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The Preacher

( Originally Published 1912 )

A CLERGYMAN recently said, "I try to sell the `gospel,' but find few buyers." Here is a tacit acknowledgment of failure. If a man representing a business house should return from a trip and report to his firm that he had tried to sell their goods but found "few buyers," they would not long retain his services. The preacher, not unlike the salesman, must be able to present clear and convincing arguments to secure even a proper hearing; then he must follow up his advantage with sufficient force and fervor to persuade the listener to act. This is successful "salesmanship" in preaching.

It is easy to find fault with the Church, and possibly this fault-finding is too common and often misdirected. But it would startle one into serious thinking to hear a leading New York clergyman assert, as one did recently, that the modern house of worship is a cold-storage plant, that there are too many messageless sermons, and that preachers fail to teach truths of which people stand in greatest need.

What, then, shall the preacher do? First of all, he should have the truth. He should know what he is talking about, and speak as much as possible out of his own living experience. His truth must be made interesting to others. A modern congregation prefers the short road in argument. A long chain of reasoning is too difficult and taxing for them to follow; they prefer the truth in homeopathic doses, and that the preacher should not attempt to prove too much. Illustration is better than abstract statement, and graphic reference to a recent event is more impressive than philosophical disquisition. Controversy, criticism, and condemnation should be employed sparingly. "It is bet-ter," says a writer, "to hold honestly one fragment of truth in the midst of immeasurable error, than to sit alone, if that were possible, in the midst of an absolute vision, clear as the hyaline, but only repellent of falsehood, not receptive of truth."

But equally important to effective preaching is delivery. It argues in favor of a speaker that he has himself well in hand. The effect of the most cogent argument may be utterly destroyed by a weak voice, an artificial tone, or a clumsy gesture. The preacher will do well to remember that there is a well-defined prejudice against the importation of anything "theatrical" into the pulpit. The art of the actor is fundamentally different from the work of the preacher. At best the actor only represents, imitates, pretends, and acts. The actor seems to be; the preacher must be.

It is to be feared, however, that this prejudice has narrowed many preachers down to a pulpit style almost devoid of warmth and action. In their endeavor to avoid the dramatic and sensational, they have refined and subdued many of their most natural and effective means of expression. The function of preaching is not only to impart, but to persuade; and persuasion demands something more than an easy conversational style, an intellectual statement of facts, or the reading of a written message. The speaker must show in face, eye, hand, arm, the whole animated man, in fact, that he himself is moved before he can hope successfully to persuade and inspire others.

The modified movements of ordinary conversation do not fulfil all the requirements of the preacher. These are necessary and adequate for the groundwork of the sermon, but for the supreme heights of passionate appeal, for strong argumen tation, when the soul of the preacher would leap from its body in the endeavor to reach men, there must be intensified life and action—dramatic action.

Poise is power, and reserve and repression are parts of the dignified office of the preacher, but carried too far may de generate into weak and unproductive effort. Perfection of English style, rhetorical floridness, and profundity of thought will never wholly make up for lack of appropriate action in the work of persuading men.

The power of action alone is vividly illustrated in the touch of the finger to the lips to invoke silence, or the pointing to the door to command one to leave the room. The preacher might often find it profitable to stand before a mirror and deliver his sermon exclusively in panto-mime in order to test its power and efficacy.

The body must be disciplined and cultivated as assiduously as the other instruments of the speaker. There is eloquence in attitude and action no less than eloquence in voice and feeling. A preacher drawing himself up to his full height, with a significant gesture of the head, or with flashing eye pointing the finger of warning at his hearers, may rouse them from indifference when all other means fail.

Sixty years ago the Rev. William Russell emphasized to his fellow preachers the importance of visible-expression. He said of the preacher:

"His outward manner, in attitude and action, will be as various as his voice; he will evince the inspiration of appropriate feeling in the very posture of his frame; in uttering the language of adoration, the slow-moving, uplifted hand will bespeak the awe and solemnity which pervade his soul; in addressing his fellow men in the spirit of an ambassador of Christ, the gentle yet earnest spirit of persuasive action will be evinced in the pleading hand and aspect ; he will know, also, how to pass to the stern and authoritative mien of the reprover of sin ; he will, on due occasions, indicate, in his kindling look and rousing gesture, the mood of him who is empowered and commanded to summon forth all the energies of the human soul; his subdued and chastened address will carry the sympathy of his spirit into the bosom of the mourner; his moistening eye and his gentle action will manifest his tenderness for the suffering; his whole soul will, in a word, become legible in his features, in his attitude, in the expressive eloquence of his hand; his whole style will be felt to be that of heart communing with heart."

