The following excerpts are from an article titled “On Preaching” by Scott Hoezee of Calvin Theological Seminary. Is truth important? If truth is important, how should the message of truth be delivered to the hearer? Scott Hoezee reminds us of some important things to keep in mind:
In one of his many memorable phrases, Fred Craddock once noted that what preaching today needs is not more beauty but more reality. Probably most of us have a pretty good idea what Craddock means. Many of us who have preached have heard the anecdote about the person listening to a sermon and then observing at some point during the sermon that it had started to snow outside. This leads the listener to the observation that while the snowflakes fluttering outside the window seemed real, the sermon fluttering inside the sanctuary seemed decidedly ethereal.
That’s not an observation we preachers cherish!
Yet again and again as I read student sermons—but often when I go back and read some of my own sermons from past years—I spy this very phenomenon. How relatively easy it is to recite great truths on a Sunday morning but how very difficult it is to help people see what such truths would look like in their lives on the average Tuesday morning or Friday afternoon. Words like “God conquers the idols of our lives” flow quickly off the preacher’s tongue. But naming even one such specific idol—and then helping the congregation know what form God’s conquest of it might take—does not pass the preacher’s lips as readily.
Sermons need not more beauty, not more words, not more slogans or aphorisms or bromides or statements, they need more reality. The congregation needs to see itself in the picture the sermon is sketching, and not just on Sunday morning while sitting in a pew but on Wednesday morning when sitting in a corporate board meeting and on Thursday afternoon when facing a tough decision at school.
How might the preacher get more of that reality into the sermon? The answer to that requires more space than this brief musing permits but one key area that preachers do not ponder enough is the pastoral imagination. How well are we able to imagine our way into the situations members of the congregation face each week? Of course, sometimes it’s more than just imagination—sometimes the imagination itself is fueled through pastoral experience. . . .
This is hard work. It really is far, far easier just to stick to the general and hope that others will fill in the specifics. But a key part of the hard work that just is preaching is helping the congregation to take that step toward the concrete. And so as I encourage students, so I encourage myself and all preachers: whenever you find yourself asserting that the glory of God is on display in creation, you had best not move on in that sermon until you can name at least one concrete instance of such creation glory. . . .
Somewhere in the novel The Great Gatsby a character utters an observation along the lines of, “It was all true and it didn’t matter.” That is one of my wife’s favorite lines but when she applies it to a sermon she’s heard (and she’s been known to do so!), such a sentiment is fairly devastating. But indeed, I’ve heard and read very few sermons about which I could not say that the content of the sermon was all true. Even quite bad sermons are seldom heretical. But does the sermon’s truth matter? Is it rooted in a reality to which the listeners can relate? If we are celebrating the great and wonderful grace of God in our lives, are we equipping people to join in on that celebration by helping them to know such grace when they see it while sitting at their desk, working in their shop, driving down the highway?
What sermons need is not more beauty but more reality. And that just makes sense: the gospel and the kingdom of grace it proclaims are, after all, the deepest Reality we know.