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The Message And The Man by J. Dodd Jackson

CHAPTER I. On Attractiveness.

Having now given some little thought to a consideration of the essential qualifications of the Christian messenger, and also to the content of his message, it remains to name certain qualities of form and expression equally needed for success in the publication of the truth. The first business of the preacher is, of course, to secure the friendly attention of his hearers and his next business is to retain it until he makes an end of speaking. To accomplish these things it is obviously needful that he possess some skill in the putting of things in such a way as first to attract, then to enlighten, and finally, to persuade.

In beginning then, a very brief inquiry concerning these qualities, it may be assumed that in the sermon as we know it we have by far the best vehicle for the conveyance of the preacher's message. From time to time experiments with other media have been tried, but the sermon has not been superseded. A few years ago trial was made of what was called the Sermon-story -- a religious novel read by the preacher in weekly parts. |Song services| and |lantern addresses| have been well-intentioned attempts to enlist the ear and the eye in the interests of the soul. In the miracle plays of the Middle Ages, Scriptural truth and incident were thrown into dramatic form for the benefit of the ignorant classes. The sermon still holds the field. No form of preaching has use and acceptance so general, nor so lends itself to meet changing times and differing circumstances as does this. The thought is no less true than wonderful, and no less wonderful than true, that of all who appeal to the public ear, none, even in these days of comparative indifference to religion, draw so large an audience as do the preachers of the Christian faith. The sermon is still the most popular form of public address!

It will be wise therefore for the preacher not only to ask as to whether he possesses within himself a preaching mind and heart and knowledge and designation; whether he can say that he seeks to present the truth in all its completeness, but also whether his sermons are of such a sort as most readily to secure the entrance of the truth they contain. God's truth may be -- and often is -- hindered in its saving errand by reason of the form and manner in which it is presented, though, behind such ineffective presentation, there may be sincerity of motive and sublime enthusiasm. The preacher may fail as a messenger by failing as a sermoniser. He may fail as a sermoniser from neglect of principles which so wait upon his discovery that it is nothing less than a mystery when they are not seen.

And yet, obvious as these principles are, the art of the sermon maker needs learning, and even the study of methods of delivery is of immense importance to success. We have spoken of |the born preacher|; even he must cultivate his gifts in order to realise his highest possibilities. We speak sometimes of |diamonds in the rough|; the value of these precious stones increases as the art of the lapidary is carefully exercised upon them. If it be only to prevent the formation of false methods and bad habits of thought and utterance, a preacher should give attention to the study of Homiletics. He may, as the end of all his studies, feel led deliberately to reject much of what he has been taught in favour of original methods of his own. As the years go on he may forget many of the rules laboriously learned. Neither of these circumstances should be held to prove that time spent in the sermonising class has been wasted. It is a fact that most of us have forgotten the greater part of what we learned at school. The dates which made up so large a part of our historical lessons, the rules we slavishly committed as we struggled to master the difficulties of syntax and prosody, our latinity, our grounding in the tongue of ancient Greece so hardly won -- who amongst us, having grey hairs in abundance, could face to-day the examination room where once we triumphed in these things? Yet in a sense they are all still with us. We reproduce them in effectiveness in the daily battle; in the thousand and one duties forming the work of life. It may be much the same in the case of homiletics. We may reject; we may forget; but we cannot altogether fail to profit richly in many ways from studies the object of which is to make the student more skilful in the use of the powers bestowed upon him. Had these pages been written for young men only, they would have contained more than one chapter devoted to an effort to enforce the absolute necessity of bending the mind, and with the mind the heart, to the earnest pursuit of all that can be learned about the actual building-up of discourses from the foundation of exegesis to the topstone of application. We do not refrain from emphasising this necessity because of any thought that even the elder brethren will find such studies without profit. To read once more some of the homiletic manuals of our far-off days, would not be for many of us a foolish method of spending a quiet hour |between the mount and multitude!|

To these books, with others more recently published, we refer the reader who is on the lookout for |rules.| In our youth there were many of them: -- |Kidder,| |Phelps,| |Broadus,| |Beecher,| |Parker's Ad Clerum.| Add to these |Phillips Brooks,| |Dale,| |The Cure of Souls,| and as many more as can be remembered; their name is legion -- all helpful to wise men and good. Our present duty seems to be that of naming certain principles which must be remembered by all who would attain to effectiveness in pulpit expression.

