We make a weird move in our seminary homiletics classes. After having
spent at least sixteen years educating these students out of their natural,
oral culture of stories, images, jokes, and slang, and into a literate world
of books, term papers, and abstract ideas, in one semester of a preaching
class we try to drag them back to their oral talents.
Yet many commentators have been saying for some time that our
entire culture is making the same move. Gutenberg helped to create the
modern world with his printing press, a world in which the written, printed
word predominated. Now many believe we are in the “postmodern”
world where TV, computers, and other technologies have dismantled the
literate culture and returned us to oral communication. Most of us receive
most of our information through TV. Even a hip newspaper like USA
Today tries to look like TV. The words on my computer screen may look
like print, but what looks like type are only flashes of light, having more
in common with the transience of the spoken word than the permanence
Preaching must recover a sense of itself as an oral event. When, in
your first preaching class in seminary, the professor said, “You will hand
in three sermons this semester,” those weren’t sermons. Nothing lying on
paper is a sermon. A sermon must be spoken, “done,” performed. You
haven’t “done” King Lear if you read it. It’s a play; therefore it can only be
encountered in performance. Sermons are like that.
Therefore Clyde Fant, great teacher of preachers, spoke of the need
for “oral preparation” of sermons. Fant advised us first to speak a sermon;
then, only after we have tried speaking the sermon aloud in our study
should we put anything down on paper. On paper, the eye gives clues to
the reader through paragraphs, underlining, punctuation. The hearer has
no such clues; therefore the speaker must help the hearer with transitions,
emphases, and coherence. A manuscript can delude us into thinking that
our sermon is more coherent and comprehensible than it really is when
Retaining a sense of orality is perhaps the greatest advantage of
preaching without a manuscript. A sermon manuscript gives us preachers
the illusion that we have “done” a sermon when at last we have fixed
words on a page. On the page, the reader is given clues by the writer when
to pause, when to stop and ponder, when to move on. When spoken, the
sermon has no punctuation marks, no paragraph indentations, none of
these printed clues to help it communicate. In writing out our sermons,
our sentences tend to be too long, our thought patterns too involved. We
lose a sense of movement and rhythm.
Even when we know our manuscript well, we tend to look at the
manuscript rather than look at our listeners. We miss clues that our listeners
are sending us when they don’t understand, or when they are losing
interest. Preaching is a visual as well as an auditory affair. Oral communication
requires eye contact as sender and receiver send one another clues
about what is being communicated.
Most of us preachers must work to regain and to develop our oral
skills. In some traditions, such as the Pentecostal, or in African American
churches, preachers never lose those skills. TV’s presentation of a composed,
polished talking head, eyes fixed on the viewer (reading from the
teleprompter!) gives us preachers some competition. Yet, oral skills are
learned—eye contact, timing, pacing, voice control, memory, humor,
posture are all skills that we can improve despite our innate gifts or lack
Have yourself videotaped. Ask yourself, in viewing this tape, “How
do I appear to others as I speak?” Listen to the audiotapes or videotapes
of other preachers, even attempting to imitate some of their oral techniques.
Imitation can be the path toward eventually finding your own
voice. Preachers have learned much from Garrison Keillor.
Deliver your sermon in front of a mirror.
I find myself watching the performers on The Comedy Channel on
our cable TV. Despite the content, here are people who speak for a living,
who develop their sense of timing, their interaction with the listeners,
their love of words for the sheer sound of them.
And give yourself credit. I have noted how even the most mediocre
of us preachers demonstrate a facility with the spoken word, skill in oral
communication, the holiness of one human being telling the truth to others,
which is rare in our culture.
So, if we are moving from a once predominately print and literate
culture to an oral and imaged culture, we preachers may be rediscovered.
Our day has come!