I use big words in sermons. Sometimes I even use them correctly.
I also talk about philosophical concepts and theological principles. I do this without remorse. I know this runs against the current fashion of preaching methods, but as it happens, I think our current preaching methods stink.
I read one article a few years back in Preaching magazine, which suggests:
“Use an online tool to test the grade level of your sermon manuscripts. Unless your church is in a university town, chances are you need to dial it down. Watch the complexity of your sentence structure. Aim more for the Donald than the paragraph-length sentences of Paul. In spoken syntax, less is more. Simplicity brings clarity." (Dave Scott, “Preaching Business).
In their short work on Andy Stanley’s homiletic method, Stanley and Lane Jones state: “Preaching for life change requires far less information and more application. Less explanation and more inspiration. Less first century and more twenty-first century" (Communicating for a Change, 96).
I could not disagree more.
Sermon construction and form have been through various fads, primarily aimed at rejecting the tired old propositional, didactic method everyone was so bored with in the 1970s. However, as Thomas Long describes it, the sermon has, at last, come full circle, “only now, instead of three points and a poem, its six points and a video clip” (What’s the Shape of Narrative Preaching). Long’s suggested corrective is to remember our purpose as story-tellers:
If we remind ourselves of our main task as preachers, we are not called to evoke a narrative competence already in place in people, nor are we called to provide wise insights for coping with the stresses of life. We are called to proclaim a narrative that people could not conjure up out of their own resources, the gospel narrative, and then to help people let that narrative become the story that shapes, guides, and clarifies their lives and gives them their primary identity.
Because we are proclaimers of God’s story, we will always be storytellers. But now, in order to tell this story, we must also stand back from it and become teachers, sages, and ethical guides. We must use every gift of language and every responsible strategy of communication to help people see, in practical and concrete ways, the shape of life that results when one builds a nest in the vast and embracing branches of the gospel story.
I’m not completely sold on Long’s overall concept of preaching, but these statements are very close to my own view. I think it is high time for the “aww shucks” approach to preaching to be replaced with sagacity and, yes, teaching. I believe in dialing up the information, not in the form of bland encyclopedic lists of data crammed onto PowerPoint slides, but as part of telling the great story and enriching it with depth. Let your words take the congregant to first-century Corinth and sixth-century Babylon. They will find more of their true lives there than in the cliches offered for the current moment.
Instead of distilling every idea down to one tweetable application point, we should offer a coherent and weighty message that can be applied by the listener on their own. They need to have skin in the game. They need to have ownership of the application. The finest applications are like those of our Lord, who might tell a story and simply say, “Go and do likewise.” You are supposed to scratch your head and then dream about it later. You are supposed to ask, “What am I supposed to do with that sermon?” and then go find the answer on Monday morning. Sermons are not supposed to tell you to give more to a specific charity; they are to help you conceive of yourself as a widow with her one and only mite and then allow you to explore new and exciting ways of being her today.
Additionally, I favor explanation.
Some say this is too much “what” and not enough “so what,” but have we forgotten Him of whom we speak? Do you suppose the King Eternal and his infinite grace will distill down into a fifth-grade reading level? Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe there is much we can say about God that is even simpler than grade school English. A two-year-old can say that “God is love.”
But don’t you suppose that once a week, when God’s people come together in communion with Him, we might wish to hear a word from God more thickly laden with meaning than a child’s Sunday morning coloring sheet? When we speak to our congregations as children, can we be surprised when their maturity in Christ never reaches adulthood? Is our goal to accept the one-liner reality show constructed by our politicians and celebrities or help lift humanity’s eyes to the hills from whence their help comes?
Suppose instead, we realized that in telling the story of God, we needed every tool at our disposal.
Suppose we tried to lift up lofty rhetoric, not for show, but for a purpose, with form following function.
Suppose we recognized that speaking of God is not propaganda, but rather worship, and therefore worthy of beauty and sophistication.
Suppose we understood, like the apostle Paul, that every once in awhile speaking about God requires a run-on sentence blurring every rule of syntax as the very glory of God attempts not in vain to burst out of the quill’s ink world without end. Amen (Ephesians 1:3-14).
Suppose we believed like the apostle John, the simplest of New Testament authors, that once in a while, telling the good news of Jesus required a word inherently religious and unforgivably dense. Propitiation anyone? (1 John 2:2).
Suppose we taught like Jesus, who believed some of the most important lessons are those we hide in riddles and dark sayings of old, parables told to conceal even more than to reveal (Mark 4:10-12).
We do our churches and our culture a deep disservice when we preach to the lowest common denominator week in and week out.
Do not show off. Do not bury your church in an avalanche of trivial detail.
But do dial up the substance of your preaching. Have something to say and say it well. Take every thought captive. Tell the great story. Use words.
Ben Williams is the Preaching Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his new book Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.