In their book Preaching that Connects, Mark Galli and Craig Brian Larson draw attention to the relationship be-tween homiletics and journalism.1 They are not alone in seeing this relationship. A journalist, Melvin Mencher, calls journalism “kin to teaching, cousin to preaching.”2
Galli and Larson’s perceptive book focuses on matters of style, relating the techniques of news writing to the task of sermon writing. There is room, however, for a fuller development of the kinship between preaching and news reporting. This article proceeds in that direction by focusing on the theory of preaching in light of the theory of journalism.
Mentors along this pathway of understanding are journalists more so than homileticians. A Philadelphia Inquirer editor is quoted as saying that while everybody else’s reporters zig, he wants his to zag.3 An appeal to journalists more than homileticians on the subject of preaching is an attempt to zig rather than zag. It is not that homileticians have little or nothing to teach; it is that the zag of journalism can pull us out of the ruts we may have been digging for ourselves as preachers who reflect on the art and craft of preaching.
We can begin with the most obvious and fundamental connection: preaching — like journalism — is interested in the news. A news story is an attempt to provide an accurate account of some event or of some issue likely to erupt in something eventful. Not every happening is eventful enough to be classified as being newsworthy. Newsworthy events are determined by their timeliness, proximity, prominence, consequence, and human interest.
Timeliness refers to the immediacy of the event. A newsworthy event has either just happened or is about to happen. For this reason journalism has been called a rough draft of history. It gives some account of events at hand.
Timeliness includes currency as well as immediacy. Long-acknowledged truths can be timely and therefore newsworthy. They may not be immediate happenings but they may be of current interest.
For example, the 10 year anniversary of the Challenger disaster brought a flurry of reports giving accounts of that dreadful day. The facts reported were not new but they were current.
Proximity can be either geographic or psychological. Local happenings are newsworthy because they are close by; they have geographic proximity. Thus, we read in our local papers material about the city council, school board, high school baseball team, and weather forecast for the vicinity, to name but a few topics of note because of geographic proximity.
Psychological proximity makes an event newsworthy when the facts of the happening, by way of their emotional power, transcend miles and unite people across political and other boundaries. An accident involving a school bus and a semi truck in Green Bay, Wisconsin, might make national news because of the emotional pull of the story. A train wreck in India is given space in the small town papers of the United States for the same reason.
Prominence refers to the people involved in a story. Rightly or wrongly, famous people are news makers whether the events in their liven are trivial or traumatic. As for the trivial, the marital woes of Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley were given considerable print space and air time. As for the traumatic, murders happen at an alarming rate in this country, but few receive the press’s attention to the same extent as John du Pont’s shooting of Olympic wrestler David Schultz. Consequence is also a factor in what makes a story newsworthy. An issue or event is of consequence if it has rather wide-ranging impact. A heavy snowstorm that closes Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is a major story because it affects a significant number of people not only in Chicago but in airports all across the United States, to say nothing of people around the world. Whether the happening is the closing of a major factory or the passing of some legislation, if it affects a significant number of people it is considered newsworthy under the criterion known as consequence.4
Human interest can lift an event to newsworthy status even if the happening has little consequence and involves no one prominent. Closely related to psychological proximity, human interest refers to aspects of an event which, while not necessarily noteworthy, are nonetheless unusual, heart-warming, entertaining, or poignant.
The gospel is all of this and more. It is the good news of what God has done for us and is doing at the present time. To be sure, our focus is rightly upon the singular and decisive event of Jesus Christ, most notably His death and resurrection, but we further recognize that God is present and active in the world today and likewise in the lives of our parishioners. The gospel is not a past deed but a current event. It is also a future direction. As such, it is full of timeliness, proximity, prominence, consequence, and human interest.
A journalistic approach to preaching begins with the conviction that God is presently active and that God’s actions can be discerned, if only imperfectly. It is the preacher’s task to give as accurate an account as possible of the activities of God.
Harry Emerson Fosdick had something of this in mind when he introduced what became known as the project method of preaching. At least it can be said that he rejected sermons which offered listeners nothing by way of timeliness or proximity. His quip was, “Only the preacher proceeds still upon the idea that folk come to church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites.”5
In our day, David G. Buttrick has called for a similar emphasis. At the start of his massive Homiletic, he said the preacher’s task is to name the present-day activity of God.6 Of course, as shall be made plain later on, none of this is to suggest that we disavow the past or never mention God’s deeds of long ago. Quite to the contrary, we pay the utmost of attention to the historic witness, but never for its own sake. At issue is always the deed of God today, here and now, in the lives of the present people and in the context of contemporary times.