And the first of these principles seems to be this: -- That the sermon should have the quality of attractiveness, that it ought to be so interesting that the man in the pew will wish to listen to it, find it harder not to listen than to attend to its every word. You will never save or help a man if you never interest him!

Now, whether there be need to emphasise this very obvious consideration we may judge from the talk we hear about sermons in general. We have already spoken of the wonderful popularity of this form of public address; but this popularity is not unqualified by complaints, the most frequent of which is, perhaps, about the preacher's dulness. |As dull as a sermon| is a familiar expression -- so familiar that no one troubles to protest against its use and application. One of our most hoary and patriarchal anecdotes tells of the minister who, finding a burglar in his study, held the man in deep slumber by the reading of last Sunday's discourse while his wife slipped out for the policeman. An American humorist, who has laid us under life-long obligation for hours of honest laughter, tells us, in the history of his courtship of Betsy Jane, that her folks and his |slept in the same meeting house.| Again and again have we heard of the risks run by insurance companies in granting fire policies upon the houses of the clergy, because of the immense quantities of very dry material they contain. All these humorous stories and sallies find appreciation because there is, alas! a certain amount of truth at the heart of them. Then there is also that demand for shorter sermons in which some see so ominous a portent. We demur to the assumption that this demand invariably grows out of dislike for the subjects upon which the preacher dilates. It is objected that no one grumbles greatly concerning the length of a Shakespearian representation, nor when a prominent and eloquent politician occupies the platform for an hour and a half. A little while ago, in a crowded hall in London, we heard a well-known statesman speak for two hours and a quarter on a busy Saturday afternoon, and, at the conclusion, hundreds were heard to express surprise on learning that the address had been half so lengthy. |If we preached as long as this what would happen?| asked a friend as we left the hall. |What,| indeed? But suppose that we preached as interestingly as the politician spoke? Suppose we had learned something from the great dramatist of the art of assailing and winning the attention of the men and women to whom we speak? It must not be forgotten, when we find fault with the demand for short sermons, that there are some preachers from whom their hearers demand not short sermons but long! Perhaps this demand for brevity may not result so much from the depravity of the pew as from the dulness of the pulpit, by which we mean the sermon and not its subject. At this very moment, there is no subject -- we dare to say -- on which the average man can be so deeply moved as on the subject of his spiritual needs and questions. It can still be said that more people attend the churches and chapels of London than are to be found in all other places of popular resort. The things of the spirit are still the things most thought of, and should those whose business it is to speak of them fail to win, at least the ear, if not the heart, of those they seek to influence, they ought to ask themselves very faithfully whether it may not be possible that some of the fault may lie in the form, or wording, or delivery of the message. They should inquire whether sermon and delivery are such as to make it easier to listen than to sleep. They should ask, |Can it be that even I am guilty of being dull?|

For the truth must be confessed that some preachers -- brethren with golden truth to publish, and possessed of good natural gifts and a real and deep desire to bless the people -- are dull -- drearily, dreadfully, deadly dull! They are dull with the most interesting, the most wonderful -- may we not say the most sensational? -- subject in the world to talk about.

And what is the cause of this dulness? Again we say it does not lie in the nature of the subjects committed to the preacher. To this denial we will add another to the effect that, in almost every instance, the dulness of the sermon does not proceed from a quality of dulness in the preacher. There are few men who, in conversation, are unable to interest us in subjects of intrinsic attractiveness. Many a man, dull to boredom in the pulpit, becomes a delightful personality in the social circle. Why the startling difference?

