The preacher of Ecclesiastes waits until the conclusion to write down his credentials: “Not only was the Teacher wise,” he says with unsettling candor, “but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true” (Eccles. 12:9-10 NIV).
To impart knowledge and to search and find the right words, the ancient preacher wrote a manuscript.
Not all preachers write out sermons, nor do preachers who write out sermons write every sermon, but the discipline of preparing a manuscript improves preaching. Writing underlines the important ideas.
“Writing,” to quote Francis Bacon, “makes an exact man exact in thought and in speech.”
Of all people, an expository preacher professing a high view of inspiration should respect language. To affirm that the individual words of Scripture must by God-breathed and then to ignore his own choice of language smacks of gross inconsistency. His theology, if not his common sense, should tell him that idea and words cannot be separated.
Like gelatin, concepts assume the mold of the words into which they are poured. As pigments define the artist’s concept, so words capture and color the preacher’s thought.
The wise man of Proverbs compares the word fitly spoken to “apples of gold in baskets of silver” (25:11). “The difference between the right word and almost the right word,” wrote Mark Twain, “is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.”
Like any skillful author, English poet John Keats understood how style shapes ideas. One evening as he sat in his study with his friend Leigh Hunt, Hunt read while Keats labored over a poem. At one point Keats glanced up and asked, “Hunt, what do you think of this? ‘A beautiful thing is an unending joy.'”
“Good,” said Hunt, “but not quite perfect.”
There was silence for a while, then Keats looked up again. “How about this? ‘A thing of beauty is an unending joy.'”
“Better,” replied his friend, “but still not right.”
Keats once more bent over his desk, his pen making quiet scratching noises on the paper. Finally he asked, “Now what do you think of this? ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever.'”
“That,” said Hunt, “will live as long as the English language is spoken!”
Who could underestimate the power of words? Most of the Scriptures we love best are those that express truth in delightful language — Psalm 23, I Corinthians 13, Romans 8. Even though Paul disdained eloquence as valuable in itself, he wrote his inspired epistles in inspiring language.
While a painting such as Rembrandt’s “Christ at Emmaus” can leave us speechless, anyone who generalizes that “a picture is worth a thousand words” has never tried to capture John 3:16 (a twenty-five-word sentence) in a picture.1
There are bright words as brilliant as a tropic sunrise, and there are drab words as unattractive as an anemic person. There are hard words that punch like a prize fighter and weak words as insipid as tea made with one dunk of a tea bag. There are pillow words that comfort people and steel-cold words that threaten them. Some words transplant a listener, at least for an instant, close to the courts of God, and other words send him to the gutter.
We live by words, love by words, pray with words, and die for words. Joseph Conrad exaggerated only slightly when he declared, “Give me the right word and the right accent, and I will move the world!”
“But language is not my gift,” protests a one-talent servant in the process of burying his ministry. Gift or not, we must use words, and the only question is whether we will use them poorly or well.
If a minister will do the sweaty labor, he can become more skillful with them than he is. If he compares himself with C. S. Lewis, Malcolm Muggeridge, or James S. Stewart, he may feel like declaring bankruptcy. Let artisans like these provide ideals toward which he can reach, but in every sermon any minister can be clear and exact in what he says.
Our choice of words is called style. Everyone possesses style — be it bland, dull invigorating, precise — but however we handle or manhandle words becomes our style. Style reflects how we think and how we look at life.
Style varies with different speakers, and a speaker will alter his style for different audiences and occasions. Speaking to a high-school class, for instance, permits a style different from that used in addressing a Sunday-morning congregation. The polished wording used in a baccalaureate sermon would sound completely out of place in a small-group Bible study.
While rules governing lucid writing also apply to the sermon, a sermon is not an essay on its hind legs. Since what he writes serves only as a broad preparation for what he will actually say, the manuscript is not a preacher’s final product.
A sermon should not be read to a congregation. Reading kills the lively sense of communication. Neither should it be memorized. Not only does memorization place a hefty burden on the preacher who speaks several times a week, but an audience senses when a speaker reads words from the wall of his mind.
Let a preacher agonize with thought and words at his desk, and what he writes will be internalized. Then let him rehearse several times aloud from the outline, or his memory of the outline, making no conscious effort to recall his exact manuscript at all. When he steps into the pulpit, the written text will have done its work on the preacher’s sense of language. Much of the wording will come back to him as he preaches, but not all.
In the heat of delivery, sentence structure will change, new phrases will occur to him, and his speech will sparkle like spontaneous conversation. A manuscript, therefore, contributes to the thought and style of the sermon, but it does not dictate.