A Concern with Facts
This brings us to the second connection between preaching and journalism: preaching — like journalism — is interested in facts. The novelist may be interested in facts for the sake of plot, but the journalist is interested in plot for the sake of fact. It is the job of a reporter to be curious enough to dig for the facts and to share his discoveries in ways that are clear and faithful to the truth.
When we refer to facts in relation to the gospel we do not have in mind that which is scientifically verifiable. Facts in this instance are spiritual perceptions or theological understandings. They are real truths, but they are truths known only to faith. Convinced of their veracity, and of their import, the preacher uses these facts as the basic building blocks of sermons.
Facts of this nature appear in sermons as affirmations. Gabe Fackre says that there is wisdom in speaking of affirmations as opposed to propositions.7 The latter term comes from formal logic and suggests a statement made with detachment, i.e. without some sense of involvement with or excitement over the truth expressed. Narrative theologians and preachers have picked up on this and decried the lack of imagination present in propositional theology. Meanwhile, theologians less suspicious of propositional truth notice in narrative — which, to be sure, is quite variegated — too little interest in metaphorical truth.
A journalistic approach can be said to see the value of both propositional and narrative truth. It may see in propositional theology and its preaching an insufficient degree of psychological proximity and human interest while it appreciates the consequence of propositional truth. As for narrative theology and its preaching, a journalistic view may appreciate its concentration on proximity and human interest but miss an equal attention to truths that ought to have theological prominence.
Thinking of facts as affirmations bridges the gap between propositional and narrative truth. Likewise, this word more appropriately describes what the preacher is doing. The preacher affirms the facts which are part of the story of God’s present-day activity or future direction. Facts cannot exist without the story of which they are a part; the story does not exist without the facts that shape it. To affirm these facts is to speak propositions in narrative.
When journalists speak of facts they are referring to specific details which are the answers to six questions concerning newsworthy events. These questions are: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? More fully stated, these questions want to know what happened, when it happened, where and by whom or to whom it happened, and how and why it happened. These facts, discerned with care through interviews, observations, and diligent research, become the fundamental building blocks of a story.
These are, in essence, the same questions preachers ask of a biblical text or of a portion of Christian doctrine. Actually, the preacher poses the questions twice, once of the conditions that prevailed when the text or doctrine took initial shape and then of text or doctrine in the contemporary context. The discoveries which the preacher makes during this period of questioning are the facts which appear in the sermon as affirmation.
Mention of the biblical text and Christian doctrine make this the appropriate place to make the observation that preachers are like beat reporters. A beat reporter is one who is assigned a specific area or concern to cover in search of news. Examples of beats are city hall, the police department, sports, arts and entertainment, medicine, etc.
The preacher is a beat reporter from the standpoint that, as one attempts to discern and give an accurate account of what God is up to today, there are specific areas to target for authoritative information. Indeed, our service to God and usefulness to our people depends in large measure on our faithfulness to these areas in the trust that they will yield reliable information of value to today’s Christian.
The beats to which I refer are the Bible and doctrine, particularly historical theology but also contemporary systematics. Other beats, such as current affairs and modern psychology, may prove fruitful. As one who holds the Bible to be our sole authority in matters of faith and practice, I look upon it as the primary beat. The Bible is the paramount and necessary source for facts about God. There can be no faithfulness in preaching where there is no faithfulness to scripture.
Reporting an Unfolding Truth
Already we are pressing into matters that call for a third comparison to be made. Preaching — like journalism — is interested in facts as they unfold. Preachers and journalists differ from novelists in that the novelist can write with the end of the story in view. Further, novelists can control the outcome of a story — something neither the preacher nor the reporter can do. Journalists and preachers are brokers of truth, not composers of it.
The journalist deals with late-breaking news — history in the making. Since the event in question may not be a complete happening, not all the facts may be known. In the case of a story of a different type, the crucial event may be completed but covered up. Whether the event is in process or in hiding, reporters dig to discover any facts they can. Journalism is an open-ended search for the truth as opposed to a creative development of truth.
