PREACH IT BROTHER! The Importance of Sermon Delivery in the 21st Century

Editor's Note: This post follows the theme of the Holy Trinity issue of LOGIA. If you would like to read more articles like this, subscribe to the Journal here.

— by Dennis W. Matyas

It is a singular blessing for the pastor to be authorized to proclaim the Word of God in purity and truth before a congregation of God's people. Few Christians are blessed with the opportunity and training necessary to carry out this task. However, often the routine of preaching becomes arduous. The rigmarole of pastoral responsibilities threatens the time needed to adequately prepare for a sermon. What the preparation process looks like may be open to interpretation,[1] but some part of the sermon production process suffers.[2] More often than not, the part of the sermon production process that suffers is not the doctrinal fidelity, or even the textual exegesis, but the one thing that makes a sermon a sermon: the public delivery itself.

At such a juncture, when the clock strikes thirteen on Saturday night, the Lutheran preacher has the consolation of the sermon’s power being reliant not on his strength but on the strength of the Holy Spirit. After all, even St. Paul did not come with "lofty speech or wisdom" (1 Cor 2:1), nor did Moses rely on his own skill, but on the grace of God to proclaim his message (Ex 4:12). It might be superfluous in a Lutheran quarterly to review the importance of preaching for the life of the Church, just as it would be "preaching to the choir" to reiterate the power and efficacy of the Holy Spirit to create and sustain faith through the preaching of the Word. Therefore, this essay takes these truths for granted, and presumes the same from its readers. In no way should the preacher be lulled into believing that the Word works on his hearers because of any of his own qualities or preaching skills.[3] The Word works when and will God wants it to work (Is 55:11). However, the preacher should be willing to admit that his sermon can hinder the work of the Spirit by its shortcomings and human idiosyncrasies in the same way that faithlessness hinders the blessings of God. The Spirit alone creates and sustains faith, and the preacher's oratory skill does nothing to assist him. Even so, just "because God is capable of blessing poor sermons is not excuse to preach poorly."[4] The preacher must therefore make the necessary time to prepare the art of this communication to the best of his ability.

One hardly need mention the struggles of grasping the attention of 21st century hearers. Despite its youth being the most educated generation ever, today's techno-obsessed culture of limited attention span has replaced a culture that encourages a love of education and listeningif such a culture ever existed in the first place. This much is self-evident to anyone who watches television for ten minutes and is affected by the brain-washing consumerism one encounters. However, there is nothing new under the sun, and the preaching task remains the same as it has for millennia. This essay will not seek to "accommodate" the cultural struggles of the hearers' attention spans by altering the image or focus of preaching, nor will it suggest a framework other than a traditional, pastor-in-the-pulpit[5] reality still present in most churches. It will, however, argue for and insist upon the importance of the delivery of such sermons, taking into account the realities of the hearers' reception as well as current neurological evidence. An integral part of the sermon production process includes an intentional delivery that adequately reflects the preacher's zeal for the truth being spoken. At the conclusion of the essay, several practical suggestions will be offered.

Embodied Preaching

Scripture attests to the incarnation of the preacher within the message being preached. Paul's qualifications for an overseer in the Pastoral Epistles is not limited to doctrinal fidelity (1 Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9). To be self-controlled, disciplined, hospitable, gentle and not angry or prone to violence, these are qualities that are dispositional and incarnate, not learned in a seminary classroom. Most of all, being able to teach truly stresses the importance of a pastor's skill in communicating the message of the Gospel. Such ingrained personality traits become a crucial part of the preacher's message, as the people he serves often come to be receptive based on their relationship with him. Paul is once again our example. While he claimed no lofty speech or formal oratory training, he embodied the message he was proclaiming: weeping with the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:37), suffering unceasing anguish for his kinsmen (Rom 9:2), and being poured out as a sacrificial drink offering (Phil 2:17). Truly, Paul exhibited no half-hearted attitude toward the communication of the Gospel, and today's preacher must likewise embody the zeal he feels for the Gospel. He must be willing to expose the innermost joys and sufferings of his spirit so that the people he serves can be likewise transformed.

