What Is Right With Preaching Today?

FEATURES: What Is Right With Preaching Today?

Second part of the series

Professor of Biblical Homiletics, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania



In the typical congregation today note the rediscovery of the hearer. By this I mean the friend in the pew. In a high sense every preacher ought to keep God central; that is, God in Christ. But on the human level he should think first and most about the layman in the pew. When the minister starts to prepare a sermon, he ought to begin with a need out in the parish today. In view of conditions now, he may speak about fear as public enemy number one, or rather, about the faith that triumphs over fear. Again, he may deal with "God's Cure for the Blues." Every pastor with open eyes knows that these diseases of the soul prevail in the parish today. Why else have Rabbi Liebman's Peace of Mind and Dale Carnegie's How to Stop Worrying and Start Living stood out as best sellers month after month?

The up-to-date minister also gains a world view. Both in his prayers and in his preaching he shows concern for a world that trembles on the verge of the abyss. Hence he may preach about world brother hood or world missions; the removal of race prejudice or the coming of world peace. But he looks on such a subject as it concerns the friend in the pew. For example, listen to Dr. George A. Buttrick, who has become known as "the preacher's preacher." He has been calling for sermons about worldwide problems of our day. Now he insists:

"Preaching to the social need is at best a wise, urgent, tender plea specific in tone and import addressed to the individual. ... 'If religion ends with the individual, it ends.' Verily. But if it does not begin with the individual, it never begins, and has no being. The seed of all things human is selfhood. Personality is the pole around which the electrons of the social life revolve." 9

On the human level, therefore, the ablest preaching of our time has become hearer- centered. Forty years ago many a preacher seemed to think of himself as the central sun in the sanctuary, and of everyone else as a sort of satellite. Now the minister abreast of the times has rediscovered the hearer. The preacher comes into the pulpit to engage in "animated conversation." This conversation has to do with matters of concern to the friend in the pew. From, time to time the speaker addresses him directly. Professor Farmer says that nobody but a dunce would keep saying "you" all the way through a sermon. On the other hand, the British theologian declares:

"If there is no point where you can say 'you,' then it is strongly to be suspected that your dis course is not a sermon, but an essay, or a lecture." 10

All these matters have to do with psychology. Partly for this reason Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick writes about them with practical wisdom. Among pulpit masters today no one has made a larger use of psychology. Twenty years ago he published a magazine article, "What Is the Matter With Preaching?" " There he pleaded for a larger degree of "cooperative preaching." By that he meant "preaching with" the man in the pew; talking with him about the problems that concerned him out on the street and at his fireside. This kind of pulpit work calls for conversation full of life and color, and not for highfalutin' high jinks or pontifical platitudes.

The rediscovery of the hearer in church has come hand in hand with the rediscovery of the need for pastoral counseling elsewhere during the week. Here also Dr. Fosdick has done much to influence the ministers of our day. In the latter part of that magazine article he spoke about "the final test of a sermon's worth: how many individuals wish to see the preacher alone?" The man who believes in cooperative preaching needs also to excel in pastoral counseling. As a preacher he engages in "animated conversation"; as a pastor, in "animated listening." In the pulpit and in the conference room he looks on the lay man as a friend who needs to know God well and to love Him much. In short, let us give thanks for the preacher's rediscovery of the hearer.


In the pulpit today note the rediscovery of the speaker. By the speaker I mean the one who delivers the message. As a teacher of homiletics, and not public speaking, I believe that the popular effectiveness of a sermon depends more on the delivery than on anything else.12 The value, under God, depends mainly on the truth in the message, and on the spirit of the preacher, but the effect on the hearer varies largely according to the skill of the speaker. All of this ought to delight the heart of the friend who teaches public speaking in the semi nary today.

Forty years ago no professor of homiletics would have made such statements. In those days we students heard much about Phil lips Brooks' idea of preaching as "truth through personality." We thought about the truth of God as coming through the personality by the means of what we call homiletics. Now we know that personality also finds a voice through what we term delivery. At times homiletics and public speaking may overlap, but just now we can think about the popular effectiveness of the speaking.

Outside the seminary, leaders in the church have come to much the same conclusion. For example, think of Methodist Bishop Fred Pierce Corson. As the presiding bishop of the Philadelphia area he supervises more than a thousand parish ministers. He also knows the work of many pastors elsewhere. Writing in the autumn of 1948, Bishop Corson speaks about the faults that laymen find with preaching today. He reports that they object most of all to the delivery. He says that they also protest against lack of variety and poverty of style.

