Substance in Preaching

In speaking to a promising young man recently about his preaching, we both arrived at the conclusion that his difficulty was not in style, organization or delivery. What he was facing was simply a problem of communicating something substantive to his congregation each week. The problem is not uncommon, even among those who hold to the inerrancy of the Scriptures.

In order to preach effectively, you must have something to say, not merely have to say something! From reading and hearing sermons, all too frequently it seems as though that elemental truth has escaped many.

Are your sermons thin soup? Does your congregation get fed sawdust or the wholesome food of the Scriptures each week? Lean, scrawny Christians are indicative of lean victuals. Are your members healthy and robust? Or are they suffering from spiritual rickets?

It is not as though there is not enough “healthy teaching” (one of Paul’s favorite phrases in speaking to pastors like Titus and Timothy) to go around; the Word of the Lord is filled with all of the ingredients necessary to spread a balanced, nourishing meal before the congregation every time that you rise to preach. There is no end of supplies on the shelves of this well-stocked grocery store.

Well, if that is true, there are only two possibilities for the failure to serve your congregation more than you do: either you don’t know how to shop or you don’t bother to go shopping very often. Either way, you must solve the problem.

I do not want to judge you, determining for you why it is that your congregation has to exist on such slim pickins; I’ll let you determine that for yourself. But to help you do so, consider what follows.

First, your problem may be that you don’t know how to shop. If you are like some shoppers, you have no system at all. You are attracted to whatever strikes your eye, and you purchase it, with little or no regard to what to go after when you select your passage, or the book from which you will be preaching for X number of weeks, and how to get it. It is not a balanced meal to preach from Revelation in the morning, from Ezekiel at night and from Daniel at prayer meeting. That is like buying all desserts, or all meat or all vegetables.

On the other hand, if you don’t know how to shop, your problem may be even more basic; you may not know where to go for what you need or how to get it off the shelf if you locate it. Your own growth as an exegete may be so small that you cannot reach very high and must content yourself with the things that are placed lower on the shelf to attract children. Perhaps you ought to enroll in a course on exegesis, buy some substantive book on the subject, ask another pastor in the community who knows how to do exegesis to give you a crash course, or whatever. You are embarrassed to do so? Then consider this: which is more important—your ego or the undernourished congregation over which Christ has made you a shepherd? What does the great Shepherd of the sheep think about your pride? There is no question about it, if you don’t know how to get out of the Scriptures those healthy teachings that your congregation must have for their growth, if you do not know which commentaries are the best to use or even how to use them effectively, then you must find out. Either find out or quiet the ministry. Let someone else feed the Word to your congregation or learn to do so yourself; there is no other option.

Perhaps, your problem, however, is that you don’t go shopping often enough; i.e., you just don’t spend the time necessary to get up a good meal or two each Sunday. There is no excuse for this either. You are either too busy at other things to which you have wrongly given a higher priority or you are lazy. Either way, changes must be made. Your people, rather, God’s people, must have nourishment. It is a crime to horde up for yourself all of the food from God’s Word and refuse to dispense it to your congregation—for whatever reason.

So, pastor, ask yourself, “How well are my people fed from week to week? What are my shopping practices? How healthy is my congregation, anyway? If you conclude that they are severely undernourished, then it may very well be that the fault is largely yours. Why not prepare a juicy, appetizing, healthy meal or two for them or take the first step toward learning how to do so this week?

Preaching Rhythms

One of the principal unrecognized problems in contemporary preaching is sleep-inducing rhythm patterns. These pulpit lullabies, which stroke and soothe already sleepy parishioners, are of much more frequent occurrence and contribute far more toward the ineffectiveness of preaching than most realize.

Pulpit sirens, who fall into such rhythmic patterns, bill and coo at congregations unwittingly. It is almost impossible to convince them that their Sunday lyrics may be responsible for the small results obtained, because of the difficulty of recognizing the problem in one’s own preaching. If you are guilty of orchestrating weekly performances of this nature, you will never know it unless you are willing to listen analytically to tapes of your preaching in a critical and businesslike manner. Because so few are, I predict that this article will go largely unheeded. Pastoral nightingales, perched in pulpits, chirruping and warbling away, often are too entranced with the sound of their own voices to do the critical evaluation necessary. But for the few rare birds who will listen, who discover that the problem is theirs and who wish to do something about it, I offer the following suggestions.

