A worthy building requires quality building materials. A sermon worth hearing is a sermon of substance.
Someone observed long ago that there are two kinds of preachers: those who have to say something and those who have something to say. The preacher, like any other person who would influence human conduct, must consider all the ethical means of convincing and moving to action a particular audience. This article addresses the content of preaching as the modes of proof.
The wise preacher begins with the important presupposition that “proof” is in the mind of the audience. Aristotle advised the speaker to think of the audience as a panel of judges from whom a favorable decision is sought. The preacher must beware of using some abstract norm of logic or an idealized audience.
Marshall McLuhan has observed that “the greatest obstacle to communication is the illusion that it has been achieved.” This is an illusion which is often the undoing of the preacher. The perception of the audience is all important to the speaker whose purpose is to persuade. It is what they think and feel that matters if they are to do what you want them to do.
After nearly twenty-five hundred years, Aristotle’s categories of factors of influence still prevail. There is the influence of the speaker’s authority, the influence of the audience’s beliefs and desires, and the power of the evidence and arguments.
The most important of these is the confidence listeners have in the speaker. Aristotle believed that character “is the most potent of all the means to persuasion.” The doctrine of the incarnation has many implications for the Christian, not the least of which is the idea that spiritual truth is transmitted to flesh and blood through flesh and blood. Augustine observed that “the life of the speaker has greater weight … than any grandness of eloquence.”
Negative examples of the importance of character abound in our culture. The moral fall of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart provide examples of religious celebrities who have suffered loss of influence; most of us know someone personally who has lost the confidence of his or her congregation.
Jesus and Paul provide case studies on the power of personality and role. People listened to Jesus because of who He was and what He did. The people of Nazareth drove Him from the village because He was only the son of Joseph and Mary. Pharisees and Sadducees were disturbed because He was not one of them and because of the company He kept. Jesus earned the right to be heard by acts of compassion and stainless character.
Paul spent a great deal of time and energy defending his credentials as an apostle. He insisted on earning his living as a tentmaker so that no one could accuse him of preaching for the money; everywhere he went he invested substantial time establishing himself in the community. In our own time Mother Teresa has gained the respect of the world and is listened to with reverence because of her deeds. In the pulpit and out of it, the preacher must earn credibility.
Knowledge, integrity, and good will are the personal qualities that Aristotle believed move listeners. The effective preacher must be broadly educated and trained to synthesize and utilize knowledge in the service of God. Augustine turned to the writings of Cicero to note that “eloquence without wisdom is often extremely injurious and profits no one.”
Augustine, moreover, encouraged preachers in his charge to seek knowledge wherever it might be found, in secular or holy places, in order that the Holy Spirit might use it in the cause of Christ. As persons concerned with the whole of life, preachers should have the most thorough general education of any profession. The resources of literature, history, philosophy, and science will serve them well as instruments in the revelation of the wisdom of God.
Former students often call to ask where they can find good illustrations. I urge them to first become keen observers of human experience. Secondly I encourage them to become voracious readers of good novels, short stories and plays.
Preachers should be patrons of the theatre who recognize that great art always reflects human struggle against dehumanizing forces. Reading a good daily newspaper and weekly news magazine is essential for the speaker who requires as much good material as a weekly television program. Both should be read cover to cover for knowledge about the concerns of people, illustrative material and exposure to writing skills.
The preacher should strive to be the best educated and most informed person in the community. Preaching should be among the last courses in sequence in the theological curriculum in order that the knowledge of Bible, theology, philosophy, church history, and so forth might provide content for preaching.
Indeed, proclamation is a means for using accumulated knowledge for the service of God’s people. Preaching is the servant of all the other theological disciplines and can make good use of information in all the others.
Integrity suggests the proper use of knowledge as well as the spiritual wholeness of the preacher. Plato contended in his dialogues that the rhetorician must be a good person who knows the truth and how to divide it. The preacher must be trained in how to think and how to ask the right questions, that all of life may be a search for truth. Once truth is discovered it must be used effectively and honestly.
Honesty means using the ideas of others fairly. The careless “borrowing” of other people’s material without properly crediting them will result, when discovered, in a devastating loss of trust. Ask former presidential candidate Joseph Biden about the effect of exposed plagiarism.
Even the creative imaginings of the speaker can be misused. Made-up experiences presented as authentic ones are another form of dishonesty. Integrity requires the careful researcher to check primary sources before using quotations or excerpts taken from the works of others. Care must be exercised to not misrepresent others by using material out of context.
Preachers should strive to be truthful in their use of material. It never pays to lie in the service of God.
Integrity emerges from the being of the preacher. Preaching cannot be separated from the character of the preacher. The preacher’s credibility is rooted in what is perceived as personal spirituality. Biographies of the great preachers — from Moses to the present — reveal that they have been to the mountain; they have not only “heard” of the Lord but have met Him and walk with Him.”
