"God is good!” If ever a phrase competed with John 3:16 for the most times it was uttered in a pulpit, “God is good!” (with an expectant exclamation point) would be a strong contender. This call, with the expected refrain of “All the time!” has been used at camp meetings, youth rallies, potlucks, chapels, church services, and the weekly worship service. However true the statement, when a preacher ascends the platform, gazes out over the congregation, and declares, “God is good!” there is a good chance that the sermon will not be good and that the minister is about to perform a vanishing act before the congregation’s very eyes.
What follows is how the vanishing occurs and why it damages the preacher’s witness.
A need for context
The book of Proverbs says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Prov. 25:11, NKJV). The imagery belongs to the realm of metallurgists, jewelers, and sculptures who, by their craft, take generic raw elements and transform them into intricate works of art that mirror life. Much like rocks and minerals, words must be mined, forged, and shaped into constructs that mirror life in order to help people make sense of the world.
Is God good? All the time? For everyone?
When a young mother attends church after recently losing her six- year-old son to a pediatric stroke—does shouting, “God is good all the time!” resonate with her life? Even if the statement is true in terms of God’s character, will the middle-aged man who was laid off two years before retirement feel it? What about the visitor who has no idea whether they even believe in God, much less what to say when the speaker cries, “God is good!” waiting for some kind of response that everyone but the visitor seems to know. Finally, for the member whose life appears to function well, does this statement still carry any meaning? She has participated in it a hundred times, knows it by heart, and can say it without thinking or feeling or meditating on what God’s goodness might mean.
The “God is good” phrase represents one of a thousand ways in which preachers may hide themselves in the pulpit. They may be strategically embedded throughout the sermon manuscript or kept in reserve for when the pacing of the preaching begins to lag. “God is in control!” “Jesus is coming soon!” “I’ve read the end of the book, and He wins!” “Our God is an awesome God!” “Everything happens for a reason!” Are these possibly preprocessed, shrink-wrapped phrases deployed to acquire a quick “amen,” rather than baking something from scratch? This is in contrast to the finest traditions of African-American preaching which employ the call-and response technique to great dialogical effect.1
The preacher can also vanish when the pulpit becomes crowded with athletes, presidents, biblical commentaries, theologians, and anyone else who is willing to help reduce the amount of time a pastor actually has to say something original. Instead of “apples of gold in settings of silver,” preachers hand out moldy fruit from a mental pantry that has not seen any fresh groceries since the owner graduated from seminary. The use of clichés, platitudes, and quotes—designed to elicit a quick response but in reality revealing a lack of personal experience and creativity—is a homiletical transgression. It stunts a congregation’s spiritual intelligence and ruins homiletical ethos.
Aristotle and ethos
Classical rhetoric contains three main elements—logos (reason or argument), pathos (emotional content), and ethos (perceived goodwill or character). Of the three modes, Aristotle says the speaker’s ethos “may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.”2 Wayland Maxfield Parrish writes, “One of the most important elements in persua- siveness is the impression made by the speaker’s character and person- ality.”3 He suggests “goodwill” and “fair-mindedness” can be found within the text of a presentation, as “most speeches are full of such indicators.”4 When a speaker violates the element of ethos, he or she loses credibility in the eyes of the audience, and that audience may perceive the orator as an enemy instead of a friend, if they perceive him or her at all.
Many churches in the Western hemisphere suffer from a perceived lack of ethos within a post-Christian culture.5 So what happens when a preacher’s sermon contains a conflagration of quotes, clichés, and platitudes? She disappears. Replacing her are disembodied others from the past or from other geographical locations, rhetorical relics from Christian subculture, a poem about footsteps, and a story about starfish. One begins to suspect that hiding behind all the secondary sources lurks a preacher who lacks personal experience or intelligence, or even both. One asks, “What is he trying to hide? Why does he never have any stories of his own? Why is it that so much of what is preached in church are things people are already aware of, even before they came to church? This preacher, this community, must not have anything to say.”