Often these faults go together. The minister who speaks poorly calls attention to lack of variety in his message and to poverty in his literary style. The dear man may know his Bible and love his Lord. But as a preacher he has not learned how to de liver a message from the King. At the end of the service a businessman may whisper to his wife: "Why do we drive to church and listen to that sort of stuff? Why not stay at home and hear a real sermon over the radio?"

Such criticisms come still more sharply from our young people. Faults in delivery impress our sons and daughters when they return home from college and university. Why have laymen, young and old, become so conscious of the preacher's voice and his ways of speaking? Partly because of the radio. Forty years ago, if a Methodist bishop in the Philadelphia area had reported about the most frequent criticisms of preachers, he would not have headed the list with faults in delivery. During the past two decades the radio has helped to make people conscious of the speaker's voice and his preaching manner. Thus far the radio has not directed people's eyes toward his posture and his gestures, or lack of gestures. But with television coming into home after home, the pastor must prepare to meet that newer and stiffer competition. What an opportunity for the seminary professor of public speaking!

For examples of skill in radio speaking, turn to three figures in recent world history. Look on each of them as a human being, and not as a statesman or a politician. I refer to Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Winston Churchill, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Over the radio many of us have listened to the foremost Christian gentlewoman of our time. When she spoke from Madison Square Garden, we never before had heard such mastery of public address. With almost equal emotion we listened to Winston Churchill's war addresses over the radio.

As for the late President Roosevelt, who can ever forget his fireside talks? As we heard him over the air we felt the magic of his voice and the spell of his personality. Now we welcome an appraisal from three experts who have written a book about Religious Radio: 13

"No seasoned radio speaker ever proceeds at machine gun pace. He knows that each thought he expresses can hit its target only once. So he moves slowly enough to allow his first shot to sink home before he fires a second shot. . . . Average reading speed for radio ranges between 120 and 150 words a minute. [The late] President Roosevelt, who is generally considered the most effective speaker in radio, sometimes spoke as slowly as 110 words a minute, and seldom exceeded 135."

Among radio preachers Dr. Ralph W. Sockman uses a rich, deep voice. But not every popular radio preacher commands such a pleasing instrument. Among the exceptions think of Dr. Fosdick, Dr. Fulton J. Sheen, and the late Dr. Walter A. Maier. Despite his voice, or perhaps because of it, each of them has reached and held multitudes of hearers. Dr. Maier is said to have attracted a larger radio audience than any other religious speaker in the world. For a while many of his hearers wrote in to pro test against his voice and his manner. When he changed to a softer style of speaking his "fan mail" fell off a thousand letters a day. When he resumed the former method of address the flood of mail again rose to the former level.

These facts may seem confusing. Even so, they all point in one direction. They show that people have become conscious of the way a man delivers a sermon. Never in the past forty years have"! seen among laymen so much concern about matters of delivery. Never have I found among seminary students and parish ministers such a desire to excel in public speaking. Hence I congratulate every man whom God has honored by permitting him to teach this art in the theological seminary of today and tomorrow. In words from the Book, "Thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this"!

My friend, join with me in giving thanks for these five trends the rediscovery of the preacher, of the teacher, of the interpreter, of the hearer, and of the speaker. In view of these facts, the seminary professor of preaching occupies a more important post today than ever before. Also he may find it more difficult, but he can rest secure in the favor of the God who has called him into a work that an angel might covet. "They that be teachers shall shine as the bright ness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever." 14


9 Scribner, Jesus Came trenching (New York, 1931), pp. 108-115.

10 Parmer, The Servant of the Word (New York, 1942), p. 64.

11 Harry Emerson Fosdick, "What Is the Matter With Preaching?" Harper's Magazine, July, 1928.

12 For a fuller discussion see The Preparation of Sermons, by A. W. Blackwood, Abingdon-Cokesbury, Nashville, 1948, chapters 17 and 18: The Preparation for Speaking,' "The Delivery From the Pulpit."

13 Everett C. Parker et al, Religious Radio (New York, 1948).

14 A version of Daniel 12:3.

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Professor of Biblical Homiletics, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

December 1951

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