A key of communication is the preacher’s promise to give the audience usable information.
On the other hand there is the question, “Why should I listen?” In traditional church settings this question should never be dealt with in the fashion of the growing church. The pastor who addresses the same crowd each week may find the issue of “why should I listen?” already well defined in the common vision of the church. Still, the question is not entirely unnecessary, since an all-defining vision should only be assumed if the church is customarily filled with people and growing. Why would I say this? Because only in full or growing churches is the church’s vision so clearly apparent.
In the rapidly-growing church the people know why they are there and why they should listen. Pastors of these churches have consistently preached such vital sermons that their listeners come each week knowing what they are going to be told. The rapidly-growing church has one defining message, and that message is consistently preached for the same vital reasons. Attendees know one thing: they are going to hear, week by week, a re-statement of the church’s driving vision.
Most mega-churches are marked by this kind of spirit. Their unifying, self-proclaiming vision is rarely written down. It hovers in the air of Sunday morning. None need reiterate the vision; all know what it is. The driving vision of healthy churches may be stated in this way: if anyone can sit in a church for fifteen minutes without being able to tell what is important to that church, the church itself doesn’t know what it thinks is important.
The sermonic passion of growing churches consistently says, “This morning I am going to give you the same usable information I gave you last week. This speech, like those before it, will contribute to our whole reason to be.”
When this principle is adhered to there is constant vitality. On a regular basis, that vigorous raison d’etre keeps answering the question, “Why should I listen?” Relevance is the real issue of such preaching. Relevant content is so hard to find in most public speeches these days that the Promise — the promise to give hearers usable information and to keep your promise in the sermon’s content — always needs to be made. Relevance is more important in the sermon than in any other form of communication.
Application and relevance are absolute necessities in our day regardless of sermon type. A sermon, however harmonious its parts, however happy its structure, must touch people where they live…. Great sermons do great good … they light the way in the dark for stumbling men.1
Relevance precedes application. People only apply sermons that have clear meaning for their lives. As an example of what we are talking about, let us turn to the advertising world and in particular to movie promotions. At movies, before the feature presentation, we are shown clip previews from upcoming films. Theater managers want us to come back. What they are doing in such promotion is answering the question, “why should I see this upcoming film?”
Films, it seems to me, are advertised in three general ways: they are advertised as important, entertaining, or classic. Can we transfer these words directly from movies to the sermon? If so, how? Is there a direct correlation between these three words and the relevance question, “why should I listen to you?”
Let’s look at these words one at a time, beginning with the word important. When a film is billed as important, it says to the audience that the movie contains information that is necessary to the culture in general and to the individual viewer in particular. The implication: refusing to see this film will leave viewers deprived. The film has important information to share. The non-viewer will continue forevermore to live in a self-imposed ignorance.
Take the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? This film was billed by the theater industry as important. Why? Because the film for the first time introduced that last bastion of integration: interracial marriage. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement had paved the way for an openness between the races. Some real progress had been made. But many still doubted that interracial marriage would work. There can be little question that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? was an important film. It helped many people become open to this new and important threshold in race relations.
Occasionally there is a legitimate need to apply this word important to a sermon. A case in point may be a sermon I preached during the military build-up of the Desert Storm operation. This One-Hundred-Hour War was preceded by a time of edgy military stress. I was often called in by various families to pray for them. Their sons and daughters had already left to go to war. The anxieties of these families gathered around the maniacal threats of Saddam Hussein. This Iraqi madman woke all the fearsome, sleeping demons of the Third Reich.
This squeamish time of national nerve was also an edgy time for our j church. Some thirty people from our congregation were involved in Desert Storm in one way or another. Amid tears, the families of our church were separated by the dogs of war. I, too, felt discouragement as their children left their homeland, as they went off to be involved in a potentially long and dangerous conflict. Saddam Hussein was threatening the use of nerve gas and rocketry to wipe out all our American forces. In the midst of our congregational turmoil I announced one Sunday morning that the evening service would contain an important sermon. I told them that I would not preach from the Bible. Instead I would be preaching from the Koran on the faith of Saddam Hussein.
I promised them the sermon would be important, and I prepared accordingly. The church attendance that night still remains the largest Sunday evening crowd in the history of the church. Why? Because this was an important sermon. Without this sermon the congregation would have remained unenlightened. I offered them a critical word they needed to hear to live through an uncertain time.
