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.

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