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Ingredients of Rhetorical Power

How well does this message use language?

It is easy to produce a sermon that is consistent with the truth of the text. To bring that truth to bear on the audience's problem in a way that moves the heart and motivates listeners to respond is more difficult. That kind of preaching requires the diagnostic skill of a physician, the artistic soul of a poet, and the vocal power of an orator.

The clinic sermon " Finding Our Way Home " moves in the right direction by using images and phrases that the audience can easily identify with. The sermon opens with " It was a dark and stormy night. " This does more than bring to mind the image of a favorite comic strip; it becomes the overarching metaphor for the entire message.

Concrete word pictures also enable us to visualize specific scenes that symbolize a problem or feeling. All too often we simply state facts. To remind listeners what it feels like to fail, we might say, " When we lose a job, watch a child make a mistake, or go through a divorce, we often feel like a failure at the most important things in life. " Instead, the speaker uses short, sharp strokes to paint three portraits in miniature. The person described in the sermon does not merely lose her job, she carries her " little box of personal belongings " out of the office. They do more than watch their child make a mistake, they watch her " walk into the worst mess of her young life. " They do not simply get a divorce, they " take their wedding ring off and drop it in the drawer. " This moves the discussion out of the realm of theory and into the arena of experience.

Repetition can also be used to good effect. A repeated phrase can serve as a hook for the sermon's big idea. In this case, it is the phrase " It was a dark and stormy night " that underscores the thought that " No matter how dark the night is, you can always trust Christ. "

A repeated statement can also be used to drive home a point and raise the emotional energy of the message. This kind of repetition functions in the sermon the way a crescendo does in a piece of music. This sermon uses the repeated phrase " he was going there " to underscore the fact that Jesus' " going " prepared a home in heaven for us: " It included the awful pain of the next day when Jesus was crucified, and the greatest pain — beyond imagination — when the Son of God found himself looking at the back of his Father. Forsaken. He was going there. When he died and gave up his spirit and cried, 'It is finished!' he was going there. When he was laid in the tomb, he was going there. When he arose on Easter morning, when new life filled his body, a new kind of body, when the stone rolled away and Jesus stepped forth, he was going there. And later, when he went to be with his Father to sit at the right hand of God, he was going there. "

Analogies and metaphors are another way to add rhetorical power to a message. The power of metaphorical language comes from its use of the concrete and known to explain what is abstract and unknown. Metaphors make the truth live.

They can also have the opposite effect. When the metaphor is so familiar that it has the force of a clich, it becomes a dead metaphor. At times the language of this sermon is bland and predictable. The speaker uses dead metaphors and tired cliches. When his plane lands in Chicago, it is " raining cats and dogs. " The passengers who stand in the rain are " like a bunch of wet rats. " He is so anxious when his car fails to start in the parking lot that he is " sweating bullets. "

This message could also improve on the descriptive quality of several of the illustrations. The speaker tends to " tell " rather than " show. " His description of his stormy flight to Chicago is choppy and rather drab. We are told the facts but without any visual detail. What did he see? What did he hear? What did he smell? What did he feel?

John Reed, senior professor emeritus of Dallas Theological Seminary, explains: " The most powerful form of illustration is the word picture that takes the idea being presented and makes it appear in the minds of audience members in vivid force. " According to Reed, one of the primary tests of a good illustration is to ask the question: " Does this put the picture in their heads? "

In preaching, biblical content is always king. Rhetorical style alone will not accomplish what God intends. But biblical content conveyed in a vivid style can light a fire in the heart of the listener that will burn with a consuming passion for the God we represent. Powerful preaching utilizes both. It tells the truth but it does so with style.

John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

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