I. Recognize What Your Pattern Is

While these preaching rhapsodies differ according to the pulpit musician, there are four major variables that appear in all patterns. They are:

  1. Sentences of relatively the same length.
  2. Repetition of standardized pitch patterns.
  3. Repetition of standardized accent (or beat) patterns.
  4. Pattern in control of content rather than growing out of content

Sentences of the same length form the basis for sing-song and other melody patterns. The only way to break this habit is to consciously replace it with sentences that are chopped off and sentences that are extended. Verbal exclamation points and semicolons would help.

Repetition of standardized pitch patterns, combined with sentences of similar length, produce a sing-song tune, as well as other lilting airs that may be attractive enough at points but begin to cuddle, coddle, and caress when in regular profusion. Beginning or ending sentences repeatedly on the same pitch level, rising to heights at the end or trailing off into plains after descending from the heights, sentence after sentence, may sound mellow and poetic but does not grip.

Repetition of standardized accent patterns add a jerky monotonous element that sounds like bad poetry:

da da’da da’da da’da da’, da da’da da’da da’;
da da’da da’da da’da da’, da da’da da’da da’.

Break them up. Varying the length of your sentences will have a salutary effect; you cannot slide into the pattern unless the length of sentences allows it. This problem, then, is a complication of the first problem and dependent on it.

Pattern in control of content. Content, at all points, should control whatever else takes place in a sermon. Not all patterns are wrong, but one pattern throughout always is. Patterns, when appropriate, appear and disappear. They shift with content. An obvious example is the pattern that I have named question clusters. In great preaching, at emotional heights in the sermon, there often appear a cluster of questions—one after another. This pattern can be very effective, if used appropriately and not overdone. But to use this pattern where there is no height to which to rise, or to use it again and again, is to destroy a good thing. Much more might be said about every one of these elements, but my concern here is to identify them, not to discuss them in depth.

II. Practice Alternative Patterns

Until you identify (from sermon tapes) exactly what patterns (or combinations of the four factors mentioned above) happen to be yours, you can do nothing about them. But assuming that you have isolated one or two patterns (we tend to have several and overwork one or the other for a while), you are now ready to do something about them. On the basis of the biblical put off/put on principle, you must recognize that it is not enough to attempt to “break” (put off) a habit: you must replace it with its biblical alternative.

Notice that in elements 1 to 3 meaningless repetition is the basic problem. Repetitive length, repetitive pitch patterns, and a repetitive cadence are the culprits that we have been uncovering. Therefore, the alternative is variety: variety in sentence length, in pitch patterns, and in accent patterns. How can it best be effected?

Variety must not be used merely for variety’s sake. Largely, variety will come when content controls speech patterns. This is true because as content varies, patterns that grow out of content and seek to serve it will follow. The content and its mood itself, if carefully followed, will bring about variety.

The problem, then, is to practice (outside of actual preaching contexts), wedding melody and rhythm patterns to content. Exciting content usually calls for extremes in length—staccato sentences or lengthy, periodic ones. More measured, relaxed, background or other factual materials call for more moderated lengths (though there is to be variety in this too). Pitch tends to rise with strong emotion, and drops with less emotional content. There will be a lot more high notes in the former and less in the latter.

Knowing what factors to work with will make the difference. However, don’t think you can make the change all at once. Have patience. Work, regularly, for six weeks or more (every day), and you will discover the new patterns beginning to take hold. So will your congregation.—J.E.A

Preach! Don’t Construct Sermons

images4Sometimes preachers fail to distinguish between preaching a sermon and preaching to a congregation. For some, the two may be identical (preaching a sermon to a congregation) but, on the other hand, they may not be (and usually are not). What is the difference to which I allude, what are its consequences, and what can be done about it?

