The parson who talked sense

When you are preaching well, your listeners understand and remember the ideas you are attempting to convey. By using words familiar to your congregation and portraying word pictures, you communicate most successfully.

Fred E. Luchs, pastor and editor, writes from Athens, Ohio.

Recently my son was in a traffic accident. I received the following letter: ' (We are subrogated to the rights of our insured to the extent of the payment which is made by us as a result of this claim. You are, hereby, notified that we claim a lien in the amount of such payment upon any amount that may be paid by you or your insurance carrier in settlement with our insured or upon any monies paid by you in satisfaction of any judgment which he may procure against you."

This question came to me: In my effort to show profound thought, do I preach sermons that sound like that? Do I get lost in a plethora of big words that give only a vague and confused idea of what I mean? I believe that one rule is essential for sermon clarity: Use picture words.

Some years ago an English clergyman, much against his wishes, was sent to minister to a country church. But he set himself to win his people. He learned the vernacular of his flock. He noted every word they used in conversation, and in time collected about three hundred words. He translated his sermons into the local dialect, avoiding words unfamiliar to his people. His congregation grew larger. People came in numbers to listen to "the parson who talks sense."

My old neighbor Harold Bosley tells of a question his young son asked him upon his return from a teaching and speaking tour in the Far East. The boy asked, "But  Father, you speak no Japanese. How could they understand you?" Dr. Bosley answered that he had preached two or three sentences, then stopped and allowed his Japanese interpreter to convey his message to the people, after which he again spoke in English. The boy said, "Dad, why don't you do that in your own pulpit?"

Of course, it would be better to ask, "Why don't we do that in our studies before reaching the pulpit?" We may write our sermons in the philosophical jargon of Tillich and Niebuhr, but on completion we must transpose them to a key that stirs our people.

When Abe Lincoln was a boy, he would listen to conversations about politics or religion. Then he would pace the loft of his Pigeon Creek home, trying to put the ideas he had heard into language that a boy could understand. When searching for an idea, he would not stop until he had caught and phrased it in the right words. By this method he developed his power of clear expression.

It is easy to preach in abstract terms. It is simple to beseech our people to be Christians. It is not as simple to picture for them the straight and narrow path. It is easy to say, "Tom is a Christian," but if we are to convey the full meaning of that statement, we must show Tom paying his bills on time, giving to the United Fund, helping a blind man across the street, or doing other acts of kindness.

The Bible exhorts us to become as little children. Would that we could paint word pictures as they do. Dr. Arnold Gesell in The Word Became Flesh observes, "The child of five is a pragmatist and defines things in terms of use."

Once we too could express ourselves like that. Now we pride ourselves in our capacity for handling abstract ideas in smooth generalizations, and our parishioners go away with words, not pictures, to remember. How many of our sermons have started out with great promise, yet never arrived because they were made up of concepts rather than pictures. Great preachers never spoke that way. They projected Bible incidents on the screen of the mind. The human mind is often sluggish. We cannot induce a congregation to listen to us unless our case is stated with warmth and vigor. A listener recognizes truth at once when it is presented in concrete form.

Great truths rest not upon abstract reasoning, but facts. When we preachers use our imagination and compel our hearers to use theirs, facts become vivid and real. Let's do our thinking in the abstract and our speaking in the concrete.

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Fred E. Luchs, pastor and editor, writes from Athens, Ohio.

September 1984

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