by Fr. Thomas Frisby
Awhile ago (5 years now!) I (Fr. John) published Sermons and Snickers Bars, a recounting of an important lesson my own homiletics teacher, Fr. Michael Dunaway, imparted to us at St. Herman Seminary. There are many stories of important lessons garnered by Orthodox clergy who desire to sharpen their skill in preaching. Here is one such. If you have a story about your own formation in preaching, a mentor who gave you inspiring help or training, or a lesson learned through ones preaching – please, send it in. These stories inspire us all to be better preachers. This one is from Fr. Thomas Frisby.
What R. D. “Jack” Baker Taught Me About Preaching
Back in the early 1980’s, my wife and I, along with our young daughter Meagan, began attending the Southern Baptist Church in which my wife had grown up. It wasn’t a large church, it “ran about” 125 people on Sunday mornings. (That is Baptist speak for there being 125 people in regular attendance.) It was in many ways a typical Southern Baptist Church in the Chicago suburbs. But there was one thing about the church that was not typical; Pastor R. D. “Jack” Baker!
Jack Baker was a straight shooting very focused pastor. (When I address Pastor Jack as simply “Jack” it is not a sign of disrespect. He was very personable and liked being on first name basis.) He cared deeply about the church. He was a great golfer, he loved basketball, and he was good at most things he tried to do. But he was especially gifted as a preacher. Baptist churches are known for good preaching because they have such a high regard for the preached word. But Jack Baker was a preacher’s preacher. He could tell a story, make a point, or hit a nerve like few others. He was one of those preachers who had started out his church life as a boy preacher.
What is a boy preacher, you ask? A boy preacher, especially popular in the southern states of the US in the baptist and pentecostal tradition, is a young man who started preaching sometimes as early as 7 or 8 years old. They tend to be fiery preachers who are cheered on by the congregation and, of course, grandmammy and grandpappy! (Ed. note: This is not unknown in the Orthodox Tradition – St. Simeon the Younger began preaching when he was 10 years old)
By the time Jack Baker was an adult he had logged many, many hours of preaching! He pastored Baptist Churches while attending college and during his time at seminary. The church was his life along with his wife and children. Jack Baker took me under his wing, as a young associate pastor in a Baptist church, and began to mentor me in pastoral skills and preaching. He shared a few tips with me that have stuck with me to this day. I would like to say I have always practiced them but, alas, I have not. However, whenever I remember to follow his advice God seems to grace my preaching in ways that are absent when I don’t. Please allow me to share some of his instructions to me.
Jack Baker said it was sheer laziness and lack of having your priorities straight if you waited until Saturday to prepare your sermon/homily for Sunday. He would start reading the scripture over and over again from the first of the week. He would look at commentaries to see what they had to say and he would “ruminate” on the scripture. In case you didn’t grow up around cattle, ruminating is what the cattle do when they “chew the cud.” They actually chew the grass, swallow it and then bring it back up again to chew it some more! Doesn’t sound very appetizing, does it? By the time Jack Baker got to the end of the week he would have his sermon written and re-written a few times. Other than possibly a few last minute adjustments, he was ready to go with the message no later than Friday.
He told me several times that it takes longer to prepare a great, short sermon than it did to preach a good long sermon. In fact, he said it generally took 6 hours to prepare a 45 minute sermon, 8 hours for a 30 minute sermon and 12 hours for a 20 minute sermon. Can you imagine trying to preach a 45 minute sermon, unless you are St. John Chrysostom, in an Orthodox Divine Liturgy today? Just as unimaginable to many is the idea of a 20 minute homily that is actually impacting, meaningful, and practical! Where are the St. John Chrysostoms today? If there was ever a time that the church needed powerful, relevant preaching it is today!
In most Baptist churches the sermon would often be 45 minutes or more. Not Jack Baker! His sermons were 25-30 minutes of impact. He hit hard and fast. (This is even more relevant today that it was years ago when Jack first told me these things. Today we live in a fast paced, high tech, low attention span world. In fact, many of you have already stopped reading this article long before you got to this point!) His sermons always left you wanting to hear what else he might have to say. One of the mottoes he had borrowed along the way was,
“Leave them wanting more.”
He left you wanting more because he didn’t go on ad infinitum leaving the people to want “no more”!