If we take as the story of the gospel the Kingdom of God as inaugurated in Jesus, but not yet fully realized even though it is constantly and secretly growing, then the subject matter of Christian proclamation is a known and unfolding event. We know the perfect truth but we do not know it perfectly. Jesus Christ is the whole truth but we do not know Him wholly. Faith is still seeking understanding.
This is not to condone process theology, which, in its gross forms, holds that God is still in the making and that we are part of that creative process. It is to contend for the position that God is still alive and at work. We do not yet know what the completed work of God will be like in the world or in the lives of individuals. We can only report the facts as they happen.
Informing for a Purpose
The reporting we do as preachers is done for a specific purpose. This brings us to a fourth comparison between preaching and journalism. Preaching — like journalism — aims to inform.
A cynic may contend that the purpose of reporting is to sell newspapers. Economic reasons exist, to be sure, but the cynical statement is just that, particularly where reputable news agencies are concerned. Profit does not govern what responsible papers print. These live for a higher goal.
According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, “The primary purpose of gathering and distributing news and opinion is to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the times.”8 The aim of journalism is to keep people apprised on matters of importance so they can make what they understand to be intelligent decisions affecting their quality of life.
Mass communication of this nature fulfills a surveillance function. Joseph R. Dominick has written that the media have, in our culture, taken on the roles pf the sentinels and lookouts of old.9 The media keep a public eye on what we cannot all see or have the means to see, but which we must know and have a right to know. We cannot all follow the presidential candidates, listen to every speech or keep track of every detail that could figure into a vote for or against an individual. Journalists can do for us what we cannot do as individual citizens. We retain the responsibility of sorting through all that is reported, but the papers and other forms of mass communication serve a societal function by keeping us informed through their role as watchdogs.
The media also play an interpretive role. This means that the media also work to give fair expression of the meaning of the facts they present.10 Earlier reference was made to the questions reporters ask and answer. Reporters exercise their interpretive role especially when they ask and answer the question of why a particular event took place in the way it did. This analytic or interpretive site of a reporter’s task further contributes to the reader’s ability to make an intelligent decision concerning the matter at hand. To be sure, we who read do not need to agree with the reporter who writes; the point is we are engaged, challenged, and informed at least in respect to the reporter ‘s point of view.
Preaching likewise exists so decisions can be made leading to a well-rounded life. Old-time preachers used to talk of preaching for a verdict, by which they meant so interpreting Jesus Christ and his claim on persons as well as his gifts toward them that the hearer is moved to accept Jesus Christ as Savior and live under His Lordship.
Jesus himself was one who preached for a verdict. Much has been made in recent years of the fact that Jesus was a parabolic preacher who relied heavily on story to carry His message. While Jesus was unquestionably a parabolic preacher, He was not one exclusively.
Consider Mark’s testimony as he relates the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. When Jesus began his public ministry after the time of blessing and the time of testing, he came “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news!'” (Mark 1:14b-15 NRSV). Given this account, we can say Jesus’ words were interpretive of current events (the time is fulfilled, the kingdom is near) and He spoke in the vocative (repent, believe). He gave out information of vital importance so hearers could make up their minds on this most significant of all issues.
The bulk of preaching in the New Testament follows a similar pattern. Whereas Jesus used parables frequently but not exclusively, subsequent New Testament preachers seem not to have used them at all. Their focus is on relating information about God’s decisive action on behalf of all people in and through Jesus Christ. Having been witnesses, they report what they have seen and heard and now believe. The hearer is not compelled to believe but is given the opportunity to believe.
Building to a Climax
To this point the comparisons drawn have focused on the similarities between preaching and newspaper reporting. There are, however, at least two respects in which preaching has more in common with broadcast journalism than with print journalism. We can turn to those now before finishing with a final commonality between preaching and all journalism.
Preaching — like broadcast journalism — structures itself for oral presentation. A news report ready for broadcast and a sermon ready for preaching both exist to be heard. They are oral events. There is writing behind them but the writing serves oral presentation.
The classic format of a completed story in print journalism is known as the inverted pyramid. This traditional form is used for hard news stories as opposed to features or human interest pieces. In the inverted pyramid format, the essence of a story — the facts as discerned by the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions — appear in the first sentence or two. This is called the lead. Related but less important material appears in subsequent sentences in order of diminishing significance. The last paragraph of a hard news story in a standard newspaper is not intended to be climactic. It is, by design, both last and least.
