This final installment of a three-part series on effective preaching focuses on the technical aspects of the form and presentation of sermons. Part I examined the appropriate relationship between the ancient arts of preaching and rhetoric. Part II analyzed the means of conviction and persuasion available to the preacher. Now we turn from the invention of the thought to the creation of the form.
Invention — or subject matter — is the most important of the canons but it does not stand alone. Four others contribute to its success or failure. The second canon of rhetorical preaching is arrangement. The structure of the sermon has great effect on its impression. The finest building materials can collapse if not properly assembled.
Humans are conditioned to think in certain patterns. Stimuli presented in a certain sequence produce certain responses. The importance of a natural or calculated order has not been valued in our culture. There is a tendency to think of organization in terms of outlining and to conceptualize it as a game played by English teachers.
The subject has been helpfully treated in more recent years by such homileticians as Grady Davis, Clyde Fant, and Eugene Lowry, who have approached the subject in terms of organic relationships and plots. Research has been conducted that suggests the order of presentation has a direct effect on persuasive efficiency.
Attention to such matters as establishing cause and effect, developing a logical climax, and presenting the most important points last can make a difference in audience response.
Ordering material in a coherent fashion will contribute to its retention. Writers such as Alan Monroe have suggested psychological patterns of organization modeled after John Dewey’s system of reflective thinking. The idea is that the sequence should follow the course that might be expected in the thought process of personal problem solving. Dewey outlined the process as follows:
Upon examination, each instance (of reflexive thought) reveals, more or less clearly, five logically distinct steps: (1) a felt difficulty; (2) its location and definition; (3) suggestion of possible solution; (4) development of reasoning of the bearings of the suggestion; (5) further observation and experiment leading to its acceptance or rejection; that is, the conclusion of belief or disbelief.
The most successful rhetorical act is one which leads the audience to arrive at the vision or decision you want to share. This may be accomplished by indirectly leading them to journey where you have been. This pattern is a familiar one in a culture disposed to empirical method. Dewey related this method to scientific process.
It places before others a map of the road that has been travelled; they may accordingly, if they will retravel the road to inspect the landscape for themselves. The scientific investigator convinces others … by placing before them the specified course of experiences, searchings, doings, and findings in consequences of which certain things have been found.
The key to good order is a clear idea of the goal of the sermon. The preacher must have in mind the final object before plans can be developed for its construction.
The map metaphor is a good one for a preaching event. A map is a means of finding the best route for reaching a certain destination. Like a map a sermon plan is of use only if the traveller has a particular destination in mind. Preachers should know where they want to take the audience. It is imperative at every stage to remember who the audience is. Who will be travelling with you should influence the choice of routes and the stops along the way. Some will go with you directly; others will prefer the scenic route; some may even benefit from some side trips. The idea is for others to travel with you. Your purpose may be to inform, to inspire, to convince, or to move to action. The purpose should determine the route.
There are some things to keep in mind no matter what the purpose or who is going along. You must begin with some view of the journey that will interest the audience travelling with you. Get off to a good start or you may soon find yourself alone.
Keep moving. Too many sermons are static. Finally, when you get there let the pilgrims know that you have arrived and do not pass through the promised land into a swamp where they’ll be lost.
The canon of style addresses the symbolization process in preaching. You may have heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, but you only have to read the Gettysburg Address, the Twenty-Third Psalm, or the Parable of the Good Samaritan to know that a thousand well chosen words can move you as no picture can.
The classical writers conceived of language as symbolic action. Words should be suited to the thought. Aristotle taught that “language which does not convey a clear meaning fails to perform the very function of language.”
The analytical philosophers, who have provided the catalyst for contemporary philosophical thought, have forced their theological counterparts to grapple with the language problem. In some instances this effort has resulted in a forced confession of the inadequacy of scientific language. There is now a greater recognition and acceptance of the gestalt value of mythopoetic terms and forms. Jesus used similes, metaphors, dialogue and other creative modes to capture the attention and gain the understanding of the people who heard Him. The Sermon on the Mount is an incredible fifteen-minute sermon filled with a wide array of images and sensory appeal. Today creative preachers are using story, drama, poetry and an assortment of literary devices to communicate the gospel.
Clarity does not require a resurrection or idolization of biblical vocabulary but an awareness of the place of symbol in our lives and the need for appropriate models and analogs to stimulate clear perception and apprehension of thought. In the words of Amos Wilder,
Any adequate modernizing of the Good News … must use the language of faith; it must be couched in imaginative and emotionally charged symbols, even as it is borne up upon a tide of ardor and passion. We must find and exploit the sacred poetry and story, the evocative imagery, art and parable that will ignite the smoldering aspirations and moral energies of our Western peoples.
The oral nature of preaching increases the importance of choosing the right words and combining them creatively.
Scholars are especially guilty of failing to recognize the difference between style and oral style. The reader may pause and ponder; a difficult passage may be read again and again and every word analyzed.
