A revival of classical oratory, or what is intended to pass for it, occurs every four years in campaign speeches delivered during the presidential election contents. Millions of people see and hear them on nationwide telecasts and are impressed with the speakers and their speeches.
Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, published an article about this cicada-like phenomenon, pointing out, “Television viewers in the United States have become so accustomed to flawless newscasters and smooth-talking politicians that they forget how much make-believe is required to create these carefully sculpted images of spontaneity.”
He pointed out that the “indispensable tool in this world of make-believe is the Teleprompter,” declaring that the “Teleprompter has become even more essential to the artful public leader (than it is to the newscaster). The Teleprompter is to politics what the magic wand was to Merlin.”1
Valenti informs potential viewer-voters: “When you are watching the national conventions in July and August, you may be certain that the fiery speaker on the rostrum is reading a prepared text from the Teleprompter. His head turns from the front to the side, the words flowing like a river from a seemingly well-provisioned mind, with never a stumble or stop to retrieve some deeply buried rhetorical jewel. The audience is brought to the notion that this person is one fine speaker (as some of them are).”
He concludes that the “Teleprompter will never disappear so long as it provides a pathway to eloquence otherwise unattainable by most speakers.”
If Valenti is right in his conclusion about the effectiveness that the Teleprompter brings to public speaking, perhaps it ought to be made a standard equipment in every pulpit of the land. It may be exactly what many, if not most, preachers need, who believe that speaking without a manuscript on Sunday morning is an impossibility for them. The Teleprompter could be the answer to the preacher’s prayer, “Lord, help me to be an effective speaker when I open my mouth and begin to speak your Word.”
But Valenti would not allow preachers, any more than he would politicians and newscasters, an endorsement to employ a “contrivance” that “produces artificial spontaneity.” As far as politicians are concerned, he calls for “installing a simple rule applicable to all future presidential conventions, or speeches from the Oval Office, or calls to the country by any candidate: Neither Teleprompter nor prepared text shall be used. Notes, perhaps, but nothing more.”
Valenti would not tolerate Teleprompters in the pulpits any more than he would allow them on the political podiums, if he could have his way. The use of the Teleprompter in parish preaching is not a sinecure for preachers who would speak effectively to their people. That’s where the story sermon enters into the picture; it offers preachers a type of sermon that — to be really effective — needs to be articulated virtually without notes and, equally important, a genre of sermon that most preachers can learn to prepare and preach with genuine spontaneity and effectiveness.
As an image, the Teleprompter reminds preachers of the importance of the delivery of the sermon in the communication process, something that, despite the efforts of Reuel Howe and others, seems to have been forgotten by numerous preachers and more than a few theologians.
Sermon delivery receives scant attention in most books on homiletics; so much emphasis is placed upon the content and shape of the sermon that one could be given the impression that the oral presentation of the sermon is either unimportant or so transparently simple to learn proficiently that detailed discussion would be superfluous.
The injunctions of homileticians and preachers who wrote about delivery, as well as all the other details belonging to preaching as a discipline — Andrew Blackwood, James S. Stewart, Paul E. Scherer, among others — do not appear to be highly regarded today. They believed that “pulpit excellence” is best achieved by preaching without notes.
That’s the way they preached, but too many preachers believe that they travelled “a pathway to eloquence unattainable by most speakers (or preachers).” That is not necessarily so. The story sermon opens up the possibility for more, if not all, preachers to break the “reading habit” in the pulpit.
The narrative (“a story told”) biblical sermon seeks to integrate the content, shape, and delivery of the sermon in a way that will facilitate the telling of the “old, old Story” today. It challenges the reasons –or excuses — which preachers give for the use of a full manuscript in the pulpit (masterly content, splendid style, and outstanding reading ability, according to Andrew Blackwood).2 Blackwood has been updated today:
1. Content is all that counts. Get the exegesis right and interpret the text properly for people today and one is certain to have a good sermon.
2. Contemporary emphasis upon the shape of the sermon is not really important; the story sermon may be only a fad. The language is really what counts; it has to be read in the pulpit, or the impact of the imagery, figures of speech, and the poetic quality may be lost.
3. Preaching without notes is for the few. Most of us preachers are too busy to learn the sermon. Preachers should learn how to read well (and use a mechanical aid like the Teleprompter).
This combination results in biblical lectures, theological treatises, and literary essays being read, in addition to traditional types of sermons (thematic, expository, etc.) which cry out to be preached with energy and effectiveness.
The biblical story (“a story told”3 sermon gives equal emphasis to content and space, as Edmund Steimle points out — the sermon, to be biblical today, needs to be biblical in “fabric and texture” (and shape) as well as in content. Few homileticians would disagree with Steimle at this point.
