Calvin Miller has been called the “poet laureate” of American evangelicalism, Known to many through his poetry and other literature, Miller is also an accomplished preacher. During his tenure as pastor of Omaha’s Westside Church, he led the small church’s growth to more than 7,000 members. Now he serves as Writer-in-Residence and Professor of Communication Studies at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Preaching: In your new book The Empowered Communicator, you identify seven keys to gaining and holding an audience with preaching. Tell us about those keys and why they’re important.
Miller: I actually think of the seven keys as connections between listener and speaker. They encompass some very practical things and are very simple little things. They don’t come so much from the world of homiletics as they do from communication theory and I think that may be a strength in the book’s plea to move preaching more in the direction of what a secular speaker has to do to be heard and accepted.
When I’ve done seminars on this, I’ve tried to describe how uncomfortable we would feel if Bill Clinton in a national address used the rules of homiletics, in terms of breaking down a word study or setting out points — that would sound odd. I think that today’s listener is nourished on contemporary secular models. More and more that is going to require us to be speaking with the same kinds of rules in mind.
The keys are very simple things. The first rule is to build a relationship. I think it’s the first time that I’ve really read a book on the sermon in which we talked about the speech before the speech, consciously separating what you first need to say to get their attention from what you’ve come to say. The second step is the ego barrier –you give the people in the first three minutes the sense that you are there on their behalf and make them believe it. The third key is promising hearers that you have usable information to give, making them a promise, and keeping that promise with content.
The fourth key is tension and resolution. I illustrate it with a situation in Nebraska about slipping on the ice in the winter. When you first feel yourself beginning to fall, for a few seconds your every nerve is focused on how you’re falling, what’s happening as you fall, and when in God’s name will your fall be over — there is nothing relaxed about your person. Everything is in tight focus. When you finally hit the ground you may break something, it may hurt, you may be embarrassed that others have seen you — but at last it’s over. So we want to create this same kind of irresolution. We’re trying to build, in this fourth key, that kind of tension where every nerve is focused.
Key five is constructing a pyramid of priorities. To me, that’s really important. I go back and pick up the old idea of character. Three phases exist in a pyramid of priorities and the first of them is truth — every preacher has to tell the truth. The next phase up from that is for preachers to tell the truth with interest — interest others in their truth. And the third and most glorious phase comes after they have told the truth, and have interested others; now they inspire and quicken and challenge people in an excited way. Truth, interest, and inspiration are the phases of those priorities.
Key six is making sure they hear with all kinds of audio values. And here I deal with a bunch of things that are so important in terms of techniques — the microphones, the lighting, the things that really make a person heard and seen.
Finally, key seven talks about what you do when you sense communication failure even as you preach or speak it. I think all of us have had the experience of watching ourselves fail and not knowing what to do to correct our communication while we are failing. So I have some suggestions to regain a failing speech. Of course, sometimes a communication that’s failing as we deliver it cannot be redeemed; in those cases I’ve got some advice on how to quit early and how important it is to quit early. Nobody ever got mad because the preacher quit early.
Put those seven short things together just to say this is how you succeed at keeping attention.
Preaching: Key seven will be the one to which many preachers can relate. There’s not a preacher alive who has not been five minutes into the sermon and thought: “This is not working.” What are some of the suggestions you offer in this area?
Miller: The “homiletical trick” is something we have memorized that always works — a memorized illustration, lots of imagery, a verbal picture that you’ve got memorized, and you can re-create it in an instant. The problem with the homiletical trick is that it may gain instant attention but it only works well if you haven’t used it recently.
It may not even fit, but I suggest that it doesn’t really have to fit. People would rather hear something that doesn’t fit that interests them than something that fits beautifully but holds no interest. Nothing happens after the audience becomes disinterested.
A homiletical trick might be a short poem; in my case I know lots of children’s poems that often have some illustrations that I slip in the side door. I describe it in terms of surgery: the surgeon has to do a kidney transplant but the kidney’s oversized; it really doesn’t fit but it does cause the patient to live. So, while it may not be a beautiful surgery, there’s life and interest in it. This can be true of the homiletical trick: we insert it to give life and bring life. That has some hazards in terms of a pastor being in a congregation a long time. There aren’t many of those left but if you’re on a special speaking engagement and you see attention flagging, then you can reuse homiletical devices.
