A little while ago I ordered what I thought was a book on preaching. When it showed up inside an Amazon box with some of its friends it ended up being more of a pamphlet than a book. It looks like a book, but it’s only 22 pages long, so I don’t think it makes the cut. I now understand why I was able to buy it for $3. Nevertheless, I have read it this week, and found it to be quite good. It is called Simplicity in Preaching by J.C. Ryle.
If you are interested in preaching, or if you plan on preaching or speaking publically in any capacity—this would be a valuable investment of $3 and 27 minutes of reading time. Ryle offers 5 “hints” to the preacher who desires to communicate effectively. Here is his advice:
1) “Take care that you have a clear view of the subject upon which you are going to preach.”
This is big, but unfortunately some communicators forget this. A seminary professor of mine used to say “A mist in the pulpit will be a fog in the pew.” After reading Ryle, I now wonder if my prof adapted that quote from him. Ryle says under this initial hint: “If you yourself begin in a fog, you may depend upon it you will leave your people in darkness.” You must get it if you’re going to preach it. If you don’t get it, your listeners have no shot.
2) “Try to use in all your sermons, as far as you can, simple words.”
What he means by “simple words” is “words which are in daily common use.” It can be easy to slip away from this if you’re a studier. If you enjoy reading, learning, and diving into the deep end, you must make sure that you don’t drag your listeners down there with you by remaining overly-academic in your speech. I sometimes laugh at the difference between real life and seminary. In an academic setting there is an entirely different set of vocabulary, and even though you’re still speaking English, many of the words you’re using aren’t words normal people use in everyday speech. A good preacher must make sure that translation has occurred before his thoughts become words.
3) “Take care to aim at a simple style of composition.”
His basic point here is that the preacher needs to make sure that the sermon is well-organized and structured efficiently. Ryle was writing in 19th century England, to many preachers and pastors who were Oxford educated and worked to skillfully frame beautifully composed manuscripts. I’m not sure this 3rd hint is one that many 21st century preachers are struggling with, at least not inAmerica. I think the opposite is often true in our day. Instead of overly composed sermons, many exhibit un-composed, jumbled, random thoughts that are spewed out with a few attempts at humor. To this point I would say: “Preachers…please compose your sermons.”
4) “Use a direct style.”
This is a great point! He talks about using “I and you” instead the ambiguous and timid “we” all the time. His point: preach directly to your people, even if some may not like the directness—never say “we” when you really mean “you” or “I.” Speak the truth, and let it land where the Holy Spirit directs it to land. There’s no need to be offensive, but you’ll often find that what people crave the most is directness. This is especially true in a culture where many fear to give it to them.
5) “Use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations.”
This is a good point, and probably the hint from Ryle that I most need to work on. He’s not saying that the entire sermon needs to be stories or illustrations; he says “illustrations are windows through which light is let in upon a subject.” This is good. It is hard work, it takes a lot of creativity and time to chronicle and track illustrations and match them up to subjects in your minimal amount of sermon-prep time every week. But it is vital.
I love Ryle’s conclusion:
“All the simplicity in the world can do no good, unless you preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ so fully and clearly that everybody can understand it. If Christ crucified has not his rightful place in your sermons, and sin is not exposed as it should be, and your people are not plainly told what they ought to believe, and be, and do, your preaching is of no use.”
And if your preaching is of no use…please stop.