Sermon Proclamation

by Garrett Soucy
In an age of ever-increasing dependency upon images, those of us who love the written and spoken word take great solace in the fact that there is a simultaneous renaissance of speech. From speech to text apps, podcasts, and underground storytelling, some have said that we are witnessing a new wave of oral culture emerging in the wake of the loss of meaning. Some of the most note-worthy stars in this movement would be This American Life, The Moth, and TED Talks. The sermon and the preacher have always been compared with their most obvious worldly counterparts: the speaker and the speech. Regardless of the territory that may be shared between the two categories of preacher and speaker, the preacher is distinct in his role for one primary reason: authority. It does not matter if a speaker is a Ph.D. from an ivy-league university. It does not matter if the theater would sell out simply to hear him read the phone book. The sermon is the proclamation of the oracles of God, and the preacher is the crier. There is no comparison. And yet, the preacher is tempted to think of renowned speakers as standards to which he should conform himself. For the sake of simplicity, we will limit the comparison in our own day to the TED talk.
Years ago, the insecure minister might attend oratory school either because he was convinced he needed help learning to talk in front of a crowd or he was a liberal who didn’t know the difference between Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day Speech and a sermon on the Olivet Discourse. He would learn how to place the emphasis on the correct syllables. He would master the art of appropriately placed silences. He would practice pointing in the air and speaking with authority . . . and he would do so alongside actors, politicians, and other scoundrels. Today, the insecure preacher may not be tempted to attend an oratory school, but he may be tempted to spend hours on Youtube in order to learn what to do with his hands while preaching. This is not always a bad thing, but there must never be confusion between that which defines a preacher and that which defines a soliloquist.
According to their website, the origin of TED talks came about because of Richard Saul Wurman’s observation that three genres were powerfully interacting with each other: technology, entertainment, and design. The talks are informative, short, and polished. Admittedly, the designers are trying to revive something like a TV version of a culture in which purposed and practiced orality dominates the communication landscape. TED talks are committed to either improvisation or memory, but there are no cue cards, no teleprompters, and no manuscripts.
As the brand has built a strong following, it has recast the way we think of public speaking. This can be good for a society that is rapidly embracing a depreciation of language, as has been already noted; however, in reviving rhetoric, preachers are tempted to think about their own calling and the potential need for reworking sermons into a format that would attract new listeners . . . or engage old listeners in a new way. This is not a new problem, but is it one that is answered appropriately with the tools of actors and politicians?
Preachers have always been aware of the power of rhetoric and either purposed to pay attention to pertinent skill sets or ignore them. A good preacher is not a Gnostic. He does not ignore the fact that vocal cords and posture play a part in the work of the Spirit; but, neither is he a materialist who believes that good preaching is simply a flowery form of Biblical monologue. One need only turn one’s attention to Apollos and Paul to find two Scriptural examples.
Acts 18:24-25 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
It’s not simply that Paul aimed at sabotaging any rhetorical prowess he might have had . . . perhaps he did that on occasion . . . but Paul is undeniably a gifted communicator. We know this because we have the Pauline canon. Note the wording in the 1 Corinthians passage. His refusal of lofty speech was a decision in light of the context, not a default setting.
It would serve the preacher well to notice that the Scriptures describe Apollos’ eloquence as a noted adjective, but not a prerequisite. It may have helped him in the cause, but when paired with the passage from 1 Corinthians about Paul, we note that the power is in the true Medium, Jesus Christ, and so the messenger must not be more front and center than the message. The preacher is truly present. Spurgeon was a real man. Some preachers are more effective speakers than others. But the strength of preaching lies in the authority of the Word being proclaimed and the presence of the Originator. Because Christians are not Deists, they believe that God is active and living in His Word and amongst and in His people. The preacher is not alone in the pulpit. This is the point in the road where actors and politicians part ways with preachers. This is why the preacher must believe what he is saying. If a church could afford to hire James Earl Jones to read Spurgeon sermons every week, they should not do it. God may, in His mercy, allow someone to be granted faith and repentance through such charlatanism, but it would be in spite of the charlatanism and not because of it. Preachers should not think of TED talk styled sermons as the standard, but as the deviation. The following is an excerpt from the TED website.
Don’t book speakers who attempt to prove or persuade of the correctness of a single religion, deity or belief system, whether through rhetoric or “scientific proof.” Be wary of speakers promoting new age beliefs, including concepts such as quantum consciousness, Gaia theory, archaeoastronomy, and drug-induced spiritual epiphanies. Speakers can be honest about their beliefs, but should not use the stage to promote them.
According to TED, the Gospel is placed in the same carnival grab-bag as prosperity-preachers, psychics, and ghost-hunters. Another heading under the Talks Content section is entitled Talks are Thoughtful, not Divisive. In this section, the above principles are basically reiterated. The point of this article is to remind us that form is content and the content of a TED-style talk is the message of corporate similitude. We are more alike than different, according to TED. After all, thoughtfulness is pitted against divisiveness, i.e., that which is divisive is not thoughtful. That which attempts to be persuasive or authoritative should be avoided, according to TED. There is no confusion here. TED may be a great resource for 14-minute speeches on the enigmatic language of elephants or why we need robots that we can trust, but it is not a standard to which preachers should be conforming the authoritative proclamation of the Word of the living God.
Two thousand years ago, Quintilian famously stated that an orator was a good man speaking well. Students of the Bible should agree since the passages on Apollos describe him as a man who was accurate in His use of Scripture and was learned in the Lord. In addition, the very qualifications for the office of overseer and one who would preach the Word are not limited to whether or not he can pack a room or hold the crowd’s attention, but whether or not he is greedy and if he orders his household properly or not. The pastoral search committee must always be looking at the man himself, not the online sermon reviews. Is he a man of prayer? Does his wife respect him? Does he drink too much? Most contemporary definitions of rhetoric fall cowardishly flat with a simple statement about effective speaking. Unfortunately, many churches have followed the lead of culture rather than Scripture and are content with some sort of seminary degree in a related field and a sample sermon in mp3 format. The question of whether or not the man can preach is not to be answered in a disconnected way from the question of whether or not he can rightly divide the Word because the two are actually joined. The question of whether or not a man can preach must not be answered in any way that is detached from the question of whether or not the man has a good reputation with outsiders or whether or not he is known for having people into his home. If a man does not practice self-control, it matters not whether he makes people cry when preaching through Jonah. He cannot preach. If a man is a recent convert, it matters not whether he can recite the entire book of Isaiah in a Scottish accent . . . he cannot preach. But, if a man meets the qualifications and has been examined and tested by those who hold office, he may preach. And the question churches need to be asking is not whether or not a man can preach, but whether or not the man may preach. Then, and only then, notice may be made of any God-given giftings of eloquence.