A homiletician’s comments on sermons and preachers

The late Andrew W. Blackwood, Sr., former professor of practical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and Temple University and contributing editor ofCHRISTIANITY TODAYwas my favorite professor-friend. It was my privilege to take no fewer than fifteen of his graduate-school courses—which may be some sort of a student record. Our conversations and correspondence through the years dealt with everything from pussy willows to politics—but mostly preaching. During class periods I kept voluminous notes that included many of Dr. Blackwood’s off-the-cuff remarks, most of which are not found in his writings. The following article is a compilation of Blackwood-quotes, gathered from correspondence and class notes and presented as if he himself had written the manuscript for publication.

Preaching. Preaching is God’s favorite way of transmitting power. Preaching is communication on fire. And it is a lot better to make a rhetorical slip now and then than to hand out ice cubes Sunday after Sunday.

Proclaim the positive Word of God! Christ is the Living Word of God. The Bible is the written Word of God. Preaching is the spoken Word of God.

There is too much negation in present-day preaching. There may be someone in your audience, listening to you, who will never hear you again; don’t let him leave having heard nothing but negations from your pulpit. There is not a single pessimistic note anywhere in the New Testament after the Resurrection. Why should there be any pulpit-pessimism today, anywhere, by any preacher of Christ’s Good News? The pulpit is no place for apologies. Don’t ever say “perhaps” or “I think” when you are preaching. The preacher ought to make his pulpit pronouncements authoritative.

I have probably read more sermons of undergraduates and graduates than any other seminary professor in the United States. I have discovered that nine out of ten preach in the past tense. They learned this unfortunate feature from the older preachers in today’s pulpits. Always preach in the present tense.

A minister’s pulpit work could well be divided three ways: 30 per cent from the Old Testament, 40 per cent from the Gospels, and 30 per cent from the rest of the New Testament.

My advice to the preacher may be summarized this way: (1) Preach what you understand. (2) Preach only what you believe. (3) Dare to be simple, but not childish—give solid substance in the simple form. (4) Plan each paragraph carefully. (5) Rely on repetition. (6) Stress persons—one at a time—rather than abstractions. (7) Give preference to persons in action. (8) Bring out tension—the good versus the bad. (9) Use “live” words and “fact” words that appeal to the ear and the eye. (10) Make the most of your imagination.

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I strongly recommend that every preacher prepare one or more publishable manuscripts every twenty-one days, or at least prepare a piece as if he were going to publish it. And I am not against his submitting it to the proper magazine for publication. The more the minister writes well, the better his preaching becomes; the more he writes carelessly, the worse it gets!

The Sermon. A good sermon should be as exciting as a baseball game. Most sermons are dull, dull, dull. To make the most of preaching, get hold of a few big ideas and drive them home. Choose your subjects carefully. I wouldn’t dare preach on any subject that I hadn’t thought through for more than a week. Start off right by putting religion in your sermon topic: this will be proof that it is a sermon topic.

One text for a sermon, and a short one at that, is sufficient. Parishioners are already confused enough. When a preacher uses more than one text in a sermon, he makes for lay confusion, especially for those listeners who are biblical illiterates.

The most important sentence in the sermon is the first one. The most impressive part of the sermon, besides its text, is the conclusion. A good conclusion does not include a summary; a summary looks back, and you don’t look back in a conclusion. The now is most important in a conclusion. If you want to spoil a good sermon, summarize! The last sentence in your sermon might well be either a restatement of the text or a rephrasing of the text in your own words.

The Master Preachers. I am a great admirer of the master preachers. I am convinced that a minister can learn more in five minutes from a sermon of a master preacher than from an entire book of sermons by a minister who has not yet proved himself. Greatness in preaching is measured by the effectiveness that continues long after the preacher has ceased to preach.

Living with the sermons of the great preachers is time well spent. That is what John Henry Jowett did. He lived with one great preacher at a time, and then went so far as to “try the master’s method” in his own pulpit.

Frederick W. Robertson was the most influential preacher in the last one hundred years. His influence was due to his unique way of preaching from the Bible. He was a master at preaching either doctrine or duty. Robertson was my type of pulpit master, because he was a hearer-minded preacher.

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Charles H. Spurgeon was the most useful pastoral-evangelist, as well as the most amazing preacher, since St. Paul! He proclaimed the Bible; he never apologized for it. He was a happy preacher, and he made his hearers happy with the Gospel he preached.

Alexander Maclaren ranks as the best at interpreting the Scriptures. However, Robertson and George Adam Smith interpreted the Scriptures best when meeting human needs specifically.

John Bunyan and Dwight L. Moody were simple preachers, yet master preachers. Some of us are afraid to be simple. When I was young, I didn’t like either Bunyan or Moody; I could understand every word they wrote. I learned later that I was wrong and they were right.

Horace Bushnell was the most brilliant preacher we ever had in America. He was the intellectual giant of the American pulpit. Phillips Brooks was the best preacher ever produced in America because he was our best pastoral evangelist. His Lyman Beecher Lectures, Lectures on Preaching, are the finest of the entire lecture series.

T. de Witt Talmage was probably the most popular preacher in American history. But when Talmage left a church, the people did also. His sermonizing was too preacher-centered.

What about the preachers of this century? Well, the sermons of Arthur John Gossip and James S. Stewart will probably live longer than those of any other twentieth-century preachers. Gossip and Stewart are master preachers with master sermons. By the way, Stewart is my favorite living book-writer.

The two most famous sermons in the English language are Horace Bushnell’s “Every Man’s Life a Plan of God” and Phillips Brooks’s “The Fire and the Calf.” Book IV of Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine contains the finest material ever written on homiletics. [Although Dr. Blackwood never specified what he considered to be the second-best work on homiletics, he was full of the highest praise for Chrysostom’s “Treatise on the Priesthood.”]

The Bible. People are buying the Bible, but most of them don’t know what to do with it after they make the purchase. Their preachers could be at fault. The one thing many preachers don’t know is their Bible. I wish some of them knew as much about the Bible as they do about Plato. My favorite Bible verse is Second Corinthians 10:7: “Look at what is before your eyes. If any one is confident that he is Christ’s, let him remind himself that as he is Christ’s, so are we.”

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Evangelism. Evangelism is another name for “missions at home.” In my estimation, the professional evangelist is good; the pastoral evangelist is better; the lay evangelist is best. I support C. H. Dodd’s view that whenever the New Testament refers to preaching, it really means evangelism. There is no closed season to evangelism, no reason why a congregation shouldn’t have converts in July.

Seminary, It is very difficult to teach seminarians who have been called to the ministry by their mothers and not by God! Seminaries, generally, have failed to teach what to preach and how to preach it. If I had the chance at age thirty-five to be a bishop or a beginning professor in a seminary, I would choose the latter. [Dr. Blackwood made this comment in his late sixties.] If I were the president of a seminary, I would say to each professor who was called to teach: Your business in teaching theology or Old Testament or New Testament or dogmatics or whatever is to prepare men to believe it and interpret it, to preach it and to teach it in facts of experience.

Parishioners. Many a minister pities himself and his situation when he has everything he needs: Parishioners! There are four types of parishioners: the dreamer, the drone, the drudge, and the doer. If the parishioners love their pastor, they will think seriously about what he preaches.

Pastoral Practice. For the good of the parish, the pastor and his wife should contribute at least 10 per cent of their income to the congregation’s program, engage in grace before meals, and have a daily family altar. The news of such practices will eventually saturate the parish—and there is nothing wrong with such news as this getting around.

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