Pastor's Pastor

Sermons preached but not delivered

Many sermons we preach never really get "delivered." We have gotten them out of our system, off our hands. But, perhaps because of the way we worded what we had to say, they didn't get into the minds of those for whom they were intended. They were preached, but not delivered.

Floyd Bresee, Ph.D., is a former secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association, and continues to pastor and preach in Oregon, where he and his wife, Ellen, live in retirement.

Feeling lazy, the paperboy dumps his bag of newspapers in the garbage can rather than taking them to his subscribers. Have the papers been delivered? He's gotten them off his hands. But a thing is not really delivered until it has gotten into the hands of the person for whom it was intended.

Many sermons we preach never really get "delivered." We have gotten them out of our system, off our hands. But, perhaps because of the way we worded what we had to say, they didn't get into the minds of those for whom they were intended. They were preached, but not delivered.

Carpenters build houses. They ought to have considerable knowledge about the principles of house construction. But they also need to know something about hammers and saws. Without those tools their knowledge will never get applied to houses.

Similarly, preachers ought to have considerable knowledge of theology, Bible truth. But they shouldn't consider language unimportant. Language is the means by which they apply their knowledge.

When we talk about the use of language in preaching, we're talking about style. Webster says style is the "mode of expressing thought in language." Style is often associated with dress. Style is not the woman, but the way she's dressed. People judge a woman by her dress. In preaching, style is not the idea or truth you present, but the way you express it. People judge an idea by the way it's expressed.

Let's look at four criteria of good preaching style.

Good style is clear

The sermon is a telescope, not a kaleidoscope. The latter draws attention to the bright bits of glass within itself. The former draws attention to that which is beyond itself. One you look at. The other you look through.

Edward Everett was the principal speaker at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg. He was a stylish elocutionist. He spoke flawlessly, without notes, for two hours, climaxing with "Wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of the great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country there will be no brighter page than that which relates the battles of Gettysburg." Beautiful. Impressive. But Lincoln's Gettysburg ad dress, which followed Everett's, has had far more impact on the world. Lincoln said almost the same thing, but so simply and clearly: "The world . . . can never forget what they did here."

Clever is good, but clear is essential. If you can be both clear and clever, great. But never sacrifice clarity for cleverness. Speak to be understood rather than to be admired.

Good style is accurate

Since they deal with such grand issues, preachers tend to overstate. People don't like that. In particular, watch out for-est. Not everything you talk about is the oldest, biggest, or greatest. After you've exaggerated the earthly, people tend to assume you're still exaggerating when you speak of the heavenly.

Good style is thought-provoking

Watch your congregation as they fill out some form or survey in church. A few will do it in an instant. Others will take 10 times as long. Remember that they listen to your sermon in the same way. Some take 10 times as long as others to grasp an idea or think something through. One is bored with your idea be fore another has even caught it.

How do you preach to both in the same sermon? Bring out a meaning of the idea, but not the whole meaning. Don't lay out the ramifications so completely that you leave no thinking for the listeners. Predigested food is unappetizing. The beauty of Jesus' parables is that a meaning is almost instantly clear, but the whole meaning is practically unfathomable.

Relevance is not the responsibility of the speaker alone. Lackadaisical listeners may try to lay guilt trips on preachers by asking, "How does that apply to me?" Preachers ought sometimes to shrug their shoulders and reply, "How should I know?" Preaching should always be practical and relevant, yet only the worshipers can determine its relevance to their individual lives. Prime their pumps, but don't do all their thinking for them.

Good style is natural

Bathe your heart in the Holy Spirit so you have something helpful to say. Permeate your mind with good literature so you develop the vocabulary and use of language to say it well. Then step into the pulpit and speak it naturally.

Either too ornate or too poor a use of language attracts attention to itself and away from your message. So the best style is usually that which your audience notices least!

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Floyd Bresee, Ph.D., is a former secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association, and continues to pastor and preach in Oregon, where he and his wife, Ellen, live in retirement.

July 1990

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