Learning to Preach

Nothing is so common among clergy as preaching. Not everyone teaches in a seminary classroom or works with the youth group or makes evangelism calls, but everyone preaches. It is, after all, the preaching office. The only thing that is close to as common among clergy as the act of preaching is the delusion that one is particularly good at it. That is somewhat unfortunate. The problem is we all do it, most of us a lot of it. And I am afraid that sometimes we’ve simply figured we’ve arrived and aren’t working at it anymore. We’ve graduated from considering the craft of sermon writing, from thinking about and talking about preaching, even from our dreams of changing the world through the power of the preached word, to just sitting down and cranking out another formulaic 25-minute piece and being satisfied if nobody complains out loud afterwards.

The most basic thing we need to learn to preach is a desire to learn to preach, to improve. We need a passion and zeal for the preached word. We need to give it the honor it is due and approach it with a mix of awe, fear, and excitement. This is the Word of God in action, as God intended it. It is what He has called us to do and through it He turns the hearts of the fathers to their children and brings the dead to life. Only when that is in place, can we begin the hard work of learning to preach.

Of the many skills that come together to make a well-crafted and delivered sermon, two rise to the top as the most essential. The first is knowledge of the Gospel, the second, perhaps less obvious, is the ability to write well. Neither of these is ever perfectly obtained on this side of glory. They both require constant and diligent effort and study. They both grow rusty if neglected. To really improve our preaching we must make a concerted and deliberate effort.

The more we know of the Gospel, the more we are able to preach it. Nothing is as essential or important as this. It is more difficult than our confirmands imagine. While the simple catechetical definitions of the Gospel, such as, “What God has done for us in Christ,” “Shows us our Savior,” “Proclaims the forgiveness won for us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” are true, they are not the end. The barely touch upon the mystery of Grace.

In the first place, knowledge of the Gospel is increased through God’s Word and Sacraments. That means primarily Biblical knowledge and understanding of the atonement. The more the preacher is steeped in the language and metaphors of the Scriptures themselves; the more he has prayed the Psalms; the better he knows the stories and characters through whom Our Lord works and reveals Himself, the better he is able to preach. After all, he cannot preach what he does not know. We might even go so far as to say that until the preacher begins to peer into the intimate relationship that all of the Scriptures have to the Incarnation, he really has nothing to say. It is only when one begins to see how every dot and tittle, every character, narrative, and piece of poetry, supports and reveals the Person of Christ that one has something to preach.

But that knowledge in itself is still not sufficient. The preacher must have all of that applied to him. It is applied in the Sacraments. He learns the Gospel by kneeling before his father-confessor, laying bare his soul, and being raised back from the dead. He drinks the waters of Life. He eats the Body of Christ. His own heart is cleansed through the Blood that pours down his throat. Before Isaiah was sent, in order that he might preach, his lips were cleansed, his iniquity was removed. God intervened. In the same way, it is our custom for the Celebrant to first receive the healing, life-giving Sacrament before taking it to the people. He is, after all, not the host. Our Lord is the host. It is the Lord’s Supper. The Celebrant himself is as in need of forgiveness as the people. He is prepared to administer this gift as steward by first receiving it as guest. Before the Apostles baptized, the Lord washed their feet. Only after being preached to, only after being absolved, only after eating and drinking the Body and Blood, does the preacher preach.

Most of the time the preacher receives the Body of Christ from his own hand. Mostly, the preacher must believe his own preaching. But when he can, he does well to kneel at the communion rail of another. He does well also to seek the preaching of others. He should hear the preaching of Luther and the fathers. He should read the sermons in Gottesdienst and through e-mail. He should be no less eager to receive the preaching of his brothers and fathers, than he is to receive the Holy Absolution.

All this to say that knowledge of the Gospel must be personal. It is increased through direct application in Word and in Sacrament. The preacher does not preach dry dogma or teach history lessons. He preaches God’s saving, unexpected, and undeserved intervention in the Incarnation, which he himself has received. His zeal rises from his own gratitude. His preaching is rooted in his own baptism and nourished in his own communion.

Still, every dogma has its day. The Word and the Sacraments are accompanied by the Church’s historical confession. Every dogma worth its day is directly related to the Gospel. If it is not, then it is not the dogma of the Church, but of men. Knowledge of the Gospel is increased in the second place by learning from our fathers the intricacies of the revealed will of God. Our fathers in the faith fought against the very forces of Hell for clarity in the Gospel. The creeds and confessions of the Church do not lay before us trivial details of creation or debate open questions. Instead they show us the very essence of who God is and how He has and continues to love us. Properly used and understood, our creeds, confessions, and dogmatic heritage do not serve to answer questions about angels and dinosaurs (though they may, inadvertently) but to expose to us the free grace of God in Christ Jesus. The more we know of the Gospel, learned in Word, Sacrament, and tradition, the more we are able to preach it. While the first order of the Gospel must be application to the preacher’s soul, his mind also must be renewed in the objective knowledge and wisdom of the Word.

The next most important skill for preaching is writing. Our proclamation best serves the Church if it is understood. Putting words to paper helps us to organize and clarify our thoughts. The more clearly and succinctly we express the Truth, the more easily it is digested by the hearers. Certainly the work of the Holy Spirit is not hindered by our laziness or inabilities. He does not need us for anything. But this is the Office into which we have been placed. God has charged us to serve in it in faith and diligence. Thus, the better we write, the better we express ourselves and communicate, the better we preach.

The most painless and probably the most important way to improve our writing is to read things that are well-written. For our purposes that ought to include the reading of good and well-written sermons and speeches as well as the Bible, the Confessions, and other doctrinal works in our heritage. But we need to read widely outside of our field, also. We need to read fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry, from Christian, pagan, and secular realms.

It is of aid to us also to actively consider the craft of writing. We do well to read books on writing, language, and literary criticism. We need to learn to love the building blocks of our craft, words, language, and grammar, the way a carpenter loves wood and dog groomers love dogs.

The classic piece is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. You can read it in a half an hour. If you have any sense at all you will. And when you’ve finished it for the first time, you’ll immediately start over again and continue to pick it up from time to time. Anything that William Safire has written on language, writing, or speech-making is well worth your time also. Safire writes a weekly column in The New York Times on language. There is all sorts of stuff if you start looking, but I’ll make only one more recommendation at this point: Barbara Wallraff’s column in The Atlantic Monthly entitled “Word Court.” One particularly nice thing about Wallraff’s column is that you can read it on-line at www.theatlantic.com/issues/2003/01/wallraff.htm. Not only do all these writers answer questions about language, grammar, and usage, but their writing is itself exemplary.

This might strike the preacher as a bit of overkill. Sermon writing is to literature what graphic design is to art. For the most part it is a pragmatic craft meant more for popular magazines than art galleries. Preaching is nearly as disposable as advertising. It is written for a limited audience for a limited time and probably will never be heard again. But even as graphic design aspires at its best to be something closely akin to fine art, so also sermons can come close from time to time. While it can’t be expected week after week, it is not impossible for sermons to obtain the high quality of literature and the preacher who gets close once in a while will find that even his misses are more engaging and literary for it.