Writing a sermon differs from writing a book. A preacher must write as though he were talking with someone, and as in conversation he must strive for immediate understanding.
An author knows the reader need not grasp an idea instantly. She can examine a page at leisure, reflect on what she has read, argue with the ideas, and move along at any rate she finds comfortable. Should she stumble across an unfamiliar word, she can pick herself up and consult a dictionary. If she loses an author’s path of thought, she can retrace it. In short the reader controls the experience.
A listener cannot afford the luxury of leisurely reflection; he cannot go back to listen a second time. If he does not take in what is said as it is said, he will miss it completely. Should he take time out to review the speaker’s argument, he will miss what the preacher is saying now. A listener sits at the mercy of the speaker, and the speaker, unlike the writer, must make himself understood instantly.
Several techniques help the preacher think with fierceness and speak with clarity. Some ministers indent and label their manuscripts according to their outlines. By doing this they imprint on their minds the coordination and subordination of their thought. In addition, because transitions carry a heavy burden in spoken communication, they take up more space in a sermon manuscript.
The listener hears the sermon not as an outline but only as a series of sentences. Transitions stand as road signs to point out where the sermon has been and where it is going and therefore are longer and more detailed than in writing.
Major transitions remind the listener of the subject or the central idea of the sermon; they will review the major points already covered and show how the points relate to the major idea and to each other; and they introduce the next point. As a result of the work they do, major transitions can take up a paragraph or more.
Minor transitions linking sub-points may be shorter: sometimes a single word (therefore, besides, yet, consequently), at other places a phrase (in addition, what is more, as a result of this), not unusually a sentence or two.
While an author may imply transitions, a speaker develops them. Clear, full, definite transitions look clumsy on paper, but run easily in a sermon and enable a congregation to think the preacher’s thoughts with him.
A Clear Style
What characteristics of style should a preacher cultivate? First of all he must be clear.
Talleyrand once remarked that language was invented to conceal, not reveal, the thoughts of men. Educated people sometimes speak as though Talleyrand had been their speech instructor. They attempt to impress their audience with the profundity of their thought through the obscurity of their language.
A sermon is not deep because it is muddy. Whatever has been thought through can be stated simply and clearly.
Poincare’, the brilliant French mathematician, insisted, “No man knows anything about higher mathematics until he can explain it clearly to the man on the street!” Similarly no preacher understands a passage in the Bible or a point of theology unless he can express it clearly to the congregation sitting before him.
For the preacher, clarity is a moral matter. If what we preach either draws people to God or keeps them away from Him, them for God’s sake and the people’s sake we must be clear.
Helmut Theilicke reminds us that offense comes not because people do not understand but because they understand all too well, or at least are afraid they will have to understand.2 Imagine a mass meeting in Russia with a Communist launching a tirade against Christianity. Someone jumps to his feet and shouts, “Jesus is the Messiah!” The audience is startled, and he is ejected for disturbing the meeting.
But what if he had cried out: “Jesus Christ is God! He is the only Lord, and all who make the system into a god will go to hell along with their Communist leaders!” He would risk being torn to pieces by the crowd. Clarity reveals the offense of the gospel. It also provides life and hope.
Clear Outline
How then do we bring clarity to our sermons?
Clear manuscripts grow out of clear outlines. Communication originates in the mind; not in the fingers, not in the mouth, but in the head.
Some preachers have jerky minds. Although they have stimulating insights, their thought follows no natural sequence, and their zigzag thinking runs listeners to death. After a bewildering half-hour trying to keep up with a jerky speaker, listening to a dull friend comes as a soothing relief, like taking a cat in your lap after holding a squirrel.
Zigzag thinking can be straightened out only by outlining the overall thought before working on details. Laboring over a paragraph or sentence is pointless unless the preacher knows what he wants it to say. Clear manuscripts develop from clear outlines.
Short Sentences
Furthermore, to be clear one must keep sentences short. Rudolf Flesch in The Art of Plain Talk insists that clarity increases as sentence length decreases. According to his formula a clear writer will average about seventeen or eighteen words to a sentence and will not allow any sentence to wander over thirty words.
In the sermon manuscript short sentences keep the thought from tangling and therefore are easier for the preacher to remember. When he delivers his sermon, the minister will not concern himself at all with sentence length, just as he does not think about commas, periods, or exclamation points.
In making himself understood, his words tumble out in long, short, even broken sentences, punctuated by pauses, vocal slides, and variations in pitch, rate, and force. While the short sentences in the manuscript serve his mind, they have little to do with his delivery.
