David Dorsey wrote: “Humans need and appreciate communication that is arranged and organized.” He makes the claim in the context of his discussion of biblical literature having been written not to be read but to be heard, even when read. “The Bible was written for an oral culture; the text was heard before it was seen; it was intended to be read aloud.” This, by the way, is the best way to hear the message of the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of Jesus Christ. Read it out loud. “Blessed is the one who reads and those who hear the words” (Revelation 1:3). It takes about 90 minutes to read orally; but it is worth the time to hear what is hard to see.

Dorsey then addresses what is crucial for preaching. Since the Bible was written for an oral culture, “the text had to have a kind of ‘oral typesetting.'” The authors were compelled to use “structural signals that would be perceptible to the listening audience,” signals geared more for the ear than the eye. Preachers are also so compelled. We have to write for the ear; we have to speak for the ear.

Martin Luther again: “Faith is an acoustical affair.” “Stick our eyes in your ears.” And then even more boldly, “He who will not take hold with his ears but wants to look with his eyes is lost.” Luther is not disparaging seeing—not at all! How could he? What would life be without seeing? He is simply observing that we humans are wired in such a way that we finally see by hearing; we finally understand what we see when we hear what we see. In the end, it is spoken word that enables us to really see what we are seeing.

Take the Lord’s Supper for instance. Someone who knows nothing about it comes into a room and sees on a table a loaf of bread and a cup of wine. They may be taken by the smell of the bread, by light dancing through the wine. They see all these people gathered around this table, seemingly experiencing something related to the bread and the wine. The person sees a lot—but does not see … until the word is spoken. “This is my body given for you … this cup is the New covenant in my blood.” When the Word is spoken what they see is now understandable. It is the audio that finally gives meaning to the visual. We are acoustically wired, visual creatures.

Many say that we in the early part of the 21st century are a visual culture. They turn to the prominent role of television and film as justification. But the power of a film does not lie in its sights alone but in its sounds. Take away the musical dimension, for instance, and see how many people will still enjoy films. Take away the audio dialogue and very few will watch. The sights are finally seen when they are heard; the sights finally have meaning when heard.

I have observed preachers using film in their sermons, a legitimate thing to do. But I notice that the film clip only makes sense for the sermon because of the dialogue. Yes, simply playing the audio dialogue without the visual would not be as meaningful. But playing the visual without the audio would have no meaning, or very little—those who happened to know the dialogue would find meaning. (Interestingly, after writing the above sentences, I went downstairs for a break, picked up the entertainment section of the paper and read a review for one of the latest films. The reviewer describes the movie as “derivative, boring and utterly lacking in charm … reminding us that, even in a visual medium like film, if you have nothing to say to begin with, there’s not much to see at the end.”)

Why is this the case? Because of the different ways sight and sound work. Walter Ong, in his now classic work Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, writes: “Sight isolates, sounds incorporates.” He is not disparaging in sight. He is simply observing how sight and sound work. “Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sounds pours into the hearer.” He is certainly describing how it works for me. “Sounds pours into the hearer.” From all around, even if the sound is coming from only one place. “Vision comes to a human being from one direction at a time: To look at a room or a landscape, I must move my eyes around from one part to another. When I hear, however, I gather sounds simultaneously from every direction at once.” The sound envelops us, centering us. It is why we so enjoy high-fidelity surround sound. Ong writes, “You can immerse yourself in hearing, in sound. There is no way to immerse yourself similarly in sight.”

The sermon becomes a sermon not when we see it on the pages but when we hear it in the room or on the street. The sermon comes to life when what we have been visualizing (i.e., writing) becomes audible (i.e., speaking). Again, I am not disparaging writing; it isjust that the written work does not finally accomplish its purpose until it is heard. Am I the only one whose lips move when I read? Am I the only one who hears something in my head as I read? I do not think so. It is how we were created: We finally see by hearing.

It is how relationships work. We know each other with increasing completeness when we speak. Yes, we can deduce a lot about each other from our actions; we, for the most part, automatically live out who we truly are. But we do not really know who the other is unless and until the other speaks, telling us who they are. Walter Ong speaks of speech coming from the interior through an exterior to another interior.” This is the wonder of the gospel: The living God chooses to speak, to communicate from the interior, telling us who He is inside.

There seems to be a “hierarchy of communication means.” And the hierarchy is part of what differentiates cultures, especially the Hebrew/Christian culture and the Greek culture, both of which those in the so-called Western world are heirs. Eugene Peterson, working from the insights of Walter Ong, observes, “The ancient Hebrews and the ancient Greeks differed in their primary sensory orientation: The Hebrews tended to think of understanding as a kind of hearing, whereas the Greeks thought of it as a kind of seeing.”

