Reading for Preaching

One of the first sermons I ever preached was a eulogy for my grandfather. I was about one year into seminary, and I had not yet taken a single preaching class. My grandfather, meanwhile, was my hero. It was he who first drew me to Jesus and who first modeled for me a Christ-shaped life; it was he who was my biggest champion when things were up and he who provided me the most thoughtful counsel when things were down. If ever I wanted to get my words exactly right, this eulogy was it. Thus, I labored over my manuscript, writing and rewriting. 

As someone who had spent the previous decade working as a writer, I found the sermon-writing process quite different from all writing that had gone before it. It seemed almost like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube, in that I would see the sermon moving in one direction, and then, just as quickly, I would sense that I was building the message around the wrong image, and thus I would shuffle the elements of the sermon, editing and cutting and trying again. 

Writing always requires seeing one’s way through the process— feeling one’s way forward in the dark; writing “by faith and not by sight”—but this was different. My dilemma here wasn’t one of form or syntax, or even of direction or purpose; it was instead a problem of clarity—a problem of ballast. Given how much I was trying to say, and how little time I had to say it, I needed an image that would pull all these ideas together and enrich each point I was making, all the while stabilizing the sermon and serving as its anchor. 

And while I knew this was what I needed, I could not think of a single story or image or anecdote with the proper weightiness to fulfill this purpose. Either it would be too thin to capture the entirety of the message, or it would be so thick as to obfuscate what it was supposed to be enriching. 

But then, finally—and all of a sudden—it came to me, and it came with stark clarity. I was reading back over my text, reflecting upon the attributes I was trying to express about my grandfather—his kindness and his gentleness; his goodness and his selflessness; his integrity and his larger-than-life nature—when suddenly, these words bubbled up from a place I did not know I had, a place Fred Craddock refers to as a preacher’s “reservoir”: “His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world: this was a man.” 

They are words from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the final words Mark Antony speaks of Marcus Brutus just before the play ends. And while I had taught this play several times to high school English classes, I had never committed these words to memory nor ever knowingly taken note of them. 

Yet here they were, right when I needed them most. 

So, I placed the line at the sermon’s end, and immediately its effect upon the rest of the sermon was obvious. Like a leitmotif in a composition, this line seamlessly and harmoniously pulled together each individual element of the sermon. 

In his book Reading for Preaching, Cornelius Plantinga Jr. writes: “The reading preacher will discover that great writers know the road to the human heart and, once at their destination, know how to move our hearts. To the preacher, knowing what stirs human hearts is golden and not at all because heart stirring is a good project all by itself. No, the preacher wants his heart stirred because he will then have some idea how the power and beauty of the gospel might be presented so that the heart of his brothers and sisters may also be moved.”

Plantinga’s book gives wonderful articulation to what I, as a preacher, have in the time since that day experienced on account of my commitment to reading. By plumbing the depths of human experience—by walking in another’s shoes and by wrestling with complicated situations—a reading preacher gets an increasingly stronger sense of what will move a congregation, and also—and more importantly—a stronger sense of why it will move them. 

And it is the “why” that Plantinga is drawing our attention to in the above quotation. Plantinga is reminding us that as pastors we are not entertainers or performers; we are not stand-up comedians or TED talk presenters. Instead, we are emissaries of Jesus Christ, called by God to present the good news of salvation to all who will listen. 

Thus, the mark of a good sermon is not whether it brings tears to members’ eyes or brings the house down with laughter (though those things can be praiseworthy and desirable); it is instead whether the tears and the laughter enable one to more clearly see himself or herself in the unfolding story of God’s love for the world. 

And that, Plantinga’s book persuades, is what wide reading helps us as preachers do for our listeners. Through our exposure to so many new experiences and phenomena, and through our immersion in so much new knowledge and information, we begin to more fully understand why language about, say, loneliness affects hearers the way it does, or why stories about sacrifice reach us at the deep registers they do. Then, knowing these things, we are able to anticipate how a certain poetic phrase, or a certain heartwarming anecdote, or a certain piece of data will move or disarm or surprise our hearers, all in service of opening each hearer’s heart to the good news of the gospel. 

In Plantinga’s book, he highlights the myriad effects reading can have on sermon preparation: how immersing ourselves in the words of the masters will inevitably rub off on our own craft; how reading supplies us with useful quotes and imagery to use in our own writing; how reading helps us close the experiential distance between ourselves and others; how reading enriches our understanding of major Christian themes such as sin, redemption, and grace. Plantinga compellingly covers all this and more, and I highly commend his book to you. 