The difference between preaching a sermon and preaching to a congregation is enormous. In the first, all, or nearly all, of the preacher’s effort has gone into preparing what he hopes will be THE SERMON. It is a masterpiece of style and artistry. People come just to hear and admire the sermon itself. Usually, such sermons are read or memorized. Almost always they are written out in full. In such preaching, the focus is on the sermon as such; it is a thing in-and-of-itself, and whether the particular congregation before whom (not to whom) it was performed (not preached) were to hear it, or another, is irrelevant. It can stand alone on its own two feet as a literary work. There are actually no such sermons in the New Testament. The Sermon on the Mount might be thought to be so. But although it is a fine piece of literature, Christ’s sermon was not designed to be wondered at or appraised for its artistic merits. And, as you read it, you soon recognize that it will not allow such treatment. With its second person approach, it constantly prods and pokes at you, by its direct simplicity it unmasks and convicts. The literary critic can find what he seeks only at the cost of hardening his heart to the message while attempting to concentrate solely on form. Even that is difficult: the form itself is testy and terse rather than smooth and elegant; critics, who know their stuff, cannot for long feel at home with it. It cannot be subjected to good criticism; it demands subjection instead. The so-called Sermon on the Mount, therefore, is not an instance of THE SERMON. Rather, it is a supreme example of preaching.

Preaching is an activity; sermon-making is an activity. But the product of the latter is a sermon (or, in some extraordinary cases, THE SERMON) while the product of the former is changed lives. The end or goal of sermon construction is literary; the end of preaching is moral and spiritual. In preaching, the focus is not on the sermon but on God and what He has to say to the congregation. When biblical preaching takes place, people do not think about the sermon or about the preacher; they think about Christ and in some way about their relationship to Him.

In the Scriptures we are commanded “Preach the Word”; nowhere are we told to prepare sermons. Too often, homileticians in seminaries have focused on the art and craft of sermon construction or the preparation and delivery of sermons. While there is need for instruction about how to gather, order and deliver the elements of the message one preaches, nevertheless, the difference in emphasis can make all the difference in outcome. We should talk more about the activity of preaching and less about the production of sermons. The two activities along with their goals and products differ substantially as we have seen already.

Congregations know the difference. Many members of a congregation may not be able to articulate that difference, but they know. “Our former pastor preached to us; I went out of the service every week knowing that I had received a message from God. Our present pastor works hard on his sermons—you can tell that—they are smooth, polished, but.…” Notice where the focus is in each instance: in the first comment it is on God, His message and my responsibility. In the second, on the pastor and his sermon. Under the former pastor’s preaching there will be life in the congregation, challenge to young people, conversions, breakthroughs, growth. Under the second man there will be dullness, deadness, stultification, dry professionalism and a growing churchianity.

“What can I do, if I have developed the bad practice of preparing sermons rather than preparing to preach? How can I change?” In some cases, the answer may be complex, in others more simple. But it will probably consist of at least the following changes:

  1. Stop writing out sermons. That means, of course, that you will neither read nor memorize them. Instead, prepare full preaching outlines, designed to be used as a help in preaching.
  2. Focus your thinking in preparation on God, on the message, and on the congregation—not on the sermon. Ask continually “how can I best bring this message from God to this congregation?” not “how can I best prepare a fine sermon?”
  3. Think about the congregation: Who will be there, what knowledge, prejudices, beliefs, etc., that they will have. Concern yourself with preparing to convey God’s message to this congregation, not with preparing a universal literary masterpiece that can stand apart on its own. Instead, particularize. Prepare to preach to one specific congregation on one occasion, not a sermon for the whole church for all time. When you preach, preach for results in this congregation, not as though you were addressing the entire world, or perhaps the church universal!
  4. Care about your people and adapt every story (or illustration, if you prefer) specifically to them. Prepare to preach to their needs, weaknesses, etc.; don’t address the ills of the planet. The planet isn’t there to hear!

Other solutions to the problem might be suggested but, frankly, I am convinced that the basic need is to become fully aware of the problem with its various ramifications. Once an earnest preacher recognizes that his concern has been about sermons rather than about God and His flock, he will repent and find a way to change. Those pulpit prima donnas who can see no problem will go on destroying congregations with abandon, and nothing short of dismissing them before it is too late will do. But for those who have unwittingly fallen into the trap, or who have been led into it by seminary academies, and who want to change, let me suggest one final solution to the problem. If for a period of three months you will prayerfully burn your sermon outlines, together with any and all preparatory notes, so that nothing remains, and allow no tape recordings to be made, and concentrate on the activity of preaching, you should be able to make the transition from writing sermons to preaching to people. During that period you will discover what it means to prepare to preach for the blessing of one congregation, on one occasion, instead of preparing to play to the grandstands of all time.