Thus the Greeks practiced religion in highly visual ways—statues of gods and goddesses, impressively sculptured sacred spaces meant to impress and overwhelm, drama in literature enacting the divine-human and divine-divine encounter. “In Greek culture the divine was looked at and talked about.” The gods were external to the lives of average people and so were known visually.

The Hebrew/Christian culture, however, was shaped by audio events. Two events in particular: “The unseen God speaking his word to Moses and the people at Sinai, and the word becoming flesh in Jesus, the Christ.” Instead of focusing on images and statues with the Greeks, the Hebrews, followed by the Christians, “listened to the one God,” Peterson explains. “When they met together they did not look at a statue or watch a play, they heard a command and answered with prayer. The difference is radical and revolutionary.” And this difference is always in danger of being blurred.

When one looks at a statue, one is in control of the event; one can linger as long as one has time to do so. But when one hears a word, one is not in control of the event; one either receives what is said and acts on it, or the word moves on. In the one case, the issue is whether I enjoy what I see; in the other the issue is whether I will do what I hear. Let Peterson spell out the implications for us:

They (Hebrews and Christians) knew how easy it was for the ardor of obedient listening to be diluted into amused watching and took measures to guard their aural concentration. They sensed that surrounding themselves with all those god-images reduced them to less that they knew themselves to be. Religion as entertainment is always more attractive, but it also less true. It is pretty poor stuff compared to the Word.1

This is the major affirmation of Psalms 19, the Psalm that celebrates God’s Self-revelation. David begins with God’s Self-revelation in what is seen: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands” (Psalms 19:1). But then David shifts to the Torah (inadequately translated simply as “law”). The word Torah is related to the verb meaning throw, as in throwing a javelin. The idea is that in Torah God has “thrown” what He is thinking and what He knows, especially about the make-up of reality; God has “thrown out” to us the interior reality of God’s self which can finally only be known by a word.

In verse after verse David celebrates the life-giving power of the spoken word: restoring the soul, making wise the simple, bringing rejoicing to the heart and enlightening the eyes. David is in no way denigrating God’s self-revelation in creation; he is simply recognizing the “hierarchy of means by communication.” The spoken word ranks “highest” because revelation by the word is the most unambiguous.

Jacob Firet can thus say, “God’s servants are people who listen; God’s people are listening people. Our Christian religion is a religion of faith by hearing, the hearing of the word.”2

How then do we preachers attend more carefully to orality so that our listeners might truly hear the Word? How can we develop our “eye-ear” coordination so we can play our part in God helping people to see by hearing?

A communicator who has thought long and hard about this is Robert Jacks. In two practical books, Getting the Word Across: Speech Communication for Pastors and Lay Leaders and Just Say the Word! Writing for the Ear, he shares what he has learned. In the later volume, he takes a number of sermons written for the eye and turn them into sermons ready for the ear. Take one example: Is God still in control—even when tragedy strikes? Somehow it seems easier to believe God is more in control when things are going our way. After all, isn’t that a sure sign we’re following God’s will? What happens, though, when circumstances don’t go our way? Does that mean God has abandoned us? Is God only in control of the good events that transpire in our lives? Can God still be in control of the unexpected?

Before reading on, how would you rewrite this for the ear?
Here is how Jacks moves it from eye to ear.
Tragedy strikes!
The unexpected,
has just happened in your life!

Everything’s out of control:
You’re out of control
On the verge of panic
Absolutely fit to be tied.
How’s it all going to end?
How are you possibly going to live through it?
Who on earth can you turn to?
Who has any answers?
Who even cares—except, maybe … God

And so you start to wonder:
Is God still in control?
Does God know how to handle the situation?

Jacks continues in his way through the rest of the sermon. He makes the sermon feel more personal, turning stiff prose into more a story, changing from passive to active verbs, engaging the listener more directly. I commend his work to you.

Throughout the book, Jacks gives what he calls “Rules for Writing for the Ear.” He ends up spelling out 50, summarizing them for us, humbly saying, “Do with them what you will.” Let me list what I think are the especially helpful ones:

Write the way you talk, not the way you write (his number 3).
Active voice is more alive than passive. (6)
Show more than you tell. Use visual images, pictures—using words. (7)
Don’t use a 50-cent word when a 5-cent word will do. (8)
Remove unnecessary occurrences of that and which. (9)
Remove unnecessary or assumable information and get to the point. (10)
“People” your ideas—use dialogue for added interest and life—reveals attitudes as well as imparting information. (11)
Use contractions where appropriate. (14)
Verbs are more alive than nouns. (1)
Accentuate the positive. (17)
Avoid cliché. (20)
Remove forms of the verb to be whenever possible. (21)
Give us stories—from life, if possible. (22)
Don’t overuse adjectives or adverbs. (27)
Where possible, replace adjectives with stronger, more colorful verbs. (28)
Repetition can be effective in introducing new ideas, reinforcing important ideas, “nailing down” the end of an idea group. (29)
Use rhetorical questions to convert a sermon “monologue” into a sermon “dialogue.” (30)
Use questions rather than conjecture—invite your listeners to think along with you. (31)
Build in musical “tones” for your delivery—bright ideas and darker ones—leading to pitch variation. (34)
Listen to the rhythm of your ideas—keep it varied. (35)
Vary sentence lengths. Are sentences as easy to speak as they are to read? (36)
What’s your perspective? In-scene (participating) or outside (observing)? (38)
Don’t spin wheels—keep thoughts moving. (39)
Don’t qualify everything. Pecca fortiter (“sin boldly”). (44)
Consider first person (we, I) rather than second person (you) for a positive tone. (45)
Preach like Jesus—show more than you tell. (49)
Preach like a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. (50)