The suggestion of a well-performed sermon delivery is not without precedence in the Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod (LCMS). In the vein of Apostolic witness, C. F. W. Walther himself, in the introduction to the first of his evening lectures on the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, tells his students that he does not wish for them "to stand in [their] pulpits like lifeless statues, but to speak with confidence and with cheerful courage "[6] He wishes for the Gospel to so work in their heart of hearts that they come forth as "living witnesses, with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power."[7] The proper distinction between Law and Gospel is so lofty and difficult that it can only be taught "by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience."[8] Thus, a preacher personally embodies the experiential and incarnate nature of the message he is proclaiming. Elsewhere in the same lectures, Walther warns against laziness in the pastoral office:

We see from [Rev 3:15-16] that in the infallible judgment of God it is worse to be a lukewarm than a cold minister; it is worse to be a lazy and indifferent minister, who serves in his office because it is the profession in which he is making his living, than to be manifestly ungodly. For when a minister, though not teaching or living in a plainly unchristian manner, is so sleepy, so void of all earnestness and zeal for the kingdom of God and salvation of souls, the inevitable effect is that the poor souls of his parishioners become infected by him, and finally the entire congregation is lulled into spiritual sleep. On the other hand, when a minister leads a manifestly ungodly life and teaches ungodly doctrine, the good souls in his congregation do not follow, but turn away from him with loathing.[9]

In other words, Walther suggests that the mediocre pastor is more damaging to a congregation's long-term well-being than an apostate one. The latter shows himself for a wolf in sheep's clothing and will soon be seen for what he is (and hopefully removed). Meanwhile, the lazy and indifferent minister may remain in the pulpit for decades, routinely lulling his parishioners to sleep and systematically destroying his congregation from the inside-out by sheer boredom, all the while taking pride in the "faithfulness" of his sermons as doctrinally pure proclamations of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To be sure, his sermons may be true and doctrinally faithful, but a preacher who gives no thought to the actual delivery of his sermon acts as unfaithfully in his task as one who pays no mind to the content.

Richard R. Caemmerer, another father of LCMS preaching, asserts that "since preaching employs human language and directs itself to human nature, it shares the properties of all good public address."[10] Caemmerer writes in response to a problem he sees in congregations, namely that "they find preaching dull, nonessential to life, and aimless."[11] Linking the physiological communication of preaching to persuasion, he cites Aristotle while calling such communication an art. Caemmerer's most poignant emphasis on delivery is worth quoting at length:

[The preacher] is not just a loud-speaker fastened to a pulpit, but he is a man. He speaks a message which has stirred him first and which shows its effect over his entire body. His concern to reach the hearer likewise shows all over him. His voice and speech are primary, for he has to communicate by means of the spoken word. But the rest of him must work in harmony with his speech. His face and arms and hands flex and relax in keeping with his message he feels the concern of his task over his whole body . . . the preacher's whole self must work together smoothly and unobtrusively.[12]

That final line is crucial: the preacher is performing a work of art not for its own sake, but for the sake of the message. Thus, the performance must be seamless, always aiming to hide itself within the purpose of the sermon. "When the entire organism of the preacher works together, the hearer is not conscious of all its parts."[13] Like a production that belies so many underlying efforts and crew members, the preacher must be a production manager unto himself, with carefully timed inflections, volume, facial expressions, eye contact, etc. If the preacher is performing the sermon well enough, the hearers are able to focus more closely on the message itself.[14] This is not to say that, like a play, the preacher pretends to be something he is not. On the contrary, the personalized embodiment of the Gospel within the preacher pours forth in the truest act of experience.

The Art of Preaching Today

Two Lutheran theologians currently active in their fields of study who have written on the art of preaching are Mark Allen Powell of Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, and David R. Schmitt of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Powell comments, after a whimsical study on the obvious communication "gap" between the preacher and his hearers, that "delivery is as important as content."[15] The sermon is far more than a mere vehicle to deliver a message. In fact, "If we want to preach sermons that will affect people's lives, then the sermon becomes a performance event."[16] Powell compares asking a preacher for his manuscript to asking an opera singer for sheet music. A sermon without a performer is no sermon; it is a journal article, a devotional piece, a theological musing, but not a public proclamation.