Textual, Topical or Expository?

“Should preaching be textual, topical, or expository?,” preachers often ask. The answer to that question is yes.

If that answer confuses you, let me explain. How could a good sermon be anything but all three at once? The three are certainly not mutually exclusive categories, as some (wrongly) seem to think.

Certainly there will be a text. I prefer to call it a “preaching portion.” What must be avoided is isolating a sentence or a fragment of Scripture from its context and preaching from it in that form for one’s own use rather than for the purpose for which it was written. Objectionable “textual” preaching neglects telic study and focuses on something in the passage that catches the interest of the preacher. A preaching portion should be determined not by its length (in Proverbs, as elsewhere, one sentence clearly can be a preaching portion), but by whether or not it constitutes a distinctively telic unit.

Certainly there will be a topic. If one has no topic, he has nothing to preach about. What must be avoided is choosing a topic and running from passage to passage to substantiate it, whether the passages do so or not. When a doctrine is taught from two or three passages (that is about maximum), to do so properly requires extra effort on the part of the minister. He must study and present textually (in context) each of the passages, doing the exposition that is necessary in all three for the congregation. It is because some preachers do little justice to any passage or group of passages, but merely deliver an essay on a topic, that topical preaching has acquired such a bad press. Good doctrinal preaching (as I prefer to call it) is greatly needed. But it must be textually and expositorally undergirded.

Certainly there will be exposition. By exposition I mean explanation of the preaching portion to the congregation, showing them how he reached the conclusions that he is making in the sermon, thus basing the authority for his exhortations squarely on God’s Word (see my other article on preaching in this Journal). What must be avoided is mere running comments on a passage that have little or no regard for its telos (“purpose”).

As a matter of fact, if all three activities are pursued telically, there will be no problem. It is the neglect of telic analysis and presentation that has led to the various attacks on one or more of these emphases.

More on “Illustrations”

Ed note. As will be evident as you read, this article was written in 1981 and thus the references to some dated “current events.” The article’s value for preachers remains current.

I have never appreciated the fact that the word “illustration” is used to cover all storytelling in preaching. Because the word focuses on the visual alone (to illustrate is to “brighten” or “throw light on” something), it has tended to limit appeal to the other senses (hearing, smelling, tasting, touching), and that, in turn, has tended to impoverish our preaching. Perhaps it would be well if the word storytelling were to replace it altogether.

Stories, well told, are sense-oriented; they appeal to the senses. Dialog, for instance, an integral part of most good stories (see Christ’s parables), appeals especially to the sense of hearing. The prodigal son talks to himself, rehearsing what he will say to his father (here, in a modern translation, you will even find quotes within quotes!—dialog with himself!).

This is an important point, about which I have said more in a chapter of my book Preaching with Purpose. But, here, I shall zero in on two issues involved in illustration (or, better, storytelling): (1) recent vs. timeless stories and (2) contrived vs. actual.

Let it be said that there are distinct advantages to each. The Bible uses all four, so I am not suggesting the elimination of one or the other but, rather, an understanding of the values of each, so that they may be selected and used more powerfully.

Recent vs. Timeless

Of course, the recent may become timeless, but in many instances this will not be true, and also in most cases you will not be able to make this determination beforehand. So, in choosing a given story, it is useful to remember the distinction.

Recent events, known to all (like the assassination of Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt—a contemporary and still strongly felt happening—have impact so long as this emotional climate remains. But the chances are, by the time that this Journal can be published and distributed, and certainly in a year or so, it will have lost most (if not all) of that added impact. Such stories, then, are best used right away, but lose their impact with the passage of time (unless a great deal of background is used in order to recreate something of that feeling, so that the listener/viewer may relive the event). Today, November 3, 1981, the papers are filled with the story of a Soviet submarine that ran aground in Swedish waters. Have you forgotten this story by now? Surely, even if this recalls it for you, it will be stale. So, widely known recent events are best used right away, while they are still recent.

