Lessons in preaching from Harry Emerson Fosdick
Preaching is personal counseling on a group basis.”1
Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969), regarded by many as a master preacher whose sermons attracted huge congregations and radio audiences, articulated the above simple statement of preaching philosophy. A Baptist, Fosdick graduated from Union Theological Seminary (1904) and served several churches in the New York City area and as a chaplain during World War I. He quickly became known as a gifted preacher, and his sermons caught the attention of John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller was then the main benefactor of the Riverside Church, a new and large cathedral church being built in upper Manhattan. At Rockefeller’s urging, the church called Fosdick as its first pastor, a position he held from 1926 until 1946.
While there, he became one of the most influential clergymen and preachers in American history. In addition to preaching several times each week, he taught homiletics at Union Theological Seminary, authored 47 books, and wrote hundreds of magazine articles. He delivered sermons for NBC’s “National Vespers Hour,” which aired for 19 years and was carried on shortwave radio to 17 countries. Fosdick was on Time magazine’s cover in 1925 and 1930. In 1928 Harper’s magazine invited him to write a major essay on the topic “what is the matter with preaching.”2 Based on that article, here are a dozen lessons in preaching from Harry Emerson Fosdick.
1. There are too many mediocre sermons
In his day, as in ours, there was simply an overabundance of clergy members who delivered uninteresting sermons. Fosdick’s observation should be a wake-up call to every minister serving a congregation. He laments the “mediocre” and “uninteresting” sermon, saying, “It produces this effect of emptiness and futility largely because it establishes no connection with the real interests of the congregation.”3 Too many clergy members, unaware of their congregant’s needs and issues, miss the vital concerns of the laity who come hoping to hear helpful words of inspiration. Fosdick says: “It is pathetic to observe the number of preachers who commonly on Sunday speak religious pieces in the pulpit, utterly failing to establish real contact with the thinking or practical interests of their auditors.”4
2. Every sermon should help listeners solve some problem
While we hear much criticism today of “self-help” sermons, Fosdick advocated helping parishioners with daily issues. “Every sermon should have for its main business the solving of some problem—a vital, important problem, puzzling minds, burdening consciences.”5 Preachers who do this will never lack an audience. “Any sermon which thus does tackle a real problem, throw even a little light on it, and help some individuals practically to find their way through it cannot be altogether uninteresting.”6
3. A sermon should quickly state what it seeks to deal with
Fosdick believes that listeners have the right to know in its opening statements what issues a sermon seeks to address. “Within a paragraph or two after a sermon has started, wide areas of any congregation ought to begin recognizing that the preacher is tackling something of vital concern to them,” he declares. They need to know that the preacher is “handling a subject they are puzzled about, or a way of living they have dangerously experimented with, or an experience that has bewildered them, or a sin that has come perilously near to wrecking them, or an ideal they have been trying to make real, or a need they have not known how to meet.”7 One way or another, they should see that the preacher is engaged in a serious and practical endeavor to state fairly a problem that actually exists in their lives and then to throw what light on it he or she can.
4. Addressing the needs of people is the main task of the preacher
“Any preacher who even with moderate skill is thus helping folk to solve their real problems is functioning, Fosdick says.8 People in the pew will always find a sermon interesting when it speaks to their needs and issues. Such preachers “will never lack an audience. He may have neither eloquence nor learning, but he is doing the one thing that is a preacher’s business. He is delivering the goods that the community has a right to expect from the pulpit as much as it has a right to expect shoes from a cobbler. And if any preacher is not doing this, even though he has at his disposal both erudition and oratory, he is not functioning at all.”9
5. Be cautious with expository preaching
“Only the preacher proceeds upon the idea that folk come to church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites,” Fosdick laments. He feels that expository preaching with a focus on history is doomed to dullness and failure. “The result is that folks less and less come to church at all,” he adds. 10 Fosdick is critical of expository preaching because it rests on a faulty premise: “Many preachers indulge habitually in what they call expository sermons. They take a passage from Scripture and, proceeding on the assumption that people attending church that morning are deeply concerned about what the passage means, they spend their half hour or more on historical application to the auditors. Could any procedure be more surely predestined to dullness and futility. Who seriously supposes that one in a hundred of the congregation cares what Moses, Isaiah, Paul, or John meant in those special verses, or came to church deeply concerned about it?”11
6. Allow the Bible to shed light on modern living
Though Fosdick disdains some types of expository preaching, he still believes the Bible has great power to guide moderns in their daily life. “It has light to shed on all sorts of human problems now and always,” he states. “What all the great writers of Scriptures were interested in was human living, and the modern preacher who honors them should start with that, should clearly visualize some real need, perplexity, sin, or desire in his auditors, and then should throw on the problem all the light he can find in the Scripture or anywhere else. No matter what one’s theory about the Bible is, this is the effective approach to preaching. The Bible is a searchlight, not so much intended to be looked at as to be thrown upon a shadowed spot.”12