While Powell worries over the communication gap between pulpit and pew, Schmitt insists upon the artistic and poetic nature of sermonizing. Speaking against an erroneous reading of Walther and Caemmerer that conforms their programs to mere sermon structures, Schmitt insists that "faithful preaching is an art."[17] The preacher has a responsibility "to form a sermon that is based on a text of Scripture, centered in the death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, for the benefit of [the] hearers in faith and life," in an artistically creative manner.[18] While the present article focuses not on the artistic design of the actual sermon, but on the delivery of the same, Schmitt's article casts an important gaze upon the marriage between the two. Producing a sermon in an artistically creative manner naturally captures and holds the attention of the hearers in the delivery itself.

At this point, let us anticipate a healthy concern so that the reader may continue unfettered by misappropriated caution: stressing the importance of delivery in no way suggests that sermonizing ought to be "entertaining," per se, as though the primary goal of preaching is anything other than the proclamation of God's Word for the benefit of the faith and life of the hearers. Neither is the goal in emphasizing sermon delivery to be "more relevant" for the hearerthe opposite is true: the Word of God is relevant by itself; the sermon aims to make the hearer relevant to God's story, not the other way around. These concerns regarding the so-called "entertainment" factor of sermonizing are valid. In no way should the preacher lead his hearers to feel that the messenger is more important than the message itself. That being said, the preacher who baulks at such terms as "performance" and such ideas as "rehearsing" may risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Certainly God works through means, and his Word is preached through pastors, who are called by the Holy Spirit through the church to perform a public duty of Word and sacrament. By God's design, the pastor must be faithful to use whatever rhetorical means at his disposal to draw the hearers into a sermon that captivates, challenges, and feeds them. To this end, calling the sermon a "performance" and the preparation "rehearsal" is not inappropriate, since the preacher has carefully planned ahead of time the various non-verbal and verbal techniques that would best portray the message being preached. The delivery of the same is the execution of a performative Word from God. Surely the organist rehearses the music for worship, lest it falter and distract the people from worship. In the same way, a pastor rehearses his sermons, lest the delivery falter and distract the people from God's Word.

Preaching and the Brain

Neurological science has provided humanity with extraordinary insight as to how the brain functions. Consequently, it has provided theologians and preachers with scientific evidence for that which we have known all along: preaching works. To be sure, the Holy Spirit authenticates and works change through preaching, and that of his own mysterious workings (John 3:8). But with neurological research, we can see how God has wired the brain to move and change as the Spirit wills it. Three neurological facts are worth noting, based on recent neurological work reported by pastor and scientist Richard H. Cox.

First, Cox suggests that the sermon in and of itself is seen as unparalleled. "The human brain," he says, "is conditioned from infancy to see what the minister says as unique and demanding of respect."[19] Similar to the implicit authority demonstrated in the public reading of Scripture, a preacher preaching is implicitly demonstrating a unique authority from God. Sermons need not change in format, content, or organization, as though it needed to adapt to the whims of the culture;[20] it is the delivery that needs to carefully consider the necessary cultural adaptations. For example, most people are not used to having a paper read to them; a preacher whose head is buried in his manuscript would be hardly able to grasp the attention of his hearers. As Cox writes, "Those who preach without sufficient eye contact risk losing a vital part of communicationthe power of visual relationship."[21]

The preacher must recognize and take for granted that he is speaking as the mouthpiece of God for the benefit of the faith and life of the hearers. He must approach the pulpit with the utmost confidence that his study and preparation has been sufficient, and that he need not make the slightest apology for the hellish and heavenly proclamations he is about to sing. The preacher must stand and deliver with the air and quality of the utmost confidence, as if nothing and no one can stop him from delivering the truth. He must say with St. Paul, "Woe to me, if I do not preach the Gospel!" (1 Cor 9:16) He must, as Luther says, "not be silent or mumble but should testify without being frightened or bashful . . . As he stands high on a mountain in a public place and looks around freely, so he should also speak freely and fear no one."[22] The preacher, far more than fearing the reactions of his congregation, should fear the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom he will give an account for his duties as overseer (Ez 33:19; Heb 13:17).