Timeless events are good any time. Certain events (Lincoln’s assassination, Pearl Harbor, etc.) have that character naturally, that is, they have become timeless by becoming memorable over long periods of time. The preacher can refer to them and stir memories or emotions with a minimum of backfill. (Of course, any event can be used if enough background is given to recreate the event for the listener—but that takes sermon time—often a good bit of it.) Timeless events also are reusable at any time. A sermon can be preached—stories and all—largely as it was the first time, if its examples and stories are of a timeless quality. Clearly, new materials must be sought if the stories are dated. One of the hallmarks of a poor reused sermon (there is nothing wrong with reusing sermons, per se) is stale stories.

My advice is that unless a recent event has great impact on the entire congregation, as a rule, it would be better not to use it. Moreover, if you follow the general rule, one illustration for each point. then it would be better to limit dated stories, allusions, and examples’to a maximum of one per sermon. Christ seemed to use dated material sparingly, for example, “those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell”; “Zecharias, son of Barachias, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” Apart from those two instances, it is difficult to find any such material.

Contrived vs. Actual

I have been discussing actual events thus far; not all stories, examples, etc., must be so. Christ’s parables were contrived. Manufactured events (“Suppose a farmer wanted to kill the weeds in his field …”) have one great advantage: you can produce them and shape them precisely to the point you wish to make at any time. You do not need to search for them or to settle for a story that only partially fits. Of course. there is a disadvantage too: you must do creative work: some don’t like to; others think they can’t (on this point see my book, Insight and Creativity in Christian Counseling). But creative thinking, in the long run, is an advantage, because the more of it that is done, the more it tends to make one a more effective thinker and preacher. Contrived stories ought always to be presented as such—the question of their reality never should be left ambiguous.

There is also the possibility of taking an actual event and reversing it: “Suppose the Soviet submarine had been found in the San Diego harbor.…” Often, doing this will (1) bring an event closer to one’s own sphere of activity and (2) allow for the sort of alterations that are needed to make a point from the passage being discussed.

Real stories do, however, have the value of recency, when freshly used, and (again) do not require so much time to tell. But, when one takes the time to fill in details, like many of Christ’s parables, these stories become memorable.

All in all, the analysis of various options itself is what is most valuable. Think about them; be aware of what you are doing when you select a story and why you are doing so. If you take the time to do so, you will be delighted with the results.—J.E.A.[1]

 



[1] Adams, J. E. (1982). More on “Illustrations.” The Journal of Pastoral Practice, Number 4, 1982, 5, 151–153.

To Preach, or Not to Preach—That is the Question

At least it was in the time when Amos wrote his prophecy. Listen to this:

You . . . commanded the prophets ‘’Do not prophesy!” (Amos 2: 12)

But Amos replies:

God has spoken; who will not prophesy? (3: 8)

There are, as well, those who do not want to hear the truth today—who would say the same thing if given an opportunity. But where are the preachers who will answer as Amos did?

There are many who don’t utter the words that Israel did, but think it—and their preachers know that they do. They will listen to all sorts of preaching, but just let the preacher get near their favorite sins—then they think (if not say) “Don’t preach about that.

Preacher—have you any members of your congregation like that? Who talk that way—or, at the least think it and talk to others like that? If so—what is your response (verbally—or by what you do or don’t preach)?

Worth thinking about?  What do you say?

Don’t Tell Us What You Are Going to Do—Do It!

I have been noting a tendency among preachers that is common enough to warrant a label; I have called it prefacing. Prefacing is the bad habit of announcing what one is about to do before doing it, when there is no reason for doing so (note the important italicized qualification).

Let me suggest two ways in which prefacing frequently takes place in preaching:

  1. When one announces beforehand the points in his sermon;
  2. When he announces beforehand that he is about to illustrate.

An example of the first is exactly what I did in the last paragraph. Reread it and you will discover what I am talking about. And to go on to illustrate the second point I could now say, “Let me give you an example of what I am talking about” (of course, as you see, I just did).

But what is wrong with prefacing? When there is no good reason to do so, it breaks the continuity of what one has been saying by calling attention away from the content to the structure by which that content is being presented.

Foolishly, some homileticians have declared that a preacher should announce all of the points in every sermon. Why? Because they said so, that’s why. There is no other good reason. No biblical precedent for doing so can be found. Search the Scriptures and you will not find a single instance of anyone announcing, ‘This morning I should like to tell you three facts about hell” (or whatever). It just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen because it shouldn’t happen. Such prefacing adds nothing and certainly detracts.

