A quote I am overly fond of repeating is credited to G
Coming to the Point
A quote I am overly fond of repeating is credited to G. K. Chesterton, though I cannot vouch for the accuracy, since my feeble search of the Internet proved fruitless. But here's the gist of it, and no matter to whom it is credited, it's a worthy thought: that "the man in the pulpit is the beautifulest thing I know, if only he would come to the point." I like that adjective, "beautifulest," if only because my computer program grammar correcter insists on underlining it in red, as in, "Sorry, buddy, but there's no such word." To which I respond, "Sure, Mr. Gates, but there should be."
Because the sight of someone daring to speak on behalf of God is a beautiful (and courageous), if not an utterly foolish, endeavor. But what truly grabs my attention is Mr. Chesterton's caveat about coming to the point. That's the main thing. That's what it's all about. That's what is finally and fully effective for God's sake. Telling it plainly.
Unfortunately, those of us to whom the church has assigned the responsibility for "preaching the Word" often settle for a whole lot less. Like arresting style. Like theatricality. Like gimmickry.
A long time ago, a very long time ago, I listened in disbelief to a colleague in the Methodist ministry explain the secret of his success. He credited his dramatic intonations, rising and falling with emotion and volume, as if in imitation of the Lord God at the dawn of creation, a voice of many waters, thundering and whispering all in the space of a single sentence. That, he suggested, wows them every time. I label it a "stained glass voice."
He elicited from my quarrelsome brain the famous quote of Abraham Lincoln about the percentages of fooling the populace all the time and some of the time. For, yes, we, the sheep of God's pasture, are readily fooled, if not because we are so pliable, because we are so hopeful. We want to hear the music of the spheres. We want to feel the healing touch of Jesus' precious hands. We want our spirits to soar above the mundane limits of this mortal life. And anyone who can facilitate that journey of the ennobling and uplifting of the soul is embraced with admiration and gratitude.
But, having climbed to the mountaintop of inspiration, having had great expectations raised, the disciple in me demands to know, "Then what?" Did I climb so high, I argue with myself, with my bad knees only for the ecstasy of thin air? Is the view up here any better than down there? Is the exhilaration of the ascent the point? Or is there more?
And there you have my issue with pulpiteers strong on style and thin on content. I would prefer five minutes of plain speech about sin and redemption than twenty minutes of a message carefully crafted to elicit from me a spiritual feeling. Okay, move my heart and spleen, but, please, move my mind. Yeah, yeah, it's Critical Christian's bias; but, if a case needs to be made, I think I can make it, that on this issue I am on Jesus' side. His Sermon on the Mount may consider the lilies and look to the birds of the air, but it contains even more useful direction about money and anger and prayer and how to make the most of our time on earth with other people.
My late great homiletics professor Paul Scherer, perhaps quoting someone else, but I'll readily credit him, insisted that every sermon should take the hearer to the foot of the cross. Not to the mountain top. Not to the waters of peace. And certainly not to the lemonade springs. To the foot of the cross. There where there is little use for fine sentiments. There where there is little time for worrying about all the things we usually worry about (see Matthew 6). There where the great drama of sin and redemption shames every hint of forced theatricality. There, in the presence of God's mysterious grace, where there is a wonderful impatience with every human calculation of making it feel right.
There, in that moment, at the foot of the cross, the preacher, like John the Baptist in the altarpiece declaring, "Behold the man!"): that is the beautifulest thing anyone of us shall ever see or hear this side of eternity.
Some Second Thoughts
The foregoing upon being reread and reread by me comes across as more than a trifle earnest. You know, the way preachers are supposed to be, the better for us to tune them out. I complained in one of my church reviews (http://www.criticalchristian.com/reviews/review.asp?id=119) about the fellow who not only took us to the foot of the cross but impaled us on it. I left that service vowing never to return.
So I wouldn't want you to take from the essay the thought that I thought worship should be devoid of fun. Many a children's sermon I've presented has presented me as absolutely silly, like the morning, under the guise of demonstrating centrifugal force as an illustration of how all things hold together in Christ, I rapidly swung a pale of water in the chancel, got the Chancel Choir ducking, the children too, but lost not a drop of water. The children probably took from that moment nothing about the inhering power of Jesus' Lordship; what stuck with them was the notion that Pastor Howard was one crazy dude.
Obviously I wasn't calculating an emotional effect! Just trying to make a point... graphically. And failing.
Congregants shaking my hands at the door following worship on a Sunday morning have often reported that they were touched by emotion, that their eyes welled up, that they even felt "their hearts strangely warmed." But, as God is my judge, I never planned any of that. I never consciously put a sentence in the sermon text (I always took a text with me into the pulpit) with even a tertiary purpose of jerking a tear or two.
And I take exception to those preachers who, when I am in the pew, seem to be trying to jerk a tear or two out of me. Which is where the above essay began, with the suspicion someone in the pulpit was trying to play me (and all of the rest of us in worship) like a violin.