“You nearly found your preaching voice today.”
Those were the kindly, but slightly troubling, words of an elderly Christian gentleman after he heard me preach recently.
What he meant was that in my preaching I tend to be too tied to my notes, and to speak more to the head than to the heart. In other words, in his view I tend to lecture, rather than to preach.
A number of somewhat random thoughts occur to me as I try to reflect on this:-
- I am by training and profession a teacher (of nursing), and I wouldn’t dream of speaking from fully written-out notes in my day job.
- But then, in my work I am often teaching the same thing over and over, and so have a ready fund of ideas about how to present my material. Most of my sermons are one-off affairs, and so I have to be better prepared if I am to communicated effectively.
- I feel well aware of the dangers of being tied to my notes when preaching. Some time ago, I asked a respected friend if he thought that my head was too much buried in my notes, and he replied, “I didn’t notice that you were preaching from notes.” Maybe the reassurance I derived from that comment was misplaced.
- I know that preaching is an exercise in speaking, not in reading. Any sermon notes should be prepared with this in mind. They should be prepared with speaking, not reading, in mind. This means, amongst other things, they should have short sentences, ultra-clear signposting, and enough repetition (through the use of synonyms and suchlike).
- I think that preaching without (many) notes has converse problems. Such preaching can be unstructured, verbose, and cliche-ridden. So, in circumstances where a preacher has very limited available (where I come from, we are expected to preach for about 20 minutes) I think that more (and often better) content can be delivered if a fairly full manuscript has been prepared.
- The preacher’s own style and habits of mind are relevant too. Some are simply not as gifted as others at extemporaneous speech.
Habits of mind (and so also, habits of speaking) can be developed through training and practice. I turn, therefore, to the advice of that wise soul C.H. Spurgeon on the matter of developing ‘the faculty of impromptu speech’. I am thinking of his lecture of that title in Lectures to my Students (Vol 1, chapter 10).
It should be noted that Spurgeon is not quite addressing the dilemma I have sketched out above. His lecture is concerned with ‘extemporaneous speech in its truest and most thorough form — speech impromptu, without special preparation, without notes or immediate forethought.’ But there is enough overlap with the topic in hand for his thoughts to be helpful.
Here are some of Spurgeon’s key points:-
No preacher should make a habit of delivering extemporaneous sermons. ‘We would not recommend any man to attempt preaching in this style as a general rule. If he did so, he would succeed, we think, most certainly, in producing a vacuum in his meetinghouse; his gifts of dispersion would be clearly manifested…The method of unprepared ministrations is practically a failure, and theoretically unsound. The Holy Spirit has made no promise to supply spiritual food to the saints by an impromptu ministry. He will never do for us what we can do for ourselves. If we can study and do not, if we can have a studious ministry and will not, we have no right to call in a divine agent to make up the deficits of our idleness or eccentricity.’
Although preachers shouldn’t read their sermons, they should frequently write them. Spurgeon quotes M. Bautain: ‘“You will never be capable of speaking properly in public unless you acquire such mastery of your own thought as to be able to decompose it into its parts, to analyze it into its elements, and then, at need, to recompose, re-gather, and concentrate it again by a synthetical process. Now this analysis of the idea, which displays it, as it were, before the eyes of the mind, is well executed only by writing. The pen is the scalpel which dissects the thoughts, and never, except when you write down what you behold internally, can you succeed in clearly discerning all that is contained in a conception, or in obtaining its well-marked scope. You then understand yourself, and make others understand you.”
Sermons should not be learnt by heart and then repeated from memory. ‘Tthat is both a wearisome exercise of an inferior power of the mind and an indolent neglect of other and superior faculties. The most arduous and commendable plan is to store your mind with matter upon the subject of discourse, and then to deliver yourself with appropriate words which suggest themselves at the time.’
Paradoxically, much preparation will need to have taken place if a person is to speak without preparation. ‘If a man would speak without any present study, he must usually study much. This is a paradox perhaps, but its explanation lies upon the surface. If I am a miller, and I have a sack brought to my door, and am asked to fill that sack with good fine flour within the next five minutes, the only way in which I can do it, is by keeping the flour-bin of my mill always full, so that I can at once open the mouth of the sack, fill it, and deliver it. I do not happen to be grinding at that time, and so far the delivery is extemporary; but I have been grinding before, and so have the flour to serve out to the customer.’
Cultivate a rich vocabulary. ‘you are to know what words mean, to be able to estimate the power of a synonym, to judge the rhythm of a sentence, and to weigh the force of an expletive. You must be masters of words…See to it that you have a good team of words to draw the wagon of your thoughts.’
Select a topic that you understand well. ‘It is of no use to rise before an assembly, and hope to be inspired upon subjects of which you know nothing; if you are so unwise, the result will be that as you know nothing you will probably say it, and the people will not be edified. But I do not see why a man cannot speak extemporaneously upon a subject which he fully understands. Any tradesman, well versed in his line of business, could explain it to you without needing to retire for meditation; and surely we ought to be equally as familiar with the first principles of our holy faith; we ought not to feel at a loss when called upon to, speak upon topics which constitute the daily bread of our souls.’
Practise the art of impromptu speech. ‘Students living together might be of great mutual assistance by alternately acting the part of audience and speaker, with a little friendly criticism at the close of each attempt. Conversation, too, may be of essential service, if it be a matter of principle to make it solid and edifying. Thought is to be linked with speech, that is the problem; and it may assist a man in its solution, if he endeavors in his private musings to think aloud. So has this become habitual to me that I find it very helpful to be able, in private devotion, to pray with my voice; reading aloud is more beneficial to me than the silent process; and when I am mentally working out a sermon, it is a relief to me to speak to myself as the thoughts flow forth…Good impromptu speech is just the utterance of a practiced thinker — a man of information, meditating on his legs, and allowing his thoughts to march through his mouth into the open air. Think aloud as much as you can when you are alone, and you will soon be on the high road to success in this matter.