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On Transparency

There is one quality of such vital importance to the effectiveness of
our sermons as to merit more than passing mention, and that is the
quality of lucidity. The business of the preacher is to make his
meaning understood, to make his audience see what he sees, understand
what he understands. It is laid upon him as a special instruction to
present the truth with such plainness that "a wayfaring man, though a
fool, need not err therein." Failing here, he fails badly. It is
possible, perhaps, to excite a hearer's admiration without clearness.
There is to be found in some men a curious liking for being puzzled;
and they will credit with high talent and deep learning him who is able
thoroughly to mystify them. We have more than once heard a man
described as "far learned" because of a style in which polysyllables,
not always correctly chosen, did duty for thought, as polysyllables
often do. But the mere winning of ignorant admiration is a poor result
of pulpit work, and no manly man will set such an end before him as the
goal of his ambition. Admit that hearers may receive a measure of
blessing out of all proportion to the degree of their understanding--a
friend of ours tells us that he has had wonderful times in listening to
sermons in the Welsh language of which he knows not a word,--it still
remains true that men are saved through the knowledge of the truth.
In joining himself to the Eunuch from Ethiopia who, sitting in his
chariot read the Prophet Esaias, Philip asked, "Understandest thou what
thou readest?" and all his effort went to make the dusky stranger
comprehend. To make men understand, is our bounden duty still.

And to accomplish this necessary achievement is not invariably the
easiest thing imaginable. Indeed, it may well be contended that in
none of his aims does the preacher fail more frequently than in this.
Often would we be greatly surprised and deeply discouraged had we the
means of comparing the idea received with the idea we meant to
convey. The reticence of our hearers is wisdom in them and mercy to us.

For it is absolutely certain that most preachers overestimate--we do
not say the intelligence of their congregations,--but their ability to
grasp the truth presented at the speed, and in the way in which it is
brought before them. Because the trained mind of the preacher can
readily and easily understand religious literature and speech, it does
not follow that the hearer has the same power; nor does it follow that
the lack of it proves him a person of smaller intellectuality than the
man whose utterances bring perplexity to his mind. The preacher should
remember that what are matters of daily thought and research to him are
not so familiar to his hearers. To him they form a well-known
country. He should not assume that the man who turns to him for
direction as to the points and places of this holy land will always be
able to comprehend these directions as easily as he gives them. We
speak from experience when we assert that it is much easier, in a land
one knows very well, to direct the traveller on his way than it is to
understand such directions when, from strangeness in the path, we have
in turn to seek them ourselves.

Not only is this true, but it is also true that we are too apt to take
for granted that what is knowledge to the preacher is knowledge to the
hearer. It is to be feared that in these days the average church-goer
is not so well versed in Biblical knowledge as the assumptions of our
sermons might suggest. Most men nowadays live in a hurry, and are busy
about many things, and it cannot be pretended that the Scriptures
receive that reading and study which give such advantage to the hearer
of preaching. Probably an examination of any ten men chosen without
discrimination out of the congregation of one of our churches would
reveal a state of things both startling and sad. It is so easy to be
misled by appearances. The congregation is well dressed, respectable,
keen. There are the usual signs of education, even of culture. All
these things are consistent with great shallowness of sacred knowledge.
Men are careful to till their own fields, but common land is generally
sorely neglected. There is a scientist in yonder pew; in his own
science he is supreme. Near him sits a politician; few there are who
know the questions of the hour better than he. In the pulpit stands
the preacher; he is--shall we venture the assertion?--a man mighty in
the Bible. It is his book. It is, in a general way, the book of
the scientist, of the statesman, of every person in the congregation,
but the preacher specialises in it and in all that relates to it. He
will make a mistake if he assumes too much either to the credit of one
man before him or another. Here a memory of many years ago rises to
the surface. Having to preach one Sunday to an audience which usually
contained two or three men of positions rather above the common run, we
confessed great nervousness to an aged minister of our church now no
more. "Never bother a bit, lad," was the reply; "remember one
thing:--You will know more about that subject than any man in the
chapel, because you will have been working at it. The doctor will
have spent his week mixing physic, the lawyer his in mixing law.
You will have spent yours in getting to know all about this text of
which, like as not, neither of them has ever heard." There was
consolation in the old man's assurances, though they recognised a
sorrowful fact too often forgotten. Probably if we knew everything we
should come to the conclusion that one fault of our sermons is that
they are not half sufficiently elementary.