That sermon reinforced in my mind that we preachers sin when we don’t look around enough to notice what community or national issues are pressing down on our people. I was haunted the night of my Saddam Hussein sermon. I wondered how many other opportunities to be relevant I had missed. I had passed other significant seasons of congregational need without seeing them. Isn’t looking at our audience to see their need a key step of audience analysis? There are many Sundays that preachers ought to give a film-clip of an upcoming sermon. People need urgent and informed reasons to come to church.
There is a second word that we ought to borrow from the motion-picture industry. The film world’s advertising milieu also uses the word entertaining. This word does not carry the heavy advertising agenda of the word important. Still, the word entertaining suggests that the agenda for the film will keep our attention and require nothing much of us. The whole point of these movies (usually they are comedy, romance, or high-action) is that they will give us an absorbing break in the middle of our hassled lives. Such movies “rest us up.” They are a kind of balm to heal the drab, killing, heavy routines of life.
Humor is a function of entertainment. Even the most important and prophetic sermons need a time of release from their demanding agenda. Humor well serves this need by breaking the content with a chance to enjoy the lighter aspects of a sermon’s truth. It should be neither mere entertainment nor unrelated lightness. It should be tied into and belong naturally to the argument of the sermon. But it can be a happy resting point between heavy blocks of logic. Thomas G. Long has said it well: “No discerning person can stand in this place [the pulpit] in front of the community of Christ without a deep sense of awe and responsibility. It is also true that no one should stand in this place without a deep sense of humility and a healthy sense of humor.”2
The entertainment value of a film is powerful. It prompts our friends to ask us, “Have you seen such and such a film?” This question usually implies that they already have! In moviegoing it is always best to own that little edge of power that comes from being the first on your block to have seen any film. “Well,” they go on, “this movie is really enjoyable.” The adjective for important movies is educational. The adjective for entertaining movies is enjoyable.
Is it possible to transfer such an easy and irresponsible word to a sermon? Isn’t the word entertaining a bit lacking in dignity for the important work that sermons are called to do? Sermons should never be promoted as solely entertaining. Still, it doesn’t hurt once in a while to have the word entertaining applied. There is implicit in entertainment the idea of rest. If public speaking cannot lay upon the audience some driven need to change the world, maybe it would at least be good to leave them a little more rested than when they came in.
Pearl Bailey led the all-black Broadway production of Hello Dolly. Often after those fatiguing performances she would come out, sit on the front part of the stage, and take questions from the audience. In one question-and-answer session, someone asked her why she went on with the grueling work of performing the same play night after night. She answered in terms of the real value of entertainment: rest. She reminded the audience of Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28: “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest!” She was convinced that she needed to make the tired, beleaguered people of New York laugh. She could give them laughter and a little rest — she conceived her calling was such.
Richard Foster, in another context, labeled our hassled executive schedules as the heavy “burden of getting ahead.” Even if sermons never exist for the virtue of entertaining people, wouldn’t it be nice if our speech helped people lay aside the heavy burden of getting ahead?
In terms of churchmanship let us concede this: the sabbath principle of rest and the Hollywood idea of entertainment, in a sense, do pass close. The church is generally seen as an armory where we outfit people for the battle of life. Still, it would be nice if we also saw the church as a hospital where Christians rested up to gain strength to re-enter the battle. Wouldn’t a little sermonic fun-time help people want to come to church? Would they not come to church more eagerly if they saw in worship a brief respite from the heavy circumstances of their lives? Perhaps a bit of Pearl Bailey’s Sabbatarianism would help.
The third word that movie promoters use is classic. This is a word like the word important. The word classic implies that this movie will become a part of the human lore that defines the race. If you miss this classic film you will not have touched an icon that defines the industry at its best. The word classic suggests that this film not only defines the best of the industry but is also expected to endure through all time: “this is another Gone With the Wind.”
Of course, film-makers never know if a new release will become classic. Nevertheless, they continue to promote films as though they know. The early 1990s remake of The Last of the Mohicans was advertised as a classic — James Fenimore Cooper’s novel fits the term. But what of the movie? In a decade we’ll know if the advertising hype was prophecy or mere promotion.
