Seven Habits of Highly Effective Preachers
Seven Habits of Highly Effective Preachers
How to speak so listeners can't forget
What's the difference between these two sentences?
"Washington is not an efficient, charming city."
"Washington is a city of southern efficiency and northern charm" (John F. Kennedy).
The first is flat. The second has flair. One is prosaic, the other artistic.
Artistic speech is interesting, fresh, appealing. It fires the imagination. It speaks to the heart. It reaches corners of the human spirit that plain, literal speech misses.
While the strength of literal speech is clarity, the strength of artistic speech is depth. An artful phrase communicates at more than one level. It resonates with the soul more than Webster's-accurate prose ever will.
No wonder artistic speech is used by the best contemporary communicators in speech or in print. It was certainly used by Jesus: "No one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, he puts it on a stand so that those who come in can see the light" (Luke 8:16).
Few of us, though, have the time to do any more than salt our messages with artistic elements, primarily at the strategic points: the introduction, key sentences and paragraphs, and conclusion. Yet even a light sprinkling of artistry can add flavor. Here are seven ways to interest listeners.
Good comparisons enliven the imagination and stir emotions. At a practical level, word pictures keep the interest of today's visually oriented listeners.
Scripture is full of comparisons, both metaphors ("The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer") and similes ("As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants after you, 0 Lord"). Metaphors can enliven an already dramatic scene and help make abstract topics tangible.
In his sermon "Tide Riding," the late Bruce Thielemann accomplished both of these effects in one short passage:
My first pastorate was in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, which was famous at that time for having the world's largest steel-tube rolling mills. … Many was the time I stood in one of those great machines … with the man operating the machine. I'd see a great serpent of molten metal come slithering down into the machine, and it would be chopped off. Then the machine would grab it by its end and begin to spin. By centrifugal force, that bar of metal would open from the inside out. … I asked the men directing those machines, "What's the most important ingredient in the process?"
The answer was always the same: "It's the temperature of the metal. If it is too hot, it will fly apart; if it is too cold, it will not open as it ought. Unless you catch the molten moment, you cannot make the perfect tube."
Unless we catch those molten moments when character can develop, we miss our opportunities just as the disciples did.
Thielemann heightens our interest in the steel mill by introducing the snake metaphor, and then he uses "molten moments" as a tangible way to talk about the abstract concept of opportunity.
It's easy to misuse comparisons, however. Too many of the following mistakes, and listeners suffer confusion.
Multiple images in close proximity confuse rather than enlighten: "She charged into my office like a bull and fired one rocket of criticism after another."
We are most prone to mix metaphors when using "dead" metaphors (ones so common we no longer recognize them as metaphors): "If you can't take the heat [a dead metaphor referring to the discomfort of standing by a kitchen stove], start firing back [a military metaphor]."
We reach too far when a comparison is illogical, weak, or nonexistent, or we stretch the imagination just a tad too far: "Love is the tree sap of human relations. It nourishes the leaves of our soul."
"The gospel is as powerful as a nuclear bomb." Though both things are powerful, the simile fails because it compares something glorious and life-giving—the Christian message—with something fearful and destructive—nuclear holocaust. Neither would you say, "Joy is as infectious as the bubonic plague" or "The Devil prowls the streets like Mother Teresa, looking for the weak and dying."
Contrast accentuates and intensifies, just as a match unnoticeable in the sunlight bums brightly in a deep cave.
In the conclusion of his sermon "Tide Riding," Bruce Thielemann used contrast well:
Please don't say anything to me about tomorrow. Tomorrow is the word the Bible does not know. If you can find me any place in the Scriptures where the Holy Spirit of God says 'tomorrow,' I will step down from this pulpit and never step into it or any other pulpit for as long as I live.
The Holy Spirit's word is the word today. "Now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation.' 'Today, if you will harden not your heart and hear my voice… ."
Don't say tomorrow… The word is today. Come to Christ today. Grow in Christ today. Serve in the name and in the spirit of Christ today.
Christ used contrast to underline the difference between past and present, between his teaching and other teaching: "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:27, 28).
Some of the most effective epigrams are merely clever contrasts: "War talk by men who have been in a war is always interesting; whereas moon talk by a poet who has not been in the moon is likely to be dull" (Mark Twain).
Parallelism is memorable. "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" (Winston Churchill).
People would not decorate their bedroom walls with the Beatitudes if Christ had said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Mourners will be comforted, so they're blessed as well. The meek, who will inherit the earth, are blessed. God will bless those who hunger and thirst for righteousness by filling them full."
Parallel structure highlights special distinctions of thought. "That comfort is not a knowledge that everything will be all right, but a knowledge that everything is under control" (John Hannah, in his sermon "Is There Any Comfort?").
Or consider Haddon Robinson's phrase about the proud Pharisee praying in the temple: "In the presence of God, he had a good eye on himself, a bad eye on his neighbor, and no eye on God."
In his sermon "Living a Life of Integrity," George Munzing uses parallel structure to show the relationship between abstract ideas. "Sow a thought, reap an act. Sow an act, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny."
When a speaker piles up sentences and phrases in parallel structure, a tremendous sense of drama and emotion builds. "We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender" (Winston Churchill, in a speech about Dunkirk in the House of Commons, June 4, 1940).
Repetition and refrain
Repetition and refrain are another way to bring power to a sermon. Jesus used them not only in the Beatitudes but also when he chastised:
"Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces" (Matthew 23:13).
"Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert" (Matthew 23:15).
"Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence" (Matthew 23:25).
Or take a modern example, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech, "I Have a Dream":
Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood… . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is one of the most dramatic speeches of the twentieth century, and the wave upon wave of "I have a dream" has embedded itself in the national consciousness.
(Of course, using repetition when the subject or setting doesn't warrant only backfires. Don't try it without passion. It will feel as awkward as wearing a tuxedo to a small group Bible study.)
Hyperbole and understatement
Ironically, understatement emphasizes a point.
"Dying is bad for you" (Russell Baker).
"Nothing in life is so exhilarating," said Winston Churchill, "as to be shot at without result."
Understatement is a national sport for the British, while overstatement—hyperbole, exaggeration—is the American preference. Chuck Swindoll combines hyperbole and understatement to humorous effect in his sermon, "Reasons to Be Thankful":
"When my wife and I were at Dallas Seminary back in the early 1960s, we lived in a little apartment that was a part of a small group of apartments that have since then been destroyed, I am happy to say. Hot and cold running rats—all the joys of home were there. In the summer the weather came inside, and it was hot. Hot? Hotter than you can imagine. Like a desert.
"That hot fall, we began to pray for an air conditioner; we didn't have one. I remember through the cold, blowing winter—strange!—we were praying for an air conditioner. Through December, January, and February, we told nobody, we made no announcement, we wrote no letter; we just prayed.
"The following spring, before we were to have another summer there, we visited my wife's parents in Houston. While there, one morning the phone rang. We hadn't announced our coming; it was for a brief visit with her folks and mine before we went back to seminary. The phone rang, and on the other end of the line was a man I hadn't talked to in months. His name happened to be Richard… .
"I said, 'How are you?'
"He said, 'Great! Do you need an air conditioner?'
"I almost dropped the phone. [Up to this point Swindoll's delivery has been typically enthusiastic. Before the following line, however, he pauses and then calmly says,] 'Uh, yes.'
" 'Well,' he says, 'we have just put in central air conditioning here, and we've got this little three-quarter-ton air conditioner that we thought you might like to have. We'll bring it over and stick it in your trunk and let you take it back, if that's okay.'
[Again Swindoll pauses and answers calmly]
"That'll be fine, Richard. Bring it on over.'"
We put that thing in the window, and we froze winter and summer in that little place!"
As Swindoll shows here, using understatement in tandem with overstatement can help listeners "get it."
Overstatement can be humorous—"Always do right. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest" (Mark Twain). Or it can have an edge to it: "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away… . If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away" (Matthew 5:29, 30).
Explaining understatement or hyperbole to listeners is a mistake, though. Much of the impact comes from listeners' getting it for themselves, and if they don't, explaining only highlights failure. Another error is to commonly use adjectives such as rather, somewhat, very, super, or mega to under- or overstate.
Alliteration—using words that begin with similar sounds—accents comparison or contrast. "This time through a similar whirlwind, God brings not ruin but revelation, not disaster but disclosure."
When we alliterate the key words of a sentence—the subject and verb, the verb and the direct object, a series of parallel words—the words fit, and the sentence sounds right.
"If you accept Christ, righteousness can be a reality."
"His career was ruined through laziness and
"The end of sin is sorrow."
Alliteration is both a tool and a temptation. We've all abused alliteration in sermon outlines, forcing words to fit the scheme, even at the risk of confusing the meaning. If we find we have to explain an alliterative outline for it to make sense to listeners, we've probably gone too far.
One general rule of good communication is to keep it simple. Sometimes, though, saying something in a roundabout way can be more interesting. It's called periphrasis.
Many biblical phrases could be shortened, but the periphrasis appeals to the heart and imagination. Instead of saying "David loves me and is a righteous man," God says, "I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart" (Acts 13:22).
Describing a source for one of Shakespeare's plays, instead of saying "a disorganized play," Northrop Frye, in his book On Shakespeare, says, "A messy dog's breakfast of a play."
One common structure for periphrasis is a hyphenated phrase used as an adjective: "They lived in a cockroaches-have-the-right-of-way tenement house."
Turned phrases—based on movie, book, or television titles, cliches, familiar quotations, Bible verses, or advertising slogans—make for arresting titles:
"When the Roll Is Called Down Here" (Fred Craddock).
"Glory to God in the Lowest" (Bruce Thielemann).
"Levi's Genes" (Vic Pentz).
Turned phrases also draw an effective contrast: "How many times have you heard it said that in this world it's not what you know but who you know that counts? And that is often true. But in God's world, it is not what you know but who you are that counts" (George Munzing).
Wordplay can be used for serious purposes. Jack Hayford described in one sermon a divine message he received regarding his finances: "The reason things are so tight is because you're too tight."
Wordplay can highlight a comparison or contrast. "You're very careful about your actions," said one preacher. "Character is revealed by your reactions."
Explaining a wordplay, or any artistic element, patronizes listeners. While clarity is a virtue in communication, so is subtlety, which allows listeners the pleasure of figuring things out.
"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38, 39).
Redwood-solid substance like this—expressed with contrast, repetition, parallelism, balance, variation, and climax—was written by an apostle who said, "I may not be a trained speaker, but I do have knowledge" (2 Corinthians 11:6). He said he "did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom" (1 Corinthians 2:1). He clearly could never be accused of putting style over substance.
The lesson for us is that we don't have to choose substance over style or style over substance. For as biblical writers such as Paul and David and Isaiah and John knew, in the hands of serious communicators, artistic style is substance.