Simple Sentence Structure
Keep sentence structure simple. A clearer, more energetic style emerges when we follow the thinking sequence: main subject, main verb, and (where needed) main object.
In the jargon of grammarians, concentrate on the independent clause before adding dependent clauses. (An independent clause can stand alone as a complete sentence; a dependent clause cannot.)
If we start into a sentence without pinning down what we want to emphasize, we usually end up stressing insignificant details If we add too many dependent clauses, we complicate our sentences, making them harder to understand and remember.
Style will be clearer if we package one thought in one sentence. For two thoughts use two sentences.
Arthur Schopenhauer scolded the Germans: “If it is an impertinent thing to interrupt another person when he is speaking, it is no less impertinent to interrupt yourself.”
Complicated sentences have an additional disadvantage: they slow the pace of a sermon. As Henry Ward Beecher put it “A switch with leaves on it doesn’t tingle.”
From Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages by Haddon W. Robinson, Copyright (c) 1980 by Baker Book House. Used by permission.
Simple words
Simple words also contribute to a clear style. Ernest T. Campbell tells of the wag who in a moment of frustration declared, “Every profession is a conspiracy against the layman.”3
Any citizen who had battled with an income-tax return wonders why the Internal Revenue Service cannot say what it means. Lawyers assure themselves of a place by embalming the law in “legalese.” Scientists keep the little man at bay by resorting to symbols and language only the initiates understand.
Theologians and ministers, too, seem to keep themselves in jobs by resorting to language that bewilders ordinary mortals. Beware of jargon. Specialized vocabulary helps professional within a discipline to communicate, but it becomes jargon when used unnecessarily.
While it takes three years to get through seminary, it can take ten years to get over it. If a preacher peppers his sermons with words like eschatology, angst, pneumatology, exegesis, existential, Johannine, he throws up barriers to communication.
Jargon combines the pretentiousness of “big” words with the deadness of a cliche’, and it is often used to impress rather than inform an audience.
Use a short word unless a longer word is absolutely neccessary. Josh Billings strikes a blow for simplicity and clarity when he says, “Young man, when you search Webster’s dictionary to find words big enough to convey your meaning, you can make up your mind you don’t mean much.”
Long words have paralysis in their tails. Legend has it that a few years ago a young copywriter came up with an ad for a new kind of soap: “The alkaline element and fats in this product are blended in such a way as to secure the highest quality of saponification, along with a specific gravity that keeps it on top of the water, relieving the bather of the trouble and annoyance of fishing around for it at the bottom of the tub during his ablution.”
A more experienced ad man captured the same idea in two simple words: “It floats.”
George G. Williams maintains that from 70 to 80 percent of the words used by W. Somerset Maugham, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Charles Dickens have only one syllable.4 Seventy-three percent of the words in Psalm 23, 76 percent of the words in the Lord’s Prayer, and 80 percent of the words in I Corinthians 13 are one-syllable words.
No matter how accurately a phrase or word expresses a speaker’s meaning, it is worthless if the listeners do not know what it means.
“Speak,” said Abraham Lincoln, “so that the most lowly can understand you, and the rest will have no difficulty.” Billy Sunday, the noted evangelist, understood the value of simplicity when he said:
“If a man were to take a piece of meat and smell it and look disgusted, and his little boy were to say, ‘What’s the matter with it, Pop?’ and he were to say, ‘It is undergoing a process of decomposition in the formation of new chemical compounds, the boy would be all in. But if the father were to say, ‘It’s rotten,’ then the boy would understand and hold his nose. Rotten is a good Anglo-Saxon word, and you do not have to go to a dictionary to find out what it means.”5
This does not mean that a minister should talk down to his congregation. Instead his rule of thumb should be: Don’t overestimate the people’s vocabulary or underestimate their intelligence.
A Direct and Personal Style
In addition to being clear, a second major characteristic of style is that if must be direct and personal.
While writing is addressed “to whom it may concern,” a sermon is delivered to the men and women of the First Bapist Church meeting on July 15 near Ninth and Elm Streets at eleven o’clock in the morning.
The writer and reader sit alone, distant from each other and unknown. The preacher speaks to his hearers face to face and calls them by name.
Written language communicates the results of thinking, while spoken language represents a spontaneity of thought that Donald C. Bryant and Karl R. Wallace describe as “vivid-realization-of-idea-at-the-moment-of-utterance.”6 Therefore a sermon must not sound like a thesis read to a congregation. It sounds like conversation where thinking is going on and where the preacher talks to and with his hearers. Speaker and listener sense they are in touch with each other.
