For over thirty years, Henry H. Mitchell has been recognized as an authority on Black preaching, and what he shares about preaching is relevant for preachers of any ethnic or cultural background. His preaching is known for its keen perception of what the Bible says here and now. His books include Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art and Celebration and Experience in Preaching.
Derek Morris: Dr. Mitchell, you are a recognized authority on Black preaching. I'm sure that many of the readers of Ministry have read your book Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art.1 What are some of the characteristics of Black preaching that make it such a powerful art?
Henry H. Mitchell: Black preaching uses a medium of imagery and tonality to enhance the message. It isn't a downgrading of quality; it is an upgrading of effectiveness. Preaching has to be more than a cognitive essay, no matter how coherent, no matter how forceful the logic. People are not saved by logic; people are not saved by exciting, stimulating, intellectually impressive ideas; people are saved by faith, and faith is not an idea.
DM: Is that what you mean when you talk about needing to have an "experiential encounter" with the Word?2
HHM: That's right! Faith is resident in intuition. It is not resident in cognition. If faith were resident in cognition, the smartest people would be the most likely to be saved. Nobody seems to understand that, but that's exactly the way it is. So if you put together a very impressive essay, you have impressed people but there is no salvation in being impressed. People are ultimately saved by faith. Faith does not contradict reason in most cases. In fact, you need a certain amount of reason just to express faith. But ultimately people are prone to trust God on an intuitive basis.
DM: In Celebration and Experience in Preaching, you suggest that sermons should be "designed to generate experiential encounter."3 How does the preacher help people to experience an encounter with the Word?
HHM: If I want a person to experience something, I have to generate the kind of image with which they identify and therefore in which they participate vicariously. So when I paint a picture, I'm not just entertaining them. I'm providing a means whereby they can get on board this experience. And when we come out at the end, the biblical story is their personal story. Whatever happened to the prodigal son happens to them.
DM: This idea of an image helping people to make the Bible story their story reminds me of something you said in The Recovery of Preaching: "If you have an idea that can't be translated into a story or a picture, don't use it!"4 Why is a story or a picture so important?
HHM: An idea as idea is not self-evident. It's as simple as that. And that's why Matthew, Mark and Luke seem to accuse Jesus of always using parables.
DM: The art of storytelling has a long history. Today narrative preaching is back in vogue but you point out that Black preaching has used narrative for generations.
HHM: And I would hasten to suggest that the narrative preaching talked about in so many western circles is still not what I'm talking about. The narrative preaching they're talking about focuses on cognitive goals. Explanation. And while explanation is important, the bottom line is not how well the truth is explained but how high its impact is, and how much the Holy Spirit uses it to change people.
DM: So, the narrative is not simply a vehicle to convey information but a setting where the listeners can experience an actual encounter with the Word. That's an important distinction. Let's look at another characteristic of Black preaching: dialogue. You assert that "proclamation with power requires dialogue."5 Can you explain to us what is happening in the dialogue process?
HHM: Participation occurs not only with responses like "Amen," but it occurs in the very attitude of people. Because faith is more caught than taught. People who are deeply spiritual and deeply involved in the sermon tend to radiate a kind of influence that draws everybody else into it. It's like if you're at a funeral and see people crying; you have a hard time not crying. In a spiritually alive church, you'll hear a Black preacher say, "Somebody's not praying." Basically, what he is saying is, "I sense in this atmosphere a kind of coldness."
DM: And without congregational response, you maintain that "the sermon event would be impossible."6 How does the preacher encourage the congregation to become more involved in dialogue?
HHM: People need to be able to identify with what you're saying. You don't say, "Please say something" or "Please respond audibly." Quite to the contrary. It ought to be something completely spontaneous. Audiences will participate to the extent that they are drawn irresistibly into a powerful experience of encounter.
DM: Another characteristic of Black preaching that you have identified is speaking in the mother tongue of your hearers. Can you explain what you mean by that?
HHM: Language communicates a lot more than just the words. Language establishes identity in a powerful way. For instance, a man who is Black and speaks with a British accent will be heard and considered and received as British, no matter what his color. On the other hand, a man who is very light skinned and sounds like a brother will be perceived to be a brother. In other words, the ear image takes precedence over the eye image. No question about it. So if I'm talking to a group of young people and I speak with complete, proper, standard English, those young people will hear me as the enemy. But if I throw in a few of their words and make it plain to them that I'm hip to what's happenin', I'm in already. I don't care if I'm 90 years old. It's not a good thing to project a linguistic image that is false. But there is such a thing as becoming fluent in a variety of languages and doing what Paul recommended when he said, "I'm all things to all men." The point is, I identify with this audience by identifying with their language.