Second, auditory signals are impossible to ignore.[23] The brain must, in some fashion, process the information received. Even if the response is to ignore the signals being heard, the brain must still actively function to do so. When the body hears an auditory signal, it catalogues this information at an incredible rate of speed. The information is then stored in any number of neurological compartments and elicits a response, however infinitesimal. A sermon that does not capture and maintain the attention of its hearers is neurologically responded to as unimportant. This happens, says Cox, almost immediately. Thus, the preacher must perform his sermon to the best of his ability at all times, since "the brain, without any conscious intent, determines very early in a sermon whether the mind's lights will come on or will short out and turn off."[24] The preacher who blames the hearers' inattentiveness on their blasé attitude toward the Word of God or their small attention spans is without excuse, since it is physically impossible for his auditory signals to be truly ignored. On the contrary, it is precisely the preacher's job to coerce the hearer to listen, by violent auditory force, if necessary.[25]

This is not to say that the preacher must not be sensitive to the temperaments of his congregation. This is far more than simply understanding their spiritual needs and maladies. The preacher must take into account their level of education, their ability to understand, and even the quality of their physical comfort. Perhaps he is preaching to a young congregation that spends most of their time with their heads buried in smart phones. Perhaps most of the congregants are one misstep away from a nursing home. The delivery of the auditory signals in articulation, volume, and tone, may differ vastly. Nevertheless, by considering his hearers' temperaments, the preacher will become more aware of the idiosyncrasies that capture the attention of his hearers, and which ones will not. To this end, the importance of pastoral ministry (visitation, relationship-building, etc.) outside of the pulpit cannot be overestimated. Here again, the incarnational presence of God's Word coming through the preacher is demonstrated. 

Third, similar to the inability of the brain to ignore auditory signals, but more about the content of the signal, neurological science tells us that new information received by the brain is impossible to ignore. The brain may place the information heard in "stagnant storage, or in an engrammed pathway for selective use in decision making."[26] In other words, new information can be rejected, accepted, or somewhere in between, but it cannot be ignored. This lends scientific proof to the effectiveness of the Word of God to shape and form the faith and life of a listener. The brain and the body are no longer seen as dichotomous in the scientific community.[27] The brain is a part of the body, and the body cannot function without the brain. Therefore, just as the human body seeks to return to a healthy homeostasis whenever any sort of pain or harm comes to it, the brain seeks the same return. In this way, preaching must coerce the brain to enter a vulnerable state, then take advantage of that vulnerability to enact change.[28] The preacher must be unafraid to slice open the hearers' hearts with the double-edged Word of God and let them watch with horror as their own blood spills out from them. 

Lance Pape writes convincingly of the necessity for the preacher to create a crisis in the hearts and minds of the hearers. The preaching of the Word of God is a unique experience, since it is not from us but from God. Because it is from God, the Word is unconcerned with the "generally accepted public standard."[29] Rather, it is "scandalous talk. It boldly gives offense." Furthermore, "if preaching is a scandal for the many in our context, then its offense ought to be appreciated also by those who believe, as it surely is by those of us who believe and yet must pray constantly for help with unbelief."[30] In other words, for the believer who is in the habit of listening to sermons, the offensiveness of the Word ought to be an appreciated upset to their homeostasis: they are redeemed Christians continually seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit toward fulfilling their vocations. For the redeemed, the crisis in preaching is usually a call to action or change in their lives for the betterment of the kingdom, and the faithful Christian ought to welcome the upset to their homeostasis with conviction and faith. On the other hand, for the non-believer (or the confused/misguided believer), the crisis the sermon makes forces the hearer to face a crossroads of faith and life, presently and eternally. For them, their only recourse to restore homeostasis is to repent and believe the Gospel experienced by the believers, and to be conformed to the Wordsuch is the only stitching available to stop the blood.

These three neurological facts should guide preachers to boldly step forth and assault the hearers not only with doctrinally correct sermons that properly distinguish between law and gospel for the benefit of the faith and life of the hearers, but with sermons that pierce and skewer the soul with the authoritative voice of God himself. Recognizing these facts, the preacher has no choice but to prepare his sermon delivery to the best of his ability.

