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The internal dynamic of credible preaching

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Archives / 2010 / May

 

 

The internal dynamic of credible preaching

David E. Thomas
David E. Thomas, DMin, is dean, School of Theology, Walla Walla University, College Place, Washington, United States.

 

Preaching can be considered an audacious thing for humans to do—daring to stand in the pulpit to speak for God because God is not there in person to speak for Himself.1 Nevertheless, preachers are driven by the belief that preaching is a divinely mandated mechanism by which they can affect lives. As did the apostle Paul, preachers live under the urgency of the words: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14, NIV).

In order for preaching to be effective, it has to have credibility. Credibility is a bit difficult to define as it has an element of intangibility: credibility is something that makes preaching interesting, urgent, and effective; its absence, in contrast, makes preaching dull and ineffective. Credibility is commonly understood to be the ability a person has to elicit belief in others. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, for example, defines credibility as “the quality or power of inspiring belief.”2 A sermon with credibility, then, would be one that has enough authenticity to give it bite in the minds of the listeners, enough to move them to action and change.

To create credibility

Credibility is produced by a number of things. First, the content of the message: the ideas, concepts, arguments, and illustrations. These elements must be perceived as true, or credibility can be quickly lost. I recall preaching a sermon that was well-put together but had a story that the congregation felt was far-fetched. Thus, the whole sermon lots its credibility and, therefore, its effect. Another sermon I preached deemed to have great credibility primarily because, in the presence of some health professionals, I happened to correctly describe the mechanisms by which leprosy works.

A second element in establishing credibility is speaking technique and ability—skills that may be learned, borrowed wholesale, copied, even mimicked. But we must be careful: technique may be borrowed, faked, or, even worse, disconnected from the “heart” of the speaker. Any technique borrowed and unrefined to fit a person’s nature and personality, easily ends up appearing fake, comical, and not credible.

Many view technique as the primary ingredient in credibility. This idea is reflected in our great fascination with flamboyant public speakers. Also, so many preachers and their teachers turn immediately toward improving technique when faced with ineffectiveness in their preaching.

The internal dynamic

Though content and technique both play a substantial role in establishing credibility, a third (and by far the most important) element must be considered: the internal dynamic between the preacher and the message they deliver. When it comes to preaching with credibility, this dynamic3 becomes particularly important but is seldom talked about.

In preaching, more than in other forms of speech, credibility originates not just in the content of the message, not just in the way in which the message is delivered, but also from something sensed as coming from within the preacher themselves. As a living process, preaching and its effectiveness cannot be divorced from the speaker. The process, product, and person are inherently interwoven and interdependent. Often when we think about the lives to be touched by preaching, we think of the congregation; seldom do we consider that another person exists who must be affected by the sermon—the preacher themselves.

Fred Craddock exposes the foundation for the internal dynamic upon which credibility is built when he observes that the nature of a minister’s work “makes the separation of character from performance impossible.”4 Craddock says that, “in preaching one says more than what is said, or less.”5 Preaching, indeed, ministry as a whole, wraps the person and the task together. The latter cannot be credible without the former being genuine.

The homiletical engine

One of the best ways to understand how credibility gets built up in the preacher and the sermon would be to spend some time reviewing how sermons are produced. The process of birthing and tending a sermon from origin to delivery is known among preachers. Good preaching is not the result of accident but the product of a disciplined process established as a central feature of a preacher’s life. For want of a better term, I call this process and discipline a “homiletical engine.” I would list among its operating parts the maintenance of at least a minimal devotional life, reading over a wide range of subjects, and developing a homiletical bias that causes a preacher to see all things with the eye of one who has to preach. This includes a process of preserving ideas that might become sermons. This homiletical engine could include the development of an illustration file, personal contact with the members of the congregation, and interaction with the local community. Included also must be the discipline of carving out a significant number of hours on a weekly basis for reading, meditation, as well as for writing (and re-writing) sermons.

Essentially, the homiletical engine includes the process that begins with the birth of an idea, then moves through the preservation of the idea, to the incubation, to its distillation, then writing and refinement to the point where it actually gets practiced and then preached. This process may vary to some degree from this description, and may be formal or informal, but its makeup and function are understood by all preachers.

