We have long looked upon the minister as a priest, prophet, a teacher, counselor, and even a business administrator. Each generation has added to his duties, and the end is not yet. His work becomes more fatiguing as it becomes more complex; and small wonder it is that we read of an occasional breakdown.
But seldom has anyone ever viewed the minister as artist, either in his work or in his life. He is too busy raising money, counseling the distressed, serving as chairman of the community fund, or preoccupied with denominational matters. Yet precisely in this area is he the weakest and needs to do the most thinking.
The purpose of this article is to consider him as artist in both sermon preparation and delivery: areas in which he certainly needs improvement.
The word artist comes from the Latin ars artis, meaning: “to join, to fit together.” Art may be partially defined as “creative work generally, or its principles; making or doing of things that have form and beauty.” And an artist may be thought of as “a person who does anything very well, with a feeling for form and effect.” Though only partial definitions, they do provide something for the minister to think about as he prepares his sermons. Seminaries do not adequately provide one thing a minister badly needs, namely, training in standing in front of a congregation and delivering the Word of God in an effective manner. Most sermons are shallow, confused, like the babbling brook that wanders willy-nilly where the land leads. Stories, illustrations, and irrelevant thoughts are all thrown together without sense of direction.
Were a carpenter to demonstrate the same skill in erecting a house that some ministers do in preparing their sermons, he would be fired after building his first birdcage. But because the need for ministers is great and churches are not demanding, he goes on year after year—a workman who needeth to be ashamed.
I should like to present the minister, therefore, as artist first in the matter of sermon preparation, although perhaps in time he will want to make his whole life possessed of “form and beauty.” This is the ideal.
The Minister As Architect
A minister engaged in any kind of building program must learn to read a blueprint. An architect lays the basic plans, but the minister needs to know and understand these drawings in which there seem to be hundreds of meaningless lines and numbers, figures and letters that go in all directions. Only after the building is finished does he begin to realize that not even a nail is driven which is not anticipated in the blueprint. In the greatest cathedral one small brick out of place will mar the total effect. Many errors will cause it to tumble down in ruins. It is beautiful and enduring, because someone planned it that way. Someone had a vision, another put it on paper, and others caused it to assume reality. Weakness or error anywhere would have the effect of distorting the entire edifice.
If only the minister could and would use some of this technique in sermon preparation! First, he would visualize the kind of structure he wishes to build, whether the emphasis be placed on beauty or utility, largeness or smallness, or whether it is to be used primarily by young people or old. A great building used for the wrong purposes can be destructive. A great sermon addressed to the wrong people can be futile. The kind of building, therefore, and its purpose, should be uppermost in the minister’s mind as he sits down to prepare his Sunday sermon.
He needs to consider his materials according to proportion—the story, quotation, parable, illustration, and sublime and holy thought. He needs to consider the foundation, girder, lights, and windows. None of these in itself is good or bad, effective or ineffective, except as it contributes to the desired goal.
Certainly a minister demands the best of his architect and builder, and will condemn with the heart of a muleskinner any deflection from duty. But he can throw together weak, irrelevant, and incompetent sermon material without prior planning. Instead of blueprinting his thoughts and then ordering his material, he amasses words from every copybook he can lay hands on, and then hopelessly tries to prepare a sermon. Wood is nailed to brick, windows are upside down, plumbing runs in all directions. It is a chamber of horrors. Small wonder that it collapses at the first breath of criticism uttered by a thoughtful layman.
As the builder must blend the various parts that a spectator sees only as a whole, so the minister must plan every brick and bolt and bring them together in such a way that one sees only the beauty of the finished product. This is difficult; it demands a price—about the same price demanded of an architect as he approaches his task. Should the minister demand any less of himself than of his workmen?
The Minister As Sculptor
No sermon can fulfill its obligation unless it has a solid core of quality material—of deep and abiding thought. Not the verbal froth that vanishes instantly; not the irrelevant humor which brings a smile but leaves a frown; not the witty saying which may be remembered to the detriment of a great and important idea.
A sermon is nothing without deep and abiding thought. No longer will the intelligent, educated, experienced church member of our age accept the disjointed half-truths, the bland assertions, the unsupported statements so characteristic of sermons of an earlier day, and, unhappily, so prevalent today. Today, the minister must appeal to reason as well as to emotion, and he must show himself as ruthless with his ideas as the sculptor with his hammer and chisel.
Gutzon Borglum was the sculptor who created the four Presidents at Mt. Rushmore. Massive, yet beautiful, they grip the heart and imagination of every viewer. When praised for his work, Mr. Borglum replied: “The heads were there all the time; all I did was chisel away the irrelevant.”
Let the minister remember these words. He needs a heavy hammer and a sharp chisel to trim away the irrelevant, the irreverent, and the immaterial. It may be a clever idea, but if it contributes nothing to the finished product, it must be chiseled away.
The Minister As Musician
Music is the heartbeat of the universe. It reaches into the outer ramparts of eternity where time and space are nonexistent; it touches the stars and is reflected in the beauty of the galaxy. It is exemplified in the mathematical precision found in the largest star and the tiniest molecule.
Music is emotional. It touches the heart and creates a response within the listener without his being aware of the technique.
The minister must have music in his soul, a sense of rhythm and of beauty. He must be able to reach to the heart of his congregation, and this goes beyond mere intellect. Ministers have simply failed to come to terms with emotion in their preaching. They are either afraid of it or scornful of it. Both attitudes are wrong. A religion without emotion is not religion; a religion that fails to touch the heart is not religion.