Along the same line follows the remark, that it is also a mistake to
assume that the terminology familiar to the preacher and conveying to
his mind certain ideas, must of necessity be equally familiar and
convey the very same ideas to every other man. Much of this language
is technical; much of it consists of words and phrases which have long
been obsolete so far as daily use and wont are concerned. Let the
preacher set himself to listen to a professional man who elects to
speak upon the subjects in which he is most interested in the language
of his profession; or let him hearken to an artisan who talks about his
craft in the terms in use at the bench, or in the factory, and then he
will in some degree comprehend the effect of technical language in
mystifying the uninitiated hearer. We recall in this connection a
sermon in which, years ago, we heard a very young preacher declaiming
to an audience of labouring men and women concerning a certain
"anthropomorphic" passage. As we say he was very young, and probably
no longer uses the word outside the study. Another worthy man in our
hearing solemnly advised a congregation largely composed of factory
girls to make their lives "Christo-centric." We acknowledge our
indebtedness to the Rev. W. L. Watkinson, himself a splendid example of
the excellence for which we plead, for two humorous illustrations of
the mistake now being considered. One is that of a local preacher who,
during a revival of religion, most earnestly counselled his auditors to
exercise "fiduciary" faith; the other, of a learned divine whose
appointment in a certain village coincided with the visit of a
travelling menagerie. "I perceive," he said, in sensational tones,
"that a spirit of German transcendental ratiocination is creeping into
the Church." The congregation, remembering the adjacent caravans, left
at once in hurry and alarm.

In that very interesting volume in which the proprietors of The Daily
News tabulated the results of a census of church attendance in the
metropolis, Mr. F. C. Masterman, writing on the religious problem of
South East London, has the following words:--

"The prevailing theology, even more perhaps than the prevailing
liturgy, is wrapped up in an ancient language. The very terms are
technical--grace, justification, conversion, perseverance. They flow
out glibly from the student who has soaked himself in their historical
meanings; they are Greek to the general. They were once living
realities for which men fought and gladly died; they still symbolise
realities, the permanent elements of the life history of the soul--but
they are wrapped around in cobwebs and the complications of a technical
system, frozen into sterility; and they have no more meaning and no
more appeal to the audience at whom they are thrown in such profusion
than the details of the performance of the Mosaic ritual, or the
genealogies of the legendary heroes of the Hebrew Bible. We want
neither edifying lessons drawn from the wanderings of Israel or the
Book of Joshua; nor brilliant 'word-painting' of some of the scenes
described in the Bible with a more appealing eloquence; nor the
exposition of the machinery of schemes of salvation once real from
which the life has departed; but some message concerning the things of
the spirit, delivered in simplicity and humility and sincerity to men
who would fain be simple and humble and sincere." These are weighty
words, and many a preacher might do worse than take them seriously to
heart. Such an event might mean the blessing of many who have so far
been mystified rather than edified. Mr. Masterman represents, we are
sure, multitudes who could add proof to his words from frequent
experience; he speaks, also, for many more who, because of similar
experience, come no more to the house of the Lord.

But the difficulty does not always arise from the preacher's
terminology alone. It is possible to fall into the fault of
over-condensation in our preaching. Highly concentrated foods are
proverbially hard of digestion, and the same may be true of highly
concentrated sermons. "Words packed with profoundest meanings" are apt
to pass over the mind carrying much of their meaning with them
undiscovered. A "highly sententious style" may have some of the
qualities of a thunder shower, in which the rain falls so fast as to be
of little use in watering the thirsty ground, over which it courses
unabsorbed to join the brook down yonder in the vale. The maxim
"multum in parvo" may be an admirable one for an author whose book
will lie in the reader's hand the while he has time to grasp the full
significance of every well-filled sentence. By a public speaker,
however, packing may easily be overdone; and here is one of the dangers
of the written sermon as compared with one in which the preacher,
having gathered together his knowledge and his thought upon a matter,
leaves the choice of words to the hour of delivery. A little wise
prolixity may be necessary to the speaker. A little repetition; the
putting of a truth, first in this way, then in that, and again
perhaps in quite a different fashion, so that different minds may have
in turn their chance--even this may be needed, and though the
preacher's impatience may find such a method irksome, duty may lie that
way while inclination turns to a more sententious and expeditious mode.
When all has been done that can be done to render every argument and
lesson absolutely transparent there will still be some who will not
have quite understood. The simplest of preachers must some day
encounter the old lady who accosted, so it is said, a former Bishop of
Chester, who, at great pains to be lucid, had unfolded the argument
against the errors of atheism, with the words, "Well, my lord, I must
say as I think there is a God after all you've told us."