Good preachers discipline themselves to develop this engine and install it, front and center, in their lives. This engine is never off. And if the engine is well-built and in good operating condition, the number of ideas and sermons produced is endless, the quality high. Those who preach regularly well know how much this process affects life, and that by this all-encompassing discipline and process, preachers deliver something worth listening to week by week.

Incubation and distillation

As the homiletical engine becomes central, almost automatically the contemplation of the things of God are placed at the center of life; a situation that privileges the preacher to be dealing with the things of God on an almost mandated basis (and paid for it too!). By virtue of the need to preach, a preacher has to spend time with the things of God. This necessity alone has the potential of affecting a preacher’s life significantly because the Word, by its very nature, has power to change and bless.

Particularly crucial to the creation of credibility are the particular steps in the homiletical process that involves meditation. Incubation and distillation would rank at the top of these steps. Incubation time defined is that time when, and by means of which, a preacher takes a hold of an idea, thinks about it, mulls it over and over, looking at it one way, then another, often unstructured, even incidental. Incubation can occur at any time—while the preacher is driving, playing, eating, or even in the shower. I have never read anyone who describes incubation time better than David Hansen: “For an hour I want to be alone with the text. I read it over, stop and stare at it.”6 Again, “I put the text on the computer screen. I fiddle with it. With a computer, experimenting with the paragraph breaks is easy. . . . The only rule . . . is ‘Do not rush.’ ”7 A little later, he continues, “I leave my desk and take a walk. I let the text as I can see it—divided into paragraphs, filled with pictures— settle into my mind. I let the text sit in my skull right behind my eyes. I want the text in my subconscious. It takes time to get it there. Walk and pray and leave it alone.”8 Still, “I stare at the text more. The word stare is a Latin word related to the Latin word for ‘strenuous.’ Staring at the text is strenuous meditation. This strenuous meditation is done inside us.”9

John Killinger, a teacher of preachers, says, “Ideas as they first occur to the preacher may not be in their final, most preachable form. They need to season—to ripen—before being used.”10

Distillation is the opposite of incubation—the process whereby a preacher distills from the meditations the message to be preached. One particularly difficult part of distillation is the creation of a theme sentence that succinctly tells the purpose of the sermon, a process aptly described by John Henry Jowett: “No sermon is ready for preaching, nor ready for writing out, until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence clear as a crystal.” Then he adds, “I find the getting of that sentence is the hardest, the most exacting, and the most fruitful labour in my study.”11

What is the point here? If a sermon idea grows into something credible, it has to be processed, absorbed, incubated, and then distilled. Is it substantial enough to become a sermon? What is the essential idea? What ideas are cousin to it? Are there any events in the church or community to which this idea might properly speak? What applications might be made from it?12

The effects of this process are expansive. The preacher not only has something to say, but with a lot more than can be used in any single sermon. Finally, it has to be trimmed down to the message that the preacher actually preaches.

“Trembling anxiety”

All this reflection and deliberation does not just clarify and expand an idea but has an enormous capacity to affect the preacher. As they work through the homiletical process, aside from organizing the idea, several things happen. First, a development of a sense of ownership and urgency is created— a crucial component of credible preaching. This prevents a preacher from showing up and preaching as if nothing were at stake. To quote Craddock again, “To preach as though nothing were at stake is an immense contradiction.”13

This sense of ownership and urgency shows up as tension, almost a fear, that William Barclay once called “a trembling anxiety!” This fear, says Barclay, is best understood as “the trembling anxiety to perform a duty.”14 He continues: “It is not the man who approaches a great task without a tremor who does it really well. The really great actor is he who is wrought up before the performance; the really effective preacher is he whose heart beats faster while he waits to speak. The man who has no nervousness, no tension, in any task, may give an efficient performance; but it is the man who has this trembling anxiety who can produce an effect which artistry alone can never achieve.”15

“Trembling anxiety” is produced during incubation and preparation. And when people hear a speaker infused with trembling anxiety, they take note: the preacher signals that what is about to be said should be considered important enough to make a difference. If this anxiety is missing, the sermon sounds hollow and unconvincing. From this dynamic, credibility emerges.