Fred Craddock suggests that those who listen to gospel presentations regularly are often “victims” of “constant exposure to the same kind of light” and from the same source—resulting in sort of a spiritual farmer’s tan. 6 He points out that a speaker creates an existential absence through an overuse of “clichés, quotations, and secondary sources” that leaves listeners feeling “deceived and deprived.”7 The preacher’s calling involves more than quoting. Additionally, the existential absence of preachers leads congregations to believe that God may be somewhere else. If God always exists in quotes from other people, ancient texts, and stories from other lands, it means God is always somewhere else and never here; and if God is elsewhere, then the saints will realize they should be too. Sadly, some might suggest that an “existential absence” is the goal of preaching altogether. After all, Paul says, “Not I, but Christ” (Gal. 2:20, KJV), so we should disappear, right?
A common criticism of pastors (especially ones who dare to move ancient ark-sized pulpits to the side) goes something like, “The self must be seen”—implying preachers reduce the distance between clergy and congregation in the name of ego rather than ethos. Certainly ministerial egos exist and should be checked. However, the pages of Scripture reveal that divinity works with humanity.8
When it speaks of the Word of God, Scripture notes that “it is written,” “it is useful” (2 Tim. 3:16, NIrV), and that “faith comes by hearing” the Word (Rom. 10:17, NKJV)—but Scripture also says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, NKJV). Christian pastors do not preach a disembodied Word; rather, we preach a resurrected living Word supposedly dwelling in our hearts. Some may see unique uses of language, personal stories, humor, and personal reflection as arrogance; but in actuality 1 John 1:1, 2 states, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life” (ESV).
In commenting about contemporary Christian apologetics, rooted in a post-positivist modernity paradigm, Myron Penner complains that we have created a cottage industry of expert witnesses. He observes, “What we have across the board is the professionalization of Christian witness. Each of these apologetic models depends on skills and abilities that only a few ‘brilliant’ Christian thinkers possess.”9 We have traded eyewitnesses for expert witnesses. John McClure suggests that each sermon contains an “intertext”—a “text lurking inside another, shaping meanings, whether the author is conscious of this or not.”10 The intertext of a sermon laden with secondary sources rooted in academia subtly communicates that scripture is accessible only to academics and not to the speaker himself or herself. Informational sermons rooted in secondary sources will not win converts. How we live and share in our ministerial context gives far more instruction than what “someone once said.”
Secondary sources and ethos
Secondary sources have their place in homiletics—mostly in the study—and occasionally pulpit cameos. Space does not permit an exhaustive set of rules, but a few principles may help increase ethos and authenticity in the preaching event. First, use secondary sources when speaking outside of your area of expertise. Often pastors express irritation when those trained in disciplines outside of theology and history take up the mantle of church theologian or historian. Equal irritation dwells in those trained in biology, medicine, physics, psychology, animal husbandry, or linguistics when the local pastor waxes eloquent on subject matter foreign to their seminary experience.
Second, sources pertaining to current news or local events that affect the speaker and congregation can create an opportunity to engage in authentic dialogue with community voices from inside a shared experience. Local elections, natural disasters, or celebrations covered by news media, and featuring local voices, provide excellent windows into the church’s mission context. Outside the local paper, the minutes of city council meetings or chamber of commerce meetings act as unique resources. However, the best resource is simply your being out in the community and relaying interactions and observations you have made personally.
Third, clichés and platitudes can be a great source of fun if one “defamiliarizes” them in order to highlight a new facet of truth. It is far easier to hook a drowsy congregation’s attention with phrases such as “God is good, most of the time” than it is a cliché. Another way to defamiliarize involves exploring the etymology of popular sayings, and even Bible verses, to add a layer of meaning. For example, the oft-quoted Jeremiah 29:11 takes on new significance when parishioners are reminded that the passage comes in a letter informing God’s people that they are headed into exile for 70 years. Maybe we should not crochet that text on a pillow after all.
