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Preaching, Part 3: Preach the Word

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a preaching series from Southwestern Dean of Theology David Allen. To view the series, click here.

In the great western movie, “The Magnificent Seven,” Chris (Yul Brynner) leads a band of seven hired guns to protect a Mexican village from marauders lead by Calvera (Eli Wallach). They train the villagers how to defend themselves. When Calvera and his 40 bandits ride into the village, they are met in the town square by Chris, who firmly tells Calvera: “ride on.” Calvera protests. “I’m going into the hills for the winter. Where am I going to get food for my men? Somehow I don’t think you have solved my problem.” Chris replies: “Solving your problem is not our line.” At that point, the camera cuts to a lean, cool character standing a few feet to the right of Brynner–Steve McQueen. With a you-know-I-mean- business-look and voice, he utters my favorite line in the movie: “We deal in lead, friend.” (Rent it; you won’t be disappointed.)

I am going to gloss Steve McQueen’s line and change one word in order to illustrate my topic in this third installment on preaching: “We deal in words, friend!” Preachers deal in words in three senses. First, we deal with the living Word of God, the Logos, our Lord Jesus Himself. Him we preach. Second, we deal with the Word of God written, the Scripture. This Word we preach. This written revelation consists in the very words of God. We believe in verbal, plenary inspiration. The Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament, like all languages, consist in vocabulary, grammar, syntax and semantics. Through the painstaking process of exegesis, preachers ferret out the form and meaning of the text with an eye toward constructing sermons to communicate the Word(s) of God to people. God’s intents and purposes in giving us the Living and written Word provide the theological grounds for why we preach expositionally. Third, we deal in words to design and construct sermons to preach in order to explain God’s Word to people so that the Holy Spirit can accomplish His work in lives. Preaching is an oral/aural event that makes use of language to communicate. Preachers are wordsmiths. Thus, understanding language and how it is used—developing and honing our communication skills for the sake of preaching—is crucial.

Preachers are wordsmiths. Thus, understanding language and how it is used—developing and honing our communication skills for the sake of preaching—is crucial.

There are umpteen things that contribute to good communication, and this post is not intended to cover the subject, even in a cursory manner. Rather, my goal is to impress on us all the vital importance of thinking through not only what we say but how we say it. Preachers are people who week by week push nouns against verbs, with some adverbs, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections thrown into the mix, in order to create a discourse called a sermon. Since the purpose of the sermon is to communicate God’s Word to people, it becomes very important that we develop and employ some skill in this area. As Mark Twain said: “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” You can say in your sermon on creation, “God created the stars.” Or, you can say, “I see him standing, as it were, at the anvil of omnipotence, hammering out the worlds that fly off, like sparks, on every side at each stroke of his majestic arm.” That’s how Spurgeon said it in his sermon on Hebrews 1:2. Of course, this is a grossly exaggerated comparison, and if most of us were to preach this way, our people would be wondering “what has he been smoking?” Rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake is unhelpful and counterproductive. (I’m not suggesting that’s what Spurgeon did.) However, timely and well-placed rhetoric for communication’s sake is not a bag of tricks but a handmaiden to good communication. If you doubt the biblical authors made use of rhetoric, read again Hebrews, especially from the Greek New Testament.

As Mark Twain said: “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Miscommunication is the preacher’s worst nightmare. Every time you preach, two possible problems face your hearers. The first is incomprehension. If after your sermon you hear “I don’t understand,” give yourself a grade of C-. The second is misunderstanding. If you hear “I misunderstood,” give yourself a D. When it comes to preaching, clarity has to be crafted. Arthur Gossip was right: “The simpler the expression, the deeper the impression.” As we should devote ourselves to exegesis and exposition, so should we devote ourselves to being good communicators. Style and delivery are not mere idle issues. They assist communication effectiveness. Time invested in this endeavor is never wasted.

Though the two are certainly not mutually exclusive, nor should they ever be, in my opinion there is a difference between being a great communicator and doing great preaching. Anyone who does not practice consistent exposition in his preaching may have a reputation as a great communicator and a great preacher, but in my book, he is not doing great preaching. Conversely, some who are committed to expository preaching are less than effective communicators and need to improve their communication skills.
Let me suggest three practical steps which will enhance your communication skills.

