In theory, preaching is easy. Just get two things right: truth and clarity. But, as with many things, the practice is harder.
In theory, preaching is easy … the practice is harder.
Being truthful may sound easy to men and women committed to truth. After all, most preachers know their Bibles well and I personally don’t know anyone who deliberately lies or distorts the truth. But different kinds of ‘untruths’ can sneak in, like announcing, ‘today’s passage is telling us that we should …’ when the passage makes no such claim.
We may admit that clarity is more of a struggle. We see confused or bored looks on the faces of some listeners. Someone admits that we lost them when we took them through the six possible meanings of the verb in verse 8. Or another might thank us effusively for that helpful point we made which we didn’t actually make.
I recently came across ‘Grice’s Maxims of Conversation’. Paul Grice (1913-1988) was a British philosopher of language, best known for his ‘co-operative principles’. Simply stated, these insist that people should communicate in a co-operative, helpful way. While Grice was applying them to everyday conversation, his maxims apply to any speech act—including preaching.
There is the maxim of quality—i.e. be truthful. This means not giving information which is false or isn’t supported by the evidence. For the preacher that means doing the hard work on the passage, ensuring you’ve rightly understood it.
For the preacher not giving false information means doing the hard work on the passage.
For example, I heard a sermon for a ‘Vision Sunday’ in which the preacher quoted the popular Proverbs 29:18—‘where there is no vision, the people perish’ (KJV). The preacher was not alone in using this verse to endorse the practice of setting goals, hopes and dreams. But most other translations like the NIV and ESV render the verse, ‘where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint.’ The second half of the verse, which further elucidates the first, makes it clear that the proverb is not talking about planning for the future. The proverb finishes, ‘but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.’ Having exercised due diligence, we see that this proverb is about the revelations that come from God which must be heeded or sin will run rampant.
Another kind of untruth is the unverified illustration. A classic example is the story of James Bartley, a British sailor who was swept overboard in February 1891 and subsequently found alive in the stomach of a whale. It made a wonderful introduction to my sermon on Jonah 1. I recall at the time thinking it sounded too good to be true. And a little research on Google would have confirmed that it was. We must ensure our stories are verifiable. And, from experience, the more amazing the tale the less likely that it actually happened.
Maxim #2 is the maxim of quantity or, give your congregation enough information for them to understand, but not too much. Grice illustrates this: If someone asks you, ‘How do I get from here to the library?’ the answer, ‘Keep walking’ is insufficient. On the other hand, there’s far too much information in the answer, ‘Keep walking straight ahead; there will be some nice flowers on your right and some lovely new trees that they just planted a few months ago on your left. Anyway, once you reach the big intersection—it’s one of the biggest in the area, it took forever to build it—then you need to turn to your right.’ That sounds a lot like some sermons I hear.
From my experience, giving too much information, or information that takes us on side-tracks is a perennial temptation for the preacher. A while ago I heard a sermon from a preacher who admitted his sermons were getting longer. I mapped his 40-minute talk, of which about 25 minutes explained the passage, but it was mixed with three or four digressions (like the nice flowers in Grice’s illustration) which actually detracted from its clarity and focus. By all means, if the library is a 40-minute walk away, it will take that long, but often the sermon’s destination is much closer.
Third, is the maxim of relation. In short, be relevant. Now we might reply that the living and active word of God is timelessly relevant. That is true, but it’s not always obvious to our listeners. Grice proposes that in conversation, our propensity is to stop listening if we perceive the topic is of no interest or relevance to us.
Our propensity is to stop listening if we perceive the topic is of no interest or relevance to us.
So, if someone is talking to me about their second cousin, Bernie who grows grapefruit in Bundaberg, I’m asking myself, ‘Why would you possibly think I would have the slightest interest in either Bernie or his grapefruit?’ But if my friend then adds, ‘And he heard you speak 10 years ago at the Katoomba Christian Convention,’ suddenly my ears prick up and I’m keen to hear more about Bernie (if not his grapefruit). Generally speaking, godly Christians will be motivated to listen and learn from sermons, but the more they perceive its relevance the more attentive they will be.
Finally, there is the maxim of manner. The first three maxims deal with the content of what we say, while this addresses how we say it. Grice gives four helpful pieces of advice:
- First, avoid obscurity of expression. As we look over our congregations and see a range of intellectual ability and fluency in English, we want to ensure that everyone understands every word. From time to time, we’ll need to introduce new theological words or concepts, but with as clear an explanation as possible.
- Second, avoid ambiguity. Listeners will always filter whatever they hear and, often, draw the wrong conclusions from what you’re saying. That’s why helpful repetition is important. And if we’re aware there might be confusion, we may want to clarify the point by adding, ‘I’m not saying …’
- Third, be brief. I don’t have rules on how long a sermon should be. Although, from my experience, long preachers tend to exaggerate their ability to maintain everyone’s attention for the duration of the sermon. It’s a rare sermon that isn’t improved by editing.
- Finally, be orderly. Give information in a way that enables people to process what we’re saying. The first two questions I ask myself when I come to expound a passage are (i) What is the passage about—the big idea and, (ii) What is the structure? Whether spoken or unspoken, the structure should be clear. This will help both the preacher to explain the passage or topic and the people to understand.
As I work through my sermon and, again, when I’ve finished, I continue to ask myself important questions. Grice’s four maxims would be four good questions for us preachers to ask ourselves:
- Is it true?
- Is there too little or too much information? Or, Will the mature be fed and the immature not overwhelmed?
- Is it faithfully applied?
- Is it clear, unambiguous, well-structured and logically coherent?