Broadcast news media do not use the inverted pyramid format. Space is the governing principle in the print media; print journalists think in terms of column inches. Each page of each paper has so many column inches to be budgeted. Broadcast journalism is governed by time, not space; these journalists think in terms of minutes or seconds, as opposed to inches. The amount of news that can be broadcast is limited by air time rather than paper space.
Under this limit, TV journalists do not have time for the interesting but often extraneous material that appears at or near the end of a newspaper story. In a broadcast news piece, the level of the importance of each aspect of the story presented remains roughly the same. As such a broadcast story could be diagramed as a square or rectangle rather than as an inverted pyramid.
Oral presentation and the limits of time govern not only the organization of a broadcast news story but also its development. Stories are briefer in broadcast journalism because the hearer, unlike the reader, cannot return to the beginning.
Similar conditions, though more from the perspective of the presenter rather than consumer, make the sentences shorter in broadcast pieces than they are in their print counterparts. Long sentences are cumbersome for the news anchor to read and they can prove difficult for listeners to follow.
The inverted pyramid format of hard news stories does not serve preaching well. It is anticlimactic. A sermon should build toward a strong conclusion, not end with the weakest material. With that in mind, the broadcast news media plan is a closer parallel to the structure of sermons. All the factors of time constraints and sentence structure apply to preaching as well.
In terms of building climax in a sermon, Andrew W. Blackwood, Sr., a foremost homiletician in a preceding generation, had it right, and his view with regard to climax matches the style of broadcast journalism. Blackwood understood that climax is achieved when the preacher moves from the most important to the most interesting. His text for this was the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27, NRSV). This text, Blackwood said, moves from the most important — God — to the most interesting — self. Such a plan puts first things first and builds in interest because it keeps drawing closer to the hearer.11
Such a pattern is close to the structure common to television news stories. John Hartley describes four parts or steps to a broadcast piece: framing, focusing, realizing, and closing. The first part establishes the topic, the second explains the topic, the third makes the topic real by drawing upon quotes or statements from participants, and the fourth brings closure. Hartley believes this pattern is one that gathers momentum from start to finish.12
Newspaper stories may employ such a pattern, and features generally do, but the workhorse of hard news stories in print is still the inverted pyramid. From this standpoint, preaching has more in common with broadcast news.
Perhaps it is appropriate to pause at this point and notice that, even though preaching does not prefer the inverted pyramid, a sermon can nonetheless profit from having a strong lead. Blackwood, a theological conservative, said that preachers could learn a great deal from the example of Fosdick, a theological liberal. Nearly every one of Fosdick’s sermons starts out strong. He gets to his topic early and incorporates the heart of the message in the sermon’s first sentence or two. There is something to be said for that kind of straight-forward, plain-spoken way of starting a sermon. Why waste time meandering up to a subject?
The Place of Personality
Preaching — like broadcast journalism — is necessarily tied to personality.
In the average newspaper story, the personality of the reporter is not apparent to the reader. The majority of stories appear anonymously. In those rare cases where a by-line is given to name the reporter, the average reader is not acquaint-ed with that reporter in any meaningful way. These stories may as well be anonymous. In rarer cases, the reporter is, at least well-enough known so that the reader can relate the report to the writer.
It is not that way with broadcast journalism, particularly television news. There personality makes a great deal of difference to the news consumer. Witness, for example, the vast popularity of Walter Cronkite a generation ago. While I’ve done no scientific studies, I’ll wager it is safe to say the majority of persons who tune in to the news on the major networks each night choose what station they watch for the most part on the basis of their overall reaction to the news anchor. The choice is not so much between channels 3, 4, and 5, but between Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw.
Another factor in the decision could be a network’s field reporters or news correspondents. To be sure, there are other differences between the networks, differences unrelated to personality, but the person of the anchor stands out. As Joseph R. Dominick has written, “TV news is not anonymous; each story has a face to go with it.”13
This brings us, of course, to Phillips Brooks’s classic definition of preaching, that preaching is the bringing of truth through personality. The gospel is not anonymous. Neither is our telling of it. Preaching bears the stamp of our personality and rightly or wrongly — the judgments people pass on our preaching are informed perhaps less by Bible and doctrine than they are by their reaction to what they find in us in terms of personality. Preaching is relational. As preachers we are part of the story and not simply brokers of it.
