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 John 3:16! 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 (Titus 2:7-8).
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 Romans 8:28 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.