The best way to study sermons is through video tape, where the full impact of delivery (the use of voice and body) as well as content comes through. But we are only on the edge of such capability on a widespread scale. So for the present we must be contented with what we have: audio tapes. Yet, we can learn much from them if we use them wisely. But before we learn to use them, we must learn to choose them.
Audio tapes now provide a large source, readily available. And, to use these tapes properly is of great help. But the problem is, there are so many tapes. How does a preacher determine which ones are worth studying? The main point of this article is to give you guidelines for selection.
Obviously, bodily action will be absent, and something of the sermon will be lost, but in choosing tapes to study you must make allowance for that fact. (To discover how much is conveyed by the body, turn off the TV sound and watch the picture alone. Note how much bodily action occurs; discover the important use of facial expression to disclose many emotional nuances. Watch, especially, the use of hands and the tilt and movement of the body.)
When using audio tapes, listen first for total impact—don’t try to analyze the sermon yet (to analyze something is to separate out its various elements); that may come next. If you are not impressed by it, don’t waste further time on it. Put it aside at once. If, on the basis of total impact, you believe the sermon is worthy of more careful study (and those that are seem to be few and far between these days), then in order to determine whether the message is worth keeping as a model to study further, I suggest the following method of analysis:
I. VERBAL ANALYSIS
Play (and re-play) the sermon for verbal (auditory) analysis. What do you hear? (I am not thinking here of content.) Is the pitch high or low (high pitch indicates tension; low pitch, relaxation); does it vary? How does the content influence pitch? The content ought to control all. If you see a clear correspondence between content and pitch, in which the preacher allowed the truth to control him rather than confining and conforming content to his own pre-formed speech patterns, you will probably have a sermon worth keeping for further study and possible emulation in the use of voice.
While listening, particularly listen for the use of non-verbal sounds. The preacher who is free enough to make non-verbal noises while preaching in order to better communicate (e.g., oof!, aaah!, clank!, ding-aling-aling, etc.) is usually freer in the pulpit than most, and may have much to teach those who have not yet learned much freedom.
Listen too for rate: how fast, how slow does the preacher speak? Is there good variety? Again, is rate controlled by content? Once more, variety and content control indicate a speaker probably well worth studying from this aspect.
Listen also for volume. Here, of course, the electronic medium will enter in and distort (somewhat) the true picture. But high and low volume with content-controlled variety again can be discovered by careful listening in awareness.
Listen for pulpit pounding—is it appropriate, overdone, altogether absent? How about audience response—laughter? Amens? Other? Here the feedback will tell you something about how well the message was received.
Does the preacher sound excited? Concerned? Moved? Perfunctory? Dull? Uninterested or unconvinced? What does his voice seem to convey?
These elements are adequate for determining whether or not the tape should be filed away for further, more detailed examination as a model. Remember, one man’s abilities in the verbal area may not match his content or his stylistic work, so when you file the tape for further study, indicate on the label just where you found the strengths that you wish to examine: e.g. “Strong in illustrative material and rate.”
II. CONTENT ANALYSIS
If on your initial listenings you think that you have a sermon with exceptional content, then I suggest that you take the time to transcribe it on paper for further analysis.
First, as you do, you will notice the vast difference between good written and good oral English. Good oral English usually looks bad on paper (of course bad oral English can too—so that is not an infallible test!). But we’ll come back to that under “stylistic analysis” (use of words, grammar and syntax).
Here I want to suggest that you ask such questions as: Does the sermon open up a passage of Scripture for the listener? Does the authority of the message stem from clear exposition of the Bible? Does the preacher seem to understand the intention of the Holy Spirit in the passage and constantly pursue it? Do the major points all relate to it? Are there extraneous elements unrelated to the intent of the passage?
Further, ask: Is the introduction compelling—i.e., does it involve the listener in the subject from the outset? Does the conclusion relate directly to the intention of the sermon, and does the preacher leave the listener with the challenge to make the change involved in that intention?
Does the body of the sermon move according to a logical progression? Are there smooth transitions of thought? How well does the preacher argue or state his case? What problems or questions arise in your mind that others are likely to ask? Does he anticipate these too; and answer them?
What about his illustrations? Do they truly illumine his point? Do they make it more vivid, easier to understand or remember? Are they appropriate to what they illustrate? Of what sort are they—short examples or incidents? Longer stories? Well worked out? Do they help? Is there a variety?
Does he use passages of Scripture other than those upon which he is speaking? If so, does he use them well or is there only Bible-flipping? Does he use them to clarify or amplify the preaching passage? Does he briefly but plainly explain them or only cite them?
Is the content abstract or concrete? Applied throughout or only at the end? Does the preacher truly preach about God and the congregation (in the present tense) from the Bible, or does he only lecture about Bible characters and events (in the long ago and far away)? Does the listener get involved at the outset and stay involved throughout? Does the exposition of the passage seem important to the listener, or is it more suited to the interests of a literary, historical, or grammatical critic?
III. STYLISTIC ANALYSIS
I mentioned the difference between oral English and written English. The first is more concrete, looser, less grammatically exact, more repetitious, more limited in use of vocabulary—especially of technical terms or jargon. Oral English must be comprehended at the speaker’s rate—the first time over. Written English can be more compressed and concise. The reader can take it at his pace; stop, think, look up words in the dictionary, etc. The speaker must do all this for the listener. So, is this sermon in good oral English—or is it bookish?
Do the words express ideas vividly? With precision? Concretely? Or abstractly? Does he speak of a “car” or of a “red ‘79 Celica Toyota”? Does the preacher overwork terms?
Does the sermon contain vivid description? Is there dialogue? Does it tend to move in the present or in the past? Can you “see,” “hear,” “taste,” “smell,” or “feel” what the preacher talks about—is there sense appeal?
Are there climaxes of thought? Does the writer use question clusters at high points? Does he use words that live? Active or passive verbs? Is there action? Do his illustrations involve persons in action? If so, are the persons and their actions described in words that make them three dimensional?
All these and other questions should be asked before determining whether you should file away any sermon tape for future study. Be critical; file only good examples; there are so many poor ones. But build (slowly, if necessary) a solid file of tapes that covers all of the above points and study them frequently. Doing so will afford invaluable help that most preachers would be well advised to avail themselves of. One last thought—some of the best examples will be by well-known preachers. But you will find them not always strong—or strong at all points. And, you will discover some very good preaching in unexpected places among unsung preachers; don’t ignore them.—J.E.A.