A journalist aims a pointed pen at some ministerial fetishes

The tall, lean clergyman looked even more solemn than usual as he tentatively pushed open the city-room door of a large newspaper and asked a copy boy if he might see me.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, with the familiarity of long acquaintance. “You look as though you’d lost your last friend.”

“No,” he replied with a forced smile, “but you know how these things are; I’ve just had a h——of a row with my choir director.”

That was my first but by no means last experience with a type of clergyman who habitually uses slang, vulgarity, and sometimes actual profanity when talking to newspaper men—and to some other laymen as well. Clergymen of this type always have a “good story” to tell. The stories are usually earthy, to put it mildly. I have sometimes wondered whether such a preacher saves the stories he cannot use in the pulpit for occasions when he feels he must prove that he is a man among men, “of the earth, earthy.”

Of course, not all clergymen who use profane language do so to impress others. Some of them think that the language of the study and the pulpit is too exalted and artificial for ordinary conversation and that they must revert to “everyday” language to be understood. With others the occasional use of profanity is a genuine slip of the tongue, the result of years spent in circles where rough speech prevails, perhaps while working their way through seminary or serving as a wartime chaplain. Recently some poseurs among the clergy have adopted the use of four-letter words to prove their right to membership in the literary avant-garde.

Nearly half a century of association with clergymen of many faiths and various social strata has given me distinct impressions of the profanity-users and of other types. I have known scores of ministers who are a credit to their profession and, in my humble opinion, deserving of divine approval. These men are kindly, upright, dignified, dedicated. They give every indication of having a message from the God whom they serve and of having spent long hours in search of the precise words that would best convey that message. I have also known ministers who lack preaching ability but whose lives are an example and whose presence is a benediction.

However, there are others who are remembered for other characteristics. There are those who always speak with what they would like their congregations to believe is the “voice of God.” They appear to have forgotten that even the Apostle Paul remarked on occasion, “But to the rest speak I, not the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:12). One waits in vain for such preachers to qualify some statements with even so simple a restriction as “I believe.…” Surely they must know that they are subject to misinterpreting a Scripture text, or not having all the facts, or erring in their judgment.

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The voice of absolute authority is irritating enough when it issues from a pulpit once or twice a week, but it is much more so when it makes itself heard outside the church. One’s daily newspaper will even contain pronouncements by some clergyman on such subjects as the proper depth at which a storm sewer should be laid and the kind of art that should be preferred by the current tenants of the White House.

There are other clergymen whom I should classify as politico-clerics. These men are thoroughly familiar with the political strategy not only of their own denomination but also of other major religious bodies that cooperate or compete with it. Such ministers know exactly how many votes are required to enact a piece of church legislation—and the most effective method of securing them. They are experienced in the use of such tactics as appealing to the order of the day to close debate on a ticklish subject. Those with a real bent for politics can predict with great accuracy both the time when a controversial issue will be allowed to reach the floor and its probable fate within a dozen votes.

Other clergymen are notable for adopting the fetish-word or phrase of the moment as devotedly as a teen-ager adopts the latest slang. For several years I attended a church whose minister had been charmed by “brave, new world.” The phrase dates itself, It was a by-product of the post-depression period, the early days of Social Security. For months not a sermon was delivered in that church that did not refer to the “brave, new world.”

One of the more recent fetish-words is “relevant,” which means “bearing upon, or applying to, the case in hand.” It is something of a stock to hear a preacher question whether Christ’s teaching is “relevant” to world conditions today and then reply in the negative, while declaring in the same sermon that Christianity should permeate every area of human experience. Another word now being bandied about with delight is “dialogue.” A dialogue is little more than a conversation, though perhaps a somewhat formal one; yet it is now used by many clergymen to mean something involving more controversy, a “debate.” Others use it with a less specific connotation. They no longer merely “talk” with people; they “have dialogue,” whether it be about the state of theology today or how often the church lawn should be mowed.

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In contrast to the fetish-word addicts are the cliché-lovers, who are found in all faiths and at all levels of the ministry. Men who adopted some pet expressions in seminary are still using them thirty or forty years later. Often one suspects that the original definitions have been forgotten. At any rate, the users clearly have not bothered to seek out synonyms, or new ways of expressing old ideas. In a Vatican Council press conference, a Catholic theologian who used a cliché was interrupted by laughter. Said one of his fellow theologians, “We all learned that word in seminary, but what does it mean today?” There are preachers who still talk about “marching out to meet the foe” in an age when the youth of their congregations are thinking in terms of spaceships and satellites.

Another type of clergyman is the executive, who emanates more efficiency than sanctity. It is only fair to say that it is hard to know whether a minister is the executive type because he prefers to be or because his church board requires it of him. There comes to mind a spiritual crisis in which I sought the counsel of a prominent clergyman, only to be told by his secretary that I could have an appointment several days later. Perhaps it was unkind, but I could not refrain from asking, “Suppose I should die in the meantime?” The secretary could offer no solution.

Closely related to the executive type is the Madison Avenue man. In some parts of the country, almost every church advertisement in the Saturday newspapers contains a picture of the pastor. However, not every preacher has a face that will induce visitors to attend church. And the regular parishioners, of course, are very well acquainted with their pastor’s appearance. The array of ministerial photographs on some newspaper pages brings to mind the words of our Lord concerning John the Baptist: “What went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.”

