Maximus vero studiourm fructus est, et velut praemium quoddam
amplissimum longi laboris, ex tempore dicendi facultas.
At the outset it seems that quoting Latin could be the best illustration possible for what “preaching on your feet” is really about. You may not have much experience with Latin, but you may be able to pick out a few words, like fructus means fruit or profit, and laboris means labor. But quite frankly, most of us would have great difficulty really appreciating what in the world the Latin above is about without knowing that language. We do much the same in our preaching. We speak in a language and communicate to others as though we both entered from different worlds. What has happened through the centuries? What makes an excellent preacher distinct from a mediocre one? The claim here is simply that the most effective preachers are those who preach on their feet, and the least effective ones are those who preach on their seats. “Preaching on your seat” is what most schools teach these days and indeed have done so almost exclusively since around 1960. Preaching on your seat is the process of working out copious notes or a manuscript or thick outline in the days ahead of preaching to be practiced and then finally delivered to the audience as a carefully crafted sermon. Excepting those who are excellent actors, preaching on your seat is vastly inferior to preaching on your feet because it misses the most obvious biblical fact regarding preaching: preaching is about connecting a message from God through the preacher to the audience in the moment. Koller sums it up well: “Andrew W. Blackwood reminds us that note free preaching was the method of Jesus and the prophets and apostles who, when they preached, spoke 'from heart to heart and from eye to eye.'”
Preaching on your feet is what preaching has always been—a real connection to real human beings in a real moment in time. In preparation for this book, I was in a conversation with a seminary professor who said, in the midst of the conversation, that I would need to demonstrate my premise biblically, that is, the idea of preaching on your feet. I looked at him and responded, “Let me see if I understand you. I need to demonstrate biblically that no one in the entire Word of God ever used a manuscript or a set of notes when delivering a sermon (Ezra's reading of the Scripture, etc., hardly qualifies)?” He smiled, I smiled, and we continued with lunch. The reality is that just as Blackwood observes, Jesus spoke from “heart to heart and from eye to eye.” Preaching on your feet offers, by the very design of God, the means through which we can speak “heart to heart and eye to eye” to the people we serve.
Now back to the Latin; roughly translated, this quote from Quintilian comes out as follows:
But the richest fruit of all our study, and the most ample recompense for the extent of our labor, is the faculty of speaking extempore.
Thus far we have seen words used like “free delivery” and “extemporaneous” rather than a statement about preaching on your feet, and yet historically this is exactly the understanding of what “preaching on your feet” was all about. It is the fruit of long labor, and it is a skill that comes easier with age. It is also, however, a special kind of skill that engages all that a person has to persuade an audience of all that God offers. Imagine how your steady work, day in and day out, in wrestling with God, in thinking theologically, in abiding in Christ, in praying before the Lord, in wrestling in discussions, in teaching Bible studies, in pondering moments in nature or in traffic when God offers an illustration just right for a particular truth. Imagine all these things coming together in a moment, and after reflection and preparation you are standing before the congregation and pouring out in a clear, passionate style your heartbeat concerning a truth that is needed by the hearts of those who listen. This is what preaching on your feet offers, in its worse moments, to both you and your audience.
Consider for a moment a strategic word for understanding the value of preaching on your feet. It is the word echo. Phillips Brooks, in his Lectures on Preaching, instructs the students in his lectures at Yale Divinity School in the 1800s with the following:
I want to make you know two things: first, that if your ministry is to be good for anything, it must be your ministry, and not a feeble echo of another man's; and, second, that the Christian ministry is not the mere practice of a set of rules and precedents, but is a broad, free, fresh meeting of a man with men, in such close contact that the Christ who has entered into his life may, through his, enter into theirs.
Brooks gives us the word echo. An echo is a proper way to think about mimicked, indirect, or distant ministry. That echo, as we all know, is the essential reflection of sound—that is, a copy of the original.
When a preacher of the Word of God preaches another's sermon or attempts to sound like another famed preacher, he is engaged in the process of being an echo rather than an original voice. Even when one reads aloud his own writing, it still has the flavor of echo. When one works at his desk and labors to write a manuscript, when one works at his desk and labors to write an outline, he is in that moment guessing about his audience because he does not know exactly what will transpire between that moment at his desk and the lives of the people. He cannot exactly know the configuration of who's in attendance and who's missing. He further cannot know what experiences and reflection and insight will occur between the completion of the sermon and the moment before the people.
Years ago I had a conversation with the elders of the church I was then serving, explaining my discoveries and burden to learn to preach on my feet. In that discussion I observed to them that between the time I finish a sermon on a Thursday or Friday and the delivery of the sermon on Sunday, I continue to grow in the Lord; therefore, if I preached on Sunday something I concluded on a Friday, it's plagiarism because it was written by another person (that is, who I was on Friday)! You may think this is a play on logic, but it's actually a play on truth. We are the person we are in the moment we preach; and when we copy, even ourselves, it has the cavernous sound of an echo.
