The Preacher's Handicap

ON a recent Sunday I found myself in a city where I learned, from the announcements in the papers, that the pulpit of one of the local churches was to be occupied by a preacher whom I had long wished to hear. I availed myself of my opportunity and at eleven o’clock punctually I was in my seat. The service began with a prelude on the organ. This was followed by a hymn, the recital of the Apostles’ Creed, a prayer, an anthem, the responsive reading of a Psalm, the offertory (during which there was a violin and organ duet, consisting of the barcarolle from that well-known masterpiece of sacred music, the ‘Tales of Hoffmann’) the presentation of the offering while the congregation joined in the doxology, a second hymn, and a second anthem. Thus, although there was no lesson, the programme included ten items in all before the preacher gave out his text. By that time it lacked only five minutes of twelve. It was not until I had waited for nearly an hour that I was able to fulfill the desire that had drawn me to the building.

Now, if it had been a lecturer instead of a preacher, he would have begun to address his audience either immediately it assembled or after only a few minutes occupied by a chairman’s introduction. There is no preliminary period of involuntary detention if we go to hear a musician or to see the performance of a play. If we take up a magazine and the contribution that attracts us happens, let us say, to be sixth in order in the table of contents, we are not compelled to work our way through the five preceding articles, stories, poems, or what not, before we are permitted to read it. If we visit an art gallery in order to examine a picture whose catalogue number is 146, there is no necessity for us to scrutinize numbers 1 to 145 before we may approach it. It is the preacher, and the preacher alone, against whose contact with the people whom he hopes to influence there is erected any sort of barricade.

In fact, the only way in which we can get a sermon ‘neat’ is by reading it, in the event of the preacher’s being able to persuade some publisher to issue it in printed form. And everybody knows that this is not by any means the same thing. When reproduced in cold type, any variety of oratory, sacred or secular, forfeits much of its effectiveness. We lose the caressing or stimulating tones of the voice, the play of the facial expression, the appeal of the gestures, in short, the magnetism of the personality of the speaker. The late Dr. J. H. Jowett used to emphasize the importance of what he called ‘the wooing note’ in preaching, and his own pulpit utterances admirably illustrated what he meant when he gave his ministerial brethren this counsel. But in his published sermons this ‘wooing note’ largely failed to exercise its charm. In one of his obituary notices it was truly said that ‘the style of Jowett was a living thing, and could not be transferred to print without losing its thrill and power.’ When a preacher publishes, he ceases to he a preacher and becomes an author. Thereby he submits himself to quite different canons of criticism from those which apply to the spoken word, and he has to employ a medium other than that by which he can best express himself.

What is the reason for the practice of debarring us from listening to a preacher unless we first take part in — or, at any rate, are present at — a series of preliminary exercises? Custom and tradition — nothing else. The only imaginable excuse that can be advanced for it is the theory that the whole service is essentially of one piece, and that you cannot divide it into: (1) worship and (2) sermon without ruining each section of it. It seems to be taken for granted that the two parts are so closely allied in the very nature of things that neither of them will retain any vitality if they are separated. The worship, it is held, is necessary in order to create a proper ‘atmosphere’ for the preacher, and the sermon is equally required to bring the worship to a climax.