Concerns and Suggestions

Let us conclude with five concerns of delivery and some suggestions that may help any preacher forge ahead in his preaching task and improve the performance of God's art. First, memorization. While memorization comes more naturally to some than to others, it is necessary for making eye contact with the hearers and for the convincing embodiment of the preacher's personality. St. Paul writes, "How are they to hear without someone preaching?" (Rom 10:14), not "How are they to believe without someone reading to them?" To be sure, "faith comes by hearing" (Rom 10:17), which can be heard through a public reading (e.g., Ezra 8:18). The preacher will far better grasp the attention of his hearers and convince them of their relevance in God's story if he is making deliberate and direct eye contact. One simply cannot do this if one is glued to his manuscript. For those who struggle with memorization, a shorter sermon or a more logically ordered structure can assist the preacher in gaining this skill.[31]

Second, volume changes and inflections. Michael Rogness writes, "God gave us a magnificent instrument in our little voice boxes, and good preachers use it."[32] The delivery of the sermon must reflect the zeal the preacher himself has for the message, most noticeably in volume and inflection. As Caemmerer wrote, "If [the preacher] is truly preaching, this has involved more than his mind, and he is doing more than remember ideas and launch them at eardrums. The change took place in his own heart before he ever opened his mouth to speak. When he preaches, he now reflects this change across the whole mechanism of his person."[33] This spiritual change, occurring within the preacher himself, is seen by the hearers in his delivery, which is not inconsistent with his personality. While the sermon is a performance, the preacher is not an actorhe is quite real and honest. Volume and inflection are perhaps the qualities that are most idiosyncratic to the preacher's personality. It is here where authenticity fuels authority. 

Third, tempo. The sermon's natural progression should not feel like the steady thunk-thunk of a cross-country train. Many people fall asleep when experiencing a soothing, repetitive motion or sound. A preacher whose pace never quickens or slows gives no verbal indication that his topic has shifted. Especially during points of transition, the sermon should dip and weave, speed and slow, and variegate itself according to its content. Pregnant pauses can heighten suspense, while rapid-fire alliteration can elevate intensity.

Fourth, movement. As Caemmerer noted above, the whole body of the preacher is necessary for delivery. This does not necessarily mean the preacher removes himself from the pulpit. On the contrary, the pulpit is a powerful rhetorical device that should be utilized. As mentioned above, the natural authority and power intrinsic to the pulpit allows the hearers to see that this type of speech is different than others. Arbitrary movement outside of the pulpit can hinder the authority of the proclamation by giving the potential visual clue that the preacher is not connected with the authority granted to the pulpit. Nevertheless, movement does not preclude hand gestures, body rotations, fist-pounding, jumping, waving, pointing, etc., all of which can be done without leaving the pulpit.

Finally, study. Preachers who seek to improve their craft ought to listen to good preachers and note what makes them captivating. Any self-respecting professional will seek the advice and example of those whose skills exceed their own. The preaching task should be no exception. Moreover, a speaker does not have to be Lutheran to speak well. A preacher trained with the theological rigor of the LCMS need not worry over the doctrinal fidelity of non-Lutheran preachers; he can compartmentalize the message while concentrating on the delivery. In other words, the Lutheran preacher need not jerk his knee at a theological short-coming of a tremendous speaker, as though he can learn nothing from anyone outside of his denomination.

It must be said in closing that preaching is the top priority of the pastor. Indeed, the rigmarole of pastoral responsibilities threatens to limit the sermon production process. While this may be a reality, it is never an excuse. Time must be made. The pastor is not a professional meeting-attender or schedule-maker, he is a professional theologian and public speaker. No chef would fail to wash his hands because he "has no time." No policeman would leave his sidearm at home because he "has no time" to put it on. No pastor should fail to properly rehearse the delivery of his sermon because he "has no time." Declaring a lack of time is synonymous with declaring a lack of priority, and preaching must not fall prey to such faithlessness. The people of God cannot afford to be led by a preacher who is not apt to teach. For the sake of the world, and for the Lutheran Church, well-performed sermon delivery needs to be encouraged.