It is unwise indeed to prophesy that your sermon will be a classic. It is far more likely that the endurance of the piece will pass away in time. Maybe it will be forgotten by Monday. Nonetheless, doesn’t the word classic imply a specialness? Classic Coke is a particular kind of cola. So is the classic car or the classic novel. Each of them has been produced carefully and have wide acceptance and appeal. In this sense sermons should be conceived as classic even if they are never announced as such. Seeing the sermon as classic will cause the speaker to prepare it in a special way. Its content, its delivery, its very meaning to the audience will all be special. The speaker does not prepare this discourse as “one of the bunch.” It is singular and more noble of purpose than the rest.
What causes a sermon to be viewed by the congregation as classic? It must address either a classic doctrine or use classic illustrations. For instance, I might illustrate a sermon on mercy with Portia’s speech from The Merchant of Venice. The sermon itself might not be a classic but it would sound classic because of the way I illustrate it.
On the other hand, if I preach a classic idea like Incarnation but illustrate it with something from a Tom and Jerry cartoon, I spoil the classic feel of my argument. Classic is as classic does. Better yet, classic is as classic sounds. There is an elite wholeness in the classic sermon, as there is in classic music. In either, the finesse must not be interrupted with the banal or the whole mystique collapses.
In looking at how any sermon is prepared and promoted, we recognize the need to promise the audience that, if they will listen, we will expound to them usable information, that the sermon will be loaded with good content. Promoting our sermons is never wrong if we advertise them honestly. Honesty in advertising is most important. The integrity of our Promise means everything. We must live up to all we promote.
Creating a sense of vision for the audience will greatly enhance communication. Vision is the most obvious mark of great communication. Our speech must cause people to see themselves in particular ways. Once the sermon’s vision is established, it should glue audience rapport together. The completed picture of what they will be once they appropriate the message should become clear to them. Their vision should drive the passion of their communication.
Great sermons say, “Dream with me. My dreams are vital!” George Barna says, “A mark of a great leader is the ability not only to capture the vision, but also to articulate it and cause people to fully embrace it.”3 You have only to talk with real visionaries for a moment before they tell you how they feel about their roles in the world. They are always evangelistic. They are out to tell you how their dreams can be applied to your own world.
Visionaries always know where they are going. Direction and achievement define both their lives and their speeches. It is a wonderful gift they give to all who attend their words. Never ask visionaries how they are doing unless you really want to know. For them all life is a crusade; they are leading it, and they believe you should be a part of it.
When we address people who don’t know us, we need to assume that the Promise is an integral part of our being heard. How exactly are we to go about this? In what way are we to keep our Promise with content?
Stating the Promise
How do we approach audiences unfamiliar with our preaching? Two considerations need to be kept in mind. First, the Promise should be stated in such a way that everyone understands that it is the single point of the communique. Second, the Promise should be stated as briefly as possible. Let’s look at these issues one at a time.
Making the Promise the Single Point of the Sermon
This premise is based on a singular bias: most sermons should have only one point. A three-point communique has two points too many. Fred Craddock says if a message does not have a single point then the preacher “does not have a single sermon, but three or four sermonettes, each related to the other as pegs on a board.”4 Three-point sermons tend to split themselves apart into three separate orations. Worst of all, they confuse the listener as to which of the three points is most important.
The Promise principle is really conditioned upon the sermon having only one point to make. The preacher must state that point. This single-point Promise then undergirds the presentation.
Making the Promise Short
How is the Promise of usable information to be stated? In a word: briefly. Gathering a sermon around a single theme creates a kind of oratorical logo. This logo is a brief phrase which states the single purpose of the message. Al Fasol refers to this as “the major objective of the sermon.” It is “a statement of what the preacher hopes to accomplish with this one message, from this one text, for this one congregation, for this one particular time.”5 The sermon logo, stated up-front, might be phrased like this:
– “This morning I want to give you the key to understanding your moods.”
– “For years I suffered from not understanding why I could never find personal peace. Today, I am going to tell you something that might end that same struggle in your own life.”
– “Should you be totally happy at work? Is your company healthy when you don’t speak up? I’m going to answer these questions for you out of a basic look at your childhood.”
One of the best talks I have heard was given by an old man named Ralph Greensby. He had come into Oklahoma as a sodbuster and had begun to farm the land where “nary a plow-point had gouged the prairie.” Ralph stood unceremoniously and said, “I want to tell you a truth that I learned many years ago when I first came into this cussed country. What I learned changed my life. I know it can change yours, too.”