Baptist preachers are famous for their three points, a song, and a joke in their messages. Pastor Jack Baker was no exception. You could tell where he was in his message based on what point he was delivering. But, keeping it at only three points meant that he didn’t wander around in his preaching. You knew exactly what he wanted you to know. Generally speaking, his sermon points all started with the same letter (alliteration) or spelled a word (mnemonic device). This made it much easier to remember the points.
To this day, I remember some of the points he made because of these memory devices.
Pastor Jack used his voice like a musical instrument. He would sometimes speak very softly when he wanted to make an important point. This was often followed by a crescendo in his voice to drive the point home. He was a master of the “dramatic pause” when he would come to a full stop and let his last statement hang in the air for further contemplation. He would vary his voice rhythm and pace through out his message. This was not theatrics for show. He used such voice inflections and changes to draw and hold the listeners attention.
Invariably, Jack made the listener feel like he was speaking directly to them individually. He would look right at someone in the parish, hold their gaze for a moment and then look right at another person before continuing. At the time I knew Pastor Jack we had a mutual friend who was an excellent communicator. He too was masterful at crafting a message but he had one serious fault; he never looked at the people. He gazed above and beyond the parish at times but never looked at the people. No matter how good the message it often felt academic rather than applicable. Jack would say,
“If he could just look at people he would be one of the best preachers alive today!”
The tip that Jack Baker gave me that stood out the most is the tip to save to the end of your message the thing you most want to say. In other words, if there is a story you want to tell, a point you want to make or an illustration you want to use you save it for the very end of your homily. It compels you to move forward in your message instead of wandering all over the place. It could be a challenge, an encouragement, or simply a story you want to share. What matters most is that you want to share it. The truth is that most priests and pastors don’t know how to end a homily. This provides a tool to bring the homily to an end on a high note.
On one occasion a young man came to the church on a Wednesday night from a local Christian college. Jack Baker had given him permission to try his hand at preaching. His topic for the night was Joy. He proceeded to read and comment on every verse, starting with the Old Testament, that had the word joy in it. After about 40 minutes, the young man looked at Pastor Jack and said,
“I have several more to share. Is it okay if I go on?”
Pastor Jack looked at him and said,
“No, I think we have enough to think about with what you have already given us. Thank you.”
Thank you Jack Baker!
Over the years I have had opportunity to practice what he preached. As a result of trial and error and, thank God, an occassional success, I have learned what I believe are important messages. Please allow me to share a few.
A few years ago, my wife said to me,
“The messages you preach that I like the best are the short ones with one or two points.”
She is someone who grew up in the church and has been accustomed to long messages. What she went on to say is that when the messages are short it is easier for her to apply the teaching. In fact, I now rarely hold to Pastor Jack’s 3 point sermon format. Often I only have one point to make. It is tempting to think that we need to add more content when a simple one or two point message is prescribed. It is the difference between a rifle bullet and a shotgun shell. A shotgun shell will hit a greater surface area with small pellets but it will not penetrate as deeply as a rifle bullet. A rifle bullet will only hit one point but will go deeply into the target. In fact, both methods can be effective but all too often preaching does not penetrate deeply enough to provoke change in the hearer.
There is a saying in popular in the sales world no matter what the industry; stories sell!
Facts are important but stories, allegories, metaphors, etc. are some of the most powerful means to get a point across. Is this not the manner in which Jesus taught? He used parables and short stories to drive home His teaching. The Gospels themselves are essentially stories. If you want people to remember something or you wish to promote a thought, tell them a story. If you are having difficulty explaining something, tell a story! While preparing a homily, ask yourself if this would make sense to a child. If it doesn’t, tell a story they will understand and then the adults might get it too!
Fr. John Peck says that when reading scripture we must read it aloud, apply it to ourselves, and act immediately. These three truths also apply to effective preaching. After having read the Gospel outloud, we apply it to ourselves and the parish. Then, and this is where many stop, we have to act on it immediately. We need to do something about what we have heard. The best way to accomplish this is to give clear instructions to the parish as to what they might do to impliment what they have heard. For example, if the Gospel and homily was about the Good Samaritan then we must find a way to act as the Samaritan did in the Gospel.
Ultimately, the goal of effective preaching is to move the hearts of the people to love and serve God and one another.
It is our responsibility as priests and preachers of the word to do all we can to honor God in our preaching knowing full well that we will one day give an account for the souls in our charge.
May God have mercy on us all if we ignore that duty!
Fr. Thomas Frisby is the priest of Exaltation of the Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Phoenix, AZ.