Preachers know what Mark Twain knew, that “the difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
Week after week as we labor to put the Word into words, we have to admit that we don’t always strike the right word. Sometimes our verbs flash, sometimes they just flicker. Some of our nouns are bolts, others mere blips. We might be willing to settle for almost right, except the message deserves better. So we follow the example of Koheleth, who “searched to find just the right words” (Ecclesiastes 12:10).
We’re after lightning, not lightning bugs.
Yet who has time to craft a verbal masterpiece every seven days? To write, rewrite, then — like a professional author — rewrite again the words we will speak on Sunday? Paying attention to words is just one part of sermon preparation, and sermon preparation has to compete with other activities in a hectic week.
What if we were to spend fifteen minutes each week working on one aspect of word choice, a different aspect each Sunday of the month? Could we hope to see lightning strike just a little more often? The following plan assumes a written manuscript or notes (even if we don’t carry them to the pulpit) which we can review with an ear for the right words.
Week 1: Use Memorable Words
I can remember some sermons from years ago because the preacher stated the sermon’s main idea in memorable terms. Michael Cocoris preached on “The Secret of Evangelism” to a seminary audience. After teasing us for twenty minutes on what the secret of evangelism is not, he asked, “You want to know what the secret of evangelism is? (Pause) Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it, do it, ….” He continued for half a minute and sat down. I’ll never forget it.
Haddon Robinson, preaching from Luke 17:7-10, worded his big idea this way: “God owes me nothing; I owe him everything.” Eight garden variety words. Words from any kindergartner’s vocabulary. But memorably expressed.
Consider investing a few extra minutes one Sunday a month wordsmithing your main idea. Can you cast the sentence rhythmically like Robinson did? Can you resurrect it from the long ago and far away by using the present tense and direct address? Not, “Jesus gave his followers four abiding principles”, but, “Jesus gives you….”
Can you retire a worn out word and employ a fresh one instead? Not “God blesses us,” but “God showers us,” or “thrills us,” or “ravishes us.”
Say you’re preaching 1 Timothy 1:12- 17, on Paul’s amazement that God saved him of all people, the worst of sinners. You decide that your main idea will be something along these lines: “God’s mercy to a sinner like Paul is an encouragement to others who would believe on His Son.” As an exegetical summary of the text, this is fine; but as a preaching theme it suffers from three flaws, any one of which could be fatal.
First, it’s impersonal. It talks about Paul and “others;” but what about me? So you revise it: “God’s mercy to the very worst of sinners is an encouraging example to the rest of us sinners who would believe on His Son.”
That’s better, but it’s too long. You cut “very,” which is almost always a tumor on a sentence; the second, redundant “sinners”; and the final phrase. Still, the sentence labors under that awful phrase, “is an encouraging example to.” You slice it out, not sure what you’ll replace it with; but even as your brain begins to search its dictionary for a better connective, you notice the rhythmic potential of the two things being connected. There’s the worst of sinners and the rest of sinners, and God does something for the former to give hope to the latter. Before you know it, you’ve scribbled, “God saves the worst of us to give hope to the rest of us.” That’s it! Might not win you a Pulitzer, but it’s memorable.
Honing your big idea may be the single most important way to improve sermon word choice. Second is using lively words instead of dull words.
Week 2: Use Lively Words
By lively words I mean, in part, the active voice. Most writing guides prefer the active to the passive. “Men swore,” beats “Hard words were ex- changed.” Say, “I hope,” not, “It is to be hoped that,” unless you’re writing a doctoral dissertation.
Lively words do what lightning does: crash and crack, burn and blast, ignite, thunder, jolt and split. They wake people out of a dead sleep.
Listen to Sue Nichols:
The Bible calls the messages of God goads that try the soul; swordblades that pierce to the division of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. So often we make them meringue.1
“Meringue!” The perfect word, don’t you agree? Would I have thought of it? Probably not. Must I stand in awe of the wizards who conjure such words? Maybe. But I can do more. We all can. We can exert a little effort and vastly improve our customary performance.
A few paragraphs back we breathed life into a comatose sermon idea, partly by cutting this deadening verbiage: “… is an encouraging example to.” A biopsy on the phrase reveals that the infection started with the word “is.”
We could resuscitate many sermons if we’d scan our notes for the weak verb “to be” and substitute something with a little zip.
I heard a preacher try to illustrate his sermon by describing the Woodstock rock festival. “There was the drug abuse,” he said, “there was the immorality.” No! No! No! Say, “Drugs flowed. Teenagers danced naked in the mud.”
To be? No, not to be. Do your hearers a favor. Take fifteen minutes and cut back on “is.”
While you’re at it, scratch some of your lazy, generic nouns and verbs, and substitute more exact cousins. Don’t tell me it was a car, tell me it was a 1994 red Mustang convertible. Don’t say, “She went.” Say she ambled, sped, tore, skipped, scampered, looped, loped, or whirled. “She went” says only that she got from point A to point B. “She slithered” gives me that information and a whole lot more: a vivid mental image, a glimpse into her character, maybe even the physical symptoms of revulsion I feel in the presence of literal snakes. All in one word.
Don’t be ashamed to use a thesaurus. Some preachers, I suspect, hesitate to do so, fearing there’s something artificial about using words they’ve looked up. This is laziness, not modesty. There’s no reason we shouldn’t use help in finding our own best voice. All of us have plenty of good strong words filed away in drawers somewhere in the back room of our brains. A thesaurus just reminds us that they’re there, eager to be pressed into service of the Word.
