07.16.14

Elements of Styles in Black Preaching

Over the past couple months, I’ve had the privilege to talk with a couple of seminarians concentrating on preaching. In both cases, they’ve wanted to talk about the distinctives of African-American preaching and what it contributes to our understanding of effective proclamation.

Those conversations have forced me to dig around in some books I’d forgotten I’d read as well as some new volumes. I’ve been reminded that there’s a fairly healthy academic debate about how best to understand Black preaching. Should we think of it primarily in terms of various elements and techniques, or should we think of its functions, whether prophetic, priestly, etc?

As I rummaged through these things, I began to think again about what some would call the elements of Black preaching. There are techniques and approaches that typify the form. Not all of these need be present, and no one element should be thought of as essential or indispensable. In other words, so-called “black preaching” comes in many styles and variations.

Moreover, the various techniques and approaches could be very edifying when used well or just as problematic when executed poorly. Here are a few musings–pros and cons–for whatever they’re worth.

Reading the text—In many respects, the “Black sermon” begins with the oftentimes slow, dramatic, exegetical reading of the text. I’ve been young and now I’m old-ish, but I’ve never seen a black preacher rush the reading of his text. He can take ten minutes to read ! Well, it seemed that way to me as a child. But the traditional preacher reads so that his main thought receives the emphasis. By intonation, repetition, and pace, the preacher helps the reader to know what to listen for. That’s a great aid to the listener when done well. But when a text is read poorly, the danger is misreading the text by emphasizing a phrase or point that’s not the point of the passage. When that happens, you know you’re not going to get exposition but something sub-biblical.

Announcing the subject—Often a preacher announces the subject or thought for the sermon following the reading. This is the thesis or main point driving the sermon. A skilled preacher can often give the point in a witty one-liner that sometimes elicits “Amens” and encouragement from the congregation. The art is to be memorable but not too clever, engaging but not merely entertaining, and to make sure the subject or main point can easily be seen in the text itself. When you’re laughing or “amen”-ing but can’t locate the preacher’s thought or subject in the text, that’s another tip-off that you’re not likely to get an exposition but a flight of fancy.

Dramatic Pause—Some people seem to go to church to leave church. Black preachers aren’t usually among them. Black preachers seem never to be in a hurry. They’ve mastered the art of pausing for effect. An artistic pause builds drama, changes direction, highlights surprises in the text, and calls the congregation to attention without saying a word. Some guys say in an insistent hiss, “Listen. Listen.” But some guys simply stand back, scanning the audience for an interminable moment, allowing the congregation to enter a feeling or thought. The white space provided by that well-timed pause is like lighting the fuse to a keg of anticipatory dynamite. That can be a great thing. But don’t be drama-cidal. Many a biblical text has been murdered with a lot of drama, peacocking, and much ado about nothing. Don’t over-use the pause. Don’t turn it into a show, a pantomime of wasted gesticulation. Some sermons could have been cut in half if the preacher had just preached rather than hem and haw so much.

Use of Story—Ours is an oral, story-telling culture. That’s behind the success of a lot of rap—it’s just rhythmic story-telling. It’s behind the success of black fiction—even the tawdry stuff that passes for literature in popular bookstores. And it’s no less true of black preaching. Telling the story makes all the difference. In the narrative portions of scripture, it requires sensing and developing the drama that’s already there. In the didactic portions, it may require using a good illustration or anecdote to elucidate the point of doctrine. And it’s always a good idea to illustrate the Bible with illustrations from the Bible. I can hear my college literature professor, Karla Holloway, saying to me, “Thabiti, show; don’t tell.” So rather than simply saying, “Men, flee from sexual immorality,” illustrate the point with the story of Joseph fleeing Potiphar’s wife, or David failing to flee from Bathsheba, or the vivid storied imagery of Proverbs.

But beware the sermon that’s all stories all the time. Beware the temptation to fill the sermon with anecdotes and tales that really have nothing to do with the point of the text. If you find a good illustration, anecdote, or story that doesn’t fit the text, write it down, keep it for later, and use it only when appropriate to the text. Sometimes stories get in the way of the Bible. We never want that to happen.