This theory, I maintain, is entirely mistaken. The facts are against it. Nowadays, what precedes the sermon is seldom, in any real sense, a preparation for it. It fails to produce in the members of the congregation the mood which best fits them to derive the maximum benefit from the preacher’s discourse. In the days when the typical worship consisted mainly of fervent prayers and hearty congregational singing, and when the typical sermon was an emotional appeal, it may have been otherwise. The whole service was then more homogeneous. But a change has passed over each part of it. In most American non-Episcopal churches, at any rate, the first part now approximates a concert. As a musical entertainment it may reach a high standard of excellence and may be quite enjoyable, but as a spiritual tonic it is naught. The element of display is much too prominent for that. The attitude of mind that it engenders is inevitably that in which we listen to a performance. Even where there has been no departure from the ideals of worship, the character of the preaching that modern congregations expect makes the transition from the first part of the service to the sermon an abrupt one. The present-day sermon that is worth anything demands mental activity on the part of the hearers as well as the preacher. There must be mental activity, of course, in any true worship also, but not of such a critical type. In worship there is no call for the exercise of the judicial faculty — for the balancing of arguments pro and con, for the weighing of evidence, for the decision whether or not what the preacher is advancing is based on sound reasons. Once upon a time the occupant of the pulpit spoke with unquestioned authority. He was laying down the law — the Divine law — and it would have been presumptuous, almost irreverent, not to accept his dicta. But in these days he no longer speaks ex cathedra. We conceive ourselves to have not only the right but the duty to bring the sermon to the same intellectual tests as we apply to the speech of a lawyer pleading a case in court or to the appeal of a politician addressing an election meeting.

I believe, indeed, that, if we are candid with ourselves, we shall recognize that our personal responsiveness to the different types of spiritual stimuli supplied by the two sections of a complete service is by no means constant and uniform. Sometimes we are conscious of a need that is best met by the provision the Church makes for us in its accustomed ritual and by the opportunities it gives us for devotional meditation not as isolated units but as members of a congregation. When that is our dominant mood, it is often with a sense of disturbance, not to say irritation, that we switch away our attention to the hearing of a discourse, which, in any case, breaks in upon our train of ideas and may happen to deal with a topic entirely irrelevant to the thoughts that have just been occupying our minds. So far from intensifying the impressions already made by the worship, the sermon may actually dissipate them.

At other times, we feel that our participation in united worship would be little more than perfunctory, and that our religious appetite at the moment craves especially such sustenance as it would derive from some message from the pulpit. But the meal that is offered us when when we go to church is always a table d’hote, and a table d’hote in which we are expected to partake of every dish on the menu.

We must not forget, too, the difficulty that arises from divergences of creed and ritual. An orthodox churchmember, let us say, would like to hear Doctor Crothers or some other distinguished Unitarian preach on some topic that involves no questions of controversial theology. But this opportunity is denied him unless he is willing to be present at a service where some of the prayers and hymns — not so much by what they say as by what they omit to say — are likely to be so discordant with his own most cherished beliefs that he feels himself to be not a fellow worshipper but an unsympathetic outsider. The same unwelcome experience, of course, is likely to befall a Unitarian who visits an orthodox church. The sense of difference does not obtrude itself so forcibly when an Episcopalian attends a non-Episcopal church, or a Methodist or Baptist is present at an Episcopal service; but in either case the unfamiliar ritual may cause at least a feeling of strangeness, or even annoyance, which has to be set over against any benefit derived later from the sermon and which is certainly anything but a happy prelude to it. The visitor is not ‘at home’ in this kind of worship, and the sense of being a sort of alien or intruder disturbs his peace of mind. It is not agreeable to realize that one is present as a spectator only, on an occasion when one’s neighbors are expressing their deepest and most earnest religious aspirations.

Obviously this difficulty hampers even more seriously the attempt of a Roman Catholic to listen to a Protestant preacher or a Protestant to a Roman Catholic. I have known instances in which the freedom exercised by individual ministers in matters of ritual has caused divergences even within a single denomination. One of the leading preachers in London today is a Congregational ist of quite unusual type, who has incorporated in the worship of his church many ceremonies that have hitherto been considered distinctively Roman, and whose sermons boldly challenge conventional opinion on the relation of Christianity to the existing social order. It is commonly said that one half of his congregation endures the sermon for the sake of the service, and that the other half endures the service for the sake of the sermon. This is, of course, an exaggeration, for many of his hearers are equally appreciative of both; but there may be an element of truth even in an epigram, and it is easily credible that every ritualist is not necessarily a socialist, nor every socialist a ritualist.

