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‘Coltivando e Pronunciando La Bella Predica’: Cultivating and Delivering the Beautiful Sermon

The power and importance of eloquence in the beautiful sermon.
‘Coltivando e Pronunciando La Bella Predica’: Cultivating and Delivering the Beautiful Sermon
Image: mohd izzuan / Getty Images

Editor’s Note: If you missed the first article in this series, be sure to check out ‘La Bella Predica’: The Beautiful Sermon.

In the art of preaching, beauty is called eloquence. But what is eloquence? Is it, as famed satirist and author of Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift charged, “a perfect cheat,” designed to enflame the passions, color the truth, and amuse to dubious, if not nefarious, ends?

Is eloquence something more sublime—a precious resource, perhaps, limited to those few fortunate souls upon whom Providence sees fit to bestow it? Again, it was Swift who contended, “Wit and eloquence are shining qualities, that God hath imparted in great degrees to very few, nor any more to be expected, in the generality of any rank among men, than riches and honour.”[1]

I believe that Swift, here, is only partially correct. It does seem that God has imparted great degrees of eloquence to very few of us, if by that he meant people who were born with a natural knack for robust and easy eloquence. But I would argue that we who weren’t born with that gift do err to assume that we are incapable of growing in eloquence ourselves.

I maintain that all God’s image-bearers came into this world with the potential for eloquence, but it’s an ability that must be cultivated. How do we do that? How may we who are average preachers (at best) become more eloquent? To begin, understanding what eloquence is (and isn’t) will take us far in our pursuit of it.

Eloquence Attracts and Persuades

Humor is not eloquence, but eloquence can be humorous. Entertainment is not eloquence, but eloquence is entertaining. Imagination is not eloquence, but eloquence fires and is fired by the imagination. Memorability is not eloquence, but eloquence is memorable.

Merriam-Webster defines eloquence as “the quality of forceful or persuasive expressiveness.” According to seventeenth-century homiletician François Fénelon, it is “the art of speaking well … in order to please and to persuade … that [one] may urge justice and the other virtues by making them attractive …. [Persuasion being] the single aim which a speaker has.”[2]

Eloquence is a quality that both attracts and persuades. It pertains to a speaker’s style, what Haddon Robinson termed the “dress of thought,” but is more than what most of us imagine that turn-of-phrase to mean. Like Wordsworth, I am convinced that a speaker’s authentic style is not just his or her dress of thought but its very incarnation.

Eloquence is a serious matter. It might indulge in light humor when appropriate, but only in subordination to seriousness and earnestness. Thus, eloquence pertains to the preacher’s ethos. It flows naturally from one’s inner most being or, as Jesus put it, “out of the abundance of the heart” (Matt. 12:34).

“Natural” is the term to which Fénelon repeatedly returns when describing eloquence. “Everything the speaker does ought to follow nature.” Eloquence expresses itself in natural tones, natural eye contact, natural gestures, and natural movements—each one flowing out of the speaker’s genuine conviction and feelings in the moment. Fénelon likens the interplay of these elements to music. “All its beauty consists in the variety of its tones as they rise or fall according to the things which they have to express.”[3]

Eloquence Is a Jewel

Eloquence is a multi-faceted jewel. Viewed theologically, eloquence is neither truth alone nor beauty alone but emerges at their intersection. Like beauty, eloquence is more than garment or adornment. Like truth, it is an aspect of God’s very nature. The second person of the Trinity is Truth once incarnate (John 14:6). Beauty is his eternal glory (Isa. 4:2; 28:5).

The reason for resurrecting a concern for eloquence within preaching is as theological as it is rhetorical. Eloquence honors both the beauty of God in whose image we are created and his truth of which we must be persuaded.

Viewed artistically, eloquence satisfies what Francis Schaeffer identified as the four basic standards of art: 1) technical excellence; 2) validity, that is, an expression of the artist’s true self; 3) intellectual content and the worldview it discloses; and 4) the integration of content and vehicle.[4] Applying Schaeffer’s standards homiletically, eloquent preaching is that form of preaching which honors the best techniques of its craft, expresses a holiness that is indicative of the preacher’s true character, addresses serious matters from the perspective of a biblical worldview, and conveys its message using means appropriate to its contents.