To answer this question fully might involve the use of many words, but it may, at least, be suggested that preaching is often dull because the preacher has inherited a notion that reverence for the truth and for the sanctuary demands it. There still remain traces of a feeling, said to have been common in old time, that dulness is a virtue. This same feeling was wont, in other days, to fill the homes of the godly with a gravity and a solemnity which almost effected the banishment of laughter and drove forth music as an outcast from the domestic hearth. Dominated by this sense of things, men shut their eyes to the joyfulness of life and the beauties of nature and literature and poetry and art. The Sabbaths of such men were days to be feared; their sanctuaries places without a gleam of sunshine. What wonder if the pulpit came under the yoke of bondage, or that, having been once enslaved, it should even now have hardly attained to perfect freedom? Then there are preachers whose great concern is to maintain |the dignity of the pulpit,| and this concern is allowed to crush out their naturalness and brightness and humour -- every quality that is human and pleasant and alluring. It is on record that even so great and wise a preacher as Dr. Dale of Birmingham had to confess that his own mighty ministry had suffered because of a certain stateliness of composition and delivery which had militated against the attractiveness of his sermons, especially so far as the younger and less educated of his hearers were concerned. From this solicitude for the dignity of the pulpit have come |the pulpit manner,| |the pulpit tone,| |the pulpit vocabulary,| all of which, as being departures from honest Nature's homely plans, have helped to spoil the charm and prevent the triumph of holy, lovely truth. Still another may be dull from intellectual pride. Not unknown is the man who may often be heard explaining the success attained by other brethren but denied to himself, by references to what he calls |playing to the gallery| or |catering for popular applause.| He, forsooth, will not so demean himself as to be guilty of practices so degrading. Thought is his provision for those who come to hear. He appeals to thinkers. Alas! for him, his |thinkers,| if only he knew it, are human and have a mind to be pleased. |Very intellectual,| may be the verdict with which they leave the church, but people cannot always be on the intellectual rack, and both the Sabbath and the Sanctuary were designed for rest for weary brains. We have known a very learned man to admit, as he came away from hearing an exceedingly thoughtful discourse, that, to him, the preacher's address to the children had been the most enjoyable part of the service. The sermon was very clever; but -- well, he had had a hard and trying week of it, and came to church with a tired mind and a troubled heart.

So it has come to pass that many a preacher has fallen into a homiletic dulness quite foreign to his own disposition. In the home, the social circle, in every place saving the pulpit he was human and natural. He had a jest to cheer the depressed, a tear for sorrow. He could rejoice with those who rejoiced, weep with those who wept. He was responsive to the piping of gladness. In pain or pleasure he was ever a welcome guest, but in the temple he condemned by tone and manner every bit of humanity into which he had been unwittingly betrayed, and atoned for his every lapse into naturalness by dreariness growing drearier. Not so did Jesus Christ preach, else the common people had not |heard Him gladly;| not so, else the little children had not gathered around His feet, nor shouted their Hosannas as he rode up to the city gate. Not dull were those sermons that drew the multitudes from the towns to the wilderness, and held them so entranced that the time for bodily refreshment passed unheeded by. |Never man spake like this Man,| they said, as they spread their garments in the path by which the preacher came up to Mount Zion. He revealed God; He rebuked sin; He poured His denunciations upon the age; He tore off the mask from the face of hypocrisy; not one jot or tittle of truth did He bate for the sake of applause, yet all Judea went out to Him, and all the regions beyond Jordan. In His preaching there was not only everything to save the soul, there was everything to charm the ear!

