“Three points and a poem.”
Many pastors have jokingly referred to this phrase as the definitive outline for a sermon. And as I listen to more preachers, I see the three-point model to be incredibly common and helpful. But I don’t see poetry appearing in sermons quite as often.
Poetry and faith, however, are old friends. Much of the Old Testament is written in poetic form, with both songs and prophecies often appearing in verse in the history of God’s people. Some of the most well-known poetic works in history deal with Christian theology and imagery (think of Milton’s Paradise Lost or Dante’s Divine Comedy, for two good examples). Famous poets like John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and George Herbert wrote religious poetry as well, incorporating their faith into their art in profoundly moving ways.
Today, we still see poetry at work, yet in different forms.
Musicians like Andrew Peterson combine poetry with music to produce songs that are both theological and devotional. Spoken word, hip-hop, and rap are also examples of poetry, where words are combined with ambient sounds or driving beats to convey truth in ways that both challenge and move the hearer (think of artists such as Propaganda or Lecrae for examples of these forms). Even the hymns and worship songs we sing with the church each week display the relationship between poetry and our faith.
In each of these cases, Christians employ the beauty and the complexity of language to speak in ways that awaken emotions to feel the weight of truth. They use words intentionally, crafting sentences with specific syllables, rhythms, and rhymes in order to make their messages stick in the minds of their listeners. In a way, poets are doing the same thing all of us as ministers are doing: they’re working to make disciples, teaching their disciples to observe all the commands of the Lord (Matthew 28:19-20). Poetry, then, can be a great tool for connecting the message of the gospel to your people.
Poetry can also be a profoundly moving spiritual discipline. I began to write poetry partly as a way to work out the truths I was learning before the Lord. As God stirred my heart in his word, I turned to pen and paper to better consider what he was teaching me.
When I begin to write a poem, I typically work within a set poetic structure, a structure that leads me to find words that fit its meter and rhyme (I enjoy the sonnet style, often associated with Shakespeare, but there are many great forms you can use). As I search for fitting words, I find new ways of articulating truth, which helps me devotionally, theologically, and practically. Writing poetry helps me work through ideas slowly and deliberately, which in turn helps the truths of Scripture sink more deeply into my mind and heart. And because many of my poems are prayers, poetry helps me to spend time with the Lord.
So today, I encourage you to consider incorporating poetry into your life in some way. Read a good Christian poem and observe how the art portrays the faith (I’d love to give you some recommendations for starting points). Try your hand at writing some poetry, working out lessons God is teaching you in a fresh way. And may the beauty of a biblically sound, well-written poem stir your heart to worship this week.
Joe Waller is the author of As I Learn to Walk, a collection of poems. He is also a PhD student at NOBTS.