Viewed rhetorically, the British linguist David Crystal helpfully summarizes eloquence to be:

  • Fluent: It flows easily and at a good pace, without hesitations, linguistic errors, repetitions, or uncertainty in the use of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.
  • Personal: It expresses, or appears to express, the convictions of the speaker, whose personality comes across in the choice of language.
  • Appropriate: It suits the situation the speaker is in, or at least it’s an understandable reaction to it.
  • Heightened: It displays features of artistry that go beyond the linguistic norms we encounter in everyday informal conversation.
  • Clear: It uses words that are known to the listeners, and puts them into sentences in a way that is easy to understand.
  • Memorable: It contains elements that stick in the mind, so that if asked, “What did X say?” it’s possible for a listener to repeat tiny bits of it.
  • Reactive: It shows awareness of the interest levels and listening abilities of the audience and responds or adapts to any feedback.[5]

Exercises for Cultivating Eloquence

Eloquence in any type of speech, sermons particularly, is both a general quality and intermittent feature. Parts of any given sermon will stand out for their beauty. Others will prove equally pedestrian. Nonetheless, hearers walk away feeling that there was something different, something special, about that sermon they just heard.

The following exercises practiced regularly will enhance a preacher’s eloquence as an intermittent feature within his or her sermons and, over time, make eloquence a general and natural quality of his or her preaching.

Pay Attention

The Guardian in 2012 published an article titled “Why I want all our children to read the King James Bible.” Its author charged, “A native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian.” Which preacher said that? Remarkably, it was none other than that “preacher” of evolutionary biology and atheism Richard Dawkins! And he didn’t confine his praise to the dear old KJV, writing, “Ecclesiastes, in the 1611 translation, is one of the glories of English literature (I'm told it’s pretty good in the original Hebrew, too).”

Eloquent preaching isn’t created ex nihilo. It’s birthed out of a literary masterpiece. Preachers who pay attention to a biblical text’s rhetorical intricacies cannot help but to be impressed, to read that text with greater pathos in the public assembly, and to proclaim it with an awe and reverence akin to that of a docent leading a tour at one of the world’s great art galleries.

Speaking of docents, we preachers would do well to pay attention to eloquent speakers wherever we hear them. Then, afterwards, dissect their speech and try to figure out what made it eloquent. There was something about it that appealed to our aesthetic sensibilities. What was that something? How might we cultivate it in our own preaching?


Imagination kindles eloquence, and eloquence kindles imagination. We who aspire to deliver sermons that attract and persuade must heed the advice of ex-Beatle John Lennon and imagine.

As we study our text, try slipping into the sandals of its author and first hearers. What does it feel like to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch what they were seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching at the time? Now, try to put those sensations into words.

Few artists have charted as many hit singles by imitating other musicians’ sub-genres as Billy Joel. I once heard him describe his process. Whenever he came across something that caught his ear, he tried to imagine how its creator(s) would handle a new piece of his own making. It wasn’t outright mimicry that Joel was after but a personalization of what attracted him to that artist’s sound.

One of the benefits of memorizing poetry and listening to others’ eloquent expressions is it reforms our tastes. Internalizing R. G. Lee’s description of Ahab from his sermon “Payday Someday” as “the vile human toad who squatted upon the throne of his nation—the worst of Israel’s kings” and Jezebel as a snake “coiled upon the throne of the nation” gives us a taste for what well-crafted images can do and creates a craving for us to go and do likewise. The goal isn’t to preach like Lee but to burnish in our own preaching what shone so brightly in his.


The more often you do something, the more routine it becomes. Novelty eventually loses its luster. What seemed like play in the beginning comes to feel a lot more like work in the end. Preaching, sermon-building especially, is no different.

The trick to countering that downward pull is to remind ourselves, as coaches tell their teams before a big game, to go out there and have some fun! No, preaching isn’t a game. But if it isn’t fun on some level, why should we expect it to engage, much less engross, our hearers? If it isn’t refreshing us, why should we expect it to refresh them?

To play is to experiment—with new terms, tools, techniques, and takes on the same old truths. So, play with deduction, induction, and inductive-to-deductive forms. Ditch the alliteration, and experiment with assonance and consonance. Forget principlizing that narrative and try relating it as a story. Imagine the historical background of that Pauline pericope as the beginning of a story, the pericope itself as part of that story, and the story’s ending as it would be determined by how hearers respond to that pericope. The possibilities are limitless.

Play inspires creativity which, in turn, inspires eloquence. Nothing in my experience squelches either any quicker than stopping my play and picking up my editor’s pen prematurely. That’s because creating and editing require exertion from opposite sides of our brains. Creativity flows when a first thought is allowed to run its course, connecting to other thoughts at random. Editing pumps the brakes by demanding that we take a second look at what we’ve created. That’s why time flies when we’re in the zone and creating but crawls when we’re editing. Both are essential, but each in its own time.

Edit with Your Ears

We preachers must learn to talk to ourselves. “The difference between the almost right word and the right word,” observed Mark Twain, “is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” At certain times in certain places, some words just sound better than others.