The listener, on the other hand, must hear right the first time. Words should create vivid images which quickly form meaningful impressions in the mind. The speaker must choose precise, powerful diction in preference to the often abstract, denotative terms of the writers. Since the Middle Ages it has been popular to refer to language as the “dress of thought,” but someone has suggested that it might be more appropriately termed “the incarnation of thoughts.”
Language, if it is to be effective, must have inherent energy. Vividness and impressiveness are desirable qualities. Language that grasps and holds on to the hearer, dramatic language that will “catch the conscience of the king,” is the goal of the proclaimer. The Lord was certainly not timid in the language He chose to attack the dead tradition of His day. Jesus was not immune to using radical language to make His radical demands (Mali. 5:29-30; 23:13ff; Luke 9:23-26).
The preacher should recognize that language is living and constantly changing. By the time a dictionary reaches the book stores, the usage of a thousand words has changed and that many more have been coined. The speaker must be alive to the language of a particular sub-culture. The speaker must have moved his or her cap to the language of a particular congregation.
Meaning is in the mind of the listener. What the dictionary states or what you think a word means is of secondary importance. The skillful use of language can expand the vocabulary of a congregation and their capacity for thought and imagery but it is a task which requires precision and care.
Style is concerned with more than words. The phrase, clause, and paragraph are of equal or greater importance than word choice. The combination of words determines effect. Every preacher should own and be familiar with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
Voice and tense of verbs determine sentence impact and should never be left to accident. Knowledge of such matters as parallelism and word order is essential to effective preaching. The present active tense is to be preferred for oral communication. Preachers should think and speak of biblical events in the historical present. The most effective preacher gives the audience a sense that revelation is happening in the service. The best proclamation situations are those which are preaching events, happenings.
Language consideration brings to mind the fourth canon: delivery. The oral character of preaching should keep before us the necessity of taking into account the aural value of words and their combinations.
Sound plays a role alongside meaning. Sound may serve feeling as meaning serves thinking. Heidegger followed the tradition of Plato and Aristotle in viewing oral expression, the “phonetic phenomenon” as he called it, as primary language. “Language (spoken),” Heidegger said, “belongs to the closest neighborhood of man’s being.”
The preacher should consider not only the meaning of words but also the impression created by their sound and the impact of cadence and rhythm. Meter is as important to the speaker as it is to the poet. The response of the hearer differs from that of the reader, and this should be taken into account in the preaching event. Delivery must blend thought and feeling, as only it can. A good preacher is as “sound” conscious as “meaning” conscious.
The canon of delivery has had a checkered past. The Greeks gave little emphasis to the subject. Aristotle wrote that correct delivery “is of the utmost imporance to the effect of a speech,” but assigned little space to its treatment.
The British rhetoricians of the eighteenth century elevated delivery to the place of primary concern. The words of Thomas Sheridan, John Bulwer, and Gilbert Austin typify the elocutionist period. Each contained elaborate charts on pronunciation, planned emphases in the text, and prescribed postures and gesture.
Evangelicals may not have completely escaped their influence. The sincerity of the preacher is often measured by how much the preacher sweats, pounds the pulpit, thumps the Bible, and whoops. The holy dance and the prophetic gasp are still around.
Abuses notwithstanding, effective delivery is essential to communication. Those who fill the air with “sound and fury signifying nothing” are no more to be discredited than the boring passionless mumblers. The Ad Herennium, the earliest manual for the public speaker, identified the basic elements of good delivery. Vocal delivery requires conscious use of volume, stability, and flexibility. Physical movement “consists in a certain control of gesture and mien which renders what is delivered more plausible.” Hamlet’s advice to the players is applicable for the pulpiteer:
Speak the speech … trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it … I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently … Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action …
Physical presence is an important factor in ethos. The posture, muscle tone, facial expression, gestures, and movement of the preacher are as important as the language in transferring thought and — more important — in conveying feeling. Delivery and message are as inseparable in the moment of oral presentation as body and soul.
Delivery should be only a means to an end and is best when it is so integrated with the thought as to be indistinguishable from it. Rhetorical technique that draws attention to itself constitutes poor rhetoric.
Delivery, however, is a kind of sieve through which thought is filtered. If it is clogged, nothing can pass through; if it is too open, impurities permeate the substance. The speaker should visualize the speaking art as involving the whole person. Thought, language, voice, and body must all be coordinated. There should be consciousness of pitch, volume, and rate that will complement ideology.
The necessary effort should be expended to develop clear articulation. Listeners should not be required to strain to hear but should be free to direct all their energy to apprehending intellectual content.
The key to good delivery is control — control of thought (which demands thorough familiarity); control of body, including posture, facial expression, and gestures; and control of voice, including pitch, volume, breath, and vocal organs.