Dramatic action gives picturesqueness to the spoken word. It makes things vivid to the slow imagination, and by contrast invests the speaker's message with new meaning and vitality. It discloses, too, the speaker's sympathy and identification with his subject. His thought and feeling, communicating themselves to voice and face, to hand and arm, to walk and posture, satisfy and impress the hearer with a sense of adequacy and completeness.

Henry Ward Beecher, a conspicuous example of dramatic style in preaching, was drilled for three years, while at college, in voice-culture, gesture, and action. His daily practise in the woods, during which he exploded all the vowels from the bottom to the top of his voice, gave him not only a wonderfully responsive and flexible instrument, but a freedom of bodily movement that made him one of the most vigorous and virile of American preachers. He was in the highest sense a persuasive pulpit orator.

A sensible preacher will avoid the grotesque and the extreme of mere vivacity, Incessant gesture and action, undue emphasizing with hand and head, and all suggestion of self-sufficiency in attitude or manner should be guarded against. All the various instruments of expression should be made ready and responsive for immediate use, but are to be employed with that taste and tact that characterize the well-balanced man. Too much action and long-continued emotional effort lose force, and unless the law of action and reaction is applied to the preaching of the sermon the attention of the congregation may be lost and so the desired effect be utterly destroyed.

The face as the mirror of the emotions is an important part of expression. The lips will betray determination, grief, sympathy, affection, or other feeling on the part of the speaker. The eyes, the most direct medium of psychic power, will flash in indignation, glisten in joy, or grow dim in sorrow. The brow will be elevated in surprize, or lowered in determination and perplexity.

The effectiveness of the whisper in preaching should not be overlooked. If discreetly used it may serve to impress the hearer with the profundity and seriousness of the preacher's message, or to arrest and bring back to the point of contact the wandering minds of a congregation.

To acquire emotional power and dramatic action the preacher will study the great dramatists. He will read them aloud with appropriate voice and movement. He will study children, men, and nature. He will, perhaps, see the best actors, not to copy them, but to stimulate his taste and imagination.

The intimate relationship between the voice and the spirit of the speaker suggests that one is necessary to the fullest development of the other. The voice can interpret only what has been awakened and realized within; hence nothing discloses a speaker's grasp of a subject so accurately and readily as his attempt to give it expression in his own language. It is this spiritual power back of words, developed principally through the intuitions and emotions, that gives psychic force to speaking, and which more than logic, rhetoric, or learning itself enables the speaker to influence and persuade men.

The minister as an interpreter of the highest spiritual truth should bring to his work a thoroughly trained emotional nature and a cultivated speaking voice. It is not sufficient that he state the truth with clearness and force; he must proclaim it with such passionate enthusiasm as powerfully to move his hearers. To express adequately the infinite shades of spiritual truth, he must have the ability to play upon his voice as upon a great cathedral organ, from "the soft lute of love" to "the loud trumpet of war."

To assume that the study of the art of speaking will necessarily produce consciousness of its principles while in the act of speaking in public, is as unwarranted as to say that a knowledge of the rules of grammar, rhetoric, or logic lead to artificiality and self-consciousness in the teacher, writer, and thinker. There is a "mechanical expertness belonging to all art," as Goethe says, and this applies to the orator no less than to the musician, the artist, the actor, and the litterateur.

Let the minister stand up even for five minutes each day, with chest and abdomen well expanded, and pronounce aloud the long vowel sounds of our language, in various shades of force and feeling, and shortly he will observe his voice developing new flexibility, resonance, and power. Let it be remembered that the voice grows through use. Let the minister cultivate, too, the habit of breathing exclusively through the nose while in repose, fully and deeply from the abdomen, and he will find himself gaining in health, tenacity, and resourcefulness.