He began to relate the tale of his coming into Indian Territory and staking his claim. As the old man talked, I listened. He related the hardness of those early settlers and what they learned about the necessity of faith. What he learned about Christ had changed his life. And, forty years later, Ralph’s promise is still kept; my life was changed by his words and by what he shared with me that day.
A promotional speaker will emphasize a point. Almost all of the speakers begin by saying something like this: “In the next few minutes, I am going to help you revolutionize the way you see your importance in your company.” This promise becomes the sermon’s gearbox. It moves the speaker across the Ego Barrier and toward the audience.
In sermonic terms, the Promise might go something like this: “In the next few minutes I’m going to tell you how to end depression.” This Promise should be a kind of coercing force that makes the preacher live up to the pledge. The Promise itself does not need to be continually repeated. The substance of the Promise, however, should force the sermon to stay on track. Listeners should never be given a chance to forget the point of the speech.
What are the pragmatics of doing this? First of all, we should make the Promise reasonable. Second, we should surround it with hard-hitting content. And third, we should wrap up the deal by mentioning the Promise we have kept. This last step will not be one where we say, “Aha, I told you so!” It will be rather a step we take to resolve listener tension and complete our communique. Let us now address these three aspects of keeping the sermon’s Promise: Making It Reasonable, The Four Forms of Content, and The Wrap.
Making It Reasonable
Reasonable Means Logical
Before a Promise can be reasonable to an audience it must pass a fourfold test. The first test of reason asks: “Is it logical?” This test of the Promise means that listeners must be able to see why you brought up the Promise. They must be able to figure out what you are saying. They certainly must be able to figure out what the message is about. It all must “stack up.” It must “compute.”
A couple of things will guarantee this: can you put yourself in an auditor’s shoes; can you separate yourself from all you know about the subject and imagine you are hearing the subject for the first time? If you can, you can make your presentation in a key way, answering the issues the content raises.
Presumption is a killer. It sins by taking for granted that your audience knows more about the subject than it really does. It is unwise to presume they know. Inform them. It is better to tell them something they already know than to neglect to tell them what they need to know.
In fact, planned redundancy may be the way we best teach. How often Jesus repeated Himself when teaching His disciples! Was He absentminded? Did He not realize He had already told them these same truths before? Then why tell them again? Because great truths never can be redundant. Further, repetition is the key to remembrance.
Often I hear black preachers whose sermons gather themselves about simple themes. They repeat these logos a score of times throughout their sermons. Yet I do not hear these repetitions as redundant. They are emphatic, repeated, and crafted calls to remembrance.
Is there anything that can guarantee a logical format in such preaching? Just this: fidelity to a detailed outline along which the oft-stated theme of the sermon proceeds. The outline is there forcing us to move directly and logically through the dissemination of content. Nothing is left out. What ends does this format serve? It liberates the speaker to control a well-ordered agenda.
How glorious this liberty is! John A. Broadus celebrates this freedom: “Whether in preparation or in delivery of sermons, a man’s feelings will flow naturally and freely only when he has the stimulus, support, and satisfaction which comes from conscious order.”6 What happens if such order is omitted? Mobility dies. Logic has for its most important function mobility; it makes the speech move! When the sermon comes at us in a logical fashion we have the feeling that we are moving with it. But what happens when the sermon meanders in a rabbit-chasing way? We have the feeling of being lost in a house of mirrors, traveling past familiar vistas of unrelated scripture-scapes. We know we are lost! Two simple rules explain sermon mobility: Logic flies; Disorder plods.
I remember a dreadful day in Boston when I was trying to take my family to see Old North Church. We kept going past it on the freeway; we could look to the side of the freeway and see the church. I would whiz past it, get off at the next exit, and try to drive to approximately where I thought it was. Just when I would think I was almost there, I would find myself back on the entrance ramp to the freeway. Again we would go whizzing past Old North Church. My feeling was always the same: in a way I am showing my children the church, but they aren’t getting the full historic impact of it. We were glimpsing the spire as we passed it at 55 miles per hour.
What bothered me was to think that I had delivered some sermons like that. I had also heard a few like that. Very often, speakers speed us past the same oratorical vistas. We never really locate their message because they never locate their point. The word that describes this situation is lost. At such a place in communication the whole audience is lost. But what essentially is it that is really lost when redundancy haunts a sermon? Mobility. And what happens when mobility mires down in heavy boots? Confusion and chaos. The best truth is ever nimble on its feet.
