Sunday, June 1, 2008

How to Be Impressive in the Pulpit

When Charles Merrill Smith wrote How to Become a Bishop Without Being Religious, he wasn’t apparently concerned about being politically correct. Satire isn’t constrained by correctness, but is rather enlivened by it. This excerpt comes from pages 31-34.

The first rule for the popular preacher to remember as he prepares a sermon is that style is of enormous importance while content makes little ultimate difference in the congregation’s enthusiasm for one’s efforts in the pulpit. About 1000 parts style to 1 part content is a good proportion.

No one cares very much what you say when you preach, so long as it is not radically controversial or disturbing. Your acceptability as a preacher depends almost wholly on how you say it. A really gifted preacher can deliver an exegesis of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or extol the virtues of the single tax and send the congregation home in a spiritual trance, while a bumbler can bore it to death with a sensible and relevant exposition of the parable of the prodigal son.

All too few young clerics starting at the front door of their career trouble themselves to ask the question “What do my people want from a sermon?” Rather, they ask themselves “What had I ought to give my congregation when I preach?” Which is only another form of the question “What do I want to give them?”

Fundamentally, preaching at its best is one of the entertainment arts, and the successful pulpiteer will always think of himself first as an entertainer. His problem is much the same as Jack Benny’s or Shelley Berman’s or Mort Sahl’s. He has to stand up and keep the customers interested in what he is saying or business will fall off at an alarming rate. The following chapters will examine the techniques of pulpit entertainment.

The old pros of the pulpit know that they should always aim to do three things for and to the customers (congregation) in every sermon:

1. Make them laugh
2. Make them cry
3. Make them feel religious

This does not mean that people in church should be induced to guffaw like drunks in a night club. The amenities of civilized churchgoing preclude this sort of congregational behavior. A preacher should not aim to be a belly-laugh comedian-but he should be a hearty-giggle humorist or he is unlikely to be called to a major league pastorate.

This level of skill is attained by loading the sermon with funny stories. They don’t need to illustrate anything (one can always contrive to make a story fit); they just need to be funny.

The wise young clergyman, then, will early begin the habit of collecting funny stories. Buy books of them, clip them out of newspapers and magazines, paste them in scrapbooks or keep them in files. You can never have too many of them.

1 comment:

lvtfan said...

If you're curious about the reference to the "single tax" -- it is a subject some of us are still quite passionate about today (I've just come from 3 days of meetings with 20 people who are persuaded that many of our most serious problems can be solved by this reform!), you might take a look at
and some of the links from that page!