As Dean of Chapel and professor of preaching at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, you hear a lot of preaching. How much would you characterize as inspiring? Recently I counted the number of sermons I listened to in a two-day span, and it was 63. How many would I characterize as inspiring? The minority.
We prize biblical preaching. If a sermon flows from the truth of Scripture, how can it fail to appeal to the emotions, to inspire the hearer to action? Because Scripture is not the only element in preaching. If it were, we would not need workshops on Preaching Today; we would not need all the textbooks and conferences. We would just stand up and read the Scripture, or just work through it verse-by-verse, and the job would be accomplished.
But the preacher is involved, and if the preacher has a spiritual defect or is hypocritical or in some way hindering the flow of that message, then it probably will not inspire. We all know Phillips Brooks's famous definition of preaching—
truth through personality. So the preacher is an integral, inseparable part of the preaching equation. Brooks meant more by personality than a happy personality, an outgoing personality. He meant person-ness, humanness, through incarnated truth. So the preacher's heart must be stirred if the listeners' hearts are to be stirred.
Hugh Blair, who was a preacher and a rhetorician in the 1800s, said there is a contagion among the passions. The passions spread from the preacher to the listeners like a contagious disease. Today in the field of oral interpretation we call it empathy—the listeners mirror or reflect the emotional state of the preacher. But the preacher is an important element.
There is a contagion among the passions.
Would you say then that the character of the preacher is one of the major roadblocks to inspirational preaching? Yes, I would. The character of the preacher, if we take Brooks's definition broadly, the personality, the humanness, of the preacher sometimes hinders or quenches the Spirit.
As I said before, the listeners are a crucial component also. If they are disconnected from what is being said, if they're disobedient to what is being said, then that might quench an effective response also.
How can we avoid just bringing an information dump of sound biblical principles? That's my burden. That is my vision for preaching, that it would be deep ministry and not just saying words, not just going through the motions, even if they're accurate words. So how can it be more? Soak in the Scriptures. Immerse yourself in them. Bathe in them. Use all of our exegetical tools but in addition to that use imagination, pray through the text, internalize it. Some people recommend reading it out loud, taking the Scripture on a walk with you, or working your way through it in meditation. A reservoir can only dispense what it has taken in, and Scripture must be internalized if we're going to give it out.
Internalized to the extent that we are passionate about it. Right. We believe it. It has affected us. We are living that text at least vicariously. We are putting ourselves into that text, and the Lord has put it into us.
To avoid an information dump we also need to study the other side of the preaching equation, and that's the listeners. Don't just study the text; think about the people. Think about them, pray about them, imagine who you'll be speaking to, and love the people. Some preachers get out a pictorial directory of their church and look at the people and families, and they imagine what they're going through. How will she hear this statement? How will he react to this illustration?
Perhaps we could say one of the barriers to inspirational preaching is distance, both distance from the text and distance from your audience. Right. The preacher sounds like a book. You're saying true things, accurate things, but it's not striking the flint of the human condition.
I also suggest self-disclosure and real-life examples. Demonstrate the relevance of that text as it has affected you, using real life or hypothetical examples. For those who are concerned about revealing too much, I find most of us are too reticent to reveal how the Lord is dealing with us, rather than going to the other extreme.
There's an attitude, a theological perspective, that says, "I believe in the power of God's Word and the work of the Holy Spirit, and therefore I don't need to provide a stirring delivery; I just need to give the Word." I've lived in a few different parts of the country, currently in New England, and I face that stance with regularity. There is a proper fear behind that attitude. We properly fear phoniness and playacting and being cheesy. Good. But the suppression of emotion is also a kind of pretense. Listen to Red Sox baseball fans and you will hear emotions that are varied and sometimes explosive and sometimes bordering on lament or joy. In the pulpit, if we suppress what has been internalized, that's a form of pretense. I coach preachers to let it out. Let out what God has put into your heart. If it's too much, we'll pull back from that. But often it's not enough. Everything in a sermon ends up being bland and flat rather than full of life and engaging.
So we might feel we're giving too much, but in reality we're not. A general rule of thumb is we are projecting less than we think we are.
Some preachers may get to the point where they feel, I do need to be more inspiring or I need to express more passion, and they might go about it by raising their voice or gesturing more dramatically. What are some other things we can do? At some point in the preparation period, get alone and ask the Holy Spirit to preach the message to you. If you've got a manuscript, go line-by-line asking, Lord, what does this mean for me? Can I say this with integrity? Do I believe this?
On the practical level I would also say watch yourself on videotape, or listen to yourself on audiotape.
And remember that the inspiration of preaching is not entirely under our control. It's a confluence of the truth, and the right truth for these people, of how the Lord has ministered to you, and how the listeners are responding. Then there's the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit. He moves like wind. We see the evidence, but his inspiration is not under our control.
Can we be good judges of whether we are inspiring in our preaching? Yes and no. In some ways we can judge the level of inspiration. An experienced preacher knows when he is connecting. There's non-verbal feedback from the listeners, and then there's some verbal feedback afterwards. People ask, "Will you pray with me?" or "I need to think about that some more."
But the other side of that coin is, no one can look into a human heart. Many times we don't know what the Lord is doing. Sometimes we feel like we are uninspired and uninspirational, but the Lord is at work sanctifying his people.
Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.