Words come in textures; words are hard or smooth or squishy soft. Words have colors; they are pastel, they are bold. They are neutral. They are colorless…. Words are sharp, words are blunt; words have edges that are keen. There are scalpel words and razor words and words that have a saber’s slash. Words are dull, words are sparkling. Words are alive, they are languid. Words fly, sail, drive, race, creep, crawl. So many words! If we are patient — if we will work at the task — we will begin to find the right ones.2
So the exercise for week two is finding lively words. Next week we’ll narrow our search to a specific kind of lively word.
Week 3: Use Words for the Ear
Aren’t all the preacher’s words for the ear? Well, they should be. But four years of college and three of seminary, all those essays, exams and theses have done their work: the preacher now sounds like a written page.
Good authors know they must write for the ear even though their sentences won’t be spoken aloud. How much more should preachers keep in mind the aural character of their work.
Frank Boreham, preaching Psalm 51:3, said, “His whole life was a sob. It is only those who know what it is to be haunted who know what it is to be happy.” Those words were written for the ear: we hear the psalmist sob, and we subconsciously relish the sound of “haunted” and “happy.”
If we’ll spend a few minutes listening to our sermon notes we might come up with a few ear-pleasers of our own. Strike: “God created an endlessly delightful variety of plants and animals,” and go for consonance: “God spoke and there were turnips and tulips, carrots and crocodiles, lizards and leopards, monkeys and men!”
Elizabeth Achtemeier, preaching on Psalm 148, depicts a God exuberant over what he’s made: “The Creator loves pizzazz!” This compressed sentence not only says a lot with a little; it does a lot with a little. Its final word puts a smile on our face, surely one of the intended effects of Psalm 148.
Here are two manageable suggestions for an average preacher who would write for the ear:
1. Use contractions. The free use of contractions is one of the most recognizable differences between spoken and written English.3 Chances are you’ll use them automatically, but it won’t hurt to be sure: circle any longer forms you spot in your notes and contract them before speaking.
2. Use Anglo-Saxon, not Latin. Anglo-Saxon root words are usually shorter, more colorful, more emotional, more for the ear. Latin root words look and sound literary. I’m generalizing, of course, but hear for yourself by comparing these parallels:
Anglo-Saxon Latin
Love charity
put out extinguish
feed nourish
truth veracity
earthy terrestrial
same identical
deep profound
dress attire
manly virile
wretched miserable
alike similar
youthful juvenile
help aid
friendly amicable
This beginner’s list represents scores of English synonyms. If you want to achieve a lofty, serene, detached style, use words from the right column. If you want directness and energy pick from the left.
Usually. Sometimes the place to fish for the right word is the Latinate word pool. For example, “frigid” may evoke meaning better than “cold,” its Anglo- Saxon in-law. The Latin “celestial” may serve your purpose better than the sermon-worn “heavenly.” The preacher will have to develop an ear by practice and by trying synonyms out loud. Usually, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary will be right for a spoken sermon.
Week 4: Use Fewer Words
“I’m sorry for writing such a long letter,” Lincoln told a friend; “I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.” It does take time, doesn’t it — and work — to be succinct. Perhaps we owe our congregations an apology for not making the effort.
Some reasons for preaching too long have nothing to do with word choice. We ramble or repeat ourselves because we’re unprepared; we bite off more than we can chew in thirty minutes; we belabor the obvious.
But other times we preach a well- conceived, thoroughly prepared sermon which would have been even better if we’d pruned some verbal dead wood. Get out the red pencil and mark up those sermon notes. Scratch the lengthy citations of sources, the irrelevant explanations, the adverb that says no more than the verb already says, the say-nothing phrases like, “It’s obvious that…,” the thousand and one varieties of verbal clutter.
We all hate to cut illustrative material. You hear this anecdote, this joke, this great story, and you just have to use it, even though it doesn’t move the sermon forward. Resist! Save it. Chances are you’ll live to preach another sermon where it’ll fit perfectly.
An eight-year-old boy found his father writing a sermon and asked, “How do you know what to say when you preach?” The minister decided the simplest answer was, “God tells me.” “Then why,” said the boy, “do you cross some of it out?”
Why? Because less is more.
The preacher who won’t settle for near miss words, who’s haunted by the evocative turn of phrase he heard in someone else’s sermon and wonders, “Now why didn’t I say that?” will no doubt think of other ways to fine tune his word choice. He could try alliterating his main points, or invest fifteen minutes reading and heeding James Kilpatrick’s syndicated column, “The Writer’s Art”, or purge his notes of cliches (to be avoided, naturally, like the plague).
The plan outlined here is just one way the average busy pastor might improve wording: fifteen minutes a week editing sermon notes with an ear to good spoken English.
Is it worth it? J.B. Phillips, preacher and translator, thought so:
“if…words are to enter men’s hearts and bear fruit, they must be the right words shaped cunningly to pass men’s defenses and explode silently and effectually within their minds.”
Let there be lightning!
1Sue Nichols, Words on Target (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1963), 47.
2James J. Kilpatrick, Fine Print (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1993), 8.
3For other differences between written and spoken word, see Jay Adams Pulpit Speech, 113- 124, or many other public speaking texts.

Share This On: