I’ll be preaching this coming Sunday, and so I’ve been doing a little series on preaching.
What I want to talk about today is speaking with authority. There are many people who love it when preachers speak with authority from the pulpit. This is true both when it comes to delivery, and also content. Today, I’ll talk about delivery.
There are plenty of people who want preachers to be on-fire, or excited—-maybe even screaming. I talked yesterday about The Waltons episode, “The Sermon”, in which John-Boy has to give the sermon at his church, and he is nervous about this task. Grandma Walton tries to help John-Boy by giving him some Scriptures and advice about preaching. While Grandma Walton likes the church’s pastor (who is played by John Ritter), she much prefers the on-fire preachers she heard back when she was younger, the types who pounded the pulpit and shouted words such as “vengeance”. (One part of this scene that I especially liked was when Grandpa was smiling while he heard Grandma offering her advice to John-Boy, even though Grandpa didn’t see eye-to-eye with her on religion. I don’t think that Grandpa was smiling because he had contempt or mockery for Grandma, but rather because he admired that she was helping her grandson, and he appreciated what made her tick.) But John-Boy is hesitant to go the pound-the-pulpit route. As he tells Grandpa, he has long seen religion as a personal thing, so he’s hesitant to make dogmatic truth-claims from the pulpit.
In my sermon, should I pound the pulpit? A few posts ago, I talked about the Optimist Club Oratorical contests in which I participated a long time ago. When I was in junior high school, I was practicing my speech before my English teacher, and (for whatever reason) I used the shouting, pound-the-pulpit style. My teacher told me that it’s better to speak with the audience, rather than shout at the audience. What did she mean by that? Speaking with the audience entails sharing with people and highlighting a common concern—-it’s saying that “we” are concerned about this issue rather than “you” are bad because you are not sufficiently concerned about it. According to my teacher, people respond more when there is a “we” element than they do when they are shouted at.
I think that there’s something to what my teacher is saying. At the same time, in the realm of preaching, being shouted at is effective in the eyes of many people. They feel convicted of sin when a preacher is shouting at them, and thus they try to walk the Christian (or church-ian!) walk better. Or they admire the preacher for boldly inveighing against other people’s sins!
What sorts of sermons have I heard in my life? Garner Ted Armstrong’s approach was more conversational than pounding-the-pulpit, whereas Ron Dart often could get pretty fiery! My Dad was an effective preacher, but he did not pound the pulpit. He was more of a teacher, one who explained things. I wouldn’t even say that his sermons were laced with emotion, but there was something attractive about his matter-of-fact, humble, and thoughtful manner of preaching. I remember when he was talking about the two witnesses in a sermon, and the church was recording his message. The tape was done after an hour, but the church was willing to put in another tape so that Dad could go on for another hour! Tim Keller is another preacher who does not pound the pulpit but teaches, which is not surprising, considering that Keller is a former professor.
In terms of what works on me as a person in the audience, pounding-the-pulpit sermons can convict me, and yet they can also turn me off and make me resistant. And I don’t think that’s always because I know deep down that the preacher is right and I’m resisting the truth, for it’s often because the preacher comes across to me as overly dogmatic and as judgmental, and what he says does not strike me as true, necessarily. As far as mild, thoughtful teaching-sermons go, I like those. Some of them can be pretty boring, but there are plenty of good ones out there.
What style will I be using this coming Sunday? I won’t be shouting angrily at the congregation, I can tell you that. My sermon is intended to be a life-affirming sermon—-one that encourages “us” rather than being me shouting at “you” (the congregation). There probably will be times when I add an emotional flavor to my preaching this coming Sunday, but I’m not sure to what extent I will do that. I do know that I don’t want my delivery to be boring, and so I’ll have to work on inflecting my voice and speaking loudly enough for people to hear me (since I’m rather soft-spoken). Confidence will also be important. On the Waltons episode, John-Boy’s voice trembled a little when he was preaching, indicating he was nervous, and yet he still spoke with a degree of confidence, mingled with humility. That combination is what I’d like in my delivery this coming Sunday.