What's Wrong With Modern Preaching?

FEATURES: What's Wrong With Modern Preaching?

The author points out many issues in contemporary preaching

Instructor in Speech, Andover Newton Theological School

What wrong with preaching? That something is wrong few will deny. No one has an in fallible diagnosis or an absolute cure; nevertheless, these personal observations are offered with the conviction that some of the ills of preaching can be diagnosed and a partial cure effected.

Superficial Ideas

Preaching deficiencies exist in both con tent and delivery. The first charge is that the ideas are often superficial. Sermons are thin, often timely but rarely timeless, usually providing opinions about life but seldom presenting the way of life. Aware of this weakness, authoritative voices rightly call not for Biblicism but for more Biblical preaching. As a well-known religious leader says, "If the preacher will carry the Bible, the Bible will carry the preacher." It makes little difference whether preaching is from the Bible to life or from life to the Bible as long as the road between these two is well traveled. Sermons can be kept rich and deep by a systematic study of the Bible with the aid of the best commentaries. The sermons of George Buttrick flow from an entire summer devoted to one book of the Bible. Content can be strengthened by making the Book of books the primary source of Christian preaching.

Lack of a Defined Faith

A greater stress upon Biblical preaching will help to overcome a second charge that the man in today's pulpit lacks a clear conception of his basic ideas. He doesn't know what he believes. Consequently, people go to church hoping to hear a prophet but seeing only a reed shaken in the wind. Reinhold Niebuhr says that religious conservatism has ossified the gospel, and religious liberalism has vaporized it. The goal is neither extreme. Nevertheless, the effective preacher must have a clear understanding of his ideas. How can he persuade people to accept the gospel if he isn't sure what it is? One cause of fuzzy ideas is the failure to formulate personal faith precisely.

An able minister once defined his faith by tackling the basic Christian doctrines as soon as he finished seminary. He read a dozen of the best books on each doctrine. Soon afterward he preached a series of sermons entitled "What I Believe About God, Jesus, Man, Prayer, and Immortality." His practice deserves our approval.

Hasty Sermon Preparation

Another cause of misty ideas is hasty sermon preparation. All too many ministers live from hand to mouth, "getting up" a sermon in one week or less. Thus the ideas are predestined to a premature birth. All pulpit seers agree that a worth-while sermon has to grow, like an apple, until it is ripe. Such growth requires long periods of thinking, listening, observing, and reading. Preachers should clarify their personal faith early in their ministry and plan their sermons far ahead. In so doing they will give their congregations a better-balanced spiritual diet and avoid vagueness. Re member, a haze in the pulpit produces a fog in the pew!

Lack of Enthusiasm

When a preacher stands on the Bible, knows what he believes, and can state it clearly, he may escape the third charge lack of enthusiasm. All too many preachers are like the pastor "who dreamed he was preaching, woke up, and found he was!" People expect their minister to be enthusiastic about Christianity. If he isn't excited by the good news, how can he excite others? Enthusiasm, however, cannot be put on. It must spring from within, from the worthwhileness of the message, from a clear understanding of it, and from eagerness to share it. When these elements are present enthusiasm will smolder and flame in the message until it sets fire to the messenger and the congregation.

Enthusiasm, moreover, will fulfill the de sire of those folks who wistfully say, "I wish our minister would put some feeling into his sermons." Such a wish convicts the man in today's pulpit of a fourth charge failure to arouse the emotions. People want their preacher to put feeling into his message so he will stir their feelings. They need to be moved, to feel religion deeply. Preachers unfortunately have forgotten that people feel as well as think, possess a heart as well as a head. The appeal to reason may convince them of truth, but only the appeal to emotion can persuade them to act upon it. Unless the fire of emotion has been kindled, preaching is powerless.

The preacher can begin by allowing himself to be moved. The first test of a moving message is that it moves the messenger. Just as joy or sorrow are an inescapable part of life, so they ought to be an inescapable part of the sermon. It is not a sin to laugh and cry in church even though their absence might cause some people to think so. Notice, this is no cheap call to play upon the emotions. Rather it is a plea to recognize them, stir them, and channel them so they can "generate power for living." Preachers may use appropriate illustrations which touch upon both the humorous and the tragic, to call upon the motivating drives of human nature, and allow themselves to be moved by stirring issues.

Language

The fifth charge against content is its abstract, colorless language. Sermons of our time are dull and uninteresting, partly because they lack concreteness and vividness. Their words act like slave laborers plod ding slowly and dejectedly down the sermonic avenue to a concentration camp. Instead, they ought to march as soldiers in the army of the Lord, certain of victory, pushing eagerly forward with the rattle of drums, the blare of bugles, and banners flying high. Movies and television have made gaseous abstractions intolerable to the con temporary mind. Preachers should be artists painting pictures in the mind turning the ear into an eye. Jesus did not lull people to sleep or drive them away from church by using vague generalities like social order. He spoke in crystal-clear parables. He left unforgettable portraits of a wounded man receiving mercy from a good Samaritan and of a widow giving away all she had to the Lord's work. These masterpieces of our Lord are perfect models for the preacher in expressing profound thought by simple and beautiful words. Preaching can be improved by more skill in language.

How!