Now, I did mention a qualification. One should announce points if, and only if, by doing so he furthers content. That is to say, if, for instance, there are “two steps and only two steps” in dealing with a habit pattern (putting off/putting on), and it is important to stress that there are no more and no less, then the steps and their number become a part of the content itself.

That is the only time when it is right to announce points: when knowing the points themselves in some way contributes to the discussion. Otherwise, prefacing and announcing distracts.

Again, the same principle holds true for announcing the use of examples and illustrations. It is always wrong to do so unless it serves a better purpose than buying time for the speaker to think (that should have been done before entering the pulpit). There are times, of course, when calling attention to the fact that one is about to use an example can be useful. Consider this: “The example I am about to use does not always apply, nor does it apply to everyone. As you listen, then, ask yourself, is this for me?” In a case like this, where it is important for the listener to evaluate what he is about to hear in a certain way, prefacing the example can be useful—indeed, vital.

But most prefacing—of examples, of points in a sermon, of biblical passages about to be read—is filler. One of the things that makes sermons dull and uninviting is filler.

So, from now on let me give you this word of advice. Stop telling us what you are going to do—just do it. Don’t announce points, just make them; don’t preface examples, just give them—and your sermons will be smoother and more powerful as a result.—J.E.A.

More on “Illustrations”

I have never appreciated the fact that the word “illustration” is used to cover all storytelling in preaching. Because the word focuses on the visual alone (to illustrate is to “brighten” or “throw light on” something), it has tended to limit appeal to the other senses (hearing, smelling, tasting, touching), and that, in turn, has tended to impoverish our preaching. Perhaps it would be well if the word storytelling were to replace it altogether.

Stories, well told, are sense-oriented; they appeal to the senses. Dialog, for instance, an integral part of most good stories (see Christ’s parables), appeals especially to the sense of hearing. The prodigal son talks to himself, rehearsing what he will say to his father (here, in a modern translation, you will even find quotes within quotes!—dialog with himself!).

This is an important point, about which I have said more in a chapter of a book on preaching soon to be published by Westminster Theological Seminary. But, here, I shall zero in on two issues involved in illustration (or, better, storytelling): (1) recent vs. timeless stories and (2) contrived vs. actual.

Let it be said that there are distinct advantages to each. The Bible uses all four, so I am not suggesting the elimination of one or the other but, rather, an understanding of the values of each, so that they may be selected and used more powerfully.

Recent vs. Timeless

Of course, the recent may become timeless, but in many instances this will not be true, and also in most cases you will not be able to make this determination beforehand. So, in choosing a given story, it is useful to remember the distinction.

Recent events, known to all (like the assassination of Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt-a contemporary and still strongly felt happening—have impact so long as this emotional climate remains. But the chances are, by the time that this Journal can be published and distributed, and certainly in a year or so, it will have lost most (if not all) of that added impact. Such stories, then, are best used right away, but lose their impact with the passage of time (unless a great deal of background is used in order to recreate something of that feeling, so that the listener/viewer may relive the event). Today, November 3, 1981, the papers are filled with the story of a Soviet submarine that ran aground in Swedish waters. Have you forgotten this story by now? Surely, even if this recalls it for you, it will be stale. So, widely known recent events are best used right away, while they are still recent.

Timeless events are good any time. Certain events (Lincoln’s assassination, Pearl Harbor, etc.) have that character naturally, that is, they have become timeless by becoming memorable over long periods of time. The preacher can refer to them and stir memories or emotions with a minimum of backfill. (Of course, any event can be used if enough background is given to recreate the event for the listener—but that takes sermon time—often a good bit of it.) Timeless events also are reusable at any time. A sermon can be preached—stories and all—largely as it was the first time, if its examples and stories are of a timeless quality. Clearly, new materials must be sought if the stories are dated. One of the hallmarks of a poor reused sermon (there is nothing wrong with reusing sermons, per se) is stale stories.

My advice is that unless a recent event has great impact on the entire congregation, as a rule, it would be better not to use it. Moreover, if you follow the general rule, one illustration for each point. then it would be better to limit dated stories, allusions, and examples’to a maximum of one per sermon. Christ seemed to use dated material sparingly, for example, “those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell”; “Zecharias, son of Barachias, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” Apart from those two instances, it is difficult to find any such material.