DM: So that's what you mean when you say that a preacher needs to be "linguistically flexible."7 You used the example of some great Black preachers who are very skilled with the language but will use some phrases of the mother tongue. Their intention is to create a more intimate connection with their hearers.
HHM: Yes! You want people to identify with you. You want people to hear you. You want people to trust what you're saying. If they think of you as a stranger, they're not going to trust you. If, on the other hand, they think that you have come from them or voluntarily joined them, then you have a ready audience.
DM: So, speaking in the mother tongue is a way to establish identity, to connect with your hearers. Obviously, that same principle can be applied in a variety of ethnic and cultural settings. Let's look at one other characteristic of Black preaching which is tremendously important: celebration. You not only assert that "expressive or emotional celebration should be understood as thoroughly biblical,"8 you also insist that "celebration is a necessity"9 and that "preaching without celebration is a de facto denial of the good news, in any culture."10 What do you mean by celebration in preaching and why is it so important?
HHM: First of all, let's understand one thing: people are not going to do what the gospel says just because you have said it's right. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred they already knew it was right and they haven't done it. What makes you think that just because you've said it, however cleverly, that they're suddenly going to change? People change when intuition and emotion unite with reason to alter behavior. In other words, there has to be a holistic encounter.
Now, I'm going to involve emotion. I have to do it in a purposeful way. It isn't just excitement. A lot of people think that the celebrated end of a Black sermon is just for entertainment purposes. People aren't changed until their feelings are changed. If you can emote with focus, emote purpose fully, you'll have an audience that goes away wanting to do what the Word says to them because the whole person has been impacted. So I celebrate knowing that if people are impacted by my celebration they're much more likely to do what they're supposed to do.
DM: Even though you suggest that "it will not be easy to begin to design vicarious experiences and celebrations of the Word"11 you obviously believe it is both possible and important for any preacher who wishes to communicate God's Word effectively.
HHM: And it's not all that hard if you follow the rules. First, in order to celebrate you move out of the cognitive mode. You don't just conclude with a cognitive summary but you find a way to be glad, a very simple way to be glad about the truth contained in the sermon. If you get glad about it, you want to do it.
Second, you can't celebrate what's wrong. You've got to have a positive text and a basically positive sermon. You celebrate because the prodigal son came home. That's what gladness is about. It's the good news. This gladness transforms people in a way that a critical comment never would. Indeed, if you actually succeeded through critical comment in giving people a bad conscience, you would only be succeeding in giving what a psychiatrist would call a guilt neurosis. People are not saved by guilt neurosis. A sermon has to start positively, and it has to end positively.
Third, don't introduce new information in the celebration. This is not because people are dumb; it's because they already have the truth, and now you're just putting that last blow of the hammer to drive it all the way in. It's the ecstatic reinforcement of the Word. Now we use heightened rhetoric and beauty of phrase to touch people, things that we would not use in the earlier more conscious moves in the sermon.
Fourth, the preacher has to be caught up in celebration. You can't expect people to be glad about some thing if you're not glad. If you're so chained to a manuscript that you can't really rejoice, that you can't be transparently a part of the words that you're preaching, you've got a problem. The preacher helps the people to catch the spirit. If you have any logical reason to expect the Lord to work, you ought to be involved in it your self. We are celebrating the behavioral purposes of the sermon. We're celebrating the truth. We're not just up there dancing around. We are giving what I call ecstatic reinforcement to the text. And until you've had that ecstatic reinforcement, the whole per son has not yet met the text.
DM: As preachers lead congregations in an experience of celebration, what safeguards them against going to emotional excess?
HHM: There is no such thing as excess, if you go at it properly. In the first place, you do what you can and the Holy Spirit does the rest. In the second place, this celebration is intentional emotion, focused emo tion, and if it's focused, there is no way it's going to excess. There are a lot of people who end up throwing away the baby with the bath water when they fear that almost any emotional expression is going to lead them out of control. They are so busy being proper, they forget that the Holy Ghost has got good sense. And if it's really a Holy Ghost motivated celebration, there's nothing that's going to get out of hand. If preachers go beyond the Holy Spirit, they're on their own. That's manipulation. That's not authentic celebration.
1 Henry H. Mitchell, Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990).
2 Henry H. Mitchell, Celebration and Experience in Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 25.
3 Ibid., 139.
4 Mitchell, The Recovery of Preaching (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), 45
5 Ibid., 115.
6 Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art, 1 13.
7 Ibid., 87.
8 Celebration and Experience in Preaching, 26.
9 Black Preaching, 131.
10 The Recovery of Preaching, 54.
11 Celebration and Experience in Preaching, 139.