Preaching with Style: Advice from Strunk and White

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.

My Priorities During Seven Years of Youth Ministry

My wife Christa and I began serving at our current ministry on June 18, 2008. Shortly after we began, I wrote out five priorities that I believed should guide my ministry as youth pastor.

I haven’t perfectly executed these priorities. There are many things I would have done differently or more diligently. But looking back on these priorities through the lens of seven years of experience, I can say that there’s nothing about them I would substantially change. They helped guide my choice of time and energy, and I would recommend them to any man entering a similar position.

I recognize that youth ministry, as we typically conceive of it, is largely a culturally-bound phenomenon in the history of the church. There are pros and cons to the whole concept of demographically-specific pastoral ministry in general, and “youth ministry” in particular. With regard to recent developments in youth ministry, I’m grateful that the wacky, trendy, event-driven models of youth ministry (popular within the past few decades) are being replaced by models of ministry that seek to vigorously disciple and integrate the whole family. Notwithstanding the transient nature of “student ministry’ or “youth ministry” per se, the principles that shape these priorities, I believe, are Scriptural, and therefore timeless.

These priorities presuppose that the youth pastor meets the Scriptural qualifications required of a pastor (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:7-9).

1. Serve the senior pastor.

The youth pastor should be committed to advancing his senior pastor’s vision for the the church as a whole, and for the youth ministry in particular. Since the pastor has delegated to the youth pastor the responsibility to shepherd the teens, the youth pastor must learn exactly what his senior pastor expects of him. Establishing these expectations at the outset will give the youth pastor clear goals to work toward, and will provide mutual understanding when the need arises to evaluate the youth pastor’s performance or workload.

If the senior pastor hired the youth pastor, Paul’s instructions to masters and servants also informs the youth pastor’s relationship to his senior pastor as his employer: “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man” (Ephesians 6:5-7, ESV).

The youth pastor should love and serve his senior pastor. He should be sensitive to the ministry burdens he bears, and seek to share these burdens when appropriate, or quietly recognize those burdens without interference. The youth pastor’s ambition for success in the youth ministry should complement, not compete with, the health of the whole church.

2. Lead the youth ministry.

No one should be more passionate about the youth ministry than youth pastor himself. Thus, the youth pastor must keep the vision for youth ministry constantly before him, and communicate that vision to the youth leaders, parents, and teens. He should also clarify how he intends to advance that vision, and make sure that every aspect of the youth ministry reflects it.

3. Disciple the teens and youth leaders.

The work of discipleship is the main task to which the youth pastor is called (Matthew 28:19-20; 2 Timothy 2:1-2). This means that discipleship meetings (one-on-one and in groups) should occupy part of his weekly schedule.

4. Serve the parents.

Since the youth pastor shepherds a group of people who are still under the authority of their parents (Ephesians 6:1-2), his ministry involves serving the parents as well. The youth pastor should serve the parents in at least the following ways:

  • Communicate with the parents. The youth pastor should communicate about teen events and what he is teaching the teens. He should also provide personal feedback to parents about the spiritual development of individual teens.
  • Equip the parents with resources for parenting their teens. Ideally, the teens’ primary disciplers are his or her parents, not the youth pastor. Yet many parents feel intimidated or overwhelmed when their children become teenagers. The youth pastor can be a great encouragement to the parents as they strive to rear their children for Christ. Besides directing them to solid books or sermons on parenting, the youth pastor can help the parents make wise choices for their teens by informing them about and interpreting teen cultural phenomena and technology.

5. Preach the Word

A large portion of the youth pastor’s time and energy should go to preparing to teach and preach. The youth pastor must be committed to improving as a preacher (1 Timothy 4:15-16). The teens’ growth in Christian maturity depends on the clear, consistent, and passionate proclamation of Christ in the Scriptures (Colossians 1:27-29).