IT may not be amiss to supplement what has already been said about the sermon with some remarks derived from personal experience and observation. A number of excellent books have been written on this subject which will repay close study, and there is no intention of pretending to supplant them. It has been the writer's fate to hear many sermons, and he fancies he has noted the particular faults into which perhaps the majority of preachers fall. [Among these may be mentioned Paul R. Bull's Preaching and Sermon Construction, Catholic, straightforward, practical; McComb's Preaching in Theory and Practice, packed with common sense, and most helpful despite a pronounced "Liberal" bias; Garvie's The Christian Preacher, Protestant, thorough, encyclopedic; George Wharton Pepper's A Voice From the Crowd, interesting suggestions from the lay point of view; Phillips Brooks' Yale Lectures, in which a great preacher fails to convey the secret of his power; Bishop Slattery's Present Day Preaching.]
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of preaching. We are commissioned to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments; and unless we learn to preach we will administer the sacraments to fewer and fewer people as our career goes on. Few
men can become great preachers; most men could make themselves over into good preachers; none need be as unacceptable as only too many actually are. The fault is probably not with the seminaries, for one has reason to believe they have improved in the last twenty years. It is with the clergy them selves who fail to realize that preaching is an art that must be patiently pursued all their lives long. Probably one reason for so much ineffective preaching is the flattery to which many young priests are subjected. A young man in a pulpit, particularly if he is good-looking, is a sympathetic and edifying spectacle. He basks in the sympathy all too evident, and fancies it has been stirred by his eloquence, whereas it is but an unconscious tribute to his youth and zeal and beauty; as it were, a gesture of hope on the part of the congregation, of hope too seldom realized.
But let us proceed to some concrete points.
The Length of the Sermon. The conventional twenty minutes is the result of a good deal of experimentation. A preacher ought to be able to fill that amount of time; and most emphatically he ought to be very sure of himself, indeed, if frequently or habitually he takes more.
Method of Delivery. After long experience, I breathe a sigh of relief when ever I see that a preacher has a manuscript before him. It at least witnesses of some amount of preparation. When the manuscript is not in evidence, the lack of adequate preparation is usually soon apparent. Some one once asked the late Dr. William R. Huntington, one of the great preachers of his day, whether he thought a man should preach from a manuscript or without one. He replied, "Always without one, after he has preached ten thousand sermons." Probably the most fatal gift with which nature can endow a preacher is that of gab. The only objection to the use of a manuscript is that the preacher may be tied to it. But if in addition to writing out his sermon, he has made himself thoroughly familiar with it, this objection vanishes. He can preach with as great freedom and establish as intimate contact with his congregation as the most voluble extempore speaker alive. Perhaps the greatest preachers have used this method, e.g., Newman, Brooks, Jowett.
The preacher who dispenses with a manuscript or careful and elaborate notes must make even more careful and severe preparation. There are very few extempore preachers who can trust themselves not to exceed a decent time-limit or to stick to the sermon they have planned, or fancy they have planned. The easier it is to speak ex tempore, the less one should do it, The harder to write, the more the preacher needs the discipline. But whatever be the method of delivery, the preparation is essential; and there is nothing to add to the wise advice on this subject that can be found in any of the excellent books already commended.
Voice. The remarks made about the use of the voice in connection with rendering the service are as applicable to preaching. Most parsons need much more scientific voice culture than they can get in the seminary. If teachers are not to be had, a useful critic can generally be found and should be. The most common faults are indistinct enunciation (which anyone can overcome by practising whispering aloud every day), slovenly diction, incorrect pronunciation, blurred r's, flat a's, a maddening addiction to the use of the sound er between words, and dropping the voice at the end of sentences. Every one of these faults can be overcome by study and practice; not one can be mastered without an effort. And the older a man grows in bad habits, the more he is wedded to them. To be sure, preaching is not everything, but it is the first thing a parson must concern himself about.
A fault into which the very elect frequently fall is giving an improper emphasis to personal pronouns, particularly those referring to the Deity. It is not generally realized, but it is a fact, that in reading the service of the Church there is not a single personal pronoun that should have any special emphasis. And it is almost as true of sermons.
Gestures. The use of gestures is quite un necessary, and they should be avoided rather than cultivated. They should never be used unless they are absolutely spontaneous and natural, and even so they are often apt to be awkward and pointless. Pounding the pulpit, waving the arms, pointing the finger at the congregation, stretching wide the arms to indicate exaltation, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred weaken rather than strengthen what is being said, and distract the attention of the congregation from the message to the preacher. Every effect of oratory, eloquence, persuasion, warning, inspiration, can adequately be secured by the use of the voice. Obviously the preacher must stand erect, face the congregation, be free of his manuscript. He will be wise, however, though he looks at his congregation while preaching, to avoid meeting the eye of individuals.
In connection with delivery a little problem arises which falls under the head neither of voice nor gesture. It is a problem that few preachers likely have ever faced. It goes without saying that absolute sincerity in preaching is a sine qua non. Granted that, should a preacher feel and show that he feels the emotion he is endeavoring to stir in his auditors? He may feel it or not (that is something he cannot control), but he should certainly avoid exhibiting his feelings. Suppose, for example, the preacher desires to stir in his congregation a sense of pathos--he tells a story, recites a verse or two of poetry. He can do all this with entire success simply by the proper use of his voice. But let the sense of pathos master him, let his voice tremble, a half-stifled sob escape, tears come into his eyes, and the effect is ruined. He usually has moved no one but himself. The personal feeling must be sunk in the part that is being played. And of course no one can really do this who is not serious about his task and sincere in its execution.