Reasonable Means Applicable
Much of what we are saying has to do with relevance. Sermons have no relevance until the listener can apply them to life. It is most difficult, however, for a speaker to say anything which will apply with equal usability to everyone in the audience. This is particularly true of sermons delivered to different age-groups. Such discourse severely challenges relevancy.
How is the preacher to make the subject real to such a varied constituency? How is it possible to preach to every range from the local mechanic to the thoracic surgeon; from the five-year-old to the retiree? The application will have to be kept within reach of all.
Reasonable Means Within Reach
This struggle to relate the Bible to life is called relevance. The issue of content in our preaching must deal with one question: can they reach it? Martin Luther had a wonderful rule for keeping things simple. He believed that when you set a discourse within the reach of the simplest you will have set it within the reach of all. Luther was once asked how he managed to speak with interest to the smartest people in Germany — to all the doctors and professors of his congregation. His classic reply was that most times he just preached to Hansie and Betsy. The speech geared to reach the intelligent usually reaches no one — not even the intelligent! But the communique geared to reach the simple gives everyone access to its truth.
Perhaps this is a good place to stop and say that a good way to hold interest is to sprinkle your sermons with children’s stories and poems. Not only will the children then understand the sermon, but it will also enthrall adults as well. Disney’s ever-circling popularity proves that adults love what children understand. The beauty of this approach is that all adults were once children; their appreciation of simple stories never leaves them. On the other hand, however, children have never been adults; and adult illustrations elude them.
When I began to write children’s books a decade ago, I discovered that the whole world was interested in them. Try this experiment, and you will doubtless prove the point: read your favorite clip from Shakespeare in the same speech where you also tuck in a few of your favorite lines from Dr. Seuss. You will immediately see which writer holds the most compelling interest. Effective communication says that if you want everyone in the audience to eat from your oratorical table, be sure the table is low enough; if the food you serve is unreachable, malnutrition will inhabit your speaking.
Reasonable Means Something They Can Appropriate Now
Reason and relevance, as we have said, are bedfellows. Relevance always asks two questions: can I use this information; and can I use this information now? Our generation is not only called the communication age, it is also called the “now” generation. Microwave ovens, instant baking, and fast-foods testify that this generation is impatient. All the content of a speech must be usable right now.
The Four Forms of Content
Four very special forms allow us to build our sermons’ content. Though these forms are each distinct, yet they interrelate, crisscross, blend, fade, dissolve, and recouple in never-ending patterns of intrigue and rhetorical clout. In a very real sense they cannot be studied separately, nor can they be amputated into separate forms. Yet, for the sake of clarity, let’s consider each form in its own unique style.
Precepts — The Path of Reason
Although the forms we are going to examine are four, only two define the flow of the sermon. The first of these is precept — those statements which build the path of logic with a trackable style. “Many times names are used to describe the component parts of a sermon: points, moves, steps, episodes, units, and so on. Regardless of the label applied to the parts, a sermon consists of a series of segments arranged in a logical sequence.”7 So precepts are statements which can be organized to give this logical flow.
If there is any integrity in the communique, the precept must be true. These statements must follow in some trackable order. They should be able to be outlined. Logical, procedural precepts form the matrix of simple argument. Into this matrix of procedural argument may be dropped other speaking forms to furnish the communique with interest.
Dropping a poem into the perceptual matrix, for instance, will furnish the sermon with music. Dropping a story into the precepts will furnish the sermon with intrigue. Dropping a quote into the argument will furnish the sermon with authority. Dropping an inductive lead (a question for self-examination) into the precepts will furnish the sermon with counseling. Dropping statistics into the matrix will furnish it with information. In certain circumstances, dropping a supporting scripture into the precepts will furnish the dialogue with the voice of God. All such forms color, inform, and enforce our rhetoric with power. But well-ordered precepts will give the sermon movement and trackable logic.
Statistics — The Path of Proof
It has often been said that statistics don’t lie but liars do use statistics. It is true that we can distort statistics to prove almost anything. Nonetheless, there is a certain authority in statistics that buttress the force of our sermons. The hardest question regarding statistics is, “where do we go to get them?” There seems to be no immediate source for the statistics we really need. We can hunt them down in books and magazines. USA Today and the newsmagazines abound with colored graphs, pie-charts, and percentage tables. Let’s be wise as we read through these periodicals and clip what we may one day include in a speech. Statistics that really support specific rhetoric are hard to find. It is good, therefore, to gather statistics as we read from day to day.