But the story sermon, by its very nature, really demands that the preachers, in order to make the most of it when they preach, consider seriously learning how to tell — with minimal use of notes — the sermon rather than reading a full manuscript in the pulpit.
The reading of a manuscript exactly as it was written is a method that belongs to radio preaching; it diminishes the impact of any sermon — live or on television – and is especially detracting as far as the story sermon is concerned. Synchronization of the delivery with the content and shape of the sermon is a given for effectively communicating the story with the congregation.
The preacher, or story teller, is particularly important in the presentation of the narrative sermon. In radio preaching, the preacher is out of sight; only a voice is heard, a “mouth-piece”4 as Thomas Keir (and Luther before him) described the traditional herald of the gospel. There is no eye contact, no idiosyncrases or habits, gestures, movements, all of which affect the delivery of the sermon in a congregational setting but are totally absent in radio preaching.
Few preachers are able to use this radio style — reading the manuscript — in the pulpit with great impact and effectiveness. Edmund Steimle is one of the rare and exceptional preachers who is able to read in the pulpit just about as effectively as he does on the radio.
Oswald Hoffman, on the other hand, departs from a manuscript and preaches without notes — with powerful personal impact — when he preaches or speaks in churches or seminaries. His example, rather than Steimle’s — whose combination of content, style, voice, and exceptional reading ability makes him an extraordinary preacher in any situation or medium — might better be considered and adopted by the preacher who wishes to speak effectively on Sunday morning.
The politician or other public speaker, who employes a Teleprompter to reinforce the delivery of a message, does so in the hope that the viewers will sense the impact of his/her personality and be convinced that the speaker is sincere and really means what is being said. But the preacher is not attempting to sell himself/herself to the people; the preaher wants the people to hear and believe the story that is being told to the people so that they might appropriate the gospel and, as Clement Welsh writes, “make sense” of it for their lives.
If this is to happen, the preacher must be perceived as one who believes what he or she is saying in the story, a contemporary disciple totally committed to Christ and the gospel. In this respect, the preacher is not very far removed from the politician but is even closer to the newscaster who also desires to be perceived as a believable person for the sake of the stories that are being read over the television newscast.
When the preacher is able to tell the story sermon, using animation, gestures, eye contact, facial expression — naturally, of course — the story itself is reinforced and communicated with the full impact of one’s personality behind it.
Contemporary emphasis on first-person narratives in sermons,5 and especially on first-person narrative sermons, demands that the preacher tell the story with, at least, some measure of freedom from a manuscript. Personal stories lose their impact when they are read by the preacher; the audience gets the impression that it — the story — didn’t really happen, or it happened to someone else and the preacher has simply appropriated it and used it as his or her own in the sermon.
But even if the people sense that it is true, authentic, and personal, the story loses its impact when the preacher delivers it without looking at the people as it is being communicated to them. First-person stories, as well as their expanded form into narrative sermons, pull the people into the “preaching event” to such an extent — when they are told without the use of a full manuscript — that their enthusiastic response cannot be missed by the preacher.
Rather than a herald, who simply reads official proclamations or another’s news, the preacher will become a modern story teller, as Steimle suggests6 — at least in some sermons that are constructed and preached. And when that occurs, and the preacher discovers the importance of sermon delivery without relying upon or reading a manuscript, pulpit speech is bound to change dramatically.
It is amazing, on the other hand, how many preachers (and students studying homiletics) actually read personal stories from the pulpit with little or no eye contact with the people, unaware of the diminution of the effect of the story in this process. I know a preacher who — outside the pulpit — can tell story after story, personal and otherwise, with vitality and effectiveness; he’s often the life of the party.
But it’s a different matter – and he’s a different person — in the pulpit; he reads every word of his manuscript, including first-person stories, for the first of Blackwood’s reason — content. He honestly believes it to be more important to make certain that his message is accurately and exactly delivered to the people than it is to speak well and convincingly to the people. (He also believes that he reads exceptionally well — a la Peter Marshall? — but he is wrong on this count, too.) If he would only tell his personal stories and allow the reaction of the people to reach and register upon him, I suspect that his entire preaching ministry would change for the better.
The bottom line for first-person narrative preaching is simply this: a preacher ought to be able to tell, not read, personal stories and experiences. When preachers do this, they have taken the first step in getting free of the manuscript in the pulpit and will begin to look for ways to preach without, or with a modicum of, notes.7 Then the preacher may discover that the story sermon is to preachers what the Teleprompter is to politicians and other speakers who use television to communicate their messages with full and complete utilization of their personalities.
When the preacher has discovered that stories, and especially personal stories, have to be told for maximal effectiveness, he or she may discover that stories and story telling offer an open door to preaching with less than a full manuscript.
