The Preacher's Toolbox: Onward and Upward: Preaching that Escalates

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Too often sermons are like treadmills: Lots of work that takes us nowhere. Better for your sermon to be like an escalator: Move your people onward and upward in faith.

In the previous Preacher’s Toolbox we talked about brevity in sermons. Today, I want to give you a principle which helps you maintain brevity, forces it, really, because it ensures you retain in the sermon only what really needs to be there.

The principle comes from novelist and essayist George Saunders in his excellent book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Saunders calls it the Cornfeld Principle, which he named for the screenwriter (Stuart Cornfeld) from whom he stole it.[1] According to the Cornfeld Principle, in a good story, every structural unit/scene/chapter needs to do two things: 1) be entertaining in its own right, and 2) advance the story in a non-trivial way.

While a sermon is not a story, per se, this is perfectly relevant and easily adaptable to the task of preaching.

First of all, it encourages us to think of the sermon not as one big glob of public speaking but as a series of discrete movements, or “rhetorical units.”[2] If you are already developing a sermon structure, then this is a natural corollary (and if you are not, that is where we need to start).

Second, though the goal of the sermon is, of course, never to be entertaining as an end in itself,[3] you could easily exchange that verb for engage or edify (or even another verb which does not start with E). The core idea from the Cornfeld Principle as applied to preaching is that each and every movement of the message will be compelling in its own right. It might not be able to stand on its own as a sermon, but it will, nevertheless, retain the hearers’ attention and, in some small way, build them up in faith.[4]

Third, adapting the Cornfeld Principle, we could also say each movement of the message “advances the [sermon] in a non-trivial way.” In other words, there is a forward thrust to the proclamation, a sense of movement. You decide whether or not to include any particular insight, tidbit, or anecdote based on its capacity to move you and your hearers toward your sermon’s goal (this is the part especially helpful for practicing brevity). Saunders puts it like this: “A swath of prose earns its place in the story to the extent that it contributes to our sense that the story is (still) escalating.”[5]

Escalating the Sermon

At this point, Saunders introduces a concept related to the Cornfeld Principle: Escalation. Escalation is the secret sauce to keeping a story (or sermon) both engaging and advancing. It combines progression with elevation, just as an escalator moves us both onward and upward. Escalation happens when the story is propelled ahead because the stakes are raised. Timmy fell into the well, and now a storm is coming! That is escalation. A simple search for a suit store turns into a back-alley fight to the death! That is also escalating... quickly.

Escalation happens when the story is propelled ahead because the stakes are raised.

Escalation also happens in sermons. It can take a variety of forms. The first, which is closely related to that of stories, is structural: The organization of the message progressively raises the stakes. This is most obviously the case with a narrative structure (such as the “Lowry Loop”), but not exclusively.

For example, using the Question-Answered structure, there is a natural sense of “rising action” as the preacher evaluates, and then discards possible answers to the question in question, before finally arriving at the satisfying gospel-based solution. That is fundamentally a story-based structure clothed in more didactic garb.

Another form of escalation in preaching is substantival (that is, it is related to the substance of the sermon). This may be because there is an exegetical knot you are untying, or a theological conundrum you are unpacking. The content of the message itself thus contains the engine of escalation. In a recent sermon, for instance, I attempted to suss out (this may have been inadvisable) what was at stake in two alternative translations of John 7:37-38. I cannot say for certain if I pulled it off, but in any case, the substance of the message created the desired escalation. 

But the most significant kind of escalation in preaching is personal. This is probably also the most common way preachers, especially Lutheran preachers, raise the stakes: Through the preaching of the Law. Because the Law convicts of sin and lifts the specter of judgment, it has raised stakes inherent within it. The preaching of Acts is paradigmatic: “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37). Needless to say, this sort of escalation is much more personal than just wondering whether Timmy’s getting out of that well, and it is why preaching is so vital.

The Cornfeld Principle will not let your preaching stay static. It prods you to engage your hearers and advance the proclamation “in a non-trivial way,” because you are not just plodding along in place for a quarter hour, after all (or at least you should not be). Too often sermons are like treadmills: Lots of work that takes us nowhere. Better for your sermon to be like an escalator: Move your people onward and upward in faith.


[1] George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Random House: New York, 2021. 42.

[2] Or as Eugene Lowry puts it, “An event in time.”

[3] Though one of the “ministerial purposes” of preaching, if you will, is to delight.

[4] Depending on the sermon structure, it is possible that individual units could, in fact, stand alone as a devotion or blog post, among others. I have done this on a number of occasions, not least in homebound visits, when preaching the full sermon would be awkward.

[5] Saunders, A Swim, 153.