Not long ago, Layne introduced me to a little book by Cornelius Plantinga Jr. called Reading for Preaching. I find the idea excellent and am glad that Plantinga puts words to the idea. It is an interesting book that may change the way we read (and preach). This is not reading in order to gather content for sermons. The author is interested in joining a discussion about language and style. He is interested in putting preachers in conversation with others who are skilled at communication. The subtitle says it well, the preacher in conversation with storytellers, biographers, poets, and journalists.
While God does gift some with natural skills of putting words together, most of us require outside help. Plantinga suggests that reading good storytellers is one way to sharpen these skills. He acknowledges that “some of the things that make sermons work cannot be gotten directly from written prose and poetry, but some can.” Skilled writers can help us gain a feel for sentence rhythm, word selection, clarity and word economy. Skilled writers demonstrate for us what it is like to make the listener want to keep up with the movement and become curious about the story. I, for one, need all the help I can get to evoke wonder and get the listener to become curious.
Plantinga directs us to Barbara Brown Taylor as a preacher who knows how to evoke wonder. I have had opportunity to hear her preach and have witnessed her ability to make a sermon move. In a sermon titled “Home by Another Way” she tells us that Matthew’s Magi were “glad for a reason to get out of town – because that was clearly where the star was calling them, out.” Plantinga notes that she is neither stuffy nor slangy. He calls her style “upscale colloquial” and adds that this is a style that appeals to most listeners. It is “formal enough to be serious and casual enough to be comfortable to wear.”
Brown Taylor does not use more words than necessary, does not give us “empty calories in a sermon.” Instead, she uses her words to make the sermon move. The Magi are headed out and we know this because she tells us. They are “glad to get out.” The “star was calling them out.” “Out from under the reputations they had built for themselves.” “And so they set out.” We have no doubts that the Magi are headed out and we are going with them.
Plantinga wants to try to tune the preacher’s ear. But he also warns that preachers should not try too hard to cast a spell on listeners with the power of words. Not try too hard to flood the room with their brilliance. Like trying too hard to make a friend or to go to sleep or to make a good impression – trying too hard to woo the congregation with words may be unsuccessful. Perhaps the reason I like Plantinga’s book best is because he knows that as important as working on a sermon is, as many skills as we develop along the way, a good sermon remains more gift and discovery than achievement.