Monday, September 29, 2008

Pulpit Language and Eccentric Preachers

While I was at the London Theological Seminary, the then Homiletics tutor recommended to us Mr. Spurgeon's little book 'Eccentric Preachers'. Something of an apologetic for Spurgeon's own preaching, it is a delightful little book about some of the more unusual preachers of the past. In it Spurgeon revels in that 'eccentricity' that is the result of men being themselves in the pulpit. In preachers who, like the Apostles, 'turned the world upside-down'. Men like John Berridge and Rowland Hill, both of whom just could not avoid being humorous at times.

But there is also a bad eccentricity, Spurgeon warns, when a preacher behaves in an odd way with the intent to shock people, and to get publicity. It is one thing for a man to be naturally humorous in the pulpit, and to speak as a common man to common men, as Billy Bray did, but it is quite another to be vulgar. "Real vulgarity lies in foul allusions and indelicate hints," Spurgeon writes (P. 38) "Tinge your stories or your figures with dirt, Mr. Slopdash! and we anandon you: Nothing which is indelicate can be endured in the service of a holy God." (P. 39). This set me thinking about the question of appropriate pulpit language. Perhaps an appropriate response from the man who referred to 'a great steaming pile of manure' in the pulpit yesterday. Not that it was gratuitous, for it was in illustration of a Biblical figure. Read Philippians 4 for context, and use the Greek or the Authorised Version, some modern versions tone it down.. And it wasn't a generic pile of manure I was referring to as an illustration, it was a specific one that I have to go past on the way to work. I am a countryman, after all, and it was a rural congregation.

There was a man called G.A. Studdart-Kennedy, an Army Chaplain in World War I, who went by the nickname of 'Woodbine Willie' because, in an attempt to get closer to the private soldiers, he smoked cheap cigarettes and used bad language as they did. Thankfully the experiment failed. But it seems that we have a resurgence of 'Woodbine Willies' today, who think that the language of the trenches belongs in the pulpit. It does not. Let a man be himself, but please remember that there is a time for everything. I recall a young man speaking at a Christian Union who did not actually use foul language, but used a risqué story to introduce his message, a story that another young man at the same university had been reprimanded for using to introduce an after-dinner speech for a secular political society! If it not appropriate for an after-dinner speech, how can it be in the pulpit?

It is not only foul language and vulgar allusions that are out-of-place in the pulpit. There are some preachers who, having read perhaps that C.H. Spurgeon and D.L. Moody used humour, make the 'sermon' into a stand-up routine, with no aim other than to leave the audience (for that is what they treat them as) rolling in the aisles. To them I say with Mr. Spurgeon that they should at once cease to call themselves ministers and to receive a salary for that end, and let them try to make an honest living on the boards. Humour in the pulpit should have a serious end, and those who like to remind us taht Spurgeon made his hearers laugh need to remember that he made them mourn as well, and that his sermons were in earnest as whole productions.

I conclusion, let me suggest that no minister should ever speak in the pulpit things that would not be welcome in mixed company (excepting of course the things of Christ), that no language that is not allowed on television before nine in the evening is appropriate in the pulpit, and that no story, comical or not, should be allowed in the sermon that does not contribute to the edification of the hearers. Also that no man should be allowed to preach someone else's sermon as if it were his own, and that all artificial tones of voice or mannerisms should be banished as well!

1 comment:

Gordan Runyan said...

Amen to all of this.

Especially with regard to your last lines, my bit of hard-won wisdom on this is that when the minister must concoct his tone or give some false affectation, it is probably because his sermon text has not been given time or opportunity to plow its way through his own life during the week. If you spend the week earnestly preaching the message to your own soul, you won't have any need to resort to these crutches in the pulpit.