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Preaching the Way People Listen

Write for the human ear more than the printed page.

Topic: How to write sermons that appeal to the listener
Big Idea: Write for the human ear more than the printed page.

Preaching Today: In your book Just Say the Word , you deal with the problem of speaking in a way that sounds written. What does that sound like? What are some of the characteristics of that?

Jacks: It's the way we've been instructed to communicate in print from grade school on: using the biggest word we can think of, the most roundabout way of saying what we're supposed to be saying. So we end up writing the fanciest essays and term papers we can think of in order to impress our instructors. I think that carries over into our preaching.

Talk about a few of the rules you made for writing for the ear in your book. What kinds of things can the person who uses a brief outline work on, in keeping with these rules?

First of all, hear yourself telling your thoughts to one or two other people. Then make sure it's big enough vocally to be heard by however many are listening to your sermon. Think of sharing your faith with one or two other people so it becomes an extended conversation more than anything else.

Another step involves entering the world of your people. Don't assume that they know half of your theological library. You have a faith powerful enough to have changed your life. What about that faith is powerful enough to change the lives of other people? That's what you ought to be preaching.

Tom Gillespie told a wonderful story about a seminary faculty person who was preaching recently in Trenton. In the middle of his sermon, a booming bass voice came from the back of the church saying, " Preacher, put those cookies on a lower shelf. " I think that's what our people are asking for — to hear the Word spoken in everyday language.

You talk about the need to avoid a literary sound. What is a literary sound, and how does it come about?

Much of it is stylistic. Consider these two statements: " This is the book which she gave me " and " She told me that she loved me. " We would normally say, " This is the book she gave me " and " She told me she loved me. " Leave out stylistic words such as which and that.

We also throw in extra uses of the verb to be.To be is the weakest verb in the English language. The end result would be much stronger if we went through the text and got rid of that verb wherever possible.

What are some examples of sentences in which too many to be verbs are thrown in?

Statements such as: " This is the thing which I am trying to say " . Shorten to, " I am trying to say. " Words like " which " or " that " or " who " often form in conjunction with the verb to be creating longer sentences that are less to the point.

Use the active voice rather than passive voice and use verbs rather than nouns. A student of mine recently wrote, " Let us not try to do with human effort what God intended to do with His power. " I suggested he change it to, " If we try to live the Christian life without the Spirit, if we try to administer ministry on our own, we will fail. " Put it into two or three shorter sentences, using verb forms rather than noun forms.

We try to use correct grammar, despite that fact that we don't always use it in conversation. Sometimes we end sentences with prepositions and begin sentences with conjunctions, even though we're taught not to do that in grade school. We avoid contractions in formal speaking. But we use them a lot in conversation.

You make a big point about the need to show more than you tell. How does that affect the way we think about a sermon?

Illustrate the point you're trying to make. If you're talking about attitudes, tell a story in which people are expressing various attitudes, using dialogue.

When we're telling jokes, for example, we enter into the character. We don't hold one-way conversations with people. We enter into dialogue with them. We ask questions. Do the same as you preach.

The bottom line is: be yourself. Just because you've got the robe on doesn't mean you are a functionary. You're still a child of God.

So how we see in our mind what we're doing has a powerful effect on how we communicate. As pastors, we want to feel like we're across the table from the people in our congregations.

Definitely. If we see ourselves as superior to our people, it will have a terrible effect on our preaching. Whereas if we see them as brothers and sisters, people for whom Christ died who are simply sharing what God has done in our life, then our communication will be more effective.

This realism depends upon developing what I like to call a parabolic eye, through which you look at life, your parishioner's life, life as it goes on around you, and life in movies as parables in which you see God's hand in action.

Pastors are concerned about maintaining a certain level of respect. How can we do this without sounding academic or like a stuffed shirt?

The underlying question is: Who are we trying to impress? Why do we need to speak in order to draw respect to us, as opposed to speaking naturally to other human beings in a way that will draw attention to Christ?

In my years of teaching I have seen students step into the pulpit and immediately become 'wholly other', as though the word God was stamped on their forehead.

The best paradigm for preaching is Jesus Christ incarnate. He came in the flesh, walked among us, ate with us, and got his feet dirty with us. He told stories rather than preaching pontifical messages. He was totally human and totally God.

So communication becomes credible when we speak honestly from the depths of our hearts, not trying to adopt any certain persona?