It is my understanding that one of the most famous Christian leaders in our day encourages people to purchase his transcripts and preach his sermons. It is rumored that somewhere near 80,000 preachers every Sunday do that very thing. There are other preaching services where transcripts are available and sermons may be preached. Sometimes the use of another's sermons is a known fact; sometimes it's plagiarized, passed off as if it were one's own thoughts. In either event these things are echoes.
The echo itself can be even more graphically appreciated by picking up a sermon of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Spurgeon is one of the most famous preachers in history and largely was a preach-on-your-feet man. If you were to pick up one of Spurgeon's sermons and simply read it to your congregation, albeit with passion and energy, it would still carry the problem of echo. Let me offer an example. In a sermon entitled “How Saints May Help the Devil,” his opening words are as follows:
It is not a comfortable state to be at enmity with God, and the sinner knows this. Although he perseveres in his rebellion against the Most High, and turns not at the rebuke of the Almighty, but still goeth on in his iniquity, desperately seeking his own destruction, yet is he aware in his own conscience that he is not in a secure position.
If Spurgeon were here today and he spoke like this, he would not be famous; he would be strange. But Spurgeon, if he were here today, would not speak in that language; he would speak in the language of the common man. Hear Spurgeon's own words: “Let your oratory, therefore, constantly improve in clearness, cogency, naturalness, and persuasiveness. Try, dear brethren, to get such a style of speaking that you suit yourselves to your audiences. Much lies in that.”
To pick up Spurgeon and read him to your congregation would be an act of trying to pass off an echo that is even more distant due to time. James Buckley offers this observation: “When looking away from the paper and repeating a sentence, his face cannot light up as does he who speaks directly to the people.” Preaching on your feet is about speaking directly to the people and not through an echo.
What do we need in preaching? What, in particular as an audience, what in particular as Christians in America, do we need from the pulpit and from the preacher? Joseph Webb, in his volume Preaching without Notes, makes two observations concerning a “national statement” based on 400 hours of conversation with 700 Methodist laity and clergy in 13 regional events. After listing the study's conclusions, which included statements such as, “There's widespread disappointment that so much preaching lacks enthusiasm for the gospel,” he states:
Two things in particular arise from this statement, however; one overtly, the other somewhat covertly. The first is that preachers who play down the importance of preaching are out of sync with what their congregations want most, which is the highest quality preaching possible. The second thing in the statement, however, appears in the last sentence. It is that laypeople tend to believe that preachers, by and large, are not doing the best possible job that they could do in the pulpit, and that their chief failing is not theological or pastoral; it is a failure in public speaking.
At the core it is a failure in public speaking. What hope do we have for developing excellent preachers if we're engaged in a process of writing as though it were public speaking? And what hope do we have of developing preachers if the growing masses of preachers defer to sharing an echo by weekly reading the sermon of another preacher?
It strikes me that the glaring metaphor is meal preparation. Are we offering packages from a vending machine as a meal? A vending machine offers something we might call “food,” and it truly might have some nutrition to it, but by and large vending machine food will kill people who live on it alone. The second analogy is the TV dinner, which comes to us by mass production and is somewhat nutritional in a heat-and-serve fashion. The final example is a chef who has learned to create nutritious meals for the moment; this is what preaching is intended to be, and a real meal by a real chef is exactly what is needed by the congregations of today or of any era.
In the simplest of terms, what we need most in our preaching is life, relevance, and connection. We need life in our preaching, as Brooks said, a connection of man to men, of person to person—someone who is abiding, someone who is alive with the truth, someone who owns and possesses from long labor and a walk with God, life for lives. Second, our preaching should be relevant. Our messages should take eternal, transcultural principles and bring them to bear in a relevant way to the lives of those who listen. It is not simply connecting the dots in the understanding of the audience, but it is connecting the dots of truth with the lives they live. Jesus Christ Himself was a master on this point. He spoke to the people according to their needs and according to terms they understood: bread of life, vine and branches, fishermen, sheep, coins; and the list goes on. Finally, our preaching needs to connect. This is more than a clever sales notion; it is actually a transaction of spirit-to-spirit communication. It is an authentic connection as a person who lives among people, understands their lives beyond his own life, beyond relevance in the message, and authentically stands on his feet and connects directly to the people.
A written or outlined sermon could, quite frankly, be done by anyone and probably done better by someone else skilled in the art of acting. Webb offers a little insight on why preaching on our feet helps us connect to people. He says:
Congregants, too, are smart people. They appreciate and learn from straight-forward explanation of things, even theological things. They do not worry about the preacher tripping over a word or a phrase; they understand how we all talk. They also want to learn theology and doctrine. So the word comes unspoken to the preacher from the congregants: “Tell us about your faith, and ours. Tell us about theology, what it is and how it works. Tell us what you have learned about it and how you have come to think about it and internalize it yourself. Share with us the issues of theology and how that theology impinges on us. Share stories with us. Give us reason to laugh. But talk to us about the hard stuff as well. Don't read it to us. Talk to us.”