Contrived vs. Actual

I have been discussing actual events thus far; not all stories, examples, etc., must be so. Christ’s parables were contrived. Manufactured events (“Suppose a farmer wanted to kill the weeds in his field …”) have one great advantage: you can produce them and shape them precisely to the point you wish to make at any time. You do not need to search for them or to settle for a story that only partially fits. Of course. there is a disadvantage too: you must do creative work: some don’t like to; others think they can’t (on this point see my book, Insight and Creativity in Christian Counseling). But creative thinking, in the long run, is an advantage, because the more of it that is done, the more it tends to make one a more effective thinker and preacher. Contrived stories ought always to be presented as such—the question of their reality never should be left ambiguous.

There is also the possibility of taking an actual event and reversing it: “Suppose the Soviet submarine had been found in the San Diego harbor.…” Often, doing this will

  1. bring an event closer to one’s own sphere of activity and
  2. allow for the sort of alterations that are needed to make a point from the passage being discussed.

Real stories do, however, have the value of recency, when freshly used, and (again) do not require so much time to tell. But, when one takes the time to fill in details, like many of Christ’s parables, these stories become memorable.

All in all, the analysis of various options itself is what is most valuable. Think about them; be aware of what you are doing when you select a story and why you are doing so. If you take the time to do so, you will be delighted with the results.—J.E.A.

A Suggestion for Young Preachers

Recently listening to a young man who has great promise preach, I was reminded afresh of a fact of which I became aware early in my teaching of homiletics at Westminster Theological Seminary:

YOUNG PREACHERS—AND SOME OLDER ONES TOO—TEND TO PREACH TOO MUCH IN A SERMON.

The sermon to which I refer ranged far and wide, over Old Testament and New, into various doctrines and their subpoints, all (mind you) in 25 minutes! Apparently, the young man had never considered the fact that you can say more about less.

Were I to attempt to describe the activities in which I was engaged last summer in 25 minutes, I’d be saying such things as

Then I went to several other places (I wish I had time to tell you where and all about them) and did some very interesting things (perhaps at some later time I could mention these in detail), etc., etc.

But, if I took 25 minutes to tell you about one event on one night at one place last summer, I could tell all—colorfully, interestingly, and in a way that you could understand. Instead of hurriedly racing hither and yon, I could stop, examine in detail, describe in depth, delineate and delete! But all of last summer? Why, all I could do is vaguely sketch what took place!

The same is true of preaching. The young man had a decently chosen preaching portion, but, instead of delving into it, he ran all over the Bible. He should have explored its main telos (purpose) in depth, related it carefully to the contemporary scene, and sent us away with one whale of an impact from the Word of God. Instead, we went out barely touched by it. His effort was dissipated by scattering his shot. Someone has said, “A rifle is more powerful than a shotgun.”

So, let’s stop using buckshot in the pulpit.

Now, for my suggestion. Preachers are always looking for ways to reuse old sermons. That is OK; New Testament preachers did. But here is one of the best ways of all. Review your first three to five years’ sermons. You will notice that (if you are like most novices) you tried to preach the entire corpus of Christian truth in every message.

“OK,” you say, “I’ve looked at them (shudder!), and the charge is true. What do I do now?” My suggestion is this:

Use each of the three to five points in each sermon, itself as the basis for a complete sermon. Perhaps some points could be so fully elaborated (remember, you can say more about less) that they could form the basis for a series of sermons.

There, you have it. Take it to heart. Don’t dump those old, unusable sermons in the wastebasket. There is some valuable ore there to be mined. Go to it, now that you know how!—J.E.A

Imagine That!

If you were to ask what I think is lacking in contemporary preaching, I would be hard-put to answer; there are so many failings. But, certainly, one factor that grows high on the trellis is the widespread tendency to neglect imagery.

Too much of the preaching that we hear sounds like lectures given in the chilly halls of the theological schools or, worse still, like the dusty commentaries lining the shelves of the preacher’s library. Seldom do you hear preaching even remotely akin to the warm sermons of Christ, replete with parables, illustrations, examples and figures of speech that cause them to sparkle, that make them memorable, and help even the simple listener to understand.