The sermon uses the style of direct address. While a writer might say, “In his conversation the Christian must be careful of how he speaks about others,” a preacher will more likely say, “You must be careful of how you talk about others.”
The personal pronoun you gives both minister and audience a sense of oneness. While you can be effective, at other times the preacher will say we because he means “you and I,” The we of direct address stands in contrast to the editorial we that substitutes for the pronoun I. An editorial we of oral style, like the we of good conversation, means “you and I together.”
A speaker will use questions where a writer may not. The question invites a listener to think about what the preacher will say next and often introduces a major point or new idea. It may invite the congregation to respond to what the preacher has said and is often employed to conclude a sermon. Questions show clearly that the audience and speaker are face to face.
Personal style pays little attention to the conventions of formal writing. Contractions present no problem (can’t, we’ll, wouldn’t), and neither do split infinitives. What is appropriate in good conversation fits preaching.
This does not mean, of course, that anything goes. Poor grammar or faulty pronunciation unnerve a listener, like a giggle in a prayer meeting, and raise doubts about a preacher’s competence.
Slang gets mixed reviews. When used deliberately, slang can capture attention and inject a feeling of casualness and informality into the sermon. When used thoughtlessly, slang sounds trite and even cheap and betrays a lazy mind.
Personal, direct speech does not call for careless speech or undignified English. The language of effective preaching should be the language of a gentleman in conversation.
A Vivid Style
A third characteristic of effective style is vividness.
Wayne C. Minnick argues that communication which taps a listener’s experience appeals to both mind and feelings. We learn about the world around us through hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch.
To get an audience to experience the message, therefore, a minister must appeal to the senses.7 A preacher does this directly through sight and sound. The congregation sees his gestures and facial expression and hears what he says.
He also stimulates the senses indirectly through his use of words. Language makes listeners recall impressions of past experiences and respond to the words as they did to the event.
For example, gastric juices flow then we hear the words hot, buttered bread and stop in a shudder when we think of roaches crawling on it. In doing this, the speaker enables people to connect an experience they have not had with feelings they have had.
Vividness increases when you use specific, concrete details and plenty of them. We label a phrase “specific” if it is explicit and exact, and “concrete” if it paints pictures on the mind. The figure $1,923,212.92 is specific down to the penny but not concrete. The figure $275 on your monthly electric bill is concrete. You can’t visualize the first figure, but you can the second.
Specific details add interest if they are concrete. They communicate because they relate to the experiences of the audience. Therefore instead of “produce” say “cabbages, cucumbers, and oranges.” Rather than “weapon” say “heavy lead pipe.” In place of “major cities” be specific: “New York, Chicago, Dallas, or San Francisco.”
The following statement is abstract: “In the course of human experience, we observe that the events of our existence have definite cyclical characteristics. Awareness of these will direct the observer to a high degree of appropriateness in his actions.”
The preacher in Ecclesiastes expressed that same thought this way: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; … a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; … a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (3:1-7 ASV).
Like an artist or novelist a minister must learn to think in pictures. That means he must visualize details.
Gustave Flaubert gave his writing disciple Guy de Maupassant an assignment: “You go down to the (railroad) station and you will find there about fifty cabs. They all look pretty much alike, but they are not alike. You pick out one and describe it so accurately that when it goes past I cannot possibly mistake it.”8
Concrete language develops first as a way of seeing and then as a way of writing and speaking. Unless we observe life, we cannot represent it clearly.
Vividness develops when we let nouns and verbs carry our meaning. Adjectives and adverbs clutter speech and keep company with weak words.
According to E. B. White, “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”
Strong nouns and verbs stand alone. A “tall man” should become a “giant”; a “large bird” a “pelican.” Say “he bellowed,” not “he talked loudly”; or “he trotted” rather than “he went quickly.”
Be especially careful of qualifiers like very, so, quite, rather, too. They betray a failure to choose words of substance. “Scalding” has strength, “very hot” does not; “excruciating” hurts more than “too painful”; and “scintillating” paints a better picture than “so interesting.”
When choosing verbs use live ones. Finite active verbs make sentences go. The principle to follow is “Somebody does something.” Passive verbs suck the life out of speech.
“Opinions and judgments are formed by us on the basis of what we have known” sounds dead. “We think as we have known” possesses vitality. “A good time was had by all” lies there while “Everyone enjoyed himself” moves.
