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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not been superseded.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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