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Style Versus Substance

Fred Craddock, the iconic teacher of Narrative Preaching, used to tell a little joke about his discipline of Practical Theology: “It is neither practical nor theological.”

I was reminded of this tongue in cheek self-depreciating comment recently when reading a book on preaching.

This fine book on the heart of preaching suggested that it was not about the technique of how to prepare a sermon but rather taking a deeper dive into the theological roots of preaching.

I want to say a broken ‘amen’ to that!

What do I mean?

As I sought to argue in my book God is in the House, preaching must never be reduced to a technique we must master. If preaching was a technique with a simple formula, every preacher would be better off saving time by putting that formula into AI and getting pro-forma alliterated three-point sermons drop into their in-tray every week.

If preaching is, in the words of Phillips Brooks, “Truth through personality”, it must always involve a serious and prolonged engagement between the text of Scripture and the personality, background, education, experience and relational network of the preacher.

There are two polar opposite dangers for preachers as they approach the task of thinking about preaching.

Firstly, there is the purist, who does not see formal homiletic theory and practice as the most important aspect of the preaching process. For some purists the discipline of homiletics has no part to play in their thinking about preaching.

Yet the danger of this approach is to have sermons that fizz with great ideas from Scripture but can be predictable explanations of the text or possess a hazy or chaotic structure.

One of the things that has impressed me about reading through the first three volumes of the sermons of Jonathan Edwards (in the elegant Yale edition) is that Edwards, although extremely careful about the truth he was preaching, was also concerned about the style in which he was preaching.

Secondly, there are preachers who give a lot of thought to communication techniques and seek to develop a style that will present the truth in such a way that people will listen. They do not want to be accused of having great material but a poor delivery.

A recent book on preaching that I really liked is Simply Preaching by Daniel Goodman which is made up of 150 simple sketches. One drawing depicts a collection of ingredients and an iced birthday cake along with the comment: “Content is important but so is delivery.”

That puts the point I am making very clearly.

Preachers want more than great ideas that do not land in a way that helps people to hear and process what is preached.

Preachers also want more than great outlines, captivating illustrations, and a good beginning and ending in a sermon that has nothing to say.

“That preacher had nothing to say but he said it well.” (William Carl)

Good sermons are full of truth and beauty. They have something to say and they say it well.

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