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

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