Three Points and a Poem—Good preaching of any sort relies on good structure and flow. A sermon doesn’t have to feature three points and a poem, but there needs to be good logical movement through the text and through the argument of the text. Gardner Taylor was once asked, “How many points should a sermon have?” He replied with a wry smile, “At least one.” A sermon without points is a pointless sermon. Every good point stated and made from the text is a nail driven to anchor the feet of our people to the Bible. A good poem and close is not atonement for a poorly structured and argued sermon. Some preachers try to hide a multitude of preparation and organization sins with an effective “close.” Avoid that trap whether preacher or listener. Lou weighs in more on closing the sermon in this article.

Grit and Grime—It’s difficult to find solid traditional Black preaching that does not take seriously the social context of Black people. There’s a willingness to “go there,” to “tell it like it is.” At its best, Black preaching confronts and challenges–both the powers that be and the people in the seat. Whether you call this the prophetic dimension or see it as a healthy insistence on personal application, Black preaching points a loving finger and says with Nathan to David, “You’re the man.” It exposes and addresses what’s real. That’s part of its power.

But all power can be corrupted. Be careful not to lift your finger to point unless you’re pointing at a text in context. It’s possible to start “telling the truth” without in fact telling the people what the Bible actually says or telling them in the spirit in which the Bible says it. The preacher’s self-righteousness is nowhere more evident than when he’s “telling the people about themselves” while failing to preach “physician, heal thyself.” You can get cheap “amens” and raucous laughs by “getting real.” But we don’t want to be so “real” we forget to be holy and above reproach in everything we say ().

Whoop-n-cough—Any time I’m in a conversation about preaching, I’m bound to be asked, “What do you think about whooping?” You’d think I’d develop a stock answer by now. But each time I find myself scratching my chin a little, first trying to figure out where the questioner is coming from, then trying to figure out how to emphasize what matters. And, for me, what matters in tuning, whooping, singing, humming, moaning, rasping or plain talking your way to the close of the sermon is not the particular style, but whether the text determines the content and emotion of the close. Whatever form it takes, does the close expose the content, mood and feeling of the text? Or, does it take the listener off in other directions, perhaps placing a cherry atop a text that requires tears? Every text won’t whoop, hum or sing. So every sermon shouldn’t close with one.

The virtue of traditional closings is their full embrace of emotion in preaching and worship. We need never fear genuine emotion—and we ought to assume the Spirit of God will use the word of God to excite widely-varying emotions across the congregation from the same text. Imagine two members hearing the truth of expounded. The first, a woman who just found out she’s pregnant after eight years of trying, may stretch her arms to heaven and shout “Hallelujah.” Meanwhile, the second, a man recently diagnosed with cancer, may fall to his knees with head bowed and say “Nevertheless not my will.” Or they may both sit with heads bowed in quiet, tearful prayer–same posture, different emotion. We can let the Spirit do the work of exciting genuine emotion as He applies the word to each heart as He wills. We don’t ever want to be guilty of contrived approaches to celebration. We don’t ever want to think the sermon must conclude with producing the same effect for everyone. And we don’t ever want to take our eyes off the spirit and meaning of the text in order to give 1/3 of the sermon’s time to empty emotional displays. That’s not genuine celebration; that’s genuine manipulation. Let the text make the people sing—or weep, as the case may be.

This, of course, is not an exhaustive list of features. There’s call-and-response and other elements. And I make no claim that any element listed here is more important than all the others. While these are virtues of “Black preaching,” all good things can be corrupted. The surest way to prevent that is to get the text right and let the word do the work, making these elements subservient to the text.

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (ESV)

Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. (ESV)

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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  • george canady

    Thank you pastor. As a reformed white man and member of a Missionary Baptist Church, I see some of these things. I am grateful for reformed connections like this as I learn to love my Arminian brothers. Pray for me. Just a note: another black reformed brother joined us at Tuesday night in Tamina park for food and Bible teaching. Now there is two of us. Maybe someday they will let him teach there. I hope so. Pray for us.