Stories are easier to learn and to tell than other types of sermonic material; the same thing is true of the story sermon. A story line is much more memorable for the preacher — and the people, too — than a more or less complicated sermon outline and thematic discussion.
And since biblical story sermons have both plot and theme, the juxtaposition of both is an assist to the preacher in learning the sermon so that it may be delivered from the pulpit with relative, or complete, freedom from the manuscript.
The bottom line is simply that the narrative sermon offers the preacher an opportunity to break the habit of relying upon detailed notes or the fully written sermon in the pulpit. By its very nature the story sermon is an oral-telling type of homily; it invites the preacher to tell it to the people, not read it to them.
Not quite so obvious is the fact that throughout the entire preparation process — from first reading of the text to the final polishing of the sermon for delivery — the story sermon is unconsciously being learned for delivery.
The story sermon requires that the preacher — through reading and reflection, as well as exegesis — be immersed fully and completely in the biblical story so that it comes to life within the preacher’s mind, imagination, and consciousness, and possesses the preacher completely. This does not eliminate exegesis, which is so necessary in every sermon, but it complements both exegesis and construction of the sermon, thus integrating the entire preparation-delivery process.
My recently retired colleague, Arndt Halvorson, once told me how it was when, as a young boy, he was taking piano lessons: “My fingers seemed so thick, so stubby, so clumsy, and the music seemed so hard. I had a terrible time with scales and octaves. Our piano teacher was so unsympathetic. He said: ‘Quit worrying about it, let the music possess you. Give in to it. Feel it. Let the music play through you’.”8
That’s how it should be with the biblical story and the narrative sermon and, ultimately, that’s why the biblical story sermon may just be the key to effective preaching.
Contemporary preaching doesn’t need “flawless performances” or “smoothtalking” that is facilitated by a Teleprompter or other mechanical appurtenances that guarantee simulated perfection in public speaking. It does need effective, spontaneous, and personal communication to be effective.
The story sermon not only leads preachers away from mechanical devices, but it also pushes them toward preaching without notes. Clarence Macartney, over four decades ago, turned to biblical stories and biblical-biographical sermons in his quest to learn how to preach without any notes.9 He learned an important secret about story and story sermons: they do not have to be memorized or recited in the pulpit, but may be retold in the preacher’s own words as they — both biblical and personal stories, or any story that has worked its way into the preacher’s imagination — are articulated in the pulpit.
The uniqueness of this relationship — story sermon to story — is that the preacher rethinks10 the narrative sermon and retells the story that has been prepared in advance. Such preaching, when the proper attention is given to details of study, exegesis, construction, and an integrated learning process, has an excellent chance of being effective, even excellent.
The story sermon gives preachers the opportunity to adopt and utilize a type of sermon that not only is biblical but, when created and constructed with care and imagination, is certain to be interesting and helpful. The story sermon might also be a biblical way to effective preaching–and an answer to the preachers who contend that preaching without notes is for the few, not for the majority of preachers, and turn to a manuscript as the stopgap until, perhaps, they can get a Teleprompter.
Biblical preachers told the story of Jesus in their own words, even “as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Today, pastoral preaching in a congregational setting has changed and is more complicated, but when biblical story and biblical story telling are combined in the modern biblical narrative sermon, preachers may perceive a valid means to achieve excellence in their preaching in the story sermon.
If preachers will recognize this potential for effective speaking in the pulpit through the story sermon — and allow the story sermon to transform their pulpit style -they may just realize that they have found the key to preaching well to their people.
1. From an article, “Speaking well, with a little Teleprompting,” by Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, and published in the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, July 6, 1984.
2. See Andrew W. Blackwood’s The Preparation of Sermons (New York and Nashville: Abingdon, 1948), p. 148.
3. H. Grady Davis, in Design for Preaching, used the “a story told” phrase which Edmund Steimle, Morris Niedenthal, and Charles Rice attach to their treatment of the biblical story sermon in Preaching the Story.
4. Thomas Keir devotes an entire chapter to the preacher as “mouth-piece” in his The Word in Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962).
5. Richard Thulin’s article, “First Person Narrative Preaching,” is at the heart of Chapter 6 of my The Song and the Story. (Lima, Ohio: C.S.S. Publishing Co., 1984).
6. Steimle discussed the preacher as story teller in Partners (Philadelphia: Division of Professional Leadership of the Lutheran Church in America, June, 1979), p. 24.
7. See Chapter 7 of my The Song and the Story for a fuller discussion of sermon delivery as “telling the story.”
8. From a chapel sermon which Dr. Halvorson preached and published in Luther Northwestern Seminary’s Semogram Bell, Summer, 1984.
9. See Clarence E. Macartney’s Preaching Without Notes (New York and Nashville: Abingdon, 1946), p. 9f.
10. Also discussed in Chapter 7 of The Song and the Story.

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