In no other religion has preaching occupied a more unique position in worship than in Christianity.
Neither the Jewish dispensation nor the Greco-Roman world afforded sermon communication the centrality it now holds. Indeed, "as a basic service of the church in its history and significance preaching is a peculiarly Christian instituton."
The current status of the preaching function incurs to itself the circumstance of being under close observation by those whom the sermon seeks to convict and persuade. Should we not face the challenge to make the sermon as acceptable, attractive, and appealing as possible without compromise of effectiveness and without violation of pulpit ethics?
The query is posed, "Just how may the sermon's effectiveness be determined?"
Myriad precepts issue from hornileticians to influence our thinking on this vital question. The present article, however, presents suggestions gleaned from auditors, for the author believes firmly that one practical method of gauging sermonic receptivity and effectiveness is that of having an ear poised to the whisperings of laymen, they who must sit on the receiving end of the rostrum's cuisine. The following observations on preaching grew out of comments overheard by or shared with the author.1. USE ILLUSTRATIONS, for they are windows to admit light.' Nevertheless, beware of making a sermon all windows. There is something glaringly revealing about glass houses, and as for glass-house sermons, general fragility, weakness, and inadequacy mark their character.
The following might illustrate the point. When a group of teachers and students from a certain United States theological seminary visited Germany one summer, naturally churches there requested that these visitors occupy the pulpits during worship services. Interestingly enough, the requests were accompanied by the sincere entreaty: "Please do differently from others of your country who have spoken to us in times past. They related a string of stories. Will you please preach to us sermons?"2. ESTABLISH RAPPORT with auditors through familiar expressions, yet exercise meticulous judgment here, for danger lurks. Too frequent occurrence of common sayings relegates the language near the zone of the hackneyed and the trite.' For instance, into bold prominence as Siamese twins have come the words trials and tribulations—we rarely hear one without the other. Must they be inseparable? Are there not sufficient synonyms to admit a varied interchange of words conveying the same idea with equal efficiency? A not infrequent description of crying is "The tears streamed down her cheeks." A listener begins to wonder whether flowing tears cannot be used with any other verb than "streamed." Furthermore, are not tears ever related to any other part of the face than "cheeks"? Only two examples, but they represent a lexicon of familiar expressions that a preacher might avoid. Overused statements affect adversely the appealing freshness in sermon communication and, among other considerations, unduly tempt a hearer to indulge a guessing game of figuring out "When will he say it again?"
3. A VERBAL RESPONSE invited occasionally to relax and warm a stilted and cold audience is within the canon of legitimacy. Sometimes a sincere Amen constitutes the desired effect. Deuteronomy 27: 15-26, and Psalm 106:48 have been used by some ministers as a basis for such a respouse. But again sanctified care and reason must reign, preventing an overabundance of such requests during any one sermon. The unsolicited response seems more ideal. Understandably, recurring requests for verbal responses are sometimes interpreted to be an attempt to compensate for that which the sermon lacks per se. In the final analysis the sermon must stand on its own merits; and if it is well prepared and preached with power and an immense sense of claim, the preacher may be favored by Moses' experience of having to "restrain" the people.'
4. "QUENCH NOT THE SPIRIT." Give full utterance to the message God gives you. Nevertheless, do not be oblivious to the clock, for time is also an essential element in worship.
Ellen G. White affirms: "Lengthy discourses are a taxation to the speaker and a taxation to the hearers who have to sit so long. One half the matter presented would be of more benefit to the hearer than the large mass poured forth by the speaker."
It has been suggested that perhaps an inclination toward long sermons is motivated partly by one's feeling that when he speaks, his sermon outweighs in importance that of his fellow ministers. Is this ethical?
Scarcely did Christ expect His commission "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" to be accomplished by any one presentation. Nor could Paul have meant that obeying his injunction "redeeming the time" was the job of a single discourse. The Holy Spirit, who may prompt the messenger to make impromptu augments while in the act of delivering his message, is the same faithful guide who (during sermon preparation) will direct the plan for delivery. In other words, the Holy Spirit is available for preparation as well as presentation in preaching.
It would surely be unrealistic to campaign the impossible task of having every word and phrase actually ready and under complete control at the moment of sermon delivery. W. Edwin Sangster, for twenty years the pastor of London's Westminster Central Hall, once remarked that we all know by "long and ineffable experience that there is a 'plus of the Spirit' which no human skill can command—something God adds in the hour itself, which is born of His blessing on the prayers of the people and preacher alike." This, obviously, should not encourage negligence in giving attention to the time element in preaching, for such an attitude clashes with our concept of orderliness and arrangement in all things representing God.
Regarding the wise utilization and priceless value of time, television offers a fine example for preciseness without abruptness, pointedness without jerk. Technical attention steeped in prayer contributes to the answer of the preacher's time problem. That which cannot be reasonably included in one sermon should be reserved for a future message. If the material claims genuine importance, it may serve as adequate advertisement for a subsequent service. Again Ellen G. White says: "Speak short, and you will create an interest to hear again and again."
5. IN CONCLUSION means "in conclusion." Manifold are the defenses raised by speakers who continue long at much speaking after having promised their audience a cessation. Because of either innate unspirituality or a cultivated tendency, people inevitably welcome the sermon conclusion. Hence, when the preacher says, "in conclusion," listeners usually expect it. Of a surety, some speakers possess the enviable gift of so enthralling and captivating the attention of their hearers that the audience is reluctant to have him conclude. Instead of droning on, however, these preachers seize the opportunity to sign off while the interest is high. Incidentally, this probably contributes to their success.
Listeners are customers. Preachers are salesmen. The gospel is the product. Though the product itself may need no change, the salesmen should give necessary attention to their method of canvassing, particularly if the customers prefer it, and apparently many do.
1 John A. Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, p. 1.
2 William Evans, How to Prepare Sermons and Gospel Addresses, p. 137, ff.
3 Richard C. Borden., Public Speaking as Listeners Like It, pp. 76-78.
4 Exodus 36:6.
5 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers, p. 256. Italics supplied.
6 Mark 16:15.
7 Colossians 4:5.
8 W. Edwin Sangster, Can I Know God? p. 9.
9 White, op. cit., p. 258.