Treasure in earthen vessels

It is possible that unsuccessful communication with your congregation is caused not by being a poor preacher but by having a poor pastoral image. Kenneth R. Prather, a practicing pastor, shares four elements that will enhance your congregation's perception of you.

Kenneth R. Prather is pastor of the Community Bible church, Colfax, Washington.

Philips Brooks defined preaching as the "bringing of truth through personality." Brooks realized, as do other authorities of homiletics and communication, that for a sermon to persuade, not only is the message important but so is the congregation's perception of the messenger

Aristotle, who was one of the most important students of persuasion, observed that a speaker's personal character is the most effective means of persuasion he possesses. Roger Nebergall, former chair man of the department of communication at the University of Illinois, contends that in a rhetorical situation the speech is of minor importance; the person giving the speech and the audience's attitude toward him are more significant factors in persuasion. 1 More than one hundred scientific studies support the theory that a speaker's image has an enormous effect on communication.

Therefore, if we, as preachers, want to persuade people to accept Christ and Christian doctrine it is most important that we have a good image. Of course, we do not have complete control over what our congregation believes about us; nevertheless, four elements will enhance their perception of us and therefore increase our ability to persuade. They are: trustworthiness, expertise, good will, and power.

If one does not trust another, there can be no genuine communion. Many political figures are having a difficult time being believed because the attitude of the public toward politicians causes everything they say to be suspect. A person who is not trusted cannot be a credible witness. The importance of trustworthiness can be seen in Paul's advice to Timothy to handle the Word of God "rightly," and in his declaration that the heart of his own preaching was "Jesus Christ, and him crucified," unlike orators and sophists whose primary concern was the production of words (see 2 Tim. 2:15; 1 Cor. 2:1-5).

Trustworthiness for the preacher also includes believing and living what he proclaims. Paul's advice to the young pastor, Timothy, is again appropriate: "Command and teach these things. . . . Set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity" (1 Tim. 4:11, 12, R.S.V.). W. M. Mac- Gregor reminds us that a man is not a preacher because of any external form, recalling the Latin saying, "The cowl does not make a monk." 2

The second element in securing a good image is expertise. A congregation soon loses respect and interest if it thinks the preacher does not know what he is speaking about because he has failed to probe deeply into his subject, lacks experience, or does not show intellectual integrity and sound judgment.

In the area of expertise, two reasons may be given for a lack of interest in sermons today. First, instead of explaining and applying the Word of God, many preachers spend much time in politics, sociology, and psychology, areas in which their audiences do not think them experts (nor expect them to be). Second, a preacher may not give enough time and scholarship to his sermon.

Good will is the third element enhancing one's image. Good will occurs when the speaker identifies with his congregation and shares with it common interests, feelings, beliefs, genuine love, and respect. Discourtesy, strutting, or bullying an audience greatly damages a speaker's ability to persuade.

The local minister, although he may be no pulpit genius or great orator, can through his pastoral concern develop good will between himself and his congregation so that his people hear him gladly. Heart speaks to heart.

While attending seminary in Illinois and preaching in a small town there, I witnessed an incident that showed me the necessity of good will for persuasion. A local minister, whose turn it was to preach the sermon for the high school baccalaureate sermon, would not allow any other ministers from the community on the platform with him. Had that preacher afterward wanted to persuade me about his church doctrine, he would have gotten nowhere. Why? Because he had set himself apart from me.

The fourth element that enhances a speaker's image is power. James A. Winans, who for forty-five years taught college speech at such schools as Cornell, Dartmouth, and the University of Missouri, said, "However much the orator lacks of goodness, he will rarely be found weak. The orator is a leader, and weaklings do not lead." 3

The apostle Paul was a powerful preacher. He knew that God had called him to preach (see Gal. 1:15, 16), and this sense of call clothed his ministry with dignity. Dignity of person and office has a powerful influence upon an audience. He also knew what he believed and why. Power is rooted in commitment and conviction. The need for power in preaching may have been the reason why Paul encouraged Timothy not to be timid and wrote Titus not to allow anyone to put him down (see 2 Tim. 1:7; Titus 2:15).

The next time you stand before your congregation, remember Phillips Brooks's definition of preaching as "truth through personality." What you are will be speaking as well as what you say.


1 James L. Golden, Goodwin F. Berquist, and William E. Coleman, The Rhetoric of Western Thought, 2d edition (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co. 1978), p. 219.

2 W. M. MacGregor, The Making of a Preacher (London: S.C.M. Press Ltd., 1954), pp. 33-46.

3 James Albert Winans, Public Speaking, rev. ed. (New York: the Century Co., 1921), p. 124.

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Kenneth R. Prather is pastor of the Community Bible church, Colfax, Washington.

May 1981

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