Dave McClellan (Wooster, OH: Weaver Book Company, 2014), Paper, 171 pages.
Preaching is an oral medium. Rather than hand the congregation a written document to read, we stand before our listeners and speak the words of the sermon aloud. Yet too often, Dave McClellan argues, we create the sermon as a literary work rather than an oral one.
In Preaching by Ear, McClellan wants his readers rediscover the oral nature of the sermon and learn to create and present sermons crafted for the listening ear rather than the reading eye. He argues for an “oral orientation” that he defines as “a movement away from safety and predictability. It’s a move toward vulnerability with a hint of the spontaneous. It’s not knowing exactly where you’ll go next…It pulls deeply from internal resources: emotions, experience, firsthand acquaintance with truth. It requires the preacher to speak into a live moment from a whole heart.”
He’s not simply advocating preaching without notes. Rather, he urges “speaking from personally held, deep convictions in a way that enables our words to unfold in the moment by considering the actual people present with us.”
McClellan contrasts the literary sermon with the orally driven sermon. In the former, he argues, the “preparation of our notes is our foremost homiletic task.” The latter form, he believes, harkens back to an earlier age before the printing press, when the sermon was more internally propelled—something that emerged from inside the preacher. He says, “The sermon wasn’t a thing. It was an event."
Before moving forward into practical guidance about how to craft such a message, McClellan reaches back into antiquity to discuss oratorical insights from ancient Greco-Roman rhetoric, discussing figures such as Augustine and Quintilian.
In the second half of the book, he begins with a chapter emphasizing the orality of the New Testament, then turns to Jesuit communications scholar Walter Ong, who wrote extensively about issues of orality and literacy, to seek to draw us into the oral culture in which Scripture originated. He notes, “One is convinced that certain characteristics of orality are close to the very mouth and mind of God, and that those who purport to carry the divine word in a merely literate box lose something of the richness and personality of ‘the Word.’”
McClellan discusses his own approach to developing his oral message, which puts a strong emphasis on internalizing (memorizing) Scripture and carrying on an internal conversation with the text. In contrast to developing an outline, he talks about the progression of the message—creating a roadmap—drawing on visual triggers instead of language. (Here he borrow’s Buttrick’s language of moves in contrast to points.) He shares how he moves toward Sunday in his own week as a pastor, then offers insight into the moment of sermon delivery, with an emphasis on the need for an extemporaneous delivery.
There are weaknesses here, driven by McClellan’s own bias toward his oral mode of crafting a message. He paints a contrast between the dynamic orally driven sermon vs. the pedantic, less-than-energetic written manuscript, and while that often may be true, it is not a necessity. Many of the most popular and engaging evangelical preachers in America develop a manuscript and often use it in the pulpit, yet they have developed an orality of preparation and style so that few listeners would realize a manuscript is present.
McClellan also seems to imply that use of written notes creates a hermeneutical disruption, arguing “there’s a danger when preachers approach the pulpit with two texts: the text of Scripture and the text of their own notes. Though related, priority seems to be given to the notes most recently penned or printed, and preachers may, in terms of what is granted the most attention, focus more on their own ‘text.’”
While his observation is based on his own experience, there is simply no reason to think a sermon drawn from inside the preacher in the moment will be more faithful to the biblical text’s meaning than a sermon crafted through thoughtful, careful study of a passage, with a preacher then thinking through how to craft the language in such a way as to present it in an understandable, meaningful manner. Literate does not mean less accurate; done correctly, I suspect it gives us the opportunity to be more faithful to the text.
Despite those concerns, the book is well worth reading for the pastor, as it reminds us of the oral nature of the sermon and the need for us to prepare to speak to the ear (listener) rather than the eye (reader). Even if one does not adopt McClellan’s approach, there are useful insights that will help us communicate biblical truth more effectively in our own oral culture.