Rev. Matyas serves St. Paul Lutheran Church in Albion, MI, and is a Ph.D. candidate in homiletics at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

[1] See, for example, Martin H. Scharlemann, Proclaiming the Parables, edited by William J. Danker (St. Louis: CPH, 1963), 9–10. In his sermon preparation guide, reading, translating, thinking, studying, and writing are all crucial aspects of the sermon production process, yet mention of its actual delivery is conspicuously absent.

[2] The term "production" is holistic. Sermon "preparation," or, even less, sermon "writing," fails to capture the sense that the entire event of the sermon is taken into account. The preacher begins with a text and ends with a delivery. In that sense, sermon preparation does not end once the pastor clicks "print," but rather once he says "Amen" on Sunday morning. The entire process, comparable to the writing and execution of a drama, is a production.

[3] See André Resner Jr., Preacher and Cross: Person and Message in Theology and Rhetoric (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) for a helpful study of ēthos in classical rhetoric and homiletical tradition. After a careful examination of the differences between Aristotelian rhetoric, which emphasizes the character of the rhetor, and traditional homiletical rhetoric, which emphasizes the character of the message and at times decries any mention of the speaker as idolatrous, Resner argues (by St. Paul's example) for a "reverse-ēthos," which "differentiates it from Aristotelian ēthos in that the criteria for assessing a speaker's ēthos is shifted from hearer to message" (135). In other words, the Word is paramount, but the speaker himself is not irrelevant. Even in 1 Cor 2:15, Paul makes ironic use of rhetoric to rhetorically denounce the readers’ preconceived ideas of rhetoric in favor of the message itself.

[4] Richard H. Cox, Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons (Downers Grove: IVP), 24.

[5] The pulpit is a rhetorical, liturgical tool to be utilized as such. The command or ban of the pulpit as the only place a preacher is "allowed" to be during a sermon should be avoided.

[6] C.F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel, trans. W.H.T. Dau (St. Louis: CPH, 1928), 5.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 42.

[9] Ibid., 307.

[10] Richard R. Caemmerer, Preaching for the Church (St. Louis: CPH, 1959), 35.

[11] Ibid., 15.

[12] Ibid., 114.

[13] Ibid. Emphasis added.

[14] The converse could be said for a poor delivery. How often is a great sermon utterly lost on its hearers because the delivery was flat, unenthusiastic, or downright boring!

[15] Mark Allan Powell, What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit & Pew (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 1045.

[16] Ibid. Emphasis original.

[17] David R. Schmitt, "The Tapestry of Preaching" Concordia Journal 37, no. 2 (2011), 123.

[18] Ibid., 126.

[19] Cox, Rewiring Your Preaching, 49.

[20] That is, there need be no overt displays of technology, no fill-in-the-blank bulletins, no "cutting edge" sermons. Such options belong to the sphere of the sermon's art, and not necessarily its delivery.

[21] Ibid., 50.

[22] Martin Luther, cited in What Luther Says, edited by Ewald M. Plass (St. Louis: CPH, 1959), 1112.

[23] Cox, Rewiring Your Preaching, 31: "It's impossible for sermons to go in one ear and out the other. The brain is incapable of ignoring external stimuli."

[24] Ibid., 23.

[25] See Caemmerer, Preaching for the Church, 114: "The preacher's speech must tune each hearer's mind so that he sees each scene and thinks each fact exactly the way the preacher intends."

[26] Cox, Rewiring Your Preaching, 90.

[27] Ibid, 76.

[28] Ibid., 72. In other words, the effects of law and gospel (broadly speaking) upon the emotional and physical person have been scientifically proven!

[29] Lance Paper, The Scandal of Having Something to Say: Ricoeur and the Possibility of Postliberal Preaching (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2013), 4.

[30] Ibid.

[31] If the preacher struggles mightily with memorization, he might take the advice of Martin Luther: "To preach long is no art; but to preach and to teach right and well." Plass, What Luther Says, 1131. For a variety of sermon structures whose logical forms can aid the task of memorization, is helpful.

[32] Michael Rogness, "More than Good Theology," Word & World XIX, no. 1 (1999): 69.

[33] Caemmerer, Preaching for the Church, 115.

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