This control can be developed through practice and exercise. The use of tape recorders, mirrors, and sympathetic critics is encouraged. It is good to remember that practice really does not assure perfection, only permanence. We must continually test ourselves to be certain we are practicing good habits.
“Control of thought” leads us to the “lost canon,” that of memory. Until only the last few years I shared the almost universal disdain for memorization. Recently, however, I have developed increasing admiration for the mental discipline of firm mastery of thoughts and words.
The pastor is often given opportunity to express the Christian view at unexpected moments. The classical view of memory included a notion of information acquired, classified, and readily available. The preacher is expected to be a walking computer who can draw up biblical and theological knowledge at will. Moreover, clear images for translating that knowledge into relevant daily counsel must also be easily accessible.
Freedom from notes can contribute much to a formal proclamation situation. Such freedom will enhance the speaker’s credibility in the overwhelming majority of situations. An audience is likely to believe the speaker has knowledge that deserves careful attention.
Feeling is more easily conveyed when one is not tied to a manuscript. Dependence on a manuscript impedes effective communication. Jonathan Swift alerted preachers to this problem in his eighteenth-century letter to a young minister:
… you will observe some clergymen with their heads held down from the beginning to the end within an inch of the cushion to read what is hardly legible; which, beside the untoward manner, hinders them from making the best advantage of their voice: others again have a trick of popping up and down every moment from their paper to the audience, like an idle school boy on a repetition day.
The speaker free to establish rapport with the audience through personal eye contact is more quickly able to establish credibility and acceptance. Which of us cannot remember as a child being instructed by a parent or teacher to “look me straight in the eye and tell me that.” There persists a belief that a person cannot look into another’s eye and mislead. Of course it isn’t true, but most people still trust the person who establishes personal, direct eye contact more than one who doesn’t.
The discovery of the dialogic nature of all good public in-person communication is not as recent as you might think. Fenelon pointed out that the ordinary preaching event does not allow for verbal interaction between preacher and congregation. He went on to stress the importance of the speaker carefully reading the nonverbal response. Fenelon argued that the preacher should be free of a manuscript in order to adjust “subject matter to the effect he sees it making upon the listener” and to “repeat or clarify” a point until it is comprehended and accepted.
The writer of the Ad Herennium called memory the “treasurehouse” of the speaker’s ideals. He encouraged the use of images to assist recall as well as to transfer thought. Often the difficulty of memorizing a sermon reflects the fuzziness of its thought or the artificiality of arrangement. It may well be a means of discovering weaknesses in the sermon itself.
I prefer free preaching to memorized sermons. Memorization can sound artificial if the speaker has focused so much on words that thoughts have been lost. Ideally, preachers should so have mastered the thought of the sermon, be so familiar with images and language incarnating that thought, and have developed the order so logically that the sermon can flow naturally between persons.
Carlyle Marney once remarked that preaching was one side of an ongoing conversation. That is the way a sermon should sound. The congregation should feel engaged in dialogue.
The end of preaching would certainly seem to justify the effort and care required to commit it to memory. This fifth canon takes its place among the other four as a potential resource for the preacher as a transformer of society.
The preacher does have a resource not generally available to other rhetoricians. The Holy Spirit is promised as a guide and support for those called of God to proclaim His truth. The Spirit inspired the writers of Holy Scripture and likewise inspires those called to interpret Scripture.
The Spirit will enlighten the mind of the preacher who allows time for prayer and meditation and who seeks the will of God. The Spirit preserves the tradition of the Church available in the great works of theology. The Spirit works in and through those who hear the preacher.
There are times when the Spirit overcomes the poor words of a lazy preacher and accomplishes a divine purpose in spite of the preacher. The Holy Spirit will work at every stage of preparation and in the preaching event if the preacher is sensitive to His presence.
Preaching is an art. It is an art founded on the disciplines of philosophy, psychology, and theology. It is an art that demands the same earnest thought, persistent practice, and careful technique as the mastery of exegesis, biblical criticism, or counseling. It is a means to an end. But the end is of such worth as to justify the discovery and use of the best ethical means to achieve it.
Halford Luccock, a twentieth-century master preacher, challenged his peers to approach their vocation with the discipline and dedication of a committed artist. “The thing that keeps a true maker of any sort — artist, musician, sculptor, architect, skilled artisan — renewed is the inward man; [is] an interest in the craft itself, in the overcoming of the particular obstacles, in the creation of beauty and of the form that fulfills the function.”
Luccock compared the vocation of the preacher to that of Scheherazade, the legendary storyteller of the Arabian Nights. According to the classic tale, Scheherazade was selected to be the bride of a cruel caliph who had his wives beheaded the day after their wedding night. The clever Scheherazade told stories of enchantment and suspense with such skill that her execution was continually postponed in order that the caliph might hear what happened next. Her life was sustained by her ability to make the story come alive. The stories of preachers sustain not only our own lives but also the lives of those who hear tales of life.

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