  • Louis Love

    Hey T:
    Another great article, my brother. Having grown up under “Black preaching” I identified with this article in all kinds of ways. Thanks for posting.

  • Brent Rice

    Pastor T,

    man I couldn’t help but think back to my days listening to my old childhood Pastor. He was a MASTER at nearly ALL of these points. Good ol’ down home southern missionary Baptist preaching lol!

    • george canady

      I saw your post a TGC new members comment. I made three and they finally excepted my last one after holding it to “check the breeze”. Thanks for the breeze . Thanks for your bravery and I learned from your graciousness.

  • G. Meadows

    Great article. I often find the challenge, which should be none, lies in balancing between expectations of the text vs the congregation. For some traditions, you haven’t preached unless you’ve “whooped”. Perhaps this will change with more biblical exposition and maturity.

    • Thabiti

      Amen. Let’s pray so!
      T

  • Craig Carlton

    Pastor Anyabwile,
    Excellent points in this article. I particularly enjoyed the section on the wide-varying emotions that are expressed in response to a Spirit-empowered exposition of the text. Very well done and informative.
    Somewhat on that note, although perhaps indirectly related, is a piece done by brother Leon Brown over at Ref21. He takes some time to deal with the question of whether or not liturgy of worship in Reformed settings is a deterrent to African-Americans. I found it interesting that I stumbled upon both his and your posts within days of each other. I don’t think that is coincidental at all. Christ is at work even in the minute details of blog postings!
    Speaking of preaching, I wanted to ask if you’ve heard from one of the preachers I enjoy regularly via MP3–Redditt Andrews. I knew that he had been appointed Assistant Professor of Practical Theology a couple of years ago, but the latest sermon or anything I’ve been able to find from him is his talks at the John Reed Miller Preaching Lecture Symposium in 2012. If you or one of the brothers (Pastor Carter or Pastor Love) could give me an update on how he’s doing or where he is currently ministering, I’d greatly appreciate it. At the same time, if you’re not at liberty to do so, I competely understand that as well. My purpose is simply to pray for and glean from someone who I have tremendously benefitted from by way of preaching and teaching the engrafted Word.
    Love the site, sorry for the length of the message, and much prayer and well wishes to you…
    Soli Deo Gloria,
    Craig J. Carlton

    • Thabiti

      Hi brother,

      I pray you’re well. Thanks for the encouragement and for the pointer to Leon’s post. It’s interesting how the Lord seems to send us a message through multiple mediums and persons, isn’t it? He is not without a witness!

      As for Redditt, I’ve not spoken with him in a while. That’s to my shame. I should give the brother a call. I’m not sure where he’s at currently. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.

      T-

  • Craig Carlton
  • Ritetheology

    Bro. T, welcome back to the US. I’m thrilled about what God has in store for you and your family. The black church/community is in DESPERATE NEED of sound brothers like you. Our churches are plagued with poor preaching and women gone wild (i.e. women preachers). Brother, roll up your sleeves, there is much work to do.

    Blessings
    RT

    • Thabiti

      Thanks for the welcome and the encouragement, bro. The Lord bless and keep you!
      T

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  • alexguggenheim

    This is wholly offensive and more race-based theology/racial narcissism. Its injury to the free conscience of black Bible Pastors/teachers everywhere is inestimable. You are describing cultural components, not racial properties. There are many, many black Bible Pastors/teachers who teach quite differently and would not and no doubt do not appreciate racial assignment of styles…unless you are suggesting blacks just cannot help themselves but to teach in these manners and then you, Brother Anyabwile, are introducing the very thing about which you so often object, ecclesiastical racial exceptionalism. Your call for noteriety of exceptionalism in an ecclesiastical context based on racial properties and their anecdotal expression fails the test of even the most elementary Biblical principle of unity in Christ by separating and commending based in race.