Dargan wrote of Augustine, “in his preaching … there was the mystical trace — the devotion of a rapt soul, loving communion with God….” One writer described the master preacher Fenelon as “… more than professional preacher, pastor, theologian. He was a devout soul, the subject of a transcendent Christian experience.” Rabbi Joseph Rauch summed it up well when he wrote:
We need faith in and for our sermons. I am convinced that no sermon ever entered the heart of the listener unless it first came from the heart of the preacher. In some inexplicable way men and women can detect genuineness and earnestness in a sermon, especially when they know the man who speaks from the pulpit to them. When the sermon squares with the life of the preacher it is a spiritual force.
Forceful sermons range from spiritual struggle, in-depth self-analysis in the light of the Scriptures and submission to the Spirit of God within.
Before we can become good speakers, we must become good listeners. The voice of God must be heard in all the ways He has spoken and speaks. The voice of God does not always come to us in the form we expect.
The preacher should have tested beliefs before imposing them on others. Leaders never ask people to do anything they wouldn’t do themselves.
Preachers are notorious for asking people to make sacrifices that they are unwilling to make. This is true in practical matters as well as spiritual ones. Sermons on the family will always be measured against the minister’s family life. The preacher who is unkind and unforgiving to critics should not be surprised if sermons on forgiveness fall on deaf ears.
Through illustrations and examples drawn from everyday life, preachers demonstrate that they understand the problems faced by their congregations. Occasional confessions disclosing personal struggles can do much to make a preacher believable.
Remember the presupposition with which we began: knowledge, integrity, and goodwill can be useless if not given attention in preparation and presentation. It is perceived credibility that determines the effectiveness of a person striving to influence a society.
Personal appeal, the appearance of sincerity, and good-sounding reasoning often overpower truth and sound reasoning. The appearance of elitism and condescension often short circuits the message of some wise and well-meaning people. It is not just who you are but who the audience believes you are that will determine success or failure in communication. Competency is not enough; demonstrated competency is required.
Goodwill — the audience’s perception that the speaker genuinely has their best interests at heart — is the bridge that carries us into the second mode of proof. Here we address the power of conviction that exists in the values, beliefs, and feelings already held by the audience.
Aristotle recognized the necessity of understanding human motivation in general and the attitudes and concerns of specific audiences in particular. This mode of proof is often described as emotional. Certainly emotion plays a major role in it. Few if any major decisions in life are made unemotionally.
One is hard put to find biblical commitment or Christian disciple-ship without emotion. The task of the preacher is to determine how to control and channel the emotions present in every audience.
Kenneth Burke cites identification as the key issue in rhetoric. “You persuade a man,” he writes, “only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your way with his.”
Politicians have demonstrated the importance of targeting audiences. They discover the worries, fears, and ambitions of various groups and relate their goals to the audience’s concerns.
Effective preachers will methodologically ascertain the “thought-judgments, anticipations, wishes” of their desired constituency. The speaker must adapt to the audience.
A sermon should be prepared for a particular audience. The preacher cannot use the same presentation with Northern industrial workers and Southern farmers. A pastor of a church in a great metropolitan area who uses only rural illustrations should not be surprised to find urbanites unresponsive. Stories of the spiritual successes of great saints, important political figures, and aristocrats often evoke a “so-what?” from listeners who live in the world of the ordinary.
As a child in Vacation Bible School I was impressed with the tithing testimonies of Kraft, the cheese magnate, and J. C. Penney, the merchandiser, but as a young man living from payday to payday I needed different models. The preacher should be adept at cross-cultural communication that recognizes educational, cultural, economic, ethnic, and religous differences.
Pathos may best be understood in terms of empathy. An audience will respond favorably to a speaker who convinces them that he or she shares their struggles — who feels with them.
The preacher may make use of the general findings of developmental psychology in identifying needs of general populations. Understanding life and family cycles can be utilized in addressing certain age groups and family settings.
Such matrixes as Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs serve the preacher well in considering potential concerns of a particular congregation. Maslow’s hierarchy ascends from basic needs such as food and sex, to security (physical and psychological), to love and acceptance, self-esteem and self-actualization.
One of the problems the pastor faces is meeting the needs of a diverse congregation. Most congregations are not a collective consciousness but a gathering of people at different stages of human and spiritual development. The pastor must not rely on general principles but must identify the specific, individualized concerns of a particular congregation.
A pastor has a tremendous advantage over most speakers because of the extended and durable relationship which is possible with the audience. The preacher who wants to know what to preach — that is, what the people need to hear — should become immersed in the lives of the congregation. We cannot expect to communicate with people we do not understand.
We must seek to learn value systems and how they were derived. Before we can speak in terms of “satisfying” needs, we must know those needs, as well as goals, successes, and failures.
Do you know the personal histories of your congregation? Are you aware of their religious backgrounds? Are most of them second or later generation believers? Do they share a common denominational tradition? The pastor should know cultural and professional orientations. What are the immediate worries that are uppermost in the minds of the hearers?
Contact must be established on a human level on the ‘I-Thou” basis, rather than the “I-it” basis upon which so many pastor-lay relationships rest. An I-Thou relationship demands a willingness on the part of preachers to expose themselves to the needs of others.
The world with which Christ is concerned is the world of people. Directly and through all means available we must seek to include the world of labor, the world of the student, the world of the ghetto, the world of entertainment, the worlds of business, government, and sports.