Preaching: In your book you talk about the one-point sermon. How does that differ from more traditional sermon structures?
Miller: The one-point sermon is the thing that people take home; they know that single point without looking at what they’ve written in their Bibles or the sermon outline sheet you gave them when they walked in the back door. In other words, what point do they remember, what was the point of that sermon? You may have two or three ideas that serve to focus and make that one point solid, in the one-point sermon, but if you’ve consciously given the audience three sermonettes, even under an alliterative outline, every time you add another point you think is important — and it translates with equal importance — you divide the attention the audience is able to give and the memory with which they are able to retain your point.
The sales director comes to the sales force and says: “This week we’re going to go out into the community and we’re going to sell pipe wrenches.” He gets them all excited, all whipped up, and they all go out and sell pipe wrenches. Next week they come back and he says, “You did so well with pipe wrenches last week that this week we’re going to sell two things, pipe wrenches and peanuts. Peanuts are fundamental to human happiness and people need peanuts just like they need pipe wrenches.” No matter how hard he exhorts effort, he divides the urgency with which they saw the single vision.
Never let yourself try to sell two things at one time. And if you try to sell three points, just remember that each time you add another product to the line you divide the urgency with which they would have seen the one point of the communication.
Preaching: It sounds as if the one-point sermon is what might otherwise be referred to as the sermon’s central truth — that key idea on which everything focuses.
Miller: Right. I call it the sermon logo. Al Fasol, a colleague of mine, calls it the “focal point.” The idea is the same. I say in my book, I think the classic people who have done this are America’s great black preachers. They have been able somehow to sell one thing and to repeat it with a kind of planned redundancy — an ingenious and creative redundancy — that quickens that same, simple, single idea again and again.
Preaching: You are a preacher, poet, and novelist. How do these lives intersect with and support one another?
Miller: I used to wonder. I don’t so much anymore because every great homiletician these days is making a plea for narrative. People like Haddon Robinson will talk about not just telling a story but preaching in pictures. So in a video-oriented generation I think novels succeed if they create strong images. In fact, when there are 50,000 new novels every year — as there are in our culture — the real question is: are plots very important? Maybe what’s really important are pictures of people, the characterization and the images with which you speak or preach.
I think novelist and preacher fit very well together. I wish I could make preachers believe, especially those who are prone to be rather left-brained, that if they would do more reading of novels to see what good writers do when they write, they could get that same kind of imagery in the sermon. I think they’d find a strong correlation of interest. So many times preachers are boring because they are not able to create the same kind of narrative power that exists in a novel.
Preaching: Some people are natural storytellers, while others really struggle with that. In addition to reading novels, are there some other things you would encourage a preacher to do to develop that narrative side?
Miller: I do agree that some people are natural storytellers, but I don’t think it matters too much. I’ve heard professional athletes, especially right after they become Christians, tell their story. They look down, they’re weak, they use no significant adjectives, they don’t know how to construct a story in any kind of literary form; they just tell what happened to them in Jesus. It’s sweet and it’s wonderful; they begin to cry, their lip quivers, their chin drops, and they lose control. Everything about what they do says “this is not literary, it’s not good,” but there’s an emotive power of the existential moment — what happened to me is what really sells.
If you want to develop a narrative kind of style, try to remember that, whether right-brain or left-brain, all people have to tell somebody what’s happened to them. He may tell his wife at night. The guy who’s maybe such a jock that he’s never read a novel or short story still can tell his wife what happened, and when he’s telling his wife what happened during the day, she listens. Maybe he’s not a great storyteller but he’s into his story.
I think that would be a significant thing for people to understand: that stories really work in this realm not because they’re told by people who know how to tell them professionally but because “this is my story and this happened to me.” If they can pull you into that, I guarantee, storyteller or not, they will have people’s attention.
I always think about the great rugby player, C. T. Studd. After his conversion, he testified in F. B. Meyer’s church. Studd had that athletic shuffling of the feet, the downward look, the shyness — but he also had the immense power of just telling his story in Christ. F. B. Meyer, who was quite good at all kinds of preaching including narrative, realized that although a professional storyteller he’d never held his people like this simple man had in telling his simple little story. He said, “You know, Studd, I’d give anything if I could hold people’s attention like you just did.” Studd said, “There’s nothing I have that you cannot have if you’re willing to be filled with the fullness of God.” That may be a spiritual oversimplification, but the principle is right. If you have an experience with God, tell that experience. I think people will listen; in fact, I think it would be fascinating and I think they’re ready to hear it.