Allow me to add my own rules of thumb for enhancing accessibility to the ear.

If a numbered format is used, confirm it to the listener’s expectation. If we say at the beginning of the sermon, “I want to make three points today,” the ear is expecting to hear us say, “The first is … ” and then later, “The second is … ” and then later, “The third is … ” We, therefore, have to deliver on the implicit promise; we cannot say, “The first is,” and then later, “And also” and then, “The third is.” We will distract our hearers. They will not hear the beginning of our third point wondering if they missed the second.

If we do used this numbered (one, two, three) format for the whole of the sermon, when we come to develop one of the numbered subsections we cannot use the same format; we need to switch to something like a lettered (a, b, c) format. If the ear hears, “I will be developing three points today,” and then under point two hears, “Now I have three elaborations,” the ear gets confused. So we need to keep one format for the whole of the sermon and use another for the sections. If one wants to use the same format in both places one has to help the listener understand this e.g., “I want to make three points today. Under each point I will make two elaborations.”). It may be a bit much, but at least we have told the
ear what to expect.

Speak in “breath bites.” That is, when writing the sermon, try to write in clauses that we can say with one breath. Write each “breath bite” on a separate line.

Example: “I know that the church of Jesus Christ in the West will have finally come to understand the fullness of the gospel when Pentecost is as big a celebration as Christmas and Easter.” I cannot say that whole sentence in one breath. So I write it out on my manuscript this way:

I know
that the church of Jesus Christ
in the West
will have finally come to understand the fullness of the gospel
when Pentecost
is as big a celebration
as Christmas and Easter.

Here is another example—an introduction to a sermon on
Luke 11:5-8:

“Lord, teach us to pray.”
It is the only thing the first disciples asked Jesus to teach them.
There is no record of “teach us to lead,”
or, “teach us to heal,”
or, “teach us to counsel,”
or, “teach us to cast out demons,”
… not even, “teach us to preach”!
Just, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Because the first disciples could see.
that Jesus’ leading,
preaching ministry
emerges out of His relationship with the one he calls “Father.”
And they could see
that the key to that relationship is prayer;
He is regularly slipping away to pray.
“Lord, teach us to pray.” And us too!

Do not make your eyes go back to the left hand side of the page in order to finish a sentence. For example, not: “What the apostle Paul is telling us is that ‘being subject to one another’ requires that work of the Spirit of God.”

But: “What the apostle Paul is telling us is that ‘being subject to one another’ requires work of the Spirit of God.”

We want our eyes and mouths to “work in the same direction.” It is easy to get lost when our eyes have to shift all the way over to the left when we have been moving to the right.

Limit the number of words printed on any page of the manuscript. Typing the sermon in normal typing format makes for far too many words for the eye to keep track of. We want to be able to look down at the page and instantly see the words we are speaking. Too many words makes the eye have to hunt for the words, which in turn affects the way we are saying the words, which in turn affects the way the words are being heard. Not to mention we are losing eye contact with the listeners. At a minimum, double space and tighten margins.

Try to word the sub-points in short, easy-to-hear phrases. Ideally we want all of the sub-points to have about the same number of syllables and similar sounding words.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Do so with some variation, of course, so as not to bore the listeners. But repeat nevertheless. It may feel pedantic to the preacher’s ears, but not to the listener’s ears. Remember, we have spent hours on what we have written and are now saying; it is very familiar to us. But the listeners are hearing it all for the first time, and the more help we can give them to catch it, the better.

Practice the sermon by reading it out loud. This helps us know if the words we have chosen sound right; they may look right on paper but don’t sound right at all in the preaching moment. Especially practice the transitions.

Order (easy to follow flow) and orality (attending to rhetorical devices geared for the ear) must not be underestimated as we move into actually crafting a sermon. These are elements that become increasingly important as we move from textual interpretation to delivering a meaningful, memorable exposition of the text.

1 Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 79
2 Jacob Firet, Dynamics in Pastoring (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1986), p. 36 “When writing the sermon, try to write in clauses that we can say with one breath.”


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