager to put them in their place, scold them, reprimand them, or punish them)?  Is it his desire to see them reconciled to and blessed by a pardoning God? Does the sermon press the hearer to consider the hopelessness of his condition apart from Christ, and the utter competence of Christ to rescue the penitent sinner?

4. Instructiveness – Does the sermon significantly engage the mind, or is the sermon full of commonplace clichés, slogans, and general truths?  Is the hearer genuinely likely to rethink his view of God, society, church, or self, or his reasons for holding his current views?  Is the mind of the attentive listener engaged or repulsed?

5. Movement – Do the earlier parts of the sermon contribute to the latter parts’ full effect?  Does the address have intellectual (and consequently emotional) momentum?

6. Point – Is the effect of the sermon, on those who believe it, similar? If it encouraged one, did it tend to encourage all, and for the same reason?  If it troubled one, did it tend to trouble all, and for the same reason?  If it made one thankful, did it tend to make all thankful, and for the same reason?

7. Order – Could the hearers compare notes and reproduce the outline? If they could not produce the outline, could they state how it progressed from one part to another?

Gordon also argues that preachers should receive an annual review, so for those who regularly hear me preach feel free to evaluate me on the above criteria.  I know that it will make me a better preacher so I’ll even allow anonymous comments!


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