Preaching: Perhaps a compensating factor for the lack of storytelling ability is a certain passion. Do you think that passion is lacking in a lot of preaching?
Miller: Passion is lacking. In this book and in an accompanying lecture I talk about two things: passion and content, and I liken them to an airplane in flight. The reason an airplane flies is that its velocity exceeds its weight load. Weight load is always the content of the sermon; the passion is the velocity. If the sermon goes fast enough, the passion is hot enough and it moves fast enough, it can lift quite a bit of content. But if it doesn’t go very fast, content will cause it to bog down — crash and burn in all probability. I think you’re absolutely right; I think passion is something that causes the lift, content is what delivers the payload, and that again is a matter of existence. We become more passionate about things which affect us, so if the person who wants to tell stories but thinks he or she doesn’t have the ability to do this, I think what they can do is to somehow say “this is my story.” You cannot tell your own story without being peculiarly involved and passionate about it. Tell those kinds of stories.
That’s where I would differ a little bit from David Buttrick in Homiletic, who says to not get yourself involved in your illustrations. I don’t believe that at all. I think illustrations with the most passion are the ones that happen to us. We tell those always with passion.
Preaching: What do you think is the greatest challenge facing preaching and preachers in the ’90’s?
Miller: I think the number one, all-time greatest challenge is to communicate usable information in the sermon while at the same time being sure that our preaching is saturated in biblical truth. If we give usable information without the Bible, we abandon the next generation; the church will not exist long. I truly believe it’s number one, and I find very few preachers who do it very well. The number one spokesperson on this has been Elizabeth Achtemeier. Again and again she cries out for a textual sermon that bears usable information. That is the challenge of modern sermons.
Preaching: Why do you love preaching?
Miller: I ask myself that. Somehow I can’t stay away from it. I’m drawn to do it. I’m scared to death of it. But there is an elixir, an addictive need in my life to talk to people and have them listen to me — for us to become one. I speak in my book about the “audience lean.” There are a few times in our lives when the congregation’s eyes not only meet our eyes but when their intensity so marries our own intensity that they actually lean physically toward the podium like sunflowers lean toward the sun. Those who have known that cannot live without it; you look forward to its next time. It doesn’t happen all the time but in the beginning of every speech is the principle, “it could happen now” and that fires us into this marriage of minds.
Eric Hoffer said, “No minds are chaste, all minds copulate every time they meet.” I love that electricity of intimacy of speaker and welded audience — it’s a romance all its own.
There is a spiritual intimacy in preaching. I realize in many ways I’m still very big on the open public altar, the invitation. A lot of churches now are not doing it, and that’s OK — every church has got to do its own thing and I don’t have any problem with that. But nothing is quite so splendid as when the Spirit of God in me reaches out and touches the Spirit of God in a listener or group of listeners, and equally splendid when that Spirit wells up in people so that there’s no question that Jesus is the celebrant in the sermon and that we come together. The problem is that the “welling up” is very susceptible to be used by incipient psychotics — pastors who can “whip up” Jesus sometimes becomes the worst and most dangerous kind of manipulators. But if we are altruistic, it is a beautiful thing.
Preaching: If you had the opportunity to counsel young ministers early in their ministry about preaching, what kind of counsel would you give them?
Miller: One thing I would say is never let your pulpit oratory and your parish life get separate. By that I mean that so many times people are one kind of person when they live in the parish and another kind of person when they’re in the pulpit.
There’s a wonderful thing that happens when we live among people. We talk to them and the next thing you know we’re in the pulpit talking — we continue talking just like we have that one-on-one relationship. In the book I talk about the wonderful thing that happens when we consciously shrink 350 people, or 150 people, 50 people or 2,000 people to a single respondent. Here’s what I’d say to them: don’t ever allow the “conversational you” to get separated from the “oratorical you.” The person who lives in the community is the same person who speaks in the community, and there’s no difference in how you do it or the kind of rapport you feel one-on-one. Don’t be a professional, be relational.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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