Feed the lambs, not the giraffes

Cumbersome jargon and the multisyllable are often only a mask for shallow and superficial thought. To feed every member in your pews, study deeply and preach simply.

Morris Chalfant is pastor of the First Church of the Nazarene in Norwood, Ohio.

When Adam and Eve were thrust out of the Garden of Eden, Eve turned to Adam and asked, "Oh, what is to become of us now?" And Adam replied, "We are about to experience an abrupt socioeconomic transformation!"

At least that is how the conversation would have gone if the jargon-prone clerics had had a chance to record it! Time's religion editor chides Protestant scholars for their high-hat vocabulary with these gently sarcastic words: "No theologian today worth his doctorate would dare talk of preaching or teaching—the fashionable forms are kerygma and didache."

If you would be a preacher who brings blessings to his congregation, avoid the juiceless jargon of the professional made cumbersome and obscure by borrowings from the Greek or German and by mouthfuls of syllables that make something less than sense until they are reduced to simpler terms. It was said of our Lord that "the common people heard him gladly" (Mark 12:37). It is in the suds of everyday speech that the starch of the schools must be washed out of the preacher's language. All the mighty evangelists through the centuries have been men who have expounded the Scriptures and set forth Christ in a simple, direct, straightforward manner.

Augustine once said, "A wooden key is not so beautiful as a golden one, but if it can open the door when the golden one cannot, it is far more useful." Luther added, "No one can be a good preacher to the people who is not willing to preach in a manner that seems childish and coarse to some." John Wesley wrote all his sermons in full, and read them to the maid. All the words she couldn't understand he eliminated.

Today, some religious leaders seem to look down on simplicity. They appear to believe that a sermon should be a profound utterance upon some sociological or even political question. Such ministers apparently conceive of themselves as a kind of assistant to Congress. Get a bill through, and the world is in good shape that is the notion. Other ministers, who have gotten a little beyond sociology, now regard themselves as theologians and are probing deeply the mysteries of the uni verse. But where does all this leave the poor souls who sit in the congregation?

When the famous theologian Karl Barth visited the United States, a group of young theological students questioned him. One asked Barth to put in capsule form his definition of the Christian faith, expecting a long statement filled with theological terms with which he could disagree and engage Barth in further intellectual discussion. The Swiss theologian was quiet for a few moments as he reflected. Then he said, "I learned it all at my mother's knee. Yes, if I had to sum up Christianity, I think it would be what my mother taught me 'Jesus loves me, this I know, For the Bible tells me so.'"

No one likes to ask himself after attending church, "What in the world did the preacher mean?" Or "Now, what does that have to do with me?" Such a response usually results, not from the listener's lack of intelligence, but from the preacher's use of Biblical and theological jargon. Who can enjoy a sermon if he must use a dictionary or a theological glossary? Many educated preachers have difficulty expressing themselves in everyday language. In fact, some take years to learn how to explain the great ideas of the faith in words that the average man uses when discussing simpler things. But the preacher must make the transition from his book lingo, or he will be preaching into the wind, and his ponderous prattle will fly back at him, rejected by his puzzled congregation. To communicate the unsearchable riches of God's truth effectively is still our main task.

An 11-year-old girl had heard adults about her talk much of the brilliant new minister. After hearing him preach a wonderfully clear sermon for the first time, she said, "Daddy, that preacher is not so smart. I understood every word he said." That preacher was not only brilliant but also wise, for he had followed the example of Jesus. He had preached in a language that all could understand. He had preached with power.

By simplicity in preaching I do not mean shallow or superficial preaching. I mean clarity of thought and expression the ability to tell others what one has seen and felt until they see and feel it for them selves. Fog is good for lima beans; they prosper in its clammy dampness. But fog has little to offer men. Scientific experiments have indicated that a bank of fog three feet thick, six feet high, and one hundred feet long contains less than one seventh of a glassful of water! One cannot quench his thirst with fog; he cannot even bathe in it. There is only one thing to do with fog, and that is to keep out of it. There was no fog about the gospel when Christ and Paul presented it. A sermon should help people live in a difficult and complicated world. I have often needed help; I still need it. Thank God, I have been able to get it through preaching. So, when I stand up in a pulpit, my great desire is, in the name of Christ, to be of some help to others.

In all our preaching, then, let us be simple, plain, to the point, and deeply in earnest. Remember that Jesus said, "Feed my lambs" not the giraffes! Some preachers have the instinct of aviators they announce a text, taxi for a short distance, then take off from the earth and disappear into the clouds. After that, only the din of exploding gasoline is heard, signifying that they are flying high, very high, above the heads of their hearers. In other words, a sermon, rightly presented, should not be a meteor, but a sun. Its true test is: Can it make anything grow?

George Fox, seeking spiritual guidance, walked seven miles to talk to a clergyman who had a reputation for being helpful. "But I found him but like an empty hollow cask," he reported sadly. The problem with our preaching is that too often people come seeking the water of life, only to find an empty cask. But sometimes they find water when the preacher with simplicity and authority proclaims Jesus Christ.

Feed your people with the bread of life; cause them to drink deeply of the water of life. Be careful not to confuse simple, easy communication with superficial study and shallow preaching. You can dig deep, but you don't have to come up dry. Use your professional tools at home, but take the Inspired Word alone into the pulpit. With God's help, your sermons can be profoundly simple and simply profound.

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Morris Chalfant is pastor of the First Church of the Nazarene in Norwood, Ohio.

November 1982

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