That's absolutely right. So often as preachers we think of ourselves as being set apart and we lose our humanity.

We are taught to engage the intellect, when Christ wants to engage our souls. I think most of us in seminaries listen to preachers preaching to people from the ears on up. We need to realize people live in the flesh, living the majority of their lives from the ears on down.

What would you suggest for the preacher using a manuscript? What are some of the things this person can work on to have a more spoken style?

First, as you look at your manuscript, ask yourself, are you appealing just to the mind or are you appealing to all five senses? Look for ways to deal with the sensory world as well as the intellectual world.

Second, look over your words. Are they easy to understand? Words with over two syllables should prompt you to ask if there's a shorter word that would work better. Also, hunt for words you would normally use only in a literary or sermonic context. For example, we wouldn't normally use words like indeed, however, and nevertheless at the beginning of a sentence in a conversation with one or two other people.

Finally, watch out for clichés and unnecessary words like that and which. Nine times out of ten, these words are not needed.

In writing, you want to keep things tight and lean. But in spoken language, you don't always do that. How can we be careful that we are not too tight in the way we write up a manuscript, so that when we preach it, it won't sound written.

Listen to it as you're writing it. How would you say it? Sometimes we repeat ourselves to be understood, and for emphasis. It's a rhythm we get into when we want to make a point. In black preaching, it's natural, and we could learn from this style.

To help get this rhythm in writing, my preaching students have suggested preachers try writing their manuscripts in the RJ format that I use in my book. You put things down in phrases rather than full sentences, so that you see a whole different visual stimulus for preaching. It doesn't look like an essay or term paper; it looks like free verse. When you speak it, it sounds like conversation rather than a lecture.

That really is the way we think, isn't it? We think more in phrases.

Exactly. We use sentence fragments, one-word sentences, and run-on sentences because there's passion in what we are saying. Often, though, once we have it down on the page, it loses that fire. The passion was there when we first thought of the idea, but we've lost it at the time of preaching it. That's where I think the single phrase format can be helpful. I've had countless students tell me, " I never thought of writing this way, but it makes all the difference in the world. "

Talk a little bit about sentence length.

Keep sentences short. Break them down into phrases as you write, and it will be easier to express and closer to the way you would express it if you were speaking.

In your book you speak against qualifying everything. Give us some examples of qualified speech.

Examples are phrases like " so to speak " or " as it were " . I heard a classic example when I was back in seminary: " If you don't repent, so to speak, you'll be damned, as it were. " Qualifiers take the edge off what you are trying to say.

Maybe we don't believe that Christ has given us the authority to proclaim the gospel, so we waffle — " pardon me for bringing anything up " — that type of thing. Or maybe we're simply not sure of what we are going to say or what we believe.

What is another example of a blunder in preaching the way people listen?

I'm still laughing about a recent paper a student turned in and preached. She used the word redolent for something like, " the air was redolent with " Afterward, she told me, " RJ, I know you don't like us to use big words, but I just love that word. " Her use of the word wasn't the problem though. The problem was she had mispronounced it. If you don't know how to pronounce a word, don't use it, or use a dictionary to learn the pronunciation.

If someone wants to begin speaking the way that people hear best, how would you suggest they get started?

Before you go to your computer, put your ideas down in the short phrase format and experiment with trying to get them on the printed page in a spoken format. Consider getting a tape recorder and talking through your ideas to an imaginary friend. Play that back, and listen to yourself talking. Then, once you preach on Sunday, tape that and play it back. Listen to yourself and ask, " Does that really sound like me talking, or does it sound like some stranger who's preaching? " Try to sound like the same person sharing Jesus whether you're doing it from the pulpit or over a cup of coffee.

A lot of it has to do with your self image as a preacher. If you see yourself as a brother or sister who is sharing what Jesus has done in their life with other people, that's going to have major positive influence on the way you express yourself from the pulpit.

Robert Jacks is associate professor of speech communication in ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. He is author of Just Say The Word: Writing for the Ear.

This interview is a transcript of Preaching Today audio workshop #190. To order this Preaching Today audiotape, e-mail your request to Store@Christianitytoday.com or visit www.ChristianityTodayStore.com and click on Preaching/Personal Growth.

The late Robert Jacks was associate professor of speech communication in ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. He is author of Just Say The Word.

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