Make Your Preaching Live

“How can I make my preaching come alive and bring a passage home to my congregation in a vivid and memorable way?” Hundreds of times every year this question, together with a score of related ones, is asked by seminary students, pastors and—in reverse form—longsuffering members of congregations. What is the answer?

There is no “the answer.” Answering that question is a complex matter—far more complex than the partial answer that I shall attempt in this article. And—to make matters worse—style (which is a significant factor in the total answer) is so individualized that the answer is not the same for everybody. John the Baptist and Christ came preaching with quite different styles (Matt. 11:16–19), yet both were extremely effective communicators.

So, in one sense, what this article does is to attempt a beginning in which some of the more universally applicable principles may be discussed. Articles that follow will from time to time discuss other universal issues as well as some of the more particularized ones. However, as a former teacher of homiletics (and speech) for seventeen consecutive years, I can assure you that work on the matters that I am now raising will go a long way toward improvement.

But first, let me commend you (if you have continued to read this far) for your concern. You can be sure that there are many preachers—content with what they have been doing—who have put down the book (or turned to another article instead). In many cases (of course) they are the ones who need it most. Hundreds of congregations put up with dull, lifeless, uninteresting preaching of the most interesting and vital subject matter in the world. More to the point—young and old alike are turned away or (at least) turned off on Christianity by preaching that unwittingly misrepresents it. Much of this is due to an inexcusable laxity with which so many Bible-believing pastors proclaim God’s vibrant truth. I am not excusing congregations for allowing themselves to be turned off, or for not doing something to rectify this deplorable situation. That is their fault. Many members for years put up with the sort of stuff they wouldn’t accept from a TV news reporter—and they know it is bad. Their children are adversely affected, they wouldn’t dare bring an unsaved person with them to church, etc. But they do nothing about it—except, perhaps, to gripe among themselves. It would be better to confront the pastor himself (lovingly) and see what could be done. They don’t; so everyone suffers. That, I say, is their fault. And they must bear their share of responsibility for accepting such fare. But the poor preaching isn’t their fault. It is yours, pastor, and you must do something about it if you stand condemned by these words.

Now, I said I wanted to commend you. Does it sound like I have ended up condemning you instead? Sorry, that wasn’t my intention. You are on the right track if you are prayerfully concerned and working at the problem. Stick to it, and in time things will get better. So, pastor, on behalf of your congregation, let me thank you for taking the time to consider an article like this! Now, to the matters at hand.

Work on Form

Actually I have been talking about the first matter already. It is this: take the time and make the effort to work on form. Too many preachers think that if they spend the time in the supermarket selecting food for the family meal, they have done enough. “After all, good exegesis costs something. I have paid high prices to select the very best, purest products. Exegesis is the real thing. What counts is faithfulness to the text—understanding and interpreting it plainly. If I do that successfully, why should I have to bother with form? Shouldn’t the congregation get excited over truth—God’s truth—regardless of form?”

So they reason; and (I’ll grant you) at first it sounds convincing. It is very convincing to those who have good reasons for wanting to rationalize about the matter. But when you think it through there is a reason for focusing on form. “What is it? Why shouldn’t my congregation be satisfied—indeed pleased—with the food I deliver every week?” Because they can’t eat raw potatoes! That’s why!

Think it through a bit. You are asking, “Why shouldn’t the family be excited if my wife returned home with shopping bags loaded with the finest foods available? Why should they complain if she said, ‘Food selection is everything; don’t ask me to prepare, cook, and serve it too. You should appreciate this food because it is good. You need it. It constitutes a well-balanced meal, etc., etc.’ ” How would you like it if for supper tonight she put a bag on the table and told you to have a go at it? There was the cauliflower still in a wrapper, a box of uncooked rice, a couple of raw slabs of filet mignon, unground coffee beans in your cup, and a box of do-it-yourself Betty Crocker chocolate cake! Would you be turned on by that? Would you grow—even if the meal was well balanced and nourishing?

The analogy is not altogether inaccurate. Many pastors spend little or no time beyond exegesis preparing to make truth edible. Consequently, hungry congregations go away unfed. The pastor wonders why they don’t grow: “The food was there, but they didn’t eat; why?” It is not enough to protest, “If they are hungry, let them eat!” What are they going to do with that uncooked rice and those coffee beans? No matter how nutritious the ingredients of a meal may be, little eating will take place where it is not properly served. You are the cook; serve God’s truth in a savory, appetizing way—man does not live by bread alone!

It sounds very pious to talk about spending all your time on interpretation. But let me make it very clear that form and content are really inseparable. Just as the true flavors of the meats and vegetables cannot be appreciated until properly cooked, so too there can be no adequate understanding of many truths until they are put in a form that is compelling to the listener.

Form does not clothe truth—as some have erroneously taught (that’s like dousing a filet mignon with ketchup and mustard until you can’t taste the meat)—no, it brings out the natural flavor of the truth itself.

