Will Willimon: The Art of Preaching


A number of years ago a distinguished homiletics professor wrote a bookon the science of preaching. He noted those insights, techniques, andmethods that are required to preach well. His book was a massive exercise in the explication of the precise steps on the way to a good sermon.

This sort of thing flies in the face of what I believe about the preaching task. From my experience with preaching, I believe that preaching is much more of an art than a science. Learning to preach is more akin to learning to paint in watercolors than it is to learning to mix chemicals together to produce a predictable chemical reaction.

As one of the most demanding and difficult of pastoral tasks, preaching requires so wide a range of gifts and skills. It is no wonder that some have asked if it can be taught at all. "Preachers are born, not made." While natural gifts of the preacher count for much, good preaching is an art, not magic. It must be learned. As with any art, preaching is an alloy of gifts and training, natural inclination and cultivated dispositions.

Because preaching is an art, the best methods of homiletical education tend to be modes of apprenticeship-a novice looking over the shoulder of an experienced master of the art in order to get the insights, moves, and gestures required to practice that art. For this reason, homiletics is often the most difficult practice to teach at a seminary, and often the most poorly learned. Preachers are made through intense engagement between a master and a novice, the master being willing to take the time to get to know the novice, the novice being willing to submit to the moves, habits,and insights of the master. Preaching cannot be learned, as it is often attempted to be taught, with a group of twenty passive seminarians sitting through lectures in a homiletics class, handing in a few written "sermons" during the course of the semester.

Chrysostom says that a preacher needs two basic attributes: "contempt of praise" and "force of eloquence." I find it fascinating that he links these two particular qualities. If the preacher lacks eloquence, then the preacher "will be despised by the people and get no advantage from his sublimity." On the other hand, if the preacher "is a slave to the sound of applause," the preacher will speak more "for the praise than the profit" of the congregation. Art will subsume theology and verbal dexterity will be more important than biblical interpretation. Thus, while the great Chrysostom does not shrink from calling for artful eloquence in preaching, it is always art in service to gospel truth.

There has always been an uneasiness among Christian preachers in admitting that preaching is an art, a craft with certain techniques and skills that can be learned and refined in the practice of preaching. If preaching is a gift of God, an act of revelation, does it not seem disingenuous of a preacher to prepare, plan, craft, and practice the delivery of a speech that ought to come straight from God? Paul shows this tension when he tells the church at Corinth,

When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

And I came to you in weakness and in fear and much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Cor 2:1-5).

It is noteworthy that Paul says that he "decided"-that is, planned and contrived-to speak in a certain way to the Corinthians. He consciously constructed his appeal to them in order that it not appear self - consciously constructed, so that the Corinthians might not be impressed by Paul's oratory, but rather by the "power of God." In other words, there is no way around the necessity of rhetoric: consciously or subconsciously contrived ways of speaking that aim to persuade listeners. Paul is a great model for us preachers as we marvel at the wide array of creative rhetorical devices that he employs in order to communicate his beloved gospel.

It is a privilege to be engaged with you in better biblical preaching.

  1. John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, 5.1-8 (p. 127).

Will Willimon

From Will's blog.