Assuming, however, that we do have the statistics we need, there still remains the question of how much to use them. An audience is quickly debilitated with hard argument. Too many statistics smother argument rather than enhance it. The key rule is clarity. When you have used statistics to give your argument just the punch it needs, use some other rhetorical device to interpret the statistic.
For instance: “Thirty-eight percent of New York’s working mothers leave their children in day-care centers. Twenty-three percent of those left have not had adequate nutrition in the twelve hours that have elapsed since they last spent time there. But a staggering eighty-four percent of day-care workers have eaten no breakfast before their arrival at work. The mood established by all this poor nutrition leads 68% of day-care certifying agencies to suggest that 33% of child-abuse cases may be directly traceable to the 84% factor, at least in 23% of the cases. (Please keep in mind there is a plus-or-minus 3% accuracy in thse statistics.)”
Is your understanding helped by this factual pile-up? Why do these statistics get ignored? Because they are not interpreted by some other rhetorical device.
Statistics should be used in conjunction with illustrations, quotations, precepts, and personal opinions. In fact, statistics are valueless to the listener unless some other application makes them come alive. “Studies in communication theory show that the presentation of case studies with pertinent examples of individual experience are a much more effective means of communicating than are statistical summaries.”8
The statistics in the previous paragraph need to be interrupted by a story to flesh them out with meaning. For instance, “Mary Magillocutte began to notice small blue marks on her daughter’s wrists each evening when she picked her up from The Happy-face Place, a swank day-care center in lower Manhattan …” This story will illumine and reinforce the above statistics. It enables them to serve. Stories and statistics are symbiotic; each needs the other to assist in the making of a single point.
Story — The Path of Intrigue
Not much needs to be said about the story as a source of content in a sermon. It is dealt with in detail in my earlier book, Spirit, Word, and Story.9 Story does need to take its rightful place in this list of content forms, however. No form is quite so important as this one. Nor is any aspect of public speaking more important than storytelling. Beyond doubt, the most save-able, “take-home-able,” and “carry-through-life-able” aspect of any speech or sermon is the story.
Stories not only hold and communicate information, they are the best of all forms for holding attention. In keeping tension on an audience’s interest, nothing serves as well as story. But stories do not merely hold interest, they also form a container to hold the content of the sermon. Christ’s parables reinforce the idea that Christianity comes packaged in narratives. Never underestimate the force with which stories package truth. This force is so formidable that all public speakers should commit themselves to learning all they can about narrative style. Ours is a story-soaked day. Our world is conditioned to love narrative forms. Totally narrative sermons are now welcome, and expected. Any preacher who wants to preach to our age must permit our culture its love-affair with stories.
The Inductive Lead
In Promise communication, the inductive lead and the Promise of usable information may seem unrelated. But consider what Ralph Lewis has to say:
Philosophers have found only two basic structures — inductive and deductive — for all human thought patterns. Why has preaching concentrated on one and ignored the other? Do we expect our listeners to shut down half their brains on Sunday morning?10
Induction allows for selective sampling of the “sermon salad.” Induction asks the listener to respond. It invites listeners to eat only those part of the salad they like. But induction believes that no information is palatable unless the audience believes it is. The inductive lead encourages listeners to make up their own minds about the relevance of all parts of the communique.
What is an inductive lead? It is a promise couched in a question. In the past, sermonic promises were usually couched in threats or commandments: “My dear brother and sister, I am going to tell you in the next thirty minutes what you need to do to get right with God! All pussyfooting aside, you need to understand what God has to say to you about your sin life, and repent at once! Listen up, you brood of vipers!” The favorite verbs of yesterday’s preaching were all imperatives. Its favorite pronoun was you. Its favorite punctuation, the exclamation point! Today’s preaching, by contrast, has for its favorite mood, the indicative. Its favorite pronoun is we and its favorite punctuation is the question mark.
The inductive lead gives listeners possible premises and lets them decide: “This morning, I would like to examine what the Bible has to say about sin. Will you, in your mind, search through this subject with me? If you are willing to do so in the next thirty minutes, you may be able to conclude exactly what your standing is with God.” The inductive lead makes it clear to the audience that the sermon does not set out to enforce the Word of God in their lives. The sermon exists to counsel all with its appropriating truth. The inductive lead beckons them to enter into truth at their pace. The Promise is put to them in gentler options that they decide upon.
