Clarity. Being comprehensible without being condescending. Being simple without being simplistic. As Einstein put it, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”. I want to challenge you to work harder at preaching more clearly. I want to push you to prepare in a way that combines your heartfelt passion with hardheaded clarity, in a package that’s well planned, conversational and clear… and not too long. Are you ready for the challenge?
My early preaching disasters all followed the same deadly pattern. Parishioners would shake my hand at the door with a thin smile and a kind word, but the unvarnished truth always came out in the car trip home. I already knew what my wife, Louise, was going to say. (I saw her slump sideways during the fifth sub-point.) “It looked great when I read through it yesterday—but today it was just so… boring.” And I knew she was right.
“It’s not you, it’s me”
It’s easy to blame the listener. Maybe it’s the seven-minute attention span of ‘the Sesame Street generation’. Or of those multi-tasking time-slicing you-phone i-tubers. Someone said to me just last week, “People these days just can’t follow an intelligent argument”. And, of course, there’s some truth in that. Our culture has changed. Attention spans are shorter. We multi-task. We skim. We click, we like, we share, we move on to something else.
Jesus warns us to be careful how we listen, to avoid the fate of the ever hearing but never listening Israel (Matt 13:10-15). Sadly, some people just won’t pay attention to God’s word. And that’s their problem.
But that wasn’t the problem with my early sermons. I knew how hard it was to be a listener myself, and I knew how much more fun it was to count the bricks in the front wall of the church than to listen to a dull preacher. So I was convinced that it was my job to help my church family listen well… by working harder at keeping them awake. No more excuses. So one Sunday afternoon, I decided to make it my business to learn how to communicate.
I know some of you will think you’ve spotted the problem already. Preaching from a written script, you’ll say, is guaranteed to be dull. There’s no connection with the congregation, there’s no spontaneity. How can you expect the Spirit to move your listeners when you’re preaching from a prepared text?
Let me share a little secret. I’m convinced that planning and preparing what you’re going to say is not the problem—in fact, if you do it right, it’s more often a solution.
I’m not claiming this is the only way to preach—there are other models that work just fine. And I know it gets bad press. But if you master the art of natural scripting—writing exactly the words you’d naturally speak, exactly the way you’d naturally say them—then you can eliminate the downsides of scripted public speaking.
The first thing you need to realize is that natural scripting is completely different from writing an essay or a term paper. That was my problem. I didn’t know the difference. But I soon learned, and most of what I learned will apply equally well to all sermon preparation—whether you’re scripting your sermons or not.
Okay. Where did I start? My first step was to call my friend David Ritchie. Dave was a couple of years ahead of me at Sydney’s Moore Theological College and an excellent natural communicator.
“Help!” I said. “I’m killing people. What am I doing wrong?”
Dave looked over my notes and saw the problem straight away. “You’ve got way too many ideas; too much content and too little repetition”, he said. “I always repeat the first sentence of a new idea three times, to make sure people stay with me.”
My next sermon was already in draft form, so I looked it over with new eyes. The process was painful. Ideas. Deleted. Topic sentences. Repeated. And repeated again. (“Not slavishly”, said Dave. “Vary the words each time, but make sure you don’t add any new information.”)
More help came from Clifford Warne, veteran host of Australian Christian Television spots for kids, and master storyteller. When I asked him for tips, the answer came in the gift of the book Say What You Mean by Rudolf Flesch. Oddly, it’s a book about writing business letters in natural spoken style. But it was the breakthrough I was looking for. It’s okay to use contractions like ‘can’t’ and ‘don’t’ and ‘won’t’. And it’s okay to start sentences with conjunctions like ‘and’ and ‘but’, too. Even partial sentences are okay. Go on a ‘which hunt’, writes Flesch, and get rid of the ‘thats’ while you’re at it. Simplify sentences. It was all about making communication clear, simple and direct. Between reading this book and taking Dave Ritchie’s advice, my preaching changed overnight. (And my business letters did, too!)
So did it help? It still brings a tear to my eye as I remember the old guy who gripped my hand on the way out of church the next Sunday. “Young fella”, he said warmly, “this morning I was with you every step of the way. Well done.”
Louise was smiling too.
The new black
Perhaps the biggest benefit of all in scripting your sermon is that it can help you make things crystal clear. Clarity is ‘the new black’. Just ask anyone with an iPad or an iPhone. Apple designer Jony Ive explains it this way to L’Uomo Vogue magazine:
The way we approach design is by trying to achieve the most with the very least. We are absolutely consumed by trying to develop a solution that is very simple because as physical beings we understand clarity, we’re comfortable with clarity.
At the end of his letter to the Colossians, Paul asks his friends to pray that God will equip him to preach. Look at his words:
At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. (Col 4:3-4)
Paul’s goal is clarity. Paul asks the Colossians to pray that through his plain words, the previously hidden mystery of Christ would be plain and obvious to all. He’s not trying to be more eloquent; he’s not longing to be wittier or more entertaining. All he wants is to be clear.
JC Ryle (1816-1900), the 19th-century Bishop of Liverpool, was a smart guy. Schooled at Eton, he took first-class honours at Oxford and was invited to join the faculty. But his goal was ministry. When Ryle realized that he had affected a certain ‘eloquent’ style as a curate in Hampshire, however, he went about trying to crucify this pretension. What he had thought impressive was in fact completely counterproductive to gospel preaching:
In fact, to use very long words, to seem very learned, to make people go away after a sermon, saying, “How fine! how clever! how grand!” all this is very easy work. But to write what will strike and stick, to speak or to write that which at once pleases and is understood, and becomes assimilated with a hearer’s mind and a thing never forgotten—that, we may depend upon it, is a very difficult thing and a very rare attainment.
Clarity. Being comprehensible without being condescending. Being simple without being simplistic. As Einstein put it, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”.
I want to challenge you to work harder at preaching more clearly. I want to push you to prepare in a way that combines your heartfelt passion with hardheaded clarity, in a package that’s well planned, conversational and clear… and not too long. Are you ready for the challenge?