Another thing to be remembered is, that much depends upon the order and
arrangement of a sermon whether it is "easy to follow" or not. We are
old-fashioned enough to believe rather strongly in the method according
to which the preacher divided his subject into "heads." We had heard
that this method was falling into disuse, but have been surprised
during recent months to discover how many of the more acceptable and
successful preachers still find it the most effective plan. Of course
there are those who vote the method out of date; and we have listened
to the preaching of some who hold this view and act upon it. Our
experience teaches us that in respect of clearness and, perhaps
especially, of memorability, the method of distinct division has many
advantages. It is easier to the preacher; much easier to the hearer.
Only, let it be remembered that an "introduction" should introduce;
that "divisions" should divide, and sub-divisions sub-divide. Needless
and trifling "majors" or "minors" are irritating and confusing.
"Firstly," "Secondly," "Thirdly," and--under very special
circumstances--even "Fourthly" may contribute to the making of the dark
places plain, but the days have long since passed away in which
"Ninthly" and "Tenthly" could be borne; though there have actually been
such days. We have read, or tried to read, discourses whose major
divisions ran to "eighteenthly" with minor divisions grouped under each
like companies in a regiment. People came to preaching early in those
days and stayed late. Can it be one result of their experiences that
we, their posterity, have inherited that strange weariness which so
frequently attacks us as "One word more" is announced from the sacred

Simplicity in language, and in putting things; as much repetition as
may be needed; great care not to assume more knowledge in the hearer
than he possesses; much allowance for the fact that the minds addressed
may not be trained in the theme under discussion, and that there is a
wide difference between the catching of an idea which waits upon a
printed page and of an idea in flight of spoken discourse; clear and
memorable arrangement of the whole address--all these concessions must
be made if men are to be sent away from the sanctuary carrying with
them any considerable part of the provision with which the preacher
climbed the pulpit stair. And after all these concessions have been
allowed the great effort to make things plain has yet to be begun!

This great effort for the attainment of transparency will be made, we
need hardly say, along two lines, the line of illustration and the line
of application. Possibly it may be held by some that these two lines
are really one.

And concerning illustration:--The greatest preachers, and the most
effective, have been those who have shown the greatest mastery of this
art. The writing of these words brings to our minds names sufficient
to establish their truth. Who can forget the illustrations of C. H.
Spurgeon; the illustrations of McLaren of Manchester, whose expositions
of Scripture received illumination in this way at every turning of the
path along which the preacher led us, happy and entranced? It has been
pronounced by some a mistake to class D. L. Moody among the great
preachers. The answer will depend upon our definition of a great
preacher. We would support the inclusion and our reason lies
here:--We heard the man in boyhood and so clear, by simplicity and
aptness of language, of phrase and of illustration did he make his
every contention, that we understood him from beginning to end. An
example happily still with us has already been named in the earlier
part of this chapter. Every preacher should hear the Rev. W. L.
Watkinson, if he walk a score of miles to do it!

