Being Present in Our Preaching

“You were really present to us in your sermon today, preacher,” he said on

his way out of church last Sunday. What did he mean by that? Are there

Sundays when I am absent?

 

I suppose that his remark was an affirmation that this sermon really

seemed to mean something to me. I was “there” in a way that was noticeable

and engaging. Perhaps that is not a bad distinction between a sermon

and a lecture. A lecture is usually a rather “cool” presentation. A few ideas

are put out on the table for reflection, consideration, and possible adoption.

The ideas may mean something to the lecturer or they may not.

 

On the other hand, in a sermon, there is the expectation that the

preacher will be “present.” The moves made within the sermon must not

simply be general ideas that may or may not have any relevance to the

preacher. They must be ideas that, to some degree, the preacher is trying

to embody in his or her life. The effective sermon is not simply a report

on what the preacher may or may not think. Rather, the engaging sermon

engages the hearers, it takes them somewhere they would not go without

the power of the sermon. It makes a claim upon the hearers. They understand

themselves to be addressed, summoned because it is clear that

the preacher has also been addressed, summoned by the very word the

preacher is attempting to preach.

 

Sometimes some preachers are accused of being “manipulative.”

Verbal manipulation can be a problem. However, we preachers ought to

acknowledge that every one of our sermons is a sermon about matters

that deeply concern us. We really do want to persuade our hearers, want

to change them, want to encourage them to internalize these ideas in their

lives.

 

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not merely some report on an interesting

philosophy. Rather, the gospel is a matter of God’s action and human

response. The gospel is a claim about the mighty acts of God and therefore

that claim must be an act, a summons, a deed.

 

Detachment can be the death of preaching. In fact, for the preacher

to be detached from the subject matter is a basic violation of what the

gospel is all about and therefore what preaching is all about.

How can we preach in such a way that it is obvious we are present in

our preaching? Some of the advice your English composition teacher gave

you in high school is relevant. It is better to speak in the present tense than

in the past tense when using verbs. The active voice (she approved that . . .)

is better than the passive voice (it was approved that . . .). Simple, direct

sentences are to be favored over complex sentences. Short, uncomplicated

sentences convey energy and directness. As someone has said, the passive

voice is always about something that took place somewhere else other

than here and at another time other than now.

 

Concrete details are much better than abstract generalizations. I

remember hearing about a teacher of preachers who asked students in

his homiletics classes to call out all of the big theological words they had

learned in their seminary classes, words like redemption, atonement,

sanctification. Then he asked them to think of one everyday noun that

could stand for and exemplify those big words, words like bread, water,

wine, birth. He was trying to get his budding preachers to move from

the detached abstraction engendered by the seminary studies to specific

engagement. What are our sacraments if not concrete embodiments of

matter, which without the bread or the wine would remain theological

abstractions? Preaching that is present is therefore preaching that is

sacramental.

 

If something is universally true, it is best grasped through the particulars

of life. Things that are generic and abstracted tend to float above

human experience. You will note that Jesus is a model for us in this matter

of concrete communication. Jesus spoke of coins, seeds, soil, and the stuff

of everyday life to speak of divine matters.

 

Avoid standing off from the sermon or from yourself in the manner

in which you speak about the sermon. Don’t refer to the sermon or to

yourself as preacher, or to the listeners as listeners. Why say things like,

“This morning I would like to have you consider the possibility that . . .”?

Instead, just begin by saying, “Let’s look at the problem of . . .”

 

Lately, I’ve become annoyed at the way we preachers will speak about

something called “the Christian community,” when what I suppose we are

talking about is church.

 

Don’t talk about a story, or report on a story, or explain it. Tell the

story. Rather than introduce a story with something like, “There is an old

story that I heard some years ago, I have forgotten just where, perhaps

you have heard it, which I would now like to retell again to you.” Rather,

simply begin, “One day there was a little girl who did not know which way

to turn in a dark wood . . .”

 

Rather than summarize conversations between people, “One day

Jesus was met by an interesting man who had some interesting things to

say to him,” say, “‘What have I got to do to inherit eternal life?’ he said

to Jesus.” It is always better to show than to report. If the conversation is

interesting, don’t tell your hearers that it is interesting. Rather, repeat the

conversation for them and, if it is interesting, they will know it without

your telling them.

 

Study the art of storytelling. Storytellers seem to involve their listeners

in the action of the plot, seek to have their hearers identify with the

various characters in the story. Isn’t that what we want them to do with

the gospel?