While I am writing this article, the daily paper brings me an illustration of my point that a single service, by uniting the worship and the sermon, may sometimes involve the linking together of two elements, one of which attracts while the other repels. Dr. Henry van Dyke is reported to have given up his pew at the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton because he can no longer put up with the ‘bitter schismatic and unscriptural preaching’ of the stated supply, which, in his judgment, is ‘a dismal bilious travesty of the Gospel.’ There is not the slightest hint that Doctor van Dyke is dissatisfied with anything at the First Church except the preaching. But he objects to that so strongly that, having to take both parts of the service or neither, he decides to stay away.

It will thus be seen that the existing practice handicaps the preacher in many ways and subjects him to disabilities from which other public speakers are exempt. In the first place, he is never allowed to address an audience that brings to him the mental freshness and alertness which he deserves to find in his hearers. Some of them are irritated by the preliminary series of exercises; more are wearied or bored by it. All of them, especially when it is protracted to the length of an hour, have suffered a certain diminution in their power of concentrating attention upon what the preacher has to say. If they came to the sermon direct from the street, they would be able to listen to it more intently and with less wandering of thought. The situation thus tempts the preacher to attempt a more sensational style than is wholesome. The congregation has to be aroused from listlessness. Its flagging attention has to be whipped up. A premium is accordingly set upon a type of preaching that is outre either in ideas or in expression, and that assimilates the exponent of spiritual truths to the journalist who makes readers sit up and take notice by means of a scare head. There must be ‘pep’ in the sermon, or it will fall flat.

Then there is imposed upon the preacher himself an unnecessary strain which makes against his efficiency in the pulpit. He has come to the church with a message to deliver — a message which has presumably been prepared at great pains and which he is anxious to deliver in such a way that it will make both an immediate and a permanent impression. The more completely it dominates his whole mind at the moment, the more likely it is to achieve the desired result. But when he reaches the pulpit the way is blocked by the interposition of this worship programme, in the conduct of which he may, or may not, himself be required to take the leading part. In the former instance there is a diversion of attention and thought, which inevitably takes away something from the physical, mental, and spiritual energy that he is able to give to the delivery of his discourse. In the latter, his attitude is that of more or less impatient waiting, in circumstances that naturally produce considerable nervous irritation. (Actually the best immediate preparation for preaching would be an opportunity for private, rather than public, devotion. The ideal arrangement would be one which allowed the preacher to seclude himself—for the period preceding the sermon — in an adjoining room, from which he would be summoned into the pulpit at the last possible moment.) In either case, when the time comes to give out his text, the preacher, like the congregation, has begun to be tired. He has already sacrificed something of his vitality. He has lost, in considerable measure, whatever freshness of spirit he brought to the beginning of the service. In such conditions it is unreasonable to expect him to be at his best.

The time limit imposed on the sermon when it is made only one item in a long programme is a further handicap to the preacher’s efficiency. If he is dealing with a big subject, he has no chance of planning out his discourse on an adequate scale. One of the most frequent complaints made of contemporary preaching is that it is not sufficiently educational. It gives a congregation no systematic instruction on the most important questions to which the mind of man can apply itself. There is no real exposition either of the individual books of the Bible or of the main doctrines of theology, and no sufficient discussion of the great problems of ethics. In the realm of religion people are left to pick up a suggestion here and an item of information there. But what else is possible when a sermon is nothing more than a twenty-minute or, at most, a thirty-minute addendum to a service that has already consumed nearly an hour? Accordingly, the restriction of time compels a preacher to avoid altogether those topics that it is not worth while to touch unless one can handle them in a manner suitable to their importance. It is absurd to say that congregations would not listen to discourses of an hour in length. The demand for short sermons is a reaction from long ones that come at the end of a diet of worship in accordance with the existing custom. When hearers complain that they are bored by a sermon that lasts as much as thirty minutes, one is reminded of those victims of indigestion who attribute their malaise to the final dish on the menu when the cause of the trouble is really that the meal as a whole was much too heavy.