Finally, couch secondary sources in terms of your own journey of experience. I have increasingly become aware of overusing pop culture artifacts through dialogue with parishioners and colleagues. However when a book, film, or event becomes part of my spiritual journey, it has the potential to reveal a shared experience with others who may be familiar with that artifact. Even if parishioners have no experience with the artifact in question, if it truly acts as a metaphor or catalyst for spiritual insight, it may indirectly invite them into a shared experience. The same concept applies to reading certain theologians or commentaries, singing a particular worship song lyric, or any number of secondary “texts” that can lead to something original in your journey that you can speak to without making yourself disappear.
Every communicator must seek to develop “voice”—that unique creative quality that nuances reality when mediated through the artist. From Tim Burton to Eddie Van Halen to van Gogh, each artist that has mastered “voice” produces work that does not require anyone to say, “Who is this?” Their work possesses a creative seal that gives authenticity and authority in their respective fields. Sadly, the state of contemporary preaching reveals very few voices.
In discussing the state of preaching in America, one scholar laments a lack of original voices among his homiletics students. Carl Trueman asked his class to identity their “favorite model preacher.” He writes, “Not one of them mentioned any of the pastors under whose care they had grown up.” Instead they listed names “from that small and incestuous gene pool that is the mega-conference speaking circuit.” He laments that these voices are “normative”—creating a “narrow range of voices and styles.”11 It becomes difficult to claim credibility while consistently copying somebody else.
Tim Muehlhoff and Todd Lewis note that Christian communicators “borrow heavily and without shame from popular culture with T-shirts, bumper stickers, music, Christian talk-show formats and the like. And our redundancy and predictability have repercussions for our attempts at persuasion.” They warn communicators to “guard against boring our audience with trite and predictable jargon” and that believers must “adopt a communication approach that is low in predictability and high in information.” They criticize the mind-set of evangelistic sermons as “rhetorical artifacts” infused with the power of automatically being able “to persuade others.”12 If congregations sense that we simply borrow everyone else’s material, our ethos vanishes.
Careful exegesis (embodying the faith we preach) and creative writing are both hard work and take immense time. The demands of visitation, administration, and, of course, family all bite chunks out of our schedules. Yet, when Christianity finds itself under intense scrutiny, we cannot sacrifice ethos and authenticity for convenience and cliché. Too many pulpits have heard Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Rob Bell, presidents, athletes, actors, and authors. However, they have yet to hear the voice of their pastor.
1 “We would do well, therefore, to understand the dialogic nature of preaching. The best of what we call black preaching is the foremost example. . . . Based upon the African tradition of call and response, it involves the congregation in the preaching. Now this style has its excesses, to be sure . . . but any open-minded person who has been exposed to the genuine phenomenon will recognize its power and effectiveness.” Charles E. Bradford, Preaching to the Times: The Preaching Ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1975), 102.
2 Wayland Maxfield Parrish, “The Study of Speeches,” in Readings in Rhetorical Criticism,ed. Carl R. Burgchardt, 4th ed. (State College, PA: Strata Publishing Inc., 2010), 28.
3 Ibid., 41.
4 Ibid., 42.
5 David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Good Faith: Being Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016).
6 Fred B. Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1978), 28.
8 Ellen G. White, Manuscript 193, 1898.
9 Myron B. Penner, The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 82.
10 Robert Scholes, Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978), 150, quoted in John McClure, The Four Codes of Preaching: Rhetorical Strategies (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2003), 9.
11 Carl Trueman, “Why Is So Much Preaching So Poor?” Reformation 21, Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, November 2013, www.reformation21.org/articles /why-is-so-much-preaching-so-poor.php.
12 Tim Muehlhoff and Todd V. Lewis, Authentic Communication: Christian Speech Engaging Culture (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 84–87.