And, let it be noted, there will be form of one kind or another whenever God’s truth is preached; form is unavoidable. But unwrapped cauliflower on the plate and beans in the coffee cup are bad form for eating! Such form actually distorts. Coffee is to be drunk, not chewed! If the interpreter fails to prepare the meal in such a way that he brings out all the flavors of truth inherent in the passage, using them for the purposes intended by the Holy Spirit under Whose moving power they were inerrantly written, he may understand the passage himself (though this is doubtful), but he certainly does not interpret it faithfully to the congregation. Make no mistake about it; bad form can ruin good content.

All right! If form means so much, how does one go about improving form? The suggestions that follow may be helpful. None is worked out fully, but presented suggestively. Further articles could be written on each (and hopefully, in time, will be). Here they are, briefly presented:

1.   Wash out all “preachy” language and “syntax.”

The rule here is to use no unnecessary special words or expressions. An example is the word beloved. We simply don’t use that word in public address today. Friends usually is an excellent substitute (Incidentally, you can’t really “wash out” such language; rather you must replace it. Until, by practice, you have developed a new, better way of saying something—and it has become habitual to you to do so—don’t deceive yourself into thinking you have eliminated the problem).

By syntax I mean especially the archaisms (coming from AV sentence structure) of 1611 that persist only in the pulpit. Constructions like “the person of Christ” should be replaced with contemporary ones such as “Christ’s person.” The use of “for” in those constructions in which it introduces a reason (e.g., “for he did not know that …”) should be replaced by “since” or “because.”

2.   Replace or explain all technical terms

Words like sanctification, justification, salvation are important and cannot be eliminated from preaching. Since they can’t, they must be explained. Explanation need not always be direct (“sanctification means …”) but more often may be more indirect (“… results in sanctification. That growth in grace by which one puts off old sinful practices and replaces them with new righteous ones, …”).

All technical terms not necessary for preaching (though they may be essential for seminary education) should be avoided altogether. Thus “eschatology” usually can be avoided by referring to the Bible’s teachings about the future. Longer? Of course; that’s one reason why we use technical terms. But are technical terms clearer? No; not unless one understands the term precisely.

How does one come to recognize the prevalence of preachy and technical language? The easiest way is to: (1) Tape your sermons over a period of time and make careful notations. (2) Develop alternatives with which to replace poor terms and begin to use them. In time, the tape recorder should reveal whether the transition and substitution has taken place. (3) Each preacher can make a growing list of the problems he notes in others and check these over against his own preaching. In such ways—by taking the time and effort-many men have radically transformed their preaching form in less than six months.

3.   Check the accuracy, precision, and appropriateness of the words you use

Again, use the tape recorder. But this time you are looking for abstract, general, overworked, and vague words. Things is a typical example that combines all of the qualities of hazy, dull, uninformative speech. Whenever a specific term can be used, do so. Instead of using the word thing, say what it is that this word blocks from view. Also look for words like car. To speak of “a black ‘78 Vet” says a lot more and conjures up an image in the listener’s mind. Say “car” and he may erroneously picture a bright red Cadillac. It takes more effort and time and thought to be exact, but the rewards are great. Use of the dictionary, and especially Roget’s Thesaurus (best in dictionary form), should become a habit. Reading good material—and analyzing what makes it good—is another habit to form. Life and vividness come through precision and accuracy in word choice.

4.   Use good illustrative material

Spurgeon has written the classic work on illustration in his Art of Illustration. I don’t need to repeat what he has said there. While I certainly don’t recommend all of Donald Gray Barnhouse’s teachings, I surely urge you to read all of his works, in order to learn how to use illustrations. He could make a truth or an error live!

Illustrative materials are of two sorts (when viewed from one perspective): short examples and longer incidents. Jesus used common, everyday items around Him (bread, water, doors, sheep) for shorter illustrations. Then, He told parables. Here, there were usually people in action and often in conversation (even when unlikely: the rich fool talks to himself; so does the prodigal son who—believe it or not—quotes himself to himself; check it out!). I suggest that many of your illustrations become stories in which you use direct discourse. Get rid of the reporter’s third person. Begin by determining to enter into a book at least one illustration of each sort each day for six months. In time you’ll see the improvement.

I have given four suggestions. Obviously these are but a beginning, as I said before. But they are a good place to begin, and should occupy a man who is serious about it for at least six months.—J.E.A.

2 thoughts on “Make Your Preaching Live

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a preacher who gave too much exegesis and not enough form. Form seems to be all that preachers care about nowadays.

  2. Pastor Goode would always commend to me those men and women who kept growing, learning, changing until well “up in years”. Thanks for the encouraging words — a preacher/teacher always has more room to grow. And thanks for these four “suggestions” to begin, to continue, that growth!