J.C. Ryle was a master of a simple, forthright style. His advice to fellow-preachers is invaluable.
Here’s a summary.
1. Simplicity in preaching is of the utmost importance. We cannot be useful if we cannot be understood, and we cannot be understood if we are not simple.
2. Simplicity in preaching is not easy to attain. It is easier to appear clever than to be intelligible.
3. Simple preaching does not mean childish preaching.
4. Simple preaching is not coarse or vulgar preaching.
1. Have a clear view of the subject upon which you are going to preach. Dwell much in texts and topics which are themselves clear, and of which you have a clear understanding. Preach the plain meaning, and do not twist texts to accommodate alien meanings. Divide your text or topic carefully in order to make the meaning clear to your hearers.
2. Use simple words. ‘Beware of what the poor shrewdly call “dictionary” words, that is, of words which are abstract, or scientific, or pedantic, or complicated, or indefinite, or very long. They may seem very fine, and sound very grand, but they are rarely of any use. The most powerful and forcible words, as a rule, are very short.’
3. Aim at a simple style. Use short sentences. Beware of colons and semicolons. Store your mind with proverbs and pithy sayings “Hell is paved with good intentions.” “Sin forsaken is one of the best evidences of sin forgiven.” “Meddle with no man’s person, but spare no man’s sins.” “One thief on the cross was saved, that none should despair, and only one, that none should presume.”
4. Use a direct style. Say “I” and “You”, rather than “We”. ‘I declare I never can understand what the famous pulpit “we” means. Does the preacher who all through his sermon keeps saying “we” mean himself and the bishop? or himself and the Church? or himself and the congregation? or himself and the Early Fathers? or himself and the Reformers? or himself and all the wise men in the world? or, after all, does he only mean myself, plain “John Smith” or “Thomas Jones”? If he only means himself, what earthly reason can he give for using the plural number, and not saying simply and plainly “I”?’
5. Use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations. Study the example of Jesus in this regard. ‘The birds of the air, and the fish in the sea, the sheep, the goats, the cornfield, the vineyard, the ploughman, the sower, the reaper, the fisherman, the shepherd, the vinedresser, the woman kneading meal, the flowers, the grass, the bank, the wedding feast, the sepulchre,—all were made vehicles for conveying thoughts to the minds of hearers.’ However, ‘there is a way of telling stories. If a man cannot tell stories naturally, he had better not tell them at all.’ And don’t go overboard with story-telling: Ryle refers to sermons that are ‘so overladen with illustrations as to remind one of cake made almost entirely of plums and containing hardly any flour.’
1. ‘We ought to aim not merely at letting off fireworks, but at preaching that which will do lasting good to souls.’
2. ‘All the simplicity in the world can do no good, unless you preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ so fully and clearly that everybody can understand it.’
3. ‘All the simplicity in the world is useless without a good lively delivery.’
4. ‘Above all, let us not forget that all the simplicity in the world is useless without prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the grant of God’s blessing, and a life corresponding in some measure to what we preach.’
‘Simplicity in Preaching’, in The Upper Room, ch. III.