Ministers tend to extremes. Either “hearts and flowers” all the way—weepy, even soapy—or cold in tellect that bounces off the heart. Through story, illustration, and parable, the minister can play upon the heartstrings of his listener, and lift him out of the humdrum of life to the dawn of a new day.
The Minister As Painter
It may seem strange to regard a minister as painter, yet he is just that—or he fails in his responsibility, at least so far as sermon preparation is concerned. Here his artistic training and experience must shine forth if he is to truly reach his congregation.
The painter first discovers or visualizes a scene: a sunset over the desert, a child at play, a church spire seen against a cloudless sky, a mother’s smile, a home’s front door. Whatever it is, he knows precisely what it is he wishes to capture. Everything is focused on the central theme. All that will enhance it is placed in proper proportion; all that is extraneous will be left out. A mother’s smile, for instance, would be lost in the woods or at the zoo. Proportion is the key word.
So with a minister and his sermon. He first discovers or visualizes a scene. It may be Paul on the road to Damascus, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, the Resurrection. It may be Forgiveness, Mercy, or Love. Whatever it is, all his preparation, his every thought and word, his research, his imagery and illustration must be directed toward this goal. All extraneous things must be left out no matter how interesting.
Obviously both painter and minister must have the proper materials with which to work: the painter—sunset, cloud, earth, tree, bird, home; the minister—Scripture, theme, illustration, parable, story.
Each must rigidly limit his material. The painter cannot encompass the whole universe, or even try. It may be only an insect on a flower, or a smudge on a child’s face. The artist knows just what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. Better to have a leaf well done than the whole woods poorly accomplished.
So the minister visualizes his theme. It may be Faith or Hope; it may be sacrifice for the common good, or trust in the hour of suffering. A minister cannot embrace the entire Christian faith in every sermon. It is fatal to try. Better to take one small facet, one verse (such as “therefore if any man be in Christ he is a new creature; old things are passed away. Behold, all things are become new”). Perhaps just two words: “Jesus wept.” A single scene: Jesus in the Garden.
Each sermon should contain something of purest beauty. Most ministers may regard the purple passages as old fashioned; they shy away from beautiful phrases or exultant sentences. Such is our harsh and utilitarian world. But I think there is still room for them occasionally. We need passages which, by their beauty alone, will lift people out of the humdrum, the routine, the ordinary, and carry them on to the hills from which they may gain entrance into the Kingdom of heaven.
The Minister As Dramatist
There is no more difficult form in which to write than the drama; ask any vanquished Broadway playwright! A thousand fail where one succeeds. Yet we keep trying; we must.
A drama is a symphony of words and people. It is a painting with actors instead of colors. It is a statue into which has been breathed the breath of life. The play is a slice of life—honest, real, vital.
Can the minister measure up? Can he demand of himself the same training and skill required of the dramatist? Will the Church be as critical of the minister as the reviewer the play? It might be hard on him for a while, but he would ultimately become a better preacher, or he would retire to the farm.
Can the minister measure up? He can and will if he makes the proper use of his material. Certainly his subject is sufficient. It is there ready to be used; he needs only the self-discipline required to bring it alive.
Think, for instance, of Ruth and Naomi: whither thou goest I will go. Of Gideon with his trumpets and torches and vases. Of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Of Luke’s story of the birth of Christ.
Yes, the drama is there in all its wonder and glory, but few ministers are able to lift the events out of the pages of Holy Writ so that they will live again in the hearts of the people. So much of beauty, yet so few people see the reality of their faith. This is the minister’s responsibility: to translate words and events into the living reality of Faith.
Obviously, the minister should study the basic principles of the drama; a good course in playwriting would be as helpful as one in homiletics. He should know much of the Prologue and Epilogue, of character development and costuming. He should understand the creating of a scene, the denouement. A sermon has a climax even as a play. Does the minister appreciate this?
The congregation must not only hear the sermon; they must be able to see it, feel it. Their hearts must be lifted, their lives transformed.
Too many ministers fail utterly, not apprehending that the ground on which they walk is holy ground. When the minister walks into the chancel on Sunday morning, it should be with the same devotion to his calling, aye, more so, as the writer and actor.
Some will accuse me of placing technique above inspiration, of denying the power of the Holy Spirit. Nothing could be further from my aim. The minister is first, last, and always God’s man. Apart from God, he is sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.
But the minister must also be a skilled craftsman. He must understand the principles and techniques of the craft through which he seeks expression. The minister is an artist as he stands in the pulpit, or he fails to make the most of his opportunity.
Ministers seem to have lost the art of what might be called magnificent persuasion. Some do not think it important, apparently, that people be stirred deeply. Or they are not willing to pay the price of preparation. Or they simply do not understand the principles of their craft.
To be sure, the minister will always be priest and prophet; teacher, counselor and business administrator. Let us add to his varied career one more category that will bring him the most personal satisfaction, as well as the greatest achievement. Let him be an artist as he stands in the pulpit. Surely God has the right to expect the best of his spokesmen. Surely, the One who created the universe—the trees and flowers in all their beauty—would expect the minister to follow this splendid example. There is much of the artist in God’s wonderful world. The same should be found in the minister as he brings to his people the story of God’s love.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.