The lack of colorful language has made contemporary sermons dull, and the absence of concrete words has made them empty. Emptiness and dullness have been reinforced by the sixth charge that "how" is the lost word of present-day preaching. A college professor once said, "I haven't any use for those preachers who are trying to make the world better by merely telling- people to be good. Most people want to be good. What they need to know is 'how'!" They often spend their whole time proving a problem which folks will admit as soon as it is mentioned. As a result, people go home from church with a new problem rather than with insight for solving old ones. Occasionally a pulpiteer will try to solve a perplexity in the conclusion of his sermon. By that time it is too late! Everyone knows he cannot cure in one minute what he has created in nineteen. James Gordon Gilkey, Norman Vincent Peale, and John Southerland Bonnell have been condemned for capturing crowds through success psychology sermonets. Even so, the multitudes who wait upon their ministry testify eagerly that they go to church because they "get something out of it."

Maybe this is why the people heard Jesus gladly. When the disciples said, "Lord, teach us to pray," He told them, "Our Father which art in heaven." When the young lawyer asked how to inherit eternal life, He told him, "Be merciful as the good Samaritan." When people asked how to treat an offending brother He told them, "Forgive him seventy times seven." When His followers asked how to be greatest in the kingdom of heaven, He told them, "Humble yourself as this little child." Con temporary preaching needs to find the "how" in religion.

Delivery

The inadequacies of content are inseparably related to delivery. Effective delivery cannot be put on as a coat. Like enthusiasm it springs from within, from significant ideas, clearly understood, firmly believed, and vividly expressed. Trying to correct the faults of delivery without first giving attention to invention, organization, and language is like trying to run a car without gasoline. In a word, many of the abuses of delivery have both their cause and cure in content. Having said this, we may state certain defects of presentation.

Monotony in delivery comes from the lack of variety in vocal and bodily action. If variety is the spice of life, it will certainly add life to the sermon. See the delivery of the typical preacher. His face is a dead pan. His hands are glued to the pulpit, locked behind him, or hanging limply at his sides. His voice rises in pitch and volume, evens out in rate, and drones steadily on to the bitter end. His eyes, since they rarely make contact, appear glassy. He looks at his manuscript, the floor, back wall, ceiling, or out the window. There are exceptions, but in general his facial expression resembles the Sphinx, bodily action the wooden soldier, and vocal expression the drone of an electric motor. The "holy tone" is still with us. Voices wear clerical robes. This is shown by the fact that nine out of ten radio preachers can be identified as preachers by the use of their voices long before their words are understood. Not so obvious as it once was, the holy tone is still devastating to the listener.

Delivery can be interesting and persuasive. To make it so, preachers must achieve directness in eye contact and vocal quality, and variety in vocal and bodily action. To be sure, these qualities of delivery should arise naturally and spontaneously as the preacher responds to ideas and feelings. Preachers, nevertheless, can do more than prune away mannerisms and hope that they will not return. They can free themselves to develop an effective delivery in these ways.

First, think of preaching not as a new species of talk but as enlarged conversation. Yes, conversation, just the same as when you talk to your parishioners on six days in the week natural, direct, and personal. At the same time enlarged enough to fit the subject and the congregation. The word preach is unpopular today, not so much because of what is said as because of how it is said. People say, "Don't preach to me," because the holy tone suggests condescension. Try talking to your people as man to man. Give your parishioners the naturalness and directness of conversational voice quality. The holy tone presents a subject in front of an audience but not to an audience; it destroys the vital I-thou relationship. Eliminate the holy tone and improve vocal expression by holding to conversational speech. The value of recording equipment in this task cannot be overestimated. Every preacher ought to have an adequate recorder and a record library, which will permit him to hear not only himself but examples of both vocal faults and vocal excellence.

Second, master the extemporaneous method. It would be well if you could learn all the methods of delivery: impromptu, extempore, memorization, and reading. Time rarely permits such proficiency. Consequently, the most useful method should be mastered first. This is the extempore method. Write the manuscript, therefore, in full when possible, and then speak from a written or mental out line, rethinking the sermon ideas, not the words, as they are presented. Speaking from an outline will provide freedom in presentation. The memory method is less desirable than the extempore method, because it puts great strain on the speaker, limiting vocal variety and spontaneous adaptation to the congregation. The reading method restricts spontaneous adaptation to the congregation, vocal variety, eye contact, facial expression, and bodily activity. Moreover, few preachers have time to write all their sermons for either memorization or reading. Thus, the extempore method will best free your voice and body for effective presentation.

Third, learn to speak without a lectern or a pulpit. If the pulpit would confess its sins against effective speechmaking, it would cry: "Woe is me! I am a barrier between a preacher and his people. I en courage indirectness and the unholy tone. I invite the preacher to read or to use extensive notes which cause him to lose eye contact and to limit his vocal variety. By urging the preacher to cling to me I cripple his bodily activity for life. O miserable offender that I am!" Once the preacher has learned to look at his congregation, to talk to them, and to enter fully into the speaking situation, nothing not even a pulpit can cripple his delivery.

What's wrong with preaching? The con tent has been diagnosed as having superficial ideas, hazily understood, weakly believed, and drably stated. The proposed cure is a greater emphasis upon Biblical and doctrinal themes, long-range preaching programs, appeals to the emotions, picturesque language, and the "how" of religion. Delivery has been found indirect and dull indirect because of the lack of vocal naturalness and eye contact; and dull due to monotony in voice and body. The recommended remedy is the directness and the variety that come from conversational quality, extempore method, and learning to speak without the support of a pulpit. 

In brief, preaching has a lot wrong with it, but nothing that thorough speech training, common sense, and the grace of God cannot cure!

 

 


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Instructor in Speech, Andover Newton Theological School

August 1951

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