The preacher is handicapped further by the narrowing of his opportunities of influence consequent upon the absence of persons to whom the preliminary service is a barrier. His message can reach no one who is not willing to work his way to it through a programme of introductory exercises with which he may happen to be unsympathetic. Some unconventional people, it is true, cut the knot by arriving late, but no solution of the problem can be considered satisfactory that involves encouraging the American’s besetting sin of unpunctuality. He misses the chance of addressing those potential hearers who would occupy the pews in front of him if it were permissible for them to come for the sermon and the sermon alone.

In thus pleading for the isolation of the sermon, let me not be misunderstood as in any way disparaging public worship. Far be it from me to cast any slight whatever upon the cultivation and expression of the devotional life by meetings for praise and prayer. Such services would, indeed, acquire a new dignity by being relieved from the risk of being regarded as mere preliminaries to the sermon. There would be no danger of treating worship as a subordinate thing when men and women were invited to assemble for that purpose and that purpose only. As the sermon would gain by the separation, so would the rest of the service. There would be possibilities of developing it which are out of the question when a place has to be found in the time-table for the subsequent delivery of a discourse. The worship-service, like the sermon, would become all the stronger by being compelled to justify its independent and separate existence.

What, I shall be asked, are the practical proposals to which my argument leads? I have no cut-and-dried scheme to offer in substitution for the normal practice. In case, however, that any minister who accepts my contentions as sound is disposed to try an experiment in this direction, I would suggest that the usual morning service be formally divided into two parts, so as to enable anyone to choose between them, while not imposing a double journey upon those who wish to attend both. The announcement might run something like this: ‘Divine worship from 11 to 11.50. Sermon at 12.’ During the tenminute interval, persons who did not intend to stay for the sermon could leave the building, while those to whom the sermon was the attraction were finding seats. Again there might be in the afternoon a service for worship only, and in the evening the delivery of a sermon, with no preface except an invocation. Or, of course, there might be a sermon in the afternoon and a worship-service in the evening.

Although what I suggest would introduce a new system into the general order of the churches, it would not really be so much of an innovation as might be supposed. I suspect that, if the matter were thoroughly searched into from apostolic times downward, the convention of tying worship and sermon together would be found to be a comparatively modern practice. And at any rate it is possible to quote occasional precedents of quite recent date for their separation. It is no new thing, for instance, for people to meet together for praise and prayer without an address, though this plan is more frequently adopted on weekdays than on Sundays. Precedents may be quoted, too, for a sermon that does not follow a considerable period spent in worship. The University sermon preached every Sunday in term-time, at St. Mary’s, Oxford, is preceded only by a hymn and a ‘bidding prayer.’ The time-table of the Thursday morning services, held for so many years by Dr. Joseph Parker at the City Temple, London, was so arranged that he would usually be giving out his text not later than ten minutes after the hour of assembling. And certainly neither at St. Mary’s nor at the City Temple does actual experience lend any countenance to the belief that, where there is a man worth hearing in the pulpit, people will be deterred from attending through the knowledge that there is to be nothing but a sermon for them.

When there is a man worth hearing in the pulpit — I have mentioned that as a condition. The reform I propose would in itself contribute largely toward making the fulfillment of this condition less infrequent. It would tend to weed out the incompetent, who are at present tolerated in the pulpit because the benefit derived from the service preceding is considered sufficient compensation for the tedium of listening to their sermons. It might lead to a more specialized and therefore more efficient ministerial system, wherein men — and women — endowed with a gift for preaching would be encouraged to develop their powers, while those whose qualifications were of a different order would give themselves to those administrative duties which most ‘born preachers’ have always regarded as a burden.

It is usual, I believe, for the members of a legal firm to divide their tasks, the partner who is most successful in impressing judges and juries being set apart for pleading in the courts, while his colleagues concentrate their attention upon the work of the office. Is there any good reason why the Christian Church should not similarly turn to the most profitable account the diversities of talent and equipment that are to be found among those who have responded to an inward call to spend their lives in its service? The activities of the Apostolic Church were much less varied and complicated than those of the Church of to-day, yet even then it was recognized that function should depend upon aptitude. ‘He gave some,’ wrote Saint Paul to the Ephesians, ‘ to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ.’