But it is not just in the preaching of Christ and the apostles that we find such vivid imagery; throughout history, imagery has been one of the hallmarks of great preachers—Chrysostom, Luther, Spurgeon, all made truth live by picturing it to their readers (see my book, Sense Appeal in the Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon for one example of this).

But what is imagery, and how does one develop the ability to use it in preaching?

Imagery has to do with imaging, or imagining. Until a preacher can picture for himself what he is talking about, it is very doubtful that he adequately understands what he is trying to tell others. At any rate, it is almost certain that, apart from imagery, few, if any, of his congregation will understand—even if he does.

Imagery has two dimensions: first, it is the ability to sketch the picture mentally for one’s self. Then, imagery is the ability to verbally sketch it for others to see. In the fullest sense of the expression, a listener ought to be able to say after a sermon, “Ah, now I see.”

But how does one acquire and develop the skills that are needed to picture truth for himself and for others?

First, let me stress the importance of working harder than ever at learning how to picture truth. In biblical times, the listeners’ imaginations were much more highly trained than the average listener’s is today. They had to be because they had to use their imaginations so much more frequently than we do. They had no photography, no TV, no movies, no picture books, etc., to do the job for them. Instead, they themselves had to picture in their minds what they heard. Biblical writers and preachers were well aware of this and fairly freckled their messages with imagery of every kind. If in that day they recognized the necessity for imagery, how much more so is imagery in preaching needed today when the listener’s imagination is weak and flabby from disuse? In this day of untrained imaginations, we must work all the more to assist the listener; otherwise, he will not be able to fill in the gaps for himself. Indeed, we see him bored, dozing, and wavering in the pew. He complains that the sermon was “dry.” Such complaints are not altogether groundless.

Two factors are essential to good imagery in preaching:

  1. An ability to see;
  2. An ability to make others see.

This picturing of the truth for one’s self and for others involves a number of prerequisites, three of which have been given all too little consideration by preachers and by those who teach them. You too may have failed to notice them as they came floating by.

  1. It takes time to sketch mental and verbal pictures and hound down imagery that adequately portrays a truth. Most preachers are in a hurry. They work on their sermons under pressure. They, therefore, allow too little time—if any—for putting their feet up and letting their minds wander over fields, hills, valleys, beside brooks and streams; they seldom walk mentally through cluttered city streets, stroll up dingy alleys, climb fire escapes, or peer out of the windows of a skyscraper. Their imaginations are dull and sluggish because they are so seldom given free rein to roam and romp. To do so takes time. That is the first and most important prerequisite.
  2. The imagination must be exercised at other times than when looking for apt sermonic images. If it is not frequently given opportunity to range far and wide, it will not know where to go in search of those compelling pictures that are needed. Instead, when you send it out to fetch an image for you, it will cower timidly at the front door, like a new puppy that does not feel at home in the neighborhood. One way to exercise the imagination is to read books that make demands upon it. If a preacher works with commentaries and with the sort of fare that, typically, is written for preachers all the time, and never reads anything else, he is likely to find his imaginative powers drying up quickly.
  3. Prerequisite number three is effort. Even when the mind has had opportunity to explore and discover, the work is not complete. Proper structure, sequence, and descriptive terminology must be developed as the vehicles for conveying to others the imagery that the mind has dragged home. Otherwise, it will be bottled up in the preacher, who can’t ever seem to get others to see things as he does. This is a common fault. There must be work, work roughing in each picture, giving it depth and perspective, choosing colors, refining each feature until—at last—there it hangs, finished and framed, a fair representation of what the preacher wishes to convey, in form that makes its message immediately intelligible.

So, imagery is where it is at in preaching. Let me suggest two daily activities that, if followed regularly for a time, will get you started:

  1. Every weekday, locate at least one image in the Bible. Examine it. Try to understand what it conveys to the reader and how it does so. Make a note of your results.
  2. Next, think of at least one other image that might be used to portray the same truth. Try to think of a modern situation and audience with which it might be used with equal power. Again, state why you think it would do the job. Keep rereading your notes. You will notice improvement as time goes by.

Preacher, don’t continue to fail your congregation because you have never understood the place and the power of imagery. Take the time to study the subject; learn all that you can about it. Do the simple exercise that I have suggested above, and start right away. If you do, I can almost guarantee that in time you will begin to receive compliments on your sermons—imagine that!—J.E.A.