Webb is right, and any student of communication understands it. Human beings are interested in real live communication. They're not concerned about tripping over a word or phrase. In fact, that aspect of being a human being tends to endear congregants. Only the professors and the grammarians in our culture are concerned about everything being said just right. People want a real person to tell them the truth. Preaching on your feet uniquely and naturally meets these needs.
At no time has our culture been more ripe with the need for preachers to recover and grow in this historically proven approach to communicating truth. Roy H. Williams, the founder of Wizard Academy, a marketing and training company, made the following observation, which is about the best advice a preacher could get as well, in the following e-letter:
Do you remember when America watched awards shows?
If you were somehow unplugged and didn't receive the newsflash, the combined strength of Paul McCartney, Madonna, U2, Mariah Carey, Coldplay, Faith Hill, and Jay-Z wasn't enough to swing the hammer and ring the bell during this year's Grammy Awards. A frail 17 million watched these legends read their cue cards while a muscular 28.3 million cheered hopeful, nameless kids singing their hearts out on American Idol.
It was just one more indication of how we're moving away from the vertical hero worship of idealism to establish the horizontal links that mark an emerging civic generation.
Grandpa Jagger during halftime at the Super Bowl, surrounded by people doing their best to act like cheering fansâ€¦I'm sorry, but that was just sad.
I'm not trying to be catty; I'm trying to make a point: Plastic posing bores us. We have no desire to hear another Miss America contestant talk about her dream of world peace. Just once, wouldn't you like to hear the interviewer say, “And how is walking around in high heels and a swimsuit going to help bring about world peace?”
Unfiltered authenticity is the new cool. And volunteerism is on the rise.
We don't listen to big talkers anymore. Our collective silence toward them is our way of saying, “Talk is cheap. Do something.”
Tom Hanks is the new John Wayne. Remember Hanks' portrayal of the dutiful but reluctant English-teacher-turned-soldier in Saving Private Ryan? He was just a regular guy, doing the best he could, trying to make the best of a bad situation. Kind of like you and me.
Struggling, flawed, tormented Jason Bourne is the new James Bond.
Lost in Translation is the new Love Story.
I'm not trying to depress you. I'm just trying to open your eyes to the realities of the new marketplace.
Hype is dead.
In 2004—the first year following the shift away from idealism—the Grammys scored a respectable 26.3 million viewers. The next year they fell to just 18.8 million. So this year's 17 million should have come as no surprise.
Anyone taking bets on next year's audience?
If you're a business owner needing advice about marketing in the new millennia, here's all you really need to know:
Say it straight. Say it real. You'll do fine.
How would your ministry change if you could rise at a moment's notice and give a commendable sermon straight from God's Word and your heart? So what's stopping you? Perhaps it's about pain and pleasure.
Preaching is joy, but preparing is torture. Maybe this doesn't ring true for you; maybe you're one who finds the preaching the pain, while the preparation is the pleasure. Personally, I wasn't fond of either until I discovered what preaching was really about. I'm not writing for preachers alone but for preachers especially. We've lost something in America; we've lost something in our pulpits; we've lost the skill of authentic heart-to-heart communication. Of course not everyone is at a loss. Some preachers capture audiences and impact the masses, but it isn't common; it isn't even normal. What has happened? What needs to happen? Explaining what has happened may be beyond our ability to know, but we can speculate. Some would say our content has softened. Others would argue that we are not empowered by the Spirit. Others still say we need more prayer or teachable people or illustrations in abundance.
I want to offer a different paradigm: I think our problem is that we lack preachers. We lack individuals who open God's Word to others through their own unique style and experiences. Seminaries are in part to blame. In seminary, students pay money and work hard to learn doctrine and skills. During this period, and understandably so, students become enamored with professors and try to emulate them. Though trying to be like someone is understandable, it won't lead to authentic preaching. Why? First, because it squelches the uniqueness of the preacher's personality. Second, the preacher follows the examples, not of preachers but of professors. Unless the local church is a classroom, the last thing it needs is the intensity afforded a Greek class. The pulpit is for people, common people, who, though bright, are busy trying to sort out life in the daily world. Is it any wonder that the Natural Church Development researchers have found “pastor as theologian” to be a negative correlation with church health and growth? Specifically they have found that often the more education a pastor has the less health the church enjoys.
Hype is dead, but it was never alive to begin with. We need preachers of the Word of God who shine through with an unquenchable authenticity; fresh voices, alive, burdened, and authoritatively original. We need true preachers who can “preach on their feet.”