Truth Through Personality

Personality Face2Phillips Brooks’ was considered one of the great “princes of the pulpit” in the nineteenth century.  Perhaps his most lasting legacy were his Yale lectures on preaching in which he defined preaching as the “communication of truth through personality.”

Brooks was no pulpit performer.  He was a shy man who spoke rapidly, had a stiff delivery style and poor eye contact.  Yet he drew the crowds.  He was meticulous in his study of the biblical text.  He spoke conversationally and had a distinct sincerity and intensity, despite his evident shyness.  He cared about his listeners and developed relational bonds with them.

So he was no pulpit performer.  He wasn’t trying to sanctify his own style of preaching with a definition when in reality he simply wanted to affirm his own personality.  Rather, he was convinced that preaching is a communication act in which a person is involved.

I do wonder whether we all grasp this simple reality.  I am not saying that anyone needs to perform or be something they are not.  What I am saying is that if the personality of the preacher does not offer something of the gospel, then maybe they should reconsider their passion to preach.  That is, you can be shy or extraverted, humourous or serious, loud or quiet, demonstrative or reserved.  Be yourself, however…

However, none of these elements of a preacher’s style are what I am concerned with.  It is those preachers who preach as if only their declaration of truth matters.  They seem not to care if their manner is bombastic, or arrogant, or sarcastic, or sharp-edged, or ungracious, or dour, or harsh.  I believe we should all care.  These are not issues of personal style.  These are issues of personal character.  And if the gospel has not marked our character and personality, why are we stepping into the pulpit to preach the gospel to others?

This week I would like to probe some of these issues of character and personality.  I am not suggesting we perform, that would be bordering on deceitful.  I am suggesting that we have personal and personality integrity.  Where we don’t, we undermine the very message we claim to be called to declare.

Plagiarism and Echoes

At some point I will write a review of Preaching on Your Feet by Fred Lybrand.  I need to finish it first.  Today I’d just like to raise an interesting thought.  Is there a connection between plagiarism and the way most preachers preach?  To put it another way, is it possible to steal your own sermon?

Stealing sermons isn’t good.  Maybe you’ve tried it.  Maybe you’ve heard it.  (Maybe you do it every week – and sing private praise songs about the internet!)  No matter how good the original, no matter how well-crafted the wording, no matter how inspiring the passion, or amusing the anecdotes, somehow a stolen sermon can only be, as Phillips Brooks described it, a “feeble echo” of the original power.  It seems to bounce around in the second preacher’s head and come out as an echo.  It doesn’t resonate from every fiber of his being, it pings out with all the added noise and cavernous emptiness of  a poor recording from a low quality cassette player.

Lybrand raises the possibility that preachers of integrity (ie. not verbatim sermon stealers) might still preach with the same kind of echo.  It’s easy to preach on Sunday morning, referring to notes that prompt your thinking back to your preparation on Thursday.  It’s easy to be preaching trying to recall exactly how you had it before.  It’s not as hollow an echo as a sermon that has bounced through cyberspace (or even through history!) and landed in your memory.  But there is still a hollow-ness.  Still an echo.  Somehow we can fall into preaching the sermon of another preacher – that is, the sermon of you three or four days ago (and God has changed you since then).

I won’t offer Lybrand’s solution today.  I’ll just leave this as a point to ponder as we wrestle with how to really preach, how to really connect with real people at a real moment in time.

True Liberty in Preaching

Along the same lines as the subject of yesterday’s post, how do we find true liberty in our preaching?  This is Phillips Brooks in his 1877 Lectures on Preaching:

In the desire to make a sermon seem free and spontaneous there is a prevalent dislike to giving it its necessary formal structure and organism. . . . True liberty in writing comes by law, and the more thoroughly the outlines of your work are laid out, the more freely your work will flow, like an unwasted stream between its well-built banks.

I’d prefer to use terms like order and structure rather than law, but the point is well made.  It’s a common thought that non-preparation will allow the freedom of a flowing message.  In reality the result is likely to be higher levels of incoherence, blabbering, circling, and stress.  The more work we put in to structuring and planning the sermon, the more freedom we have during delivery to adjust if necessary, and to flow freely.  Let’s seek to be unwasted streams of well-prepared communication of God’s Word.