The Need for Credibility
The preceding references to audience response raise the issue of credibility. People prefer to receive their news from the source they find the most credible, not simply the most appealing or entertaining. This leads to a final comparison: preaching — like journalism — relies on credibility.
It may be more appropriate to speak of the credibility of the preacher rather than the authority of the preacher. A journalistic perspective helps draw out the distinction. Consider a speech by the President of the United States and a news article based upon it. Authority resides in the newsmaker, not in the reporter of the news. In terms of the gospel, authority resides likewise in the newsmaker rather than in the preacher. The highest aim of the preacher/reporter is not authority but credibility, which is defined as faithfulness to the facts and their implications for life today.
A news report has credibility when it has been prepared with as much objectivity as humanly possible. Complete objectivity is impossible. Something of our values and traditions is constantly present if only in subtle ways. John Hartley has noticed the presence of our values and ideologies in our word choice. For example, our major news sources, when describing the activities of terrorists, generally do not describe those actions using verbs with positive connotations.14 Verbs that denote negative actions are chosen because those verbs correspond to society’s disapproval of terrorist actions.
While complete objectivity is impossible, the expectation of a meaningful degree of objectivity is realistic. Objectivity is achieved in reporting when facts are handled without bias. Biased reporting happens when the writer either distorts facts to suit a particular prearranged purpose or when facts are ignored for the sake of a predetermined viewpoint.15 Those news sources which treat facts without bias and with respect are trusted as credible. Credibility of this nature gives persons an opportunity to see, understand, acknowledge and respond to the reported facts, to the news which is authoritative.
Objectivity in reporting is defined a. a certain detachment from the personalities and particulars of the story. Preachers can never be objective in this sense of the term, for it is hoped the preacher has strong personal attachment to the gospel.
Nevertheless, when it comes to presenting the implications of a text or the applications of a doctrine, the congregation has a right to expect from its preacher an objectivity that is a respectful and responsible handling of the facts. Such a handling of the facts distorts none and hides none. It neither cultivates nor evades the controversial. It reports what people need to hear, not simply what they want to hear. The preacher who does not disappoint this expectation of objectivity is regarded as credible. Such a preacher helps the congregation gain access to a true appreciation of the facts, of the gospel.
Essential to a journalistic understanding of preaching is its focus on the present activity of God. The subject matter of a journalistic understanding of preaching is the self-disclosure of God in biblical history, church tradition, and contemporary experience. This is not a story we remember, compose, or create. It is one we follow.
Carl Henry once quoted someone who wisecracked that journalism is “the art of knowing where hell will break loose next and having a reporter on the spot.”16
Substitute “heaven” or “the kingdom” for “hell,” and that’s not a bad definition of preaching.
1Mark Galli and Craig Brian Larson, Preaching That Connects (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994).
2Melvin Mencher, Basic News Writing (Dubuque: William C. Brown, 1983), p. x.
3Jane Mayer, “Politics and Public Affairs,” in Speaking of Journalism: Twelve Writers Talk About Their Work (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 61. The speaker was Gene Roberts.
4Joseph R. Dominick, The Dynamics of Mass Communication, second edition (New York: Random House, 1987), p. 324.
5Harry Emerson Fosdick, “What Is the Matter With Preaching?”, Harper’s Magazine, 1928.
6David G. Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), p. 18.
7Gabriel Fackre, Ecumenical Faith in Evangelical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 58.
8Mencher, p. 62.
9Dominick, p. 32.
10Dominick, p. 36.
11Andrew W. Blackwood, Doctrinal Preaching for Today (New York: Abingdon Press, 1956), p. 167.
12John Hartley, Understanding News (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), p. 118-119.
13Dominick, p. 335.
14Hartley, p. 21.
15Berny Morson, “The Significant Facts,” in Philosophical Issues in Journalism, ed. by Elliot D. Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 27.
16Carl F. H. Henry, Successful Church Publicity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1942), p. 17.
Toward A Journalistic Understanding of Preaching
In their book Preaching that Connects, Mark Galli and Craig Brian Larson draw attention to the relationship be-tween homiletics and journalism.1 They are not alone in seeing this relationship. A journalist, Melvin Mencher, calls journalism “kin to teaching, cousin to preaching.”2