The Theme of a Sermon. Pastoral experience, the study of Scripture, and intelligent reading will suggest innumerable themes to the alert preacher. But the sermon manuals give excellent advice on this subject.
Too much preaching now-a-days is apologetic, both in the technical and popular sense of the term. 'While doubtless it is important on occasions to set forth reasons for the faith that is in us, we need not defend our religion every time we enter the pulpit. For the most part we should assume that the congregation are believers, as well as demonstrate the fact that we believe ourselves.
But apologetic sermons are better than a sort preached by some men, who seldom lose an opportunity of announcing from the pulpit how very little of the Christian religion they deem worthy of acceptance. Obviously, a preacher must help divorce his people from exploded notions once generally accepted, but along with this he should demonstrate how relatively little of essential doctrines of the faith are affected by sound criticism. A safe rule in apologetic and doctrinal preaching is to be positive and constructive.
An almost universal fault of young preachers is to attempt to cover the entire theological encyclopedia in a single sermon. One point, one aspect of the faith, driven home is far better.
It is sometimes alleged that people are impatient of doctrine. On the contrary preachers who have no doctrinal background soon peter out. It is not doctrine to which people object, but the platitudinous iteration of traditional phraseology without interpreting it in the thought and language of the day.
The most ineffective, and ultimately the most objectionable of all preachers, is the scold. There is a vast difference between rebuking evil and exposing to a congregation the sins to which they are prone, and scolding. The scolding seldom reaches the members of the parish for whom it is in tended. Nothing is more fruitless than to rave to empty benches or a scattering of the faithful about the neglect of public worship. If a priest provides the best service he and his assistants can render, if he conscientiously preaches the Gospel as effectively as he can, if he is a faithful pastor, he discharges his responsibility to his parish. There is a point at which the effort to induce people to come to church ceases to be a virtue, and when they must be left to their own conscience.
A Frequent Fault. Most sermons can be preached, and most sermons ought to be preached, without the use of the words I or me or you and me. And it matters very little whether the use of first personal pronoun is induced by egotism or humility. The egotistic preacher is only too familiar a phenomenon. It often happens that he is an able man, and his sermons are acceptable despite the egotism they display. But it is not only the egotist who over- indulges in I and me. There are many men so humble, or so fearful, that they qualify (and still further weaken) their statements by continually punctuating their sentences with such phrases as I think, I suspect, if I am not mistaken, and the like.
One of the best exercises in the world, both for the sake of improving preaching and for the discipline of the soul, is for a preacher to determine rigidly and absolutely to eschew the use. of the first personal pronoun for a period of six months. And it would be helpful if at the same time he cast into the dust heap of obsolescent expressions the old tags of beloved, dear brethren, my friends, dear people, and their kin.
In conclusion it may be said that the underlying theme of every sermon should be to interpret some phase of Christian faith or practice in terms of the life and thought of the congregation, to the end that souls may be converted, or strengthened, or inspired.
There is considerable difference between giving an instruction and preaching a sermon. The sermon is only incidentally and secondarily concerned with teaching; while teaching is the sole purpose of an instruction. The primary ends of the sermon are to convert, persuade, exhort, inspire; and, though occasional didactic sermons are not amiss, the clergy should seek other opportunities for teaching.
The obvious opportunities are in connection with Bible classes in the Church school, at the Sunday Evensong, at week-day services in Lent, and with Confirmation and First Communion classes. Even more effective is the gathering together of small groups--from a dozen to fifty--for the purpose of instruction on subjects in which they are interested or about which they need to be informed. To. adduce personal experience, one of the most useful activities of the rector of this parish is the holding for about six months of the year two series of conferences, as they are called, one in summer, the other in winter, on a week-day morning and a week day evening. The attendance has averaged about twenty-five, both men and women; and during the five years the experiment has been in operation the whole course of Church teaching has been covered in a general way. The effect has been most satisfactory, for while the attendance has not been large in proportion to the membership of the parish, it has included many of the most influential parishioners, and has done much to generate a sound parochial opinion concerning the teaching of the Church, and has markedly improved the practice of the congregation.
If the teacher is thoroughly familiar with his subject (as he should be) and has care fully prepared his discourse, he can readily dispense with a manuscript and confine him self to notes. With a small audience this is practically essential. The teacher should allow in most cases ten or fifteen minutes at the end of his instruction for questions and discussion. A question-box is often useful. In giving instructions he should assume (though he should be tactful enough not to state the fact) that the majority of his hearers know little about the subject, or know that little wrong.
Assuming that the instructor loyally accepts the authority of the Church, without insinuating doubts or objections that are not likely to be in the minds of his hearers, he certainly should state and refute current popular misconceptions and criticisms.
The Prayer Book is a marvelous tool to our hands, and in keeping close to the doctrine and practice succinctly set forth therein, the teacher will express the Anglican mind; and he will realize himself and make clear to others how definite and positive is the teaching of this Church. It is true that the Prayer Book leaves certain questions open and certain problems unsolved, and in most cases the average parson should be content to do so. Certain it is that if the teacher is loyal to the body of doctrine and practice the Prayer Book represents and sets forth, he will not go astray from essential Catholic truth or sacrifice anything that the Anglican communion gained through the Protestant Reformation.