Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On Preaching and Illustrations

The art of preaching demands much of the pastor, and many in the pew too quickly judge its effectiveness or worthiness not by the doctrinal content, but by issues of style. Preaching to the regular "Hans and Gretel" as Luther called them, requires a sensitivity of the preacher to the world and culture in which they live. Naturally each pastor develops his own approach to this sacred task. Ideas of what is in bad taste or unnecessary or even wasteful are therefore in great abundance when preachers discuss this ancient art.

Recently I ran across an article on preaching by Dr. Eckardt on Gottesblog that addressed these very issues. His appeal to preaching without a manuscript and his comments on the use of illustrations, as well as being immersed in the psalter and the language of holy scripture were especially interesting. I will readily confess that I have used a manuscript for all of my 20 years now, and I like to think that although I am dependent on having it there it does not control my preaching. Some of my fears are that in speaking in such fashion it is easy to fall into the trap of sloppy speaking habits ("Ummm...", "Uh...." etc.), and to lose track of time (I know, they shouldn't be watching the clock, but they do!)

In this comments on preaching he also addressed the use of illustrations, and much of what he said needs to be heard. There are preachers who confuse a loose string of stories for a sermon, or who seem to think that jokes and humor have to be present to keep people interested. Sometimes it is hard to recognize what came from the pulpit as a real genuine example of biblical proclamation. While I don't believe that Dr. Eckardt spoke against the use of any illustrations that were not directly from the Bible, he did mention this in regard to illustrations or stories at the beginning of the sermon:

"It is not necessary to start the sermon with a personal story of vignette, or even with any kind of introduction at all. Neither the Fathers nor Luther did this. It is a modern thing. Do not waste precious preaching moments on a story (unless perhaps it’s a Biblical one)!"

I understand his point, but I am not sure I am ready to completely agree. With no disrespect to the Fathers or blessed Luther, the way we preach, while informed by them, needs also to be sensitive to the culture of this time as well. Whether we like to admit it or not, people today are not well trained or practiced in listening in any depth or for any length of time. They are bombarded with 'sound-bytes' and TV shows punctuated at regular intervals by endless commercials. Politicians must package their ideas in forms that are easy to understand and remember. Getting and holding the attention of the hearer is not easy. Many in the pews are already committed to tuning us out even before our first word is spoken. They want to know how the Word impacts their life here and now. This does not mean that we can't do as Eckardt says. But I would be cautious about forgoing an introduction altogether and completely avoiding any personal bridge to the hearer. It is hard for people, I believe, to simply 'jump in' to the sermon, but rather need to be led in a bit more gradually.

The preacher is never so visible and obvious to his flock as when he steps into the pulpit on Sunday morning. They may not remember his last Bible class or his last visit, but they will often remember what he did or did not do there in the pulpit, and they will often not be shy about speaking about it. Preachers predictably will cringe at any criticisms from the pew, wanting to protest that they are the ones trained in homiletics, not the people. Still, if we want to be assured that the Gospel is getting a hearing, we need to hear them. While Dr. Eckardt's comments on preaching is by and far valuable points for ever preacher to ponder, I wonder if he still needs to consider a little more closely the necessity of understanding one's hearer and one's local culture as part of the sermon preparation.

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