1) Read books, especially the works of great writers. In so doing, you gain insight into how to write and speak well. Recently I completed Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. In addition to the pleasure of reading a classic, I took note of how Dickens employs the English language, and my preaching has already benefited. If you resolve never to ransack any brain but your own, be prepared to spend most of your time wading in the shallow end of the pool.

2) Read and study the sermons of preachers past and present. Ask questions. Why did he use this word? Why did he employ that phrase? Why does this repetition of a single word, phrase or idea at this particular point in the sermon have such impact? Time would fail me to tell you what I’ve learned about preaching from Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Baxter, Bunyan, Wesley, Whitefield, Maclaren, Spurgeon, Jowett, Morgan, Lloyd-Jones, King, Hill, and countless others. My library is filled with books by and about preachers and theologians of the past, from a variety of theological persuasions. Read broadly, and don’t just read those in your own theological tradition. Remember, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

3) Listen to the preaching of a wide range of preachers. Study their style and delivery. The ancient Greek rhetoricians used, among other techniques, imitation, to teach their young understudies the art of good communication. I have learned much about preaching and communication from listening through the years to men like Graham, Criswell, MacArthur, Swindoll, Wiersbe, Rogers, Vines, Patterson, Hughes, both Stanleys, both Youngs, Warren, Hybels, Evans, Dunn (Ron), and many, many more. My sermons are peppered with their expositional and communication insights.

In more recent years, I have learned much from a host of younger preachers well known and unknown. Recently, at the church where I am a member, I listened to a twenty-something associate pastor and soon-to-be Ph.D. student at SWBTS unfold the meaning of Jesus’ parable of the unworthy slave in Luke 17:7-10. I first preached on this passage in 1988 and have since preached it several times. I have carefully studied its structure in the Greek text and read hundreds of pages of commentaries, articles and written sermons on it. Yet as I listened to the preacher, once again God spoke to my heart afresh from His Word. The sheep walked away fed, and so did I, along with a couple of new content and communication insights, which I plan to incorporate into my next sermon on Luke 17:7-10, thanks to Ricky Primrose.

I have moderate to significant theological and/or methodological differences with many of the men named (and unnamed) above. But I have learned from them all. I am a better preacher today because of their preaching and writing.

As I survey the preaching scene in the broader evangelical world and in the Southern Baptist Convention, I am both alarmed and encouraged. In some places, exposition is thriving. In others, the sheep look up, and they are not fed. The Southern Baptist Convention continues to be a menagerie when it comes to preaching. I am encouraged by the younger generation as I see them leave our seminaries to establish expository preaching ministries in their churches. Positive reports from church members are coming in from all over. But far too many preachers in the SBC, older and younger, are still regular practitioners of a hodgepodge of topical, narrative, therapeutic and whatnot methods of preaching. Some who do exposition are shackled to a cookie cutter approach that frames every sermon, whether from a narrative, epistle, or other genre, with a three-point outline, alliterated of course. Some who think they are doing expository preaching are not, while others are doing it poorly. Real expository preaching should always be creative and engaging. Many who discourage expository preaching promote the false dichotomy that if it is expositional, it cannot be creative and interesting; and if it is creative and interesting, it cannot be expositional. It seems to me it can be all three. However, it won’t be all three without hard work. Sometimes, young preachers want to learn an easy way to preach. There is no easy way to do great expositional preaching. Like Churchill, I have nothing to offer you but blood, sweat, toil, and tears. But the payoff is immense and satisfying.

Real expository preaching should always be creative and engaging.

My charge to all preachers is this: Seeing we are surrounded by such a great cloud of preachers, and laying aside every theology and methodology of preaching that is not truly text-driven, let us preach the Word no matter what, looking unto Jesus, who called us to preach and who will one day call us home. Consider a lost world; consider the Church; but most of all, consider Him, the Logos of God, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Preach the Word!

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David Allen

David Allen

Dean of the School of Theology, Professor of Preaching, Director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching and George W. Truett Chair of Ministry

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