Too long we have insisted on playing on our own field, by our own rules and calendars. We have limited our witness to regularly-organized church programs at assigned times.
Instead of going into the world, we have dared the world to come to us. We have made fortresses of our churches. We do not battle sin or confront sinners because we hide in our fortresses and do not let them come near to us, and we certainly do not go near to them.
More than a half century ago Wendell Phillips observed that people are stimulated by an incarnated word.
Truth never stirs up any trouble — mere speculative truth. Plato taught — nobody cared what he taught; Socrates acted, and they poisoned him. It is when a man throws himself against society that society is startled to persecute and to think.
Involvement with people on the “gut” level will permit the pastor to see people in a new light and in turn to understand how their lives are determined. The typical congregation will respond to a sensitive preacher’s grasp of the human situation and the divine response to it.
The speaker may expect to be received only to the degree he or she has reduced anxieties and plugged into the dominant attitudes of the listeners. These matters must be related to the everyday concerns of the congregation in concrete ways. Truth must be applied to life. Examples, illustrations, explanatory statements should fit into common experience of this band of humans.
Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God in images familiar to the audience. He related His message to the workplace and home, to sin such as is common to humanity.
The authority of the preacher on a given occasion is directly proportionate to the degree of identification achieved with the audience. We must know what makes them cry and what makes them laugh, what comforts them and what frightens them.
Our sermons often apply salve where there is no hurt and allow our people to go home with great gaping wounds we knew nothing about. How critical we would be of a medical doctor who removed a healthy kidney and left a diseased gallbladder. Yet we may well practice spiritual quackery, resulting from poor diagnosis.
Plato observed that if there could be a valid rhetoric the practitioner would have to know the hearts and souls of those addressed. Successful communication is possible where there is understanding and mutual respect between hearer and speaker.
The relationship between speaker and listener is developed for the purpose of transmitting the message. It is the third mode of proof that differentiates preaching from other forms of communication; the distinguishing factor is content, not method.
Preaching is not preaching unless it is rooted in the Word of God. The most important skill for the minister is the interpretation of Scripture. What is the revelation and how can it be translated into thought forms meaningful to contemporary audiences are fundamental issues for the preacher. Communicative skills and knowledge of the human situation are of little value if one has nothing of value to say.
Fenelon, the master homiletician of eighteenth-century France, observed: “The most essential trait of a preacher is to be instructive. But he must be well-instructed in order to instruct others.” The preacher should be well instructed in critical method, exegesis, and constructive theology.
Preaching requires analytical skills and the ability to synthesize. The preacher becomes more than a translator by addressing meaning and communicating meaning to understanding. Plato’s notion of discovering truth and knowing the soul to whom the truth must be spoken is on target for our task.
The Bible is a dynamic document that should not be understood as that which was spoken but as that which is being spoken. A good preacher lets the Bible speak. The preacher-scholar will first dialogue with the passage. What is suggested by the literary form; that is, is it description, exposition, poetry or parable? To whom was it originally addressed and how would they have understood its meaning?
The scholar then asks as a simple believer what the text means to her or him. The syntax and language should then be analyzed and any textual difficulties considered. The scholar does everything possible to determine the possible meanings of the event or story in its original setting and in the context of its original writing.
Then the preacher must, in prayerful submission to the Holy Spirit and drawing upon training and intellect, explore the possible meanings for this time and culture and for this limited setting. The struggle now begins to find ways to bring abstract truth into concrete contemporary reality.
Adequate treatment of the message requires not only knowledge of the subject but also awareness of the structure of thought. How does the mind work? What convinces a person to want to change being and behavior?
Richard Whately, an eighteenth-century British cleric and rhetorician, concluded that the “art of inventing and arranging arguments” is the main business of rhetoric. The training of preachers in this area is woefully inadequate. Many do not know the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning.
The proper and conscious use of analogies, examples, cause and effect are rare in contemporary preaching. Logical fallacies such as circular reasoning, ad hominen reasoning, misrepresentation of statistics (figures may not lie but liars can figure), and non sequitur argument abound.
The most common fault in the argument of preachers today is that of overgeneralization. Whately criticized the preachers of his day for vague and trite remarks on general subjects such as “love” and “friendship.” Sound familiar? He urged the preacher to identify the problem, truth or fact, discover the cause, and establish the consequences of the situation.
Even the use of common sense would strengthen much of what is passed off as preaching. Let the preacher be warned that arguments must be suited to the audience, for in a rhetorical situation proof always resides in the minds of the audience.
The recognition of the interrelation of reasoning, emotion, and personal appeal is essential to effective preaching. A sermon at its best is a particular message from a particular person on a particular occasion for a particular audience.
It was once my good fortune to work with the great actor Charles Laughton. Laughton loved to do public readings. He toured the country doing concerts in which he would sit for two hours reading great literature.
When asked how he would define good public reading, he responded that “good reading is reading something that you love to someone that you love.” The same might be said of great preaching.
Know and love what you preach and know and love those to whom you preach, and half the battle is won.
Adapted from a faculty address originally published in Review & Expositor (Summer 1987).

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