For the larger development of the spiritual and emotional powers of the speaker, a wide and varied knowledge of men and life is necessary. The feelings are trained through close contact with human suffering, and in the work of solving vital problems. The speaker will do well to explore first his own heart and endeavor to read its secret meanings, preliminary to interpreting the hearts of other men. Personal suffering will do more to open the well-springs of the heart than the reading of many books.

Care must be taken, however, that this cultivation of the feelings be conducted along rational lines, lest it run, not to faith, but to fanaticism. There is a wide difference between emotion designed for display, or for momentary effect, and that which arises from strong inner conviction and sympathetic interest in others. Spurious and unnatural feeling will invariably fail to have an enduring effect upon men.

"Emotion wrought up with no ulterior object," says Dr. Kennard, "is both an abuse and an injury to the moral nature. When the attention is thoroughly awakened and steadily held, the hearer is like a well-tuned harp, each cord a distinct emotion, and the skilful speaker may evoke a response from one or more at his will. This lays him under a grand and serious responsibility. At such times let him keep steadily to his divine purpose, to produce healthful action, a life in harmony with God and a symphony of service."

The emotional and spiritual powers of the speaker will be developed by reading aloud each day some vigorous and passionate extract from the Bible, or Shakespeare, or from some great sermon by such men as Bushnell, Newman, Beecher, Maclaren, Brooks, or Spurgeon. The entire gamut of human feeling can be reached by thus reading aloud from the great masterpieces of literature. Hew shall the speaker know that he pan make his own words glow and vibrate, unless he first tests and trains himself in some such manner as this? Furthermore, by thus fitting words to his mouth, and assimilating the feelings of others, he will immeasurably gain in facility and vocal responsiveness when he comes to utter his own thoughts.

Music is a powerful element in awakening emotion in the speaker and bringing to consciousness the mysterious inner voices of the soul. The minister should not only hear good music as often as possible, but he should train his ear to recognize rhythm in speech.

For the fullest development of this spiritual power in the public speaker, there should be frequent periods of stillness and silence. One must listen much in order to accumulate much. Thought and feeling must have time in which to grow. In this way the myriad sounds that arise from humanity and from nature can be caught up in the soul of the speaker and subsequently voiced by him to others.

The habit of meditating much, of brooding over thoughts, whether they be our own or those of others, will tend to disclose new and deeper meanings, and consequently deeper shades and depths of feeling. The speaker will diligently search for unwritten meanings in. words; he will study, whenever possible, master-pieces of painting and sculpture; he will closely observe the ' natural feelings of well-bred children as shown in their conversation, and in many other 'ways that will suggest themselves he will daily develop his emotional and spiritual powers of expression.

The science of preaching is important, but so, too, is the art of preaching. A powerful pulpit is always one of the needs of the times. How readily does a congregation recognize a preacher of strong convictions, broad sympathies, and consecrated personality ! An affectionate nature in a minister, manifesting itself in voice, face, and manner, will attract and influence men, while a harsh, rigid, vehement manner will as easily repel them.

It is feared that many sermons are written out with too much regard for "literary deportment on paper," and too little thought of their value as pulsating messages to men.

The preacher should train himself to take tight hold of his thought, to grip it with mental firmness and fervor, that he may afterward convey it to others in all its fulness and vigor. Thoughts vaguely conceived and held tremblingly in the mind will manifest a like character when altered. Into the writing of the sermon the preacher should put vitality and intensity, and these qualities will find their natural place in delivery. Thrill of the pen should precede thrill of the voice. The habit of Dickens of acting out the characters he was depicting on paper could be copied to advantage by the preacher, and frequently during the writing of his sermon he might stand and utter his thoughts aloud to test their power and effect on an imaginary congregation.

We would emphasize the importance of the most thorough cultivation of the inner sources of the preacher, whereby the spiritual and emotional forces are so aroused and brought under control as to respond promptly and accurately to all the speaker's requirements. We would emphasize the importance of training the speaking voice as the instrument of expression and the natural outlet for thought and feeling. In the combined cultivation of these two essential parts of expression—spirit and voice—the minister will find the true secret of effective pulpit preaching.

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