One sure way to escape the temptation to be a sounding board for the babel of modern voices
One of the most difficult homiletic questions a preacher faces is, “What is the message the Lord wants me to deliver to his people at this time?” Dozens of issues are dinned into our minds by way of the air-waves and the papers every day. National and international crises so capture our attention in this exciting era of world history that it is hard at times to hear “the still small voice.” It is even harder to know what words to use in the pulpit to get people to listen to that “still small voice.”
One of the great temptations of the day is to degrade the pulpit by making it a sounding board for every brand of political, economic, and social philosophy, from the extreme right to the extreme left. When ministers yield to this temptation and set themselves up as self-appointed purveyors of omniscience, they insult the intelligence of the better-informed members of their congregations. Worse, they send their people out to face the spiritual battles of the week completely undernourished, having been fed stones instead of the Bread of Life.
God’s Word has been given by the Holy Spirit to the Church, and the Church and society made their greatest advances when the Bible was taken seriously as “the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” The Church recognized that it was to bring society into conformity with the Word of God rather than to accommodate God’s Word to society.
Consequently I preach only on biblical themes and depend upon prayer, the Scriptures, and the Holy Spirit to lead me to what the Lord would have me declare in any particular sermon.
It is remarkable how the Holy Spirit directs. Sometimes his guidance does not come as promptly as I might like, but he never fails. Sometimes he leads to an isolated text that demands attention because of a spiritual problem in the church or community, sometimes to a theme related to a special day on the church calendar (though heaven forbid that we respond to every suggested special day we asked to observe), sometimes to a whole book that must be expounded over a period of many weeks or months. I discuss the major doctrines of the faith periodically, and every sermon points to Christ and calls for a choice.
After the all-important selection of a subject comes the sermonic preparation. From the moment the theme has been determined, it becomes one of the primary thoughts occupying my mind during the day and often in the night. While driving from home to home, while engaged in some manual occupation or recreation, as well as in special preparatory reading, I keep the theme in mind and pray for illumination and guidance.
A day or so before the sermon is to be preached I sit down with a large pad of paper and write on it every thought on the subject that comes to mind. A concordance, a Bible dictionary, a few reliable commentaries, a half dozen or so Bible translations, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Roget’s Thesaurus, and a file of illustrations I have built up over the years offer their assistance. The Thesaurus provides synonyms and expressions that not only aid in conveying shades of meaning but also enable one to avoid wearisome repetition. Of course, when the subject is one that requires technical analysis, historical data, or scientific research, the proper source books must be consulted.
The sheets of paper multiply. Then the next step is to assemble out of this mass of disjointed ideas a progression of thought and an outline. This often requires re-reading the sheets a number of times, but eventually the form takes shape and an outline emerges. Then, with the outline in mind, I go over the mass of material and beside the various thoughts jot “Int” for introduction, a “1,” or “2,” or “3” for points of discussion, or “C” for concluding thought. I also cross out much that is extraneous. Then, after I have put the various thoughts in proper sequence, putting flesh on the skeleton and dressing it up with illustrations is comparatively simple.
My favorite source of illustrative material is the Bible itself. Not only does reference to biblical incidents familiarize the people with the contents of the Bible, but the use of one part of the Scriptures to throw light on another part also points out the unity of the Bible and the consistency of its message. It has been said that the Bible is its own best interpreter. I believe that it is likewise its own best illustrator.
In delivery, I believe that one should endeavor to speak as plainly and naturally as possible. I abhor the affected “holy sabbath day voice,” and the meaningless rhythmic inflections that ignore thoughts needing emphasis and emphasize words of no special significance. How terribly unreal and unconvincing a vital message can become if given in an affected or sing-song voice. I shall always be grateful to Dr. Wheeler at Princeton Seminary, who drummed into the heads of us students his admonition, “Let’s not have any el-o-cu-tion! You are supposed to voice ideas.” I try both to speak in a natural voice and to project my voice so that the person on the back row can hear. If the message cannot be heard, why bother to deliver it? And I also try to remember that articulation is as important as volume.
For many years I boasted of “preaching without notes,” but there came a time when I realized I was using more mental energy trying to remember what came next than in giving convincing voice to the thoughts I wanted to communicate. Indeed, there were times when, weary of mind, I found that I was preaching not only without notes but also without ideas. With notes that can be used inconspicuously, I am more relaxed and maintain better contact with the congregation. After all, according to the Chinese proverb, “The weakest ink is stronger than the strongest memory.”—THE REV. IRVIN SHORTESS YEAWORTH, pastor, Covenant-First Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.
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