Does it really matter how you say a thing as long as you say what you have in mind! The answer is simple, if what we are talking about has to do with a speaker who speaks only German to an audience that understands only English. It is not so simple, if it is a matter of grammar, word choice, sentence length, and the like.
Nevertheless, whether the issue is simple or complex, our objective as preachers should be communication rather than self-expression. Though we have the ability to speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and be admired for it, and yet lack the love that causes us to say well what will help our hearers, it profits us and them nothing.
How you say your sermon may be a moral and spiritual issue: the way you talk may be so faulty that your hearers cannot get their minds on what you want them to know, to understand, to believe, to feel, or to do. So, ask these questions about your sermons and reflect:
1. Is the grammar correct?
Anywhere you go you will find a generally-accepted right way of saying something.
To be sure, in different places the local people deviate from the wider norm and speak to each other in a manner that is both “ungrammatical” and locally accepted. As long as preachers stay within their little geographical area, their hearers may not be troubled by what outsiders would consider grammatical errors. But when these preachers get outside that tight little circle, whether a cove in the mountains or a ghetto in the city, they are up against a serious problem.
Very simply stated: good grammar is the clear, solidly-paved, well-marked road to where you want to go with your sermon; poor grammar may eventually get you to where you want to go, but it will be sometimes through the wilderness, by detours, over potholes, around blind curves and into and out of dead ends.
Preachers who feel their call deeply enough to want to extend their ministry and influence will undertake corrective measures. Help is available. Books, correspondence courses, night school, personal tutoring, and careful listening to correct speakers can work miracles.
Our goal ought to be to get correct grammar so ingrained in our speech that we do not have to think about it at all when we are in the pulpit and can be free enough to laugh about our occasional, inevitable lapses. Then we can be confident and unembarrassed anywhere.
Are you sure that your grammar is up to standard? How long has it been since you said, “They invited my wife and I to dinner”? Suppose your wife had been out of town. Would you have said, “They invited I to dinner”? Horrors!
Maybe there are other grammatical points to look into also. A carefully-chosen and understanding member of your congregation may be willing to monitor your sermons and give you valuable tips.
2. Does word choice favor the Anglo-Saxon element of our language?
The English language is perhaps the richest of all languages. Some of its wealth was imported from France as a result of the Norman invasions of England in the year 1066. So English as it is spoken and written today is mostly a combination of French and Latin with the native Anglo-Saxon.
Spoken English, however, has continued to be largely Anglo-Saxon: words short, simple, and easy to understand. Written English, particularly when used in such specialties as law, theology, and medicine, tends to use more of the French and Latin words, words that may be longer and harder to understand.
Halford Luccock once complained — and rightly so — that students for the ministry learn Latin and Greek and forget English. Of course this is a temptation in any field: to learn the inside jargon and fail to make ideas clear in plain English. When preachers prefer academic words when oral speech would do as well, they may impress certain people with their learning while they fail to get through to most people with their message.
Which would be better in a sermon? To say, “Individuals who reside in vitreous domiciles possess an obligation to avoid the ejection of lapideous projectiles,” or to say, “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones”?
3. Are the sentences of varying length?
A friend described to me an hour-long speech he once heard from a congressman. His impression of it was that the speech consisted of just one long sentence tied together with “ands” and “buts.” The governor of the state later named a road after the congressman — probably the longest, most boring road in the state.
The opposite can be as bad. A speech or sermon delivered in short, staccato sentences may sound too intense, even frantic.
A preacher of the first sort will be a homiletical sandman, guaranteed to cure insomnia in the most advanced cases. A preacher of the second sort can galvanize hearers into eye-popping hysteria. Exaggerations, yes, but not pointless ones!
The best sermons are those in which the length of sentences is as varied as the preacher’s subject matter and purpose. Some sentences will saunter in a leisurely way; others will dart and leap ahead as excitement naturally builds. Preachers who are at once in touch both with their ideas and their audience will almost without design speak in sentences of kaleidoscopic variety.
4. Does the sermon use the most helpful figures of speech?
Your sermon may not, but the Bible does. And we remember best the parts of the Bible that paint pictures for us, whether in narrative or figures.
Who can forget the story of the prodigal son or the metaphor “You are the light of the world” or the simile “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow”? A metaphor can be extended into an allegory and become a Pilgrim’s Progress; a simile, into an analogy and become an entire speech, such as, “Life Is Like a Football Game.”
Other figures of speech may depend more on the way a phrase is turned, the way words are put together, than on comparisons. Julius Caesar said, “I came, I saw, I conquered.” And Schopenhauer, “Everybody’s friend is nobody’s.” And John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Such figures we remember, not because of substantial comparisons, but because of novel arrangement.
Arthur Quinn, in his book Figures of Speech, has given hundreds of examples from the Bible, Shakespeare, James Joyce, and the like to show “sixty ways to turn a phrase,” which can instruct us all.
Only serious students of philosophy will remember Kant’s long, tedious arguments that fill his books, but anyone is likely to remember the images, if nothing else, in his statement: “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe …; the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
5. Is the language “tight”?
Writers and preachers who want to improve their essays or sermons sometimes make the mistake of sprinkling in a profusion of adjectives and adverbs. We need both, but only when both are needed!