7. Know your audience
The most effective communicators, whether they are politicians or preachers, understand their audience. Fosdick urges clergy to get close to people and learn the issues they grapple with on a daily basis. “A wise preacher can so build his sermon that it will be, not a dogmatic monologue but a cooperative dialogue in which all sorts of things in the minds of the congregation—objections, questions, doubts, and confirmations—will be brought to the front and fairly dealt with.”13
8. Appreciate the difference between an essay and a sermon
Too many sermons appeal only to the intellect without stirring the emotional side of a listener. “Here lies a basic distinction between a sermon and an essay. The outstanding criticism . . . against a great deal of our . . . preaching is that though it consists of neat, analytical discourses, pertinent to real problems and often well-conceived and well phrased, it does nothing to anybody. Such sermons are not sermons but essays,” he firmly believes. “It is lamentably easy to preach feebly about repentance without making anybody feel like repenting, or to deliver an accomplished discourse on peace without producing any of that valuable article in the auditors. On the other hand, a true preacher is creative. He does more than discuss a subject; he produces the thing itself in the people who hear it.”14
9. The goal of preaching is transformation
The goal of transforming the listener should be paramount in the mind of every person preparing a sermon. Sadly, according to Fosdick, that is not the case. “One often reads modern sermons with amazement. How do the preachers expect to get anything done in human life with such discourses? They do not come within reaching distance of any powerful motives in man’s conduct. They are keyed to argumentation rather than creation. They produce essays, which means that they are chiefly concerned with the elucidation of a theme. If they were producing sermons they would be chiefly concerned with the transformation of personality.”15
10. Effective preaching empowers people
A sermon that resonates with listeners will move them to reflect, act, change, and seek further information and assistance. Fosdick clearly states that clergy who understand their “people, their problems, troubles, motives, failures and desires” and then address those issues in sermons will see transformation take place in their lives. “People habitually come up after the sermon, not to offer some bland compliment, but to say, ‘How did you know I was facing that problem only this week?’ or ‘We were discussing that very matter at dinner last night,’ or, best of all, ‘I think you would understand my case—may I have a personal interview with you?’ This, I take it, is the final test of a sermon’s worth: how many individuals wish to see their preacher alone?”16
11. Preaching is challenging but rewarding
Those committed to excellence in preaching realize that each week the task includes hours of research, writing, rewriting, and mental rehearsal. Fosdick is aware of the challenge but also reminds preachers of the rewards. “Of course, nothing can make preaching easy. At best it means drenching a congregation, toil, and self-expenditure, it can be so exhilarating as to recreate in the preacher the strength it takes from him, as good agriculture replaces the soil it uses.”17
12. Poor preachers can improve
Fosdick does not write off weak and ineffective preachers. The good news is that even those lacking natural gifts for communication can improve. “No one need preach uninteresting sermons,” he notes. “The fault generally lies, not in the essential quality of the man’s mind or character, but in his mistaken methods. He has been wrongly trained, or he has blundered into a faulty technic, or he never has clearly seen what he should be trying to do in a sermon, and so, having no aim, hits the target only by accident.”18 Such problems are correctable. Those who wish to improve their preaching skills can do so by taking additional courses in homiletics and public speaking; by reading about preaching; by studying the sermons of outstanding preachers; and by carefully listening to other gifted speakers. Such investments of time and effort can nudge an ordinary preacher into the realm of the extraordinary.
It is essential that sermons be well-prepared and prayed for so that they address the real needs of the listeners, enabling them to transform, grow, and be empowered. That will allow God and His Word to reach them with biblical truths. Good preaching influences not only the church as a whole but also the families and the individuals that hear the message.
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1 This sentiment is derived from several statements in Edmund Holt Linn, Preaching as Counseling: The Unique Method of Harry Emerson Fosdick (King ofPrussia, PA: Judson Press, 1966), 23–25.
2 Quotations in the rest of the article are from Harry Emerson Fosdick, “What Is the Matter With Preaching?” Harper’s Magazine, July 1928, quoted in in Lionel Crocker, ed., Harry Emerson Fosdick’s Art of Preaching: An Anthology (Springfield, IL: Charles C.Thomas, 1971).
3 Fosdick, quoted in Crocker, Art of Preaching, 28.
4 Fosdick, quoted in Crocker, Art of Preaching, 28.
5 Fosdick, quoted in Crocker, Art of Preaching, 29.
6 Fosdick, quoted in Crocker, Art of Preaching, 29.
7 Fosdick, quoted in Crocker, Art of Preaching, 29.
8 Fosdick, quoted in Crocker, Art of Preaching, 14.
9 Fosdick, quoted in Crocker, Art of Preaching, 29.
10 Fosdick, quoted in Crocker, Art of Preaching, 30.
11 Fosdick, quoted in Crocker, Art of Preaching, 30.
12 Fosdick, quoted in Crocker, Art of Preaching, 31.
13 Fosdick, quoted in Crocker, Art of Preaching, 15.
14 Fosdick, quoted in Crocker, Art of Preaching, 17.
15 Fosdick, quoted in Crocker, Art of Preaching, 38.
16 Fosdick, quoted in Crocker, Art of Preaching, 39.
17 Fosdick, quoted in Crocker, Art of Preaching, 39.
18 Fosdick, quoted in Crocker, Art of Preaching, 28.