From this divine example, if from no other consideration, let us set ourselves to preach attractively; and let us begin by resolving to preach naturally. The best preaching is talk at its best in subject and in style, and provides exercise for every talent of preacher and hearer alike. |Right here,| as the Americans say, let us remember that talk is always spoken and never read. For the production of the effect of dulness; for the sure spoiling of good thought nobly conceived and nobly phrased, commend us to a manuscript slavishly read to an audience assembled to be spoken to by a man who was appointed to speak. There may be churches which, through long suffering, have become so used to being read to that they have learned to endure it, perhaps even to fancy they like it. But watch the congregation in such a church. Note when for a moment the preacher lifts his head and ventures a brief excursion from the sheets before him, how obviously their interest quickens and their eyes brighten. Even they, in the depths of their hearts, would rather be spoken to, though such a practice might mean, now and then, a little looseness in expression, a little breakdown in the preacher's grammar. More than this may be said: -- It has seemed to us, as the result of attending many churches, that in such sanctuaries as we have referred to reading is going out of fashion. We have listened of late months to many well-known preachers of various denominations and not one of them |read.| On the other hand, we have heard it asserted that while the method of reading becomes less common in these churches, it tends to become more usual in Methodism. Alas! for Methodist preaching if this startling assertion be really true. Methodism does not want the read sermon -- is not likely, unless it ceases to be Methodism, to learn to want it -- will only endure it when it cannot help itself, or when, for other reasons, it has great reverence and affection for the man who weakly offers it; or again, when the preacher is old and has outlived his intellectual nimbleness, in which case sympathy may so plead his cause as to secure him a reluctant hearing. Methodism grew to greatness under the preaching of men who spoke, and that method is traditional to her pulpit; some day she will crystallise her tradition into a law that the speaker alone shall stand in her high place. To attract and hold the people the preacher must speak!

And let him speak in the voice and manner with which it is most natural for him to speak to his fellow men. There is as yet no organ sweeter than the human voice in its own natural tones, none so adapted to reach the heart. The pity is, that so often, from simple ignorance, this fine instrument is spoiled. Gladly would we see a course of voice tuition included as a necessary part of all pulpit training. So would the spoiling of many a gracious utterance be prevented. It is faulty methods of speech rather than overwork that are responsible for many a |clergyman's sore throat.| Speaking is as natural an exercise to the voice of a man as is walking to his feet, or handling to his hands, but it must be done naturally; and the use of training is found in its bringing home this lesson. The |pulpit voice| must become a yesterday's blunder.

To attractiveness in delivery must be added, if people are to be kept in audience, an attractiveness in treatment; here, again, the method of success is to let Nature have her way. Let the preacher permit himself to devote all his gifts to the setting forth of his theme. The great thing is to get the word right home and to that end all considerations as to style, language, arrangement, should be subordinate. There be some highly intellectual persons who affect contempt when a preacher tells a story. There are very solemn persons who gravely disapprove when the sermon contains a touch of humour which causes a ripple of laughter in the holy place. Some people, again, hate an epigram, and say |the preacher is trying to be smart.| It is impossible to please all the critics. The great business of the preacher is to get his work done; and if by a story, a touch of humour or of sarcasm, the use of any gift, he can, keeping within the limits of that good taste which should guide him at all times, entice men to listen, the critics may be ignored.

One more paragraph may be added before bringing this chapter to an end. After all, the great secret of being interesting lies in being interested. The really enthralling preacher is he who is himself enthralled by his subject and who realises, also, a deep interest in the people before Him. Should it ever come to pass that the subject grow stale, worn and hackneyed to the man in the pulpit, it will not be a hopeful quest to look for much interest in the pew. Again should it ever come to pass that the preacher lose interest in those before whom he stands, and this has been known to occur, there will remain small reason to listen to him for preaching of the sort we most desire. May it not be possible that |the sermon-box| is responsible for much of the dulness we deplore. Whitefield, it is said, used to contend that a man could preach the same discourse forty-nine times with ever-increasing effect. There may be some who have not this power, but who faithfully toil to prove the truth of the dictum. It was such a good sermon and went so well when we preached it the first few times, the while our hearts were fired by the truth it taught. So we whispered to ourselves as we turned over the contents of that precious box. Other days had come, other circumstances, other people, other needs and other views, but forth came the well-worn and faded manuscript once again. A baptism of holy madness in which every preacher should make a fire of all his sermons dry enough to burn might not be a bad thing for the Church and the world. Such a baptism may, perhaps, be too great a thing to pray for; such a sacrifice as it would involve, may possibly be too much to ask -- and some sermons are worth preaching over and over again, even long after Whitefield's maximum has been exceeded. Still there is a dangerous temptation in the possession of hoarded sermons from which we will do well to pray to be delivered. To that petition thousands in all the churches would be glad to say Amen!

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