Preaching and Writing

Many of the great preachers—Spurgeon, Luther, Calvin, etc. (not to mention Paul, Peter, and John) also have been great writers. Certainly, there are exceptions, but, on the whole, the observation holds. Why is that?

Perhaps there are numerous other factors involved in this phenomenon, but one that we should not miss is that writing helps preaching (as, doubtless, preaching helps writing). It is that observation to which I now wish to direct your attention.

Years ago Andrew Blackwood pointed out this relationship between writing and preaching, to us in his classes. At the time, while I respected many of his views, I was not sure that this one was correct. Now, after many years of preaching, teaching preaching and writing, I want to take my place at his side and declare to all who will listen, “Blackwood was right! If you want to preach well, write.”

Let me share with you some of the ways in which writing has helped me become a more effective preacher.

First, writing demands accuracy and precision. When these things are missing in a sermon, it is easier for both the preacher and his congregation to overlook the fact. You can slip so much by because much depends on voice and body. In writing, however, one reads and rereads what he has written in a critical manner, correcting errors and demanding of his work more and more intelligibility because he knows words must do it all. He does in written material what it is much more difficult to do in preaching: because preaching is live, the preacher cannot go back and edit what he has said the way that a writer can. Nor can he let the sermon sit until another day and look at it from the perspective of all the new horizons of thought and emotion that that day brings (it is utterly amazing what a fresh look at a manuscript several days later can do for it). So, in general, the mere ability to reread and rewrite after a time as one subjects his own thought to heavy scrutiny itself is a powerful incentive to improve.

Because the preacher who does not write is denied this discipline of self-criticism (criticizing a sermon, even with the use of a tape recorder, is still difficult and is a very different thing), he is not as likely to change his style and grammar as the one who regularly writes.

It is not important what one writes, so long as he develops the habit of self-criticism. He could be writing for his denominational paper, for his church newsletter, or for a publisher. In each case, if he is highly critical of his own work, using the eraser frequently, trying on new ways of saying things for size, always improving on what he has done, he will find in time the experiments and discoveries made in writing will bleed over into his preaching. Usually, he will not even have to make the transition in any conscious way.

Let’s take an example. For some time, I had been aware of an archaic sound in the King James Version that frequently had not been removed from a number of modern versions. But I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Then as I began to translate the New Testament for myself (a writing task), I discovered what it was: an archaic use of the word “for.” This use of “for” may be a good current British English, but it is certain that it has long since passed out of American English. Its continued use in translating the Greek word gar made these moderm translations sound stilted and somewhat less than modern in many places. Take, for instance, Luke 1:13 (one instance of thousands): “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard. In modern English, we in America would use a semicolon instead of the word “for”: “Do not be afraid Zacharias; your prayer has been heard.” The ancient “for” and the modern semicolon serve exactly the same purpose. In other places, as in Luke 1:15, 18, where the word opens a new sentence, it is better in translating, to omit the “for” altogether.

If I hadn’t been involved in a writing endeavor, I might never have discovered what it was that made otherwise modern translations sound somewhat less than modern. Many of the smaller subtleties like this will come to light only as one takes upon himself the task of creating meaning in sentences that are put on paper, examined, and altered in order to make them more intelligible and acceptable to the modern ear. It is probably because they don’t write that so many preachers perpetrate the same old errors and archaisms that their fathers and forefathers did. It is amazing what vitality such inhibitors to communication show when they are allowed to thrive in an environment free from any blue penciling.

But there are other ways in which writing helps one to improve his preaching. The combination of hand and eye and subvocal speech (good preachers always sound out what they write to discover how it comes across to the reader) impresses new and better ways of communicating on the writer-preacher by means of three—not one—avenues; and he remembers them because a threefold cord isn’t easily broken.

But most of all, the writing process is, by the nature of its demand, the one discipline in which the preacher can regularly engage that will bring about improvements his grammar, syntax, and style. Without some regular incentive to look up the exact meanings of words, as one is much more likely to do in writing than when he must do so after the sermon is over (you can’t carry a dictionary into the pulpit to use whenever you aren’t absolutely sure of the precise usage of a term), few of us will do it. Without some necessity to think about grammar and style, who will do it on his own? We are busy people in the ministry, and we know well that we will allow such matters to slide unless forced to do otherwise. So, if for no other reason, writing is helpful because it requires the preacher to think about the tools that he uses in his trade, and makes it much more likely that he will take better care of them.

Let me ask you—how well do you use these tools? If you don’t write something, somewhere, your language will rust. Be honest—did someone leave your church recently because he was tired of hearing your vocabulary squeak and grind?

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