Following Winston Churchill’s famous statement, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” an admirer wrote to him: “[That sentence] will live as long as words are spoken and remembered. Nothing so simple, so majestic and so true has been said in so great a moment of human history.” I imagine that Churchill sounded out his famous quote more than once before offering it up in his 1940 speech to the House of Commons.

There is an undeniable comeliness to right words, rightly spoken. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver,” raved Solomon (Prov. 25:11).

We preachers must hear our words first to know how they will sound to our hearers later, and we must listen to them discriminately. For what should we listen specifically? The traits on Crystal’s list cited above is a good place to begin. To me, the following traits are some of the most important features of words fitly spoken.

  • Unity – Our words should work together to advance one “big idea” (to borrow from Haddon Robinson), derived from our text’s “theological focus” (to quote Abraham Kuruvilla), and echo something of its tone.
  • Order – Our words and thoughts should build on one another in a logical, not to be confused with predictable, fashion.
  • Movement – Our words should lead hearers from one part of our big idea to the next.
  • Intentionality – Our words should not be rushed nor haphazard.
  • Appropriateness – Our words should be measured to fit the dimensions of our thought. Grand ideas require more than everyday expressions but not necessarily more than everyday words and commonplace images.
  • Terseness – Our words should get to the heart of the matter as quickly as possible.

Let me camp out on these last three traits for a moment. Eloquence is intentional in two senses of that term.

Eloquence Is Unrushed, Intentional, and Economical

First, it is unrushed. Like a bride arrayed in an elegant wedding gown, eloquence takes its time. Brides don’t run down the aisle. They proceed unhurried, giving themselves and onlookers time to appreciate the beauty of their shared moment. Inexperienced preachers, especially but not alone, are often ineloquent because they fail to slow down, shut up, and let their words sink in before moving on.

Second, eloquence is intentional in the sense that it is on purpose. Eloquent preachers want to be eloquent. Early on, they must plan for it and practice, like a beginning pianist. But over time, eloquence comes more naturally to preachers and pianists alike.

Eloquent speech is economical, neither ostentatious nor excessive. It doesn’t draw attention to itself but to its object, often in a dozen words or less. It favors simple, familiar images cast in a new light. Robinson exhibits this aspect of eloquence in the following paragraph taken from his class textbook Biblical Preaching.

There are bright words, as brilliant as a tropical sunrise, and there are drab words, as unattractive as a country bus station. There are hard words that punch like a prizefighter, and weak words as insipid as tea made with one dunk of a tea bag. There are pillow words that comfort people and steel-cold words that threaten them. Some words transplant listeners at least for an instant close to the courts of God, and other words send them to the gutter. We live by words, love by words, pray with words, curse with words, and die for words.[6]

Other examples of Robinson’s simple eloquence include: “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew;” “Depravity is a curvature of the soul;” “When you fail to walk with God, you walk on the edge of an abyss;” “A sermon is not an essay on its hind legs;” and “Long words have paralysis in their tails.” Few words. Clear images. Arrestingly stated.

Crystal, citing TED Talks as an example of the power of terseness, suggests that anyone pursuing eloquence can benefit from the discipline of thinking in halves, that is, by working out what we want to say in the time we’ve been allotted, then thinking about how we’d say it if we had only half the time.[7] When it comes to eloquence, less is generally more (which reminds me that I’ve gone on long enough, so let’s wrap this up.)


How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How does a preacher achieve eloquence? One word, one sentence, one paragraph, one sermon at a time.

Reading what Augustine, Fénelon, and Robinson have to say about eloquence will leave any preacher feeling overwhelmed. Rather than despairing so that you don’t even try or biting off more than you can chew, concentrate instead on improving in one aspect of eloquence.

It may be only a sentence or a phrase but give it some thought. Pour yourself into it. Deliver it with all the clarity, energy, and passion that it deserves. Don’t draw attention to it. Just let it draw attention to your thought. Do it as an act of worship, offering up your best to God. Then, whatever eloquence you achieve or beauty you create in that moment, rejoice in the knowledge that by it you are imaging beauty’s one true Creator and that through your art God is drawing your hearers to himself.

1 Jonathan Swift, “Upon Sleeping in Church,” in Best Sermons Ever, compiled by Christopher Howse (London and New York: Continuum, 2001), 101-2.

2 Wilbur S. Howell, Fénelon’s ‘Dialogues on Eloquence:’ A Translation and Notes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), 61-62.

4 Howell, 100, 104.

[4] Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian View of the Bible as Truth, volume 2, in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview (Wheaton: Crossway, 1982), 399-403.

6 David Crystal, The Gift of Gab: How Eloquence Works (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 2.

[6] Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 3d. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 136.

[7] Crystal, 24.

Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.

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