A possible side-effect of the homiletical process exists that is both obvious and fascinating: the devotional effect on the preacher. To preachers, the devotional value of sermon preparation may develop into something of a volatile subject. If you ask, Does sermon preparation time count as devotional time for preachers? many would answer with a resounding, No! It would be more correct to answer with a resounding, Yes! It seems incredible to suggest that, as a preacher invests in the homiletical process, incubating an idea, then distilling it into a sermon, writing it and rewriting it, that the preparation time would have no devotional effect on their life.

Precisely from this intersection between a preacher’s heart and message, credibility emerges. That credibility occurs only when the message touches the preacher’s own life. When a preacher finds that they are touched by their own message, even a poorly constructed and delivered sermon may have considerable effectiveness, more so than another sermon that has only technical grandeur.

John Killinger has a marvelous exposition of the effect of the internal dynamic between preacher and message: “Wait silently over the page when you have read it. Close your eyes and let the images cross your mind in vivid retrospect. Let yourself tremble before the presence of the Word in the words. Then, armed with all your commentary background and dictionary knowledge, you will go off to the pulpit with something extra—with the conviction that you yourself have heard the distant echoes of a ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ ”16 You will go into the pulpit feeling what P. T. Forsyth often said, “I do not believe in verbal inspiration. I am with the critics, in principle. But the true minister ought to find the words and phrases of the Bible so full of spiritual food and felicity that he has some difficulty in not believing in verbal inspiration.”17

Conclusion

What happens inside the preacher during sermon preparation plays a huge part in the establishment of credible preaching. The difference this makes for those listening is very significant. “On the hearer’s side the difference is between hearing a sermon and hearing the Word of God; between seeing the forked lightning on a film, and being exposed to the whip and terror of the thing itself; between reading an article about life in the army and being handed your call-up papers; between discussing a dogma and meeting the living God.”18

Preachers must be careful to tend to the internal dynamic that fuels preaching. They must constantly tune up and revamp their homiletical engines. There are so many things that can incapacitate it. Borrowing whole sermons from others damages it; insincerity damages it; failure to meditate and reflect, unbelief, and busyness can be deadly. Whatever the cost, preaching is too valuable a thing to be toyed with. Those who tend to the inner dynamic of preaching are worth listening to, even if their abilities are marginal. Those who allow themselves to be expedient with it become as “sounding brass and clanging cymbal.” They are unworthy of the pulpit and ought to leave the preaching to others.

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Notes:

1 This comment about speaking for God because he is not present to speak for Himself was first told to me by a friend who attributed it to the outspoken Dr. Ian Paisley whom he once heard use it at the start of a sermon many years ago.

2 Merriam-Webster Online, s.v. “credibility,” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/credibility.

3 Phillips Brooks, in his book titled Lectures on Preaching, described this division using the terms message and messenger. Phillips Brooks, Lectures on Preaching (New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1907).

4 Fred Craddock, Preaching (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1985), 23.

5 Ibid.

6 David Hansen, The Art of Pastoring (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 94.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 95.

9 Ibid.

10 John Killinger, Fundamentals of Preaching, 2d. ed., (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1996), 51.

11 John Henry Jowett, The Preacher, His Life and Work (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1912), 133.

12 I have many times been asked how much time I spend on the preparation of a given sermon. That has never been an easy question for me to answer largely because it is very difficult to calculate incubation time. How does one count it, for it comes sometimes in large blocks, but many times as a few moments here and there. Though hard to count, it is vital to the end product.

13 Craddock, 25.

14 William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, The Daily Study Bible Series, rev. ed (Nashville: Westminster Press, 1975), 24.

15 Ibid.

16 Killinger, 26

17 P. T. Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind (Cincinnati, OH: Jennings and Graham, 1907), 38.

18 Thomas Keir, The Word in Worship, quoted in Killinger, 26.

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