These are all skills that develop at the “subterranean level” that James K. A. Smith writes about in Imagining the Kingdom, and thus they cannot be developed in a strictly utilitarian fashion. Meaning, if we read a book with an eye toward how we can immediately use a quote or an image from it in our next sermon, the quote or image we use will almost always sound dissonant or forced. Likewise, if we read a book with the intention of capturing a writer’s style so as to channel it in our own writing, our voice will inevitably sound fraudulent and affected. 

Instead, as preachers we read by faith, trusting that while we don’t yet see how our reading will be useful in our sermon prep and delivery, we nonetheless know that it will be, because with each successive book and article and essay we read, our filters are being enriched and our reservoirs are being filled, our understanding of human nature is being expanded and our wisdom is being increased. 

Thus, we trust that we are slowly being turned from what Walter Brueggemann might call “purveyors of prose” into “preachers of poetry.” Brueggemann writes: “The task and possibility of preaching is to open out the good news of the gospel with alternative modes of speech—speech that is dramatic, artistic . . . [that] assaults imagination and pushes out the presumed world in which most of us are trapped . . . a poetic occasion that moves powerfully to expose the prose reductions around us as false.”

In other words, for Brueggemann our everyday language as human beings is typically surface level and stale; our daily lived experience, flat and mundane. But the poetic preacher, should he or she have the temerity and the skill to do so, has the awesome opportunity to enliven language so as to deepen and enrich one’s lived experience. 

For Brueggemann, this “poetic” voice is not about using flowery or ornate language; it’s instead about knowing how to use our speech with intentionality, touching carefully upon those items that “stir the heart,” always in service of expanding a sense of what’s possible. 

Taken together, then, Plantinga’s Reading for Preaching and Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet bring to the fore the point I am trying to make in this chapter, which is that a steady commitment to reading shapes the vessel of preachers and fills the reservoir from which they have to pull, thereby enabling them to disrupt the felt-flatness of their listeners’ everyday realities by speaking words that will help them imagine new possibilities. 

Moreover, I am claiming that such a capacity develops only in qualitative, non-instrumental ways. To wit: a lovely quote from T. S. Eliot won’t penetrate a listener’s heart just because it’s a lovely quote or just because it’s by T. S. Eliot; instead, for the quote to penetrate— for it to broaden and transform a hearer in the way Brueggemann is describing—it has to be precisely the right quote (at precisely the right time) to bring out the “flavor” of everything else the sermon is saying. And either a preacher “has” that quote when he or she needs it (and has the trained instincts to know where to place it) or a preacher doesn’t; the preacher can’t just go out “looking for it.” 

In the same way, a powerful image from, say, To the Lighthouse will not open a listener to new possibilities for her life simply because she appreciates a good story or happens to admire Virginia Woolf; instead, the image must breathe life into the dry bones of what has gone before (in the sermon) and what will come right after. 

And the only way for us as preachers to have access to such “fitting” quotes and such “life-breathing” images is to read long enough, and widely enough, and committedly enough to have a reservoir that, even when we don’t realize it, is all the while collecting these things, a reservoir from which they will emerge when we need them most. 

Which brings me back to the story of writing my grandfather’s eulogy. What I experienced that day — the perfect quote (at the perfect time) emerging from a reservoir I didn’t know I had — has happened to me hundreds, if not thousands, of times since. 

And for that reason, I never start a sermon with a quote or image or allusion or reference in mind; instead, I start with the gospel point I intend to convey, and then, without actively soliciting it, like a match struck in the darkness, a phrase will suddenly occur, or an image will come to mind, and it will be precisely the quote or the image I need to pull the sermon together and, as Plantinga says, pull also the heart- strings of those who will be listening. 

Case in point: when I finished delivering my grandfather’s eulogy that long-ago afternoon and our family lingered in the aftermath to receive condolences, one of the men in attendance—someone who had long admired my grandfather and looked up to him as a sort of mentor—approached me and asked me for a copy of my manuscript, saying that while he had always appreciated my grandfather, he had never before made the mental connection between his admiration for him and the gentleness of my grandfather’s character. 

He told me that in hearing it put this way, he knew that it was true, and that this had convicted him about his own sense of harshness toward others, and that it had caused him to want to be a gentler person himself. 

In other words, the eulogy had opened him and expanded him, penetrating the flatness of his lived experience and nudging him toward a new possibility. “That Shakespeare quote,” he said to me, “that said it all. Would you mind sharing it with me?” 

It was a poetic moment in a prose-filled world, and I knew right then that, yes, I’d be trying to share it with him—and with others like him—for the rest of my life. 

Austin Carty is Senior Pastor of Boulevard Baptist Church in Anderson, South Carolina 

Excerpted from The Pastor’s Bookshelf: Why Reading Matters for Ministry by Austin Carty (Eerdmans). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.