I’ll admit that my title was a bit of click-bait. I don’t mean “style” in the sense of flair or fashion, but in the sense intended by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White in their little book The Elements of Style. In the final chapter “An Approach to Style,” Strunk and White discuss the broader meaning of style as that mysterious aspect of writing that “ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind” or that “are capable of stirring the listener deeply.”
Recently when I was flipping through the pages of this slender volume, I was impressed that the advice of Strunk and White for writers could as easily apply for preachers. So I’ve adapted five of their points as advice for preaching.
So be aware: most of these words are exactly Strunk’s and White’s. I’ve just mangled them a bit by replacing words like “writer” and “writing” with “preacher” and “preaching” and by referring to the Word and Spirit of God. The result is a remarkably relevant for preaching.
1. Place yourself in the background.
To achieve style in preaching, begin by affecting none—that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest preacher does not worry about style. As you become proficient in your knowledge of Scripture and the task of communication, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts—to speak to those minds and hearts the words of God—which is, of course, the purpose of preaching.
2. Preach in a way that comes naturally.
Preach in a way that comes easily and naturally to you. But do not assume that because you have acted naturally your sermon is flawless. When learning to preach, do not consciously imitate other preachers. On the other hand, don’t avoid being an imitator. Instead, take pains to admire excellent preaching.
3. Do not overstate.
When you overstate or exaggerate, listeners will be on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise. Alas, overstatement is a common fault of preachers.
4. Avoid fancy words.
Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted to use a Greek or Hebrew word when there is an English word handy, ready and able.
5. Be clear.
Muddiness in preaching does not merely disturb the whole sermon, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at an airport and not being met because of slipshod e-mail. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguous preaching and be clear!
Finally, preachers gain their style more from their heart’s attitude than from methods of preparation and delivery, for as an elderly preacher once remarked, “Preaching is an act of faith, not a trick of homiletics.” What you are as a preacher, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style of preaching. If you preach, you must believe—in the authority of God’s Word, and in the ability of God’s Spirit to apply it to the hearts of your hearers. No one can preach decently who is distrustful of the Word’s power, or whose attitude toward his hearers is patronizing.
Preach for an audience of One. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you have failed as a preacher, although you might make a nice living.