Verbs, like nouns, wake up the imagination when they are precise. He “went” gets him there but not as clearly as “crawled,” “stumbled,” “shuffled,” “lurched.” She “shouts,” “shrieks,” “rants,” “whispers” tells us what “says” does not.
Vividness also increases when you employ fresh figures of speech. Metaphors and similes produce sensations in the listener or cause him to recall images of previous experiences.
Alexander Maclaren stimulates the sense of touch when he says, “All sin is linked together in a slimy tangle like a field of seaweed so that a man once caught in its oozy fingers is almost sure to drown.” George Byron appeals to sight when he tells us:
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, and his cohorts all gleaming in silver and gold.
Charles H. Spurgeon captured the senses in a simile that refers to a past era “when the great universe lay in the mind of God like unborn forests in the acorn’s cup.” Alfred North Whitehead called up an image when he reflected, “Knowledge doesn’t keep any better than fish.”
Figures of speech conserve time by packing more into a phrase than a word-wasting speaker expresses in a paragraph. Consider a few:
– fig-leaf phrases that cover naked ignorance
– words that have been hollowed out on the inside and filled with whipped cream
– cliche’s that fall like tombstones over dead ideas
– If Protestantism is found dead, the sermon will be the dagger in her heart.
– He avoided the sticky issues as though he were stepping around puddles of hot tar.
– Metaphors and similes, like lobsters, must be served fresh.
Both the literal and figurative meanings should strike the mind at the same instant. When the literal image fades because the comparison has been overworked, the figure loses its force. The listener becomes tone deaf to them.
The following once hit like a one-two punch but now hardly touch us at all:
– outreach of the church
– tried and true
– born-again Christian
– saving souls
– souls for your hire
– listeners in radio land
– prayer-hearing and prayer-answering God
– straddle the fence
When a comparison has turned stale, throw it out and come up with a fresh one that clarifies the point and keeps the audience alert. Relevance shows up in style as well as content.
We must speak the eternal message in today’s words. A minister should study magazine ads and radio and television commercials for easily understood language that speaks to captives of our culture. Common observation tells us what linguistic test have proved — much of the language used in our pulpits is “imprecise, irrelevant, and insignificant.”9
Effective style cannot be taught like a mathematical formula. Mastery of “the well-dressed word” requires an eye for particulars and a search for significant resemblances between things not ordinarily associated with one another. In short, doing away with hackneyed and tried speech demands imagination.
In expository preaching, nothing has been more needed — and more lacking. Expositors who represent the creative God dare not become, in Robert Browning’s description, “clods untouched by a spark.”
How can you shun the sin of sounding uninteresting?
1. Pay attention to your own use of language. In private conversation don’t shift your mind into neutral and use phrases that idle rather than jump. Cultivate the choice of fresh comparisons, and you will find them easier to use when you preach.
Beecher gives this testimony about illustrations that also applies to style: “… while illustrations are as natural to me as breathing, I use fifty now to one in the early years of my ministry. … I developed a tendency that was latent in me, and educated myself in that respect; and that, too, by study and practice, by hard thought, and by a great many trials, both with the pen, and extemporaneously by myself, when I was walking here and there.”10
2. Study how others use language. When a writer or speaker shakes you awake, examine how he did it. Since poetry bursts with similes and metaphors, studying verse develops a feel for figurative language.
3. Read aloud. Reading aloud does two things for you. First, your vocabulary will increase. As children we learned to speak by listening and imitating long before we could read or write. Reading aloud re-creates that experience.
Second, as you read style better than your own, new patterns of speech and creative wording will be etched on your nervous system. You will develop a feel for picture-making language.
Read to your wife and children so that you will be forced to interpret what you read. Read novels, plays, sermons, and especially the Bible. The King James Version presents God’s truth in Shakespearean grandeur, and the New International Version puts it in more up-to-date dress. Both have impressive style.
1. Kyle Hadelden, The Urgency of Preaching, p. 26.
2. Encounter with Spurgeon, p. 34.
3. Locked in a Room with Open Doors (Waco, Tex.: Word, 1974), p.46.
4. Creative Writing for Advanced College Classes, p. 106.
5. In John R. Pelsma, Essentials of Speech, p. 193
6. Fundamentals of Public Speaking, 3d ed., p. 129.
7. The Art of Persuasion, chap. 7.
8. In Christian Gauss, The Papers of Christian Gauss, ed. Katherine Gauss Jackson and Hiram Haydn (New York: Random, 1957), p. 145.
9. Donald O. Soper, The Advocacy of the Gospel, p. 36.
10. Yale Lectures on Preaching, p. 175.

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