The inductive lead permeates the best speeches. These leads use subtle interrogatives that invite the listener’s attention, thought, and decision. The key word is invite. The inductive lead pauses here and there throughout the presentation. It invites all to consider the next slice of rhetoric we will give them. We must get over the notion that even the speech is ours. We must cross the Ego Barrier and make the communication theirs. No technique will help to scale the Ego Barrier faster and more thoroughly than the inductive lead.
When a communicator is doing it right, the lead itself becomes second nature. The speaker is unaware it is happening. Listeners become involved because they want to be involved; they decide because they want to decide. No sermon belongs to us until we give it to God. As long as we preach in imperatives, there is a strong likelihood that we have not fully distinguished between “thus saith the Lord” and “thus saith the preacher.”
Good preaching still says, “thus saith the Lord.” We shouldn’t force God to speak inductively. He may order us as He will. And we must be sure that all our thus-saith-the-Lords are taken from Scripture. Our audience should know clearly when we are letting God speak and when we are giving our own opinion. Although the direct authority of our sermons should come directly from cited Scriptures, even these should be surrounded by inductive leads that “invite” our hearers to consider their “demands.”
The inductive preacher must be very sure that the authority of the communique comes directly from strong biblical content. Triumphal-ism is never appropriate. Neither is any selfish desire to use people or situations for our own sake. We must never mix the force of rhetorical imperatives with the weakness of our own agenda. We should precede every proposition of the discourse with induction.
I don’t mean to be sacrilegiious but egocentrism usually has a touch of phony godhood about it. We can deliver a sermon with a bogus baptism of passion. We sin when we need to control people or situations. Seeing ourselves as Mr. or Mrs. Right attempts to squelch our opposition by using theatrical passion. Such personal pietism is fraught with dangers, for it supplants induction with papalism.
Dan McBride used to sing a song that included the line, “This must be the will of the Lord because it seems so right to me.” Presuming against the audience’s right to dignity is an easy mistake. Still, it often begins when we think that we know beyond all doubt what is good for everyone; such presumption filled the tubs of Jonestown with cherry Kool-Aid. So let us guard ourselves against all audience manipulation. Using the inductive lead will protect everyone — both the preacher and the audience.
The Wrap
To be sure that you have fully employed the Promise technique, you must pay final attention to the conclusion of the speech: the wrap. As the communique closes, you must do three things: you must restate the Promise, tell your listeners how you kept it, then ask them to firm up their final responses. This wrap should let them tie together the sermon, and help them take the package home.
There is a simplistic old outline from Speech 101 classes: “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.” This outline has some things to commend it. The word told may be a little strong for the inductive model we are suggesting but otherwise the outline is a good description of how to make a one-point speech work well.
I often repeat a short quote or a precept at the first of any sermon or lecture I give; I repeat the same quote at the conclusion as well. This helps insure that the Promise is examined at the first and last of a sermon and a few times en route. This important counsel must walk that very thin line between redundancy and emphasis. It requires a great deal of experience to know the proper level of reinforcing the premise.
Making and keeping a Promise will be for some a new way of preaching. It may also prove to be a more effective way. For some it will be a harder kind of communication to get used to. For still a third group to try it may appear as awkward to the audience as it does to the preacher. One thing is sure: we must not take the Promise approach so seriously that it becomes a regimented form rather than a productive device.
Yet this simple form preserves both the force of discourse and the dignity of the listener. No better compliment can be given to effective communicators. For to preach with force while we serve and save the dignity of our audience is the double blessing of Promise communicators.
1. Ralph Lewis, Persuasive Preaching Today (Ann Arbor, MI: Lithocrafters, Inc., 1979), second revised edition, p. 194.
2. Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), p. 15.
3. George Barna, The Power of Vision (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1992), p. 52.
4. Fred B. Craddock, As One Without Authority (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1979), p. 105.
5. Al Fasol, Essentials of Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), p. 52.
6. John A. Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (New York: Harper & Row, 1944), p. 94. (Revised by Jesse B. Heather-spoon.)
7. Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), p. 147.
8. Daniel J. O’Keefe
9. Calvin Miller, Spirit, Word, and Story
10. Ralph Lewis and Gregg Lewis, Inductive Preaching (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1983), p. 35.
From The Empowered Communicator by Calvin Miller. Copyright (c) 1994 by Broadman & Holman. Used by permission.

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