The advertising bent manifests itself in various ways. There is, for example, the tricky or even deliberately misleading sermon topic. Almost any newspaper church page will yield examples. I remember a minister who announced as his topic; “The Man Upside Down.” I persuaded two friends who had abandoned church-going to accompany me to hear him. Not once during the sermon did he so much as mention the “man upside down.” My friends never went back to that church.

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Who builds the altar?

Is it man, laying stone on stone

Like a Babel tower

That he might bridge the gap

And march with head erect

Or crawl wormlike, it matters not,

Into the Holy Presence?

Who presents the gift?

Shall we select the finest fruits

From our daily round of toil

And carry them to the sacred place,

And light beneath them

The fires of sacrifice?

Will this placate Eternal Wrath?

The altar is already built!

Aye, the sacrifice is made!

We did not build nor do we give.

The Eternal One has declared

The world the sacred place

And offered on its altar—

A barren hill shaped like a skull—

The Gift.

The Eternal One is first

In building and in giving;

Though immeasurable the cost,

He gives: Ours to respond and,

Set aglow, be driven sparklike

From the Fire we did not kindle.


A poor relative of the advertising-obsessed clergyman—who, after all, pays for his advertisement—is one known disrespectfully in newspaper circles as a “publicity hound.” A preacher of my acquaintance never sent the newspaper a copy of his sermon. He took the attitude that if the paper wanted to print his sermon, or parts of it, a reporter would have to sit through it. Then he went on vacation. On his return he rushed into the newspaper office waving a picture of himself and a friend with some twenty fish spread out on an overturned canoe. I refrained from quoting the words, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Another annoying member of this group is the minister who thinks his church should have a special story when it does exactly what the denominational governing body has decreed each church in the denomination must do. His reasoning is that his church is large and important and that most of his people read the newspaper in which he wants the story printed. He brushes aside the argument that in all fairness thirty or forty other stories on the same matter should be printed. Yet this minister will inveigh against politicians who grant special favors to friends and relatives.

Two other types of clergymen are sure to be found in communities that have a considerable number of churches—the self-fancied intellectual, and the one who seems to have acquired an electronic computer.

The “intellectual” delves into history, quotes the classics, draws illustrations from the sciences, and leaves his hearers with the impression that he is sure he can solve the problems of the universe—even without God’s help, if necessary.

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Sermons of the computerized preacher follow the same pattern week after week with predictable accuracy. No matter what the text, or where the sermon begins, he is almost certain to arrive at the same conclusion. Many years ago I wondered how this was possible. Now with the advent of the computer I have found myself conjecturing. If all the verses in the Bible dealing with a given subject were fed into a computer, would the result be a usable sermon as effective as many to which long-suffering congregations listen week by week?

Is The Cliche Here To Stay?

Last night I took that book from the shelf again and looked at the question hand-written inside the cover: “Would I come to church twice on Sunday to hear myself preach?”

I was preparing for the ministry when my former pastor, then quite old, wrote those words. We had been talking about preaching, and I was showing him a college textbook, The Preparation of Sermons, by Andrew Blackwood. Suddenly he took the book from my hands and wrote. When I read what he had written, I was startled. Since that day, I have often asked myself that question as I stood up to preach. It has had a profound effect upon my ministry.

“Would I come to church twice on Sunday to hear myself preach?” Would I actually make an effort to go to church Sunday after Sunday to taste my own pulpit fare? After a few times, would I finally make excuses to stay at home and watch television? Or, perhaps even worse, would I settle myself in the pew, stare blankly with a non-comprehending, hypnotic gaze (you know the kind), and wait for the benediction?

Volumes have been written about preaching. The experts have thoroughly scrutinized all kinds of sermons. But one area seems to have been overlooked: clichés. How easily these comfortable, often meaningless words roll from our lips.

How many times, for example, have congregations been introduced to “the Scripture lesson for today …” (not yesterday’s lesson, mind you, but today’s) by the roundabout statement: “I would like to call your attention to a verse of Scripture found in the Book of Matthew.…” Why “would like to”? “Why not simply, “Let us turn to Matthew’s Gospel …”?

Another pet phrase declares, “I would have you know.…” Why not say, “You should know …”?

“And so it is.…” Often this supposedly illuminating phrase is tacked on the end of a point as the voice of the minister, who is looking down at his notes to catch the next point, diminishes to a whisper. “And so it is” serves as a kind of weak transition. But does it really mean anything?

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“Permit me to say.…” “And may I say …?” Don’t ask permission; go ahead and say it. They couldn’t stop you if they wanted to.

I must hasten on.… This might mean (who knows?): “We’re on the main track now.” It most certainly means that the message is far from finished and it’s already past noon. Take heart, congregation, the end is in sight! Really, though, do you mean anything by it? You know (and so does the congregation) that you’re going to finish, even if it takes all day.

“Just this and I’m through.…” Is this another sign of hope for the longsuffering congregation? It should be, but it is often a false one.

“You’ve probably heard the story about.…” They probably have. If you’re going to use a story again with the same congregation, at least spare them the warning. Just go ahead and use it. Better still, keep track of your “stories” so you won’t bore them to death. (Note the cliché!)

Are you listening …?” If they must be reminded to listen, they’re probably not doing it. And it probably isn’t their fault.

“I’ll never forget if I live to be a hundred.…” Does this add anything? If not, let’s leave it off.

“Bear with me …” For the life of me (another cliché), I don’t know what this means. I know what it is supposed to mean. Analyze the words. What does it actually say?—


LeTourneau College,

Longview, Texas.

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