But the art of illustration, excepting in those rare cases where a man
brings to its learning a natural gift waiting only to be brought into
use, is not easily acquired. Every preacher of experience will be
prepared to testify that in attempting to illustrate it is not only
easy to make mistakes but difficult to avoid making them at times.
Sometimes an illustration, intended to light up a subject, rather takes
away the thought of a congregation from that subject than otherwise.
Sometimes, again, the illustration may be found to carry other
suggestions than were intended. The lad, to whom the wisdom of early
rising was sought to be illustrated by the good fortune of the early
bird in securing the first worm, drew precisely the opposite moral,
holding that the fate of the worm taught the wisdom of remaining in bed
until a later hour. Then an illustration may be even less clear than
the argument to be illustrated. We have heard scientific illustrations
of this character, from which the hearer derived a supplementary dose
of mystification rather than an elucidation of the problem with which
he was already manfully grappling. An illustration may be too
pathetic, and people may weep from the wrong cause, an event which
often occurs in church. It is one thing to shed tears over a touching
story and another to shed them from penitence. An illustration should
not be more sublime than the lesson to be taught lest there follow a
swift descent with loss of reverence by the way. There is a place for
humour in the pulpit, if it be natural to the preacher and flow
spontaneously, but a humorous illustration requires to be very
carefully chosen, lest, instead of the healthy and holy laughter often
so fatal to anger and meanness and pride, you have the guffaw in which
blessing is lost in excess. Other reflections as to illustrations are
the following:--First, the illustration, if a story, ought at least to
contain the element of probability. No preacher can always satisfy
himself as to the literal truth of a story he may hear and wish to use,
but he can, at least, consider whether the event recounted was
possible. We have heard stories from the pulpit which were so hard to
swallow as to leave no room for the moral. We have heard illustrations
in sermons which have led to criticisms wherein the strength of the
preacher's imagination has not been passed over unrecognised. Further,
an illustration derives power from being drawn from sources familiar to
those to whom it is addressed. In some confessions regarding his early
ministry, Henry Ward Beecher enforces this very lesson in telling of
his failure to impress the people until he turned for his illustrations
to fields well known to them. Who has not seen a farm-labouring
audience lift their heads when a preacher, saying, "It is like," has
led his hearers into the fields where they had toiled during the
previous week? Often have we seen a mining congregation captured en
bloc when some brother miner, speaking in native doric from the wagon
at a camp meeting, has taken them "doon the pit," or "in bye." We have
watched the faces of sea-going men gleam with a new interest as the
preacher drew a simile, or caught a metaphor from the mighty deep.
Only, in using such illustrations as these, let the user be quite
certain that he is accurate. One mistake about the farm, the mine,
the sea, and all is over! With accuracy as a quality constantly
present, those illustrations are most effective whose material is most
homely and familiar. Things startling, novel and foreign, may arouse
interest and excite wonder, but it will probably be at the expense of
that realisation of truth which was sought to be created. Jesus said
"Like unto leaven," "Like to a grain of mustard seed," "Behold a sower
went forth to sow," "Consider the lilies of the field." His hearers
saw these things every day. Perhaps they were in view as He spoke.
Finally, the less hackneyed our illustrations are, the better. If this
were more generally remembered we would miss, and that with a sense of
relief, a few grey-headed similes which, having haunted our youth,
threaten to haunt also our age; and which have assailed us so often as
to create the kind of familiarity that breeds contempt. In how many
Sunday school addresses--and a Sunday school address is preaching in a
way--in how many such addresses have we seen the twig bent; in how many
the giant oak which none can train? How often have we heard of that
boy in Holland who saved his country by the simple expedient of pushing
his finger into a hole in the dyke through which the dammed-up waters
had begun to escape? There is that other lad, too, who has come down
in history by reason of his insane resolve to climb "one niche the
higher"--how often have we been told his thrilling story? These two
boys are no longer young and have surely earned an honourable
superannuation. That little incident of Michael Angelo and the block
of marble from which he "let the angel out"--even that improving
narrative might with advantage be pigeon-holed for a generation or two.
The reason why these hardy perennials are seen in the gardens of so

contains them. We have nothing to say in praise of such treasuries.
We have none to recommend for purchase. The best treasury of
illustrations is the memory of that man who keeps his eyes and ears
open and has a preaching mind.

Following the naming of illustration as a means of lighting up the
sermon comes the mention of application. Truth must be related to be
understood. How wonderfully the application of a truth to familiar
circumstances makes it clear. It may be laboriously defined and leave
but a dim and indistinct impression upon the mind; but apply it to the
age, to the life of men; show its relation to the passing days, to
daily duties, daily trials, daily sins, and how deeply is it impressed.
In the greater shops are models whose business it is to "show off" the
gown the shopkeeper wishes to sell by wearing it before the possible
purchaser. The advantage of the plan is obvious. We must show truth
in the wear to make it understood!

After all these reflections, the fundamental word still remains to be
said:--Clear preaching can only come from clear thinking. What we
see ourselves we may, by great effort and rare good fortune, make
others see; but when the preacher only beholds men as trees walking,
how can he make clear their features to his fellows? The foggy sermon
often proves the preacher's possession of a foggy mind. "If the light
that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness," so said One
of old.

Next: On Appeal

Previous: On Attractiveness

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