Preaching as Oral Communication

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

of print.


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!           

Will Willimon


When Preaching Is Out of Control

I’ll admit it. I like to be in control. I don’t think of myself as a “control

freak.” However, I want there to be a minimum of chaos. On Sunday, for

instance, I like to have a general idea of where we are going to be by noon.

It is fine for the Holy Spirit to be invited into our worship, but only to a

degree. I like the Holy Spirit to have some room for movement, but not

all that much.

I believe it is helpful in the planning process to state a theme of where

the sermon might go on a Sunday like this one, with a text like the one

assigned. After all, we ought to know where we are going, and if we don’t,

we’ll never get there. However, the statement of theme might be guilty of

giving the illusion that we have somehow, by simply stating a theme or a

message for the day, controlled where we are going. Most preachers learn

very early that preaching is not an easily controlled activity. And I like to

be in control.

Some time ago Barbara Brown Taylor stated that “something happens

between the preacher’s lips and the congregation’s ears that is beyond

prediction or explanation.” Taylor notes an experience that every

preacher has, sooner or later: “later in the week, someone quotes part of

my sermon back to me . . . only I never said it. There is more going on here

than anyone can say.” And how! In order to prepare our sermons well, we

need a fairly clear idea of our intentions. But in preaching there can be a huge gap between intention and result.

And so a distinguished literary critic, in pointing out the great gaps

that occur in literature between a writer’s intention and the results that

take place in the reader, calls his book The Uses of Misunderstanding. How

well I recall interviewing an older preacher, asking what he had learned

in forty years of preaching. He answered, “The possibilities for misunderstanding

are virtually limitless.” And how!

How many times have you stood at the door, on a Sunday morning,

and a layperson says to you, “That was a great sermon on . . .” And you

want to say, “But I never said that. That was not what this sermon was

about.” Too late. The sermon is already out of your hands and into the

congregation. Something has wrenched the sermon from your control.

The sermon is not, therefore, best conceived of as a skillful packaging of

ideas that are delivered to a congregation. Rather, a sermon is an event,

a conversation between pastor and people that can go in almost any


I remember an educational theorist years ago telling teachers,

“Teaching is not telling and listening is not learning.” This teacher of

teachers had learned that education is a more indeterminate, risky endeavor

than simply delivering information. The receiver is busy intruding

powerfully on the message that is delivered. We cannot predict where

a sermon will finally go. Rather than predicting, we ought to consider

that perhaps the most important preaching task is offering, intending to

evoke an event, but not being able to control that event. My friend Eugene

Lowry likes to say that the preacher’s work is to help people get to the

point where they can perceive what God is doing and open themselves to

that. Beyond that, preaching is mostly out of our control.

We are not simply delivering a package of information to a congregation.

In the sermon, we are walking a journey together, engaging in a

conversation. In any conversation, there must be a willingness on the part

of each partner to be changed through the conversation. A lecture is oneway

communication. The speaker hopes to change the listeners. But in a

conversation, all of the speakers are also listeners. As you preach, you are

busy listening to the congregation, picking up on a number of subtle, but

powerful cues from them that tell you how you are communicating. The

congregation is also struggling to hear what you are saying. But as they

struggle, they are also busy rearranging what they hear.

Add to this the Holy Spirit. By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit takes

our pitiful words of preaching and enlivens them, rearranges them, helps

them to catch fire in people’s lives.

In the African American tradition there is the powerful use of silence.

The preacher stops frequently throughout the sermon, sometimes

even in mid-sentence, to let the congregation have some room to process

what is being said. This is crucial space. Not only does it provide space

for people to thoughtfully consider what is being said, to catch up with

the flow of ideas, but it also provides for the Holy Spirit to come. It is in

the gaps, these life-giving spaces, that the Spirit can roam, can take hold

of lives, and can make of our preaching more than it would be if left up

to us. No one did this better than the great Howard Thurman of Marsh

Chapel, Boston University. The phrase “pregnant pause” was meant for

Thurman’s preaching.

Eugene Lowry says, “We cannot control the result of our sermon.

We do our best, of course, but know that with God’s Word we are at best

working provisionally. The Spirit works with certainty. Our task is to try

to maximize the possibility of proclamation happening. We simply cannot

produce it by will.” And I like to be in control.

Better than seeing the sermon as my product, I ought to see it as my

gift, my part in the divine-human conversation that takes place in the

congregation. I ought to enjoy the freedom that is given in the sermon,

the freedom for new insight to arise in the congregation, the freedom

for the Holy Spirit to take my poor sermon and make it mean even more

than I intended. There can be great grace in learning to enjoy being out of

control in the sermon!

Will Willimon

Preaching after Easter – Part 2


Last week I reflected upon some of the challenges of preaching in light of the resurrection. This week, I would like to point to some of the implications of preaching in the light of Eastertide:

  1. As Bonhoeffer said, there is only one preacher – the resurrected Christ. As Barth said, only God can speak to us of God. And as Will Willimon has said, many of my homiletic failures are due to Jesus and cannot be blamed on me. I don’t know why the Risen Christ chose not to appear through some of my very best homiletical products. Grace isn’t grace if it’s predictable, programmable. I’m not troubled that Jesus performed many miracles; I’m troubled that he performed so few. Even one so talented as Richard Lischer has not been able to come up with a knock down, one hundred per cent successful homiletical method. Preaching works not for reasons rhetorical but rather for reasons theological. As Lischer famously said, “Preaching works before it is understood.” After forty years of working with Jesus I still don’t understand: why he insists on talking to losers with whom I would never strike up a conversation and why sometimes, though he chooses to speak through me, he refuses to speak to me. All preaching is externally authorized. If anything is ever heard anywhere, by anyone, in one of my sermons, it’s a miracle.
  2. While it is aggravating for those of us who talk about Jesus to have Jesus come and go as he pleases, preaching keeps generating faith in me because of the wonder that Jesus shows up at all. In my experience, the last people to believe that preaching actually works are preachers – perhaps this is a defense mechanism against the reality of Easter. It is so tough to relinquish your life to a discipline over which you have so little control.   How many Sundays (not as many Sundays as I wanted, but enough to keep me nervous) would some besotted, smart young thing emerge from Duke Chapel, after service, and report that she had actually heard something. I would respond, “So? The women were right? He is risen and returned to the same losers who disappointed him the first time.” When one considers all of the artful, governmentally subsidized defenses against the word of God – the Duke curriculum, alcohol, promiscuity, the Department of Religion – it restores my belief in miracles. You don’t need a me to tell you why preaching often doesn’t work; but only the Risen Christ explains why preaching sometimes works.
  3. The purpose of the church and its ministry, the most important thing that pastors do, is preach. All your theological training – all for the purpose of giving you the guts to make an apocalyptic announcement: God has won a great victory. The bloody, crucified Lamb rules. Join up, or else stay stupidly out of step. There are powerful forces working against the utterance of this liberating announcement. All I ask is for a a Sunday congregation of fifteen or fifteen hundred, with their chests stuck out, saying, “Hit me!” I fully understand why pastors allow so many things to crowd out their preparation for and investment in preaching – look, I’m as big a coward as the rest of them. Only Easter explains why so many persevere in this vocation. But faith, as Paul says, is an auditory, acoustical phenomenon. In an unguarded moment Jesus said, “He who hears you hears me.” I didn’t say it was the most effective way to get a New Heaven and a New Earth. In all this, I have just meant to say… it is true.

Will Willimon