The externals of preaching often spoil a good sermon. An unsound program for church service, one that is unbalanced or too long, will kill a minister's best efforts. A forceful message poorly delivered is weaker than a poor message well given. Those who brush aside the externals of pulpit science as being of little consequence are usually those who could double their effectiveness with better technique. Essentials to pulpit work are neatness in dress and general appearance, a burning zeal to give a stirring message, and a thorough knowledge of the subject by previous study, organization, and prayer. No preacher is ready to feed the flock without this preparation.
I have observed that a minister of good organizing ability plans the general program for his Sabbath service long before the time comes for him to step onto the platform with his local elders. The hymns are chosen in accordance with the subject for the day. The announcements have been sorted and arranged in the order to be given. Those who are to read the Scripture and offer prayer have been notified in ample time. Each one has been given his appointed task, and there is no frantic, last-minute salvaging of time and resources. As the minister steps from the vestry with his elders, their deportment should be sober and dignified. They kneel and commune with the Holy Spirit. This prayer should be brief, not more than half a minute. As they rise, the organist strikes the chord for the doxology, the congregation rises, and following the singing of the doxology, one of the elders steps to the pulpit and offers the invocation.
After the congregation is seated, the minister reads the announcements in a clear, distinct voice. Never should they exceed ten minutes in time. The minister who wears out his congregation preaching about his announcements invariably kills his sermon. Much time can be saved by using a weekly church bulletin. Following the announcements, one of the elders announces the opening hymn. It is well to give the title, and then repeat the number. Our churches are comprised of many who do not hear well, or whose attention is elsewhere. These will be saved both embarrassment and distress by proper announcing of the hymn.
Following this hymn, either the pastor or one of the elders announces the Scripture lesson to be read. A selected group of Bible verses read responsively is usually a pleasing form of Scripture lesson. The general prayer then follows by the one previously appointed. It should be the result of careful thought, given in a clear voice, and not a jumble of random thoughts. Brevity should be the rule, three minutes being sufficiently long. The second hymn or a number by the choir follows, and this should be a forerunner of the sermon in every sense. There can be no finer introduction to a sermon than a hymn that dovetails into the topic.
Sermon the Apex of Church Service
The sermon is generally considered the apex of the church service, and here the minister should be at his best. What the scalpel is to the surgeon, the brush to the artist, the chisel to the sculptor, the pen to the writer—the manners, the delivery, and the voice are to the minister. With the abuse or neglect of any one of these, he soon slips into the category of the boorish and the mediocre.
The sermon should be short. The more it is studied, the more briefly it can be given. Half an hour to thirty-five minutes is a good length for the average sermon. The minister who chooses to close his sermon while his congregation wishes him to continue will not wear out rapidly. It is an excellent plan to rotate the types of sermons. There is the sermon of information, the sermon of exhortation, the sermon of reproof, the sermon of doctrine, the stimulating sermon, and the ever-profitable Bible-study type. Let the spiritual diet be varied according to the need. As Lamson says, "Place the fodder high enough so that the tallest may reach it with a little stooping, and low enough so that the tenderest lambs will be within reach of it." Quoting from John Wesley: "Remember, my young fellow ministers, although it is your privilege to walk and talk with the great, yet it is to the common people that you preach. Do not lose the common touch nor ever talk like a book."
When stories are used, they should be told smoothly, briefly, and accurately. Nothing so palls on the ears of the hearers as listening to a minister attempt to tell a story which he does not know well, or which he tells incorrectly. As for rebukes from the pulpit, be very chary of them. The pastor should rule out of his preaching all that savors of the personal or that is controversial.
A humble, quiet dignity is a great embellishment to the pulpit. Pompousness usually gets its own reward. Henry Ward Beecher once invited a young man from a near-by theological seminary to occupy his pulpit at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Immediately the young man swelled with pride. He purposed that his would be a sermon that men would never forget. He would give an overwhelming sermon, possibly worthy of a successor to the great Beecher. Accordingly, the following Sunday morning he climbed into the tall pulpit in Plymouth Church and in a high voice filled with pride read his text. To his horror he could not remember the title of his sermon. So he read his text again. He noticed that the floor was spinning, and he had a queer weakness about the knees. There being nothing else to do, he read the text for the third time. Then, shamefaced and humiliated, and in a very crestfallen manner, he slowly stepped down from the tall pulpit and left the room defeated. Thereupon Doctor Beecher stepped behind the desk and in a very kindly voice said, "If our young friend had gone up in the same spirit as he went down, he could have gone down in the same spirit as he went up." Then he proceeded to preach the sermon for the day.
Few men are clever with gestures. It is better to use none at all than to use them poorly. It is said of William Jennings Bryan that he was almost statuesque while speaking. Yet for years the country rang with his oratory, and huge crowds were held spellbound by the pulpit magic of The Commoner. Talmage's greatest gesture was a smile. Samuel Cuyler usually spoke with his hands linked behind his back to avoid any superfluous gestures.
Mannerisms always detract from the message given in the pulpit. Stuffing the hands in the coat pockets, hooking the thumbs in the trouser pockets, leaning lazily on the desk, thumping the Bible, crossing the arms, clearing the throat too often, folding and unfolding a handkerchief or a sheet of paper, toying with a watch chain, buttoning and unbuttoning the coat every five minutes, gripping the coat lapels, are distracting mannerisms that should be dropped. They clutter and hamper, and detract from impressive delivery. All ministers should avoid them.
As to the voice, happy is the preacher who has a rich one. It is not a powerful voice that should be sought in public speaking, for much shouting and ranting often leave an audience exhausted. Most men shout when they have the least to say. The medium to strive for in preaching is a voice with elasticity, musical cadence, and sonorous qualities, one that rises and falls gracefully and naturally without assuming a sing-song tone. No doubt there are great preachers with poor voices, but they would surely double their effectiveness with a greater degree of tone control. The careful speaker is never a "one-gear" speaker ; that is, he will adapt his tone and volume to the size of the room in which he is speaking. There are few things more distressing than a speaker whose voice is too strong for the room, or one whose voice does not reach the rear seats. A preacher should ever be on guard not to drop the voice so low that enunciation becomes a mere jumble, or to raise it to a strained pitch.
The model speaker does not talk about closing his sermon. He closes, puts the period behind what he has said, and sits down. The Sabbath service should begin and end on time. To carry out this plan requires cooperation on the part of the Sabbath school superintendent, the home missionary leader, and the choir. The closing song should be a reiteration of the main thought of the sermon. This will clinch in the minds of the hearers what they have just heard. The benediction should be a benediction, and not a prayer. Two or three sentences dwelling on the goodness of God and our need of his sustaining power should suffice. This done, I like the plan of having the congregation seated for a moment in silent prayer while the minister takes his place at the door to shake hands with his flock. This gives a splendid touch of orderliness to the close of the Sabbath service.