 

Extended quotations, even if they are from Scripture, get to be tedious

and difficult to follow. Again, in quoting, we are distancing ourselves

from the material we are presenting. Our hearers likewise will feel

distanced by the use of long quotations.

 

Generally, I think it is a good rule to avoid heavy-sounding theological

abstractions. Use words like redemption, or atonement, or incarnation,

which are all good theological words, and watch a congregation’s

eyes glaze over. All of these words speak of concrete, available experiences

of God’s ways with us. Talk about those ways, the primary theological encounter,

rather than the abstracted theological report of that encounter,

and you will be “present” in the sermon.

 

Perhaps above all, we must be interested in what we have to say,

convinced that what we have to say is of singular importance for our

hearers. I sometimes tell my students to search the biblical texts for the

given Sunday and find something within the text that engages them. If

they can’t find something that engages them, they will never engage their

congregations.  It is well for our hearers to ask us to be present in our sermons,

interesting, engaging, and enthusiastic about the message we deliver. To be

anything less is to raise questions about the validity of the message we

have to deliver. The message we have been given is good news, the words

of God unto life. Let us give that message with all of the clarity and all of

the presence we can muster.

Will Willimon


The Art of Preaching

A number of years ago a distinguished homiletics professor wrote a bookon the science of preaching. He noted those insights, techniques, andmethods that are required to preach well. His book was a massive exercise in the explication of the precise steps on the way to a good sermon.

This sort of thing flies in the face of what I believe about the preaching task. From my experience with preaching, I believe that preaching is much more of an art than a science. Learning to preach is more akin to learning to paint in watercolors than it is to learning to mix chemicals together to produce a predictable chemical reaction.

As one of the most demanding and difficult of pastoral tasks, preaching requires so wide a range of gifts and skills. It is no wonder that some have asked if it can be taught at all. “Preachers are born, not made.” While natural gifts of the preacher count for much, good preaching is an art, not magic. It must be learned. As with any art, preaching is an alloy of gifts and training, natural inclination and cultivated dispositions.

Because preaching is an art, the best methods of homiletical education tend to be modes of apprenticeship—a novice looking over the shoulder of an experienced master of the art in order to get the insights, moves, and gestures required to practice that art. For this reason, homiletics is often the most difficult practice to teach at a seminary, and often the most poorly learned. Preachers are made through intense engagement between a master and a novice, the master being willing to take the time to get to know the novice, the novice being willing to submit to the moves, habits,and insights of the master. Preaching cannot be learned, as it is often attempted to be taught, with a group of twenty passive seminarians sitting through lectures in a homiletics class, handing in a few written “sermons” during the course of the semester.

Chrysostom says that a preacher needs two basic attributes: “contempt of praise” and “force of eloquence.” I find it fascinating that he links these two particular qualities. If the preacher lacks eloquence, then the preacher “will be despised by the people and get no advantage from his sublimity.” On the other hand, if the preacher “is a slave to the sound of applause,” the preacher will speak more “for the praise than the profit” of the congregation. Art will subsume theology and verbal dexterity will be more important than biblical interpretation. Thus, while the great Chrysostom does not shrink from calling for artful eloquence in preaching, it is always art in service to gospel truth.

There has always been an uneasiness among Christian preachers in admitting that preaching is an art, a craft with certain techniques and skills that can be learned and refined in the practice of preaching. If preaching is a gift of God, an act of revelation, does it not seem disingenuous of a preacher to prepare, plan, craft, and practice the delivery of a speech that ought to come straight from God? Paul shows this tension when he tells the church at Corinth,

When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

And I came to you in weakness and in fear and much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Cor 2:1–5).

It is noteworthy that Paul says that he “decided”—that is, planned and contrived—to speak in a certain way to the Corinthians. He consciously constructed his appeal to them in order that it not appear self – consciously constructed, so that the Corinthians might not be impressed by Paul’s oratory, but rather by the “power of God.” In other words, there is no way around the necessity of rhetoric: consciously or subconsciously contrived ways of speaking that aim to persuade listeners. Paul is a great model for us preachers as we marvel at the wide array of creative rhetorical devices that he employs in order to communicate his beloved gospel.

It is a privilege to be engaged with you in better biblical preaching.

  1. John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, 5.1–8 (p. 127).

Will Willimon