Good style is more of the “show me” type, than of the “tell me” type. I show you with verbs and nouns; I tell you with adverbs and adjectives. “The Rolls Royce sped down the expressway” is better than “The expensive automobile went fast down the four-lane highway.”
However, we sometimes do need adjectives to add color and meaning to the noun: “The strange, eerie sound made her flesh crawl.” Adverbs often make sense of the verb: “He arrives early to impress his boss.”
One trouble, however, is seldom with too few adjectives and adverbs, but with too many.
Richard A. Lanham, in his Revising Prose, speaks of the “lard factor” in our writing. Adjectives and adverbs may be our lard factor and ought to be removed. Lean, lithe sentences move and arrive; fat sentences crawl, sprawl, and founder.
Adjectives and adverbs are not the only offenders. We say, “At this point in time” when “now” would suffice; or, “in terms of,” rather than a number of simple prepositions like “in,” “about,” and “for”; “for the purpose of,” instead of “for” or “to.”
William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, says, “Clutter takes more forms than you can shake twenty sticks at. Prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything that you can throw away.”
6. Is the language inclusive?
Recently some people have become sensitized to language dominated by masculine words when the words refer to both male and female. The generic word man is no longer acceptable when the reference includes women.
The problem has political, economic, social, and sometimes religious significance, as some persons see it. Therefore, in order to communicate without static with these persons, if for no other reason, we should try to minimize exclusive language.
Of course, too frequent repetition of his/her, he/she, he or she, him or her becomes tiresome and fawning, but there are other ways to be inclusive. Use plurals, so that gender distinctions are not necessary. Or cast some sentences into a passive form.
Harold H. Kolb, Jr., in A Writer’s Guide, said, “The Woonsocket Rhode Island City Council … made a sensible alteration in the city personnel ordinance when they changed utility men to utility persons. But when the Council went on to turn manholes into personholes, they put Woonsocket on the map — right on the coast of absurdity.”
7. Does the sermon prefer the indicative mode?
How often have you used expressions like “let us,” “we ought,” “we must,” “we need to”? Or, “do this,” “do that”? They sound legitimate, don’t they? They are the preacher’s stock in trade — or are they? We do remember the Apostle Paul’s “Let us lay aside every weight.” And the ten commandments are as imperative as you can get: “Thou shalt …!”
Nevertheless, in both cases significant indicatives precede the imperatives. A statement about triumphant witnesses provides inspiration for laying aside hindrances to obedience. A statement about God’s redemption of His people from slavery in Egypt provides the motivation for keeping God’s commands.
People hate to be whined into action or ordered to do one thing or another, even if it is God who commands — unless it makes some kind of sense. “We love, because He first loved us,” not because of a naked, arbitrary command to love God and neighbor.
Our sermons will vastly improve in their ability to reach certain people if what we say is positive and affirming, if we therefore are descriptive and inspiring.
When we know God as our Lord and Redeemer, we will not have to be wheedled or bullied into obedience; we will need only to be shown how to let our knowledge, our faith, and our love come to expression in specific ways. Obedience will not be a “have-to” but a “want-to” affair — maybe even a “love-to” affair.
8. Are quotations sparingly used?
Sometimes an apt quotation will carry the weight of an entire sermon. The quotation of only a line or so may be better than anything else the preacher says. On the other hand, quotations can so burden a sermon that it can never get airborne. Even verses from the Bible must be necessary and not mere ballast to fill up time and space.
Lavish use of quotations is no fair sign of erudition. Quotations on hundreds of subjects are easily available in books and they are useful — but not for impressing people falsely.
Some phrases and sentences stand alone, like a proverb, completely apart from the books from which they came. They have their place, but they make their impression only when they stand out in a serene isolation, not in the company of a dozen other competing quotations. Extensive and numerous quotations belong to the lecture podium, not to the pulpit.
9. Are direct questions freely used?
Preaching that has in it the quality of dialogue is apt to be the kind of preaching with the most lasting effect. It is a style that helps people to love God with the mind. “Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord.
We have in the Scriptures many examples of God’s asking questions of people and vice versa. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that when we speak for God we may and should ask questions of our hearers? And can’t we, perhaps, anticipate their resistance and curiosity in the form of questions, when we say, “I can imagine someone here asking …”?
It is appropriate at times to speak in an oracular style: “Thus saith the Lord.” It is also appropriate and necessary to ask, “Why does God do this or allow that?” or “Is God a deceiver, as Jeremiah thought when he was persecuted and depressed?”
The asking of questions expresses an I-Thou relationship (a la Buber) between preacher and listener, but it also, in a quite practical fashion, engages the attention of the listener, keeping the listener involved in a give-and-take of ideas and feelings.
Sometimes the asking of questions or not may resolve itself into a matter of talking someone into the kingdom of God with the powerful, searching Word or of bullying someone up to the gates of the kingdom without being able to persuade that person to enter. Samuel Butler’s old and wise couplet should give us pause:
He that complies against his will,
Is of his own opinion still.

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