Friday, March 27, 2009

Preaching training should include watching The West Wing

Josh Harris highlights an article on the value of the teleprompter: "When it comes to rhetoric, winging it is often shoddy and self-indulgent -- practiced by politicians who hear Mozart in their own voices while others perceive random cymbals and kazoos. Leaders who prefer to speak from the top of their heads are not more authentic, they are often more shallow -- not more "real," but more undisciplined."

I'm all for speaking without a script, but often we think it means less preparation instead of more to be able to do that. I'm all for a preacher using an outline (so long as it's one that actually makes sense) but if that's not derived from careful consideration of language, of arguments, of memorable ways of saying things then much preaching is only going to be shallow reality.

If Toby Ziegler, Sam Seaborn and Will Bailey watch every word that should be in President Bartlet's mouth, how much more should the preacher who opens his mouth to publicly portray Christ as crucified make every word count. You could start almost anywhere but season 4's double episode on the Inauguration is as good a place as any. That's not to say the preacher's character and accurate exegesis don't matter - they're non-negotiables. But adding genuine crafting of language wouldn't be a bad move, one finds it Biblically advocated in Ecclesiastes 12  and illustrated in the preceeding chapters, and we find it in the stunning language, argument and structure of Stephen's martyr-worthy sermon, Peter's Christ-exalting Pentecostal-preaching and in the parables and teachings of Jesus. I ♥ good words and good words take time.


  1. Given that all of the above is true...

    There's a limit. Say a pastor can prep a faithful, clear, weekly sermon in 6 hours, but then decides he should refine his talk to the oratorical standards of the greats... well, it could easily take double, even triple time. Some of it may be useful but those hours might well have been better used another way.

  2. .....any excuse to watch more West Wing eh?
    "Come to our preaching training session, where we will watch a really helpful training DVD..."

    Erm ...I'd come.

    Paul's comment above is helpful though. There is a danger that we drift into wanting to have perfect oratory with all the pazzazz in delivery. I think thats something we have unwittingly bought into in our preaching. Its what drives us at times to join in the cult of Christian celebrity whether as fans or wannabees. Much as I love to hear great talks too, there is a risk that it is about the oratory as much as the content.

    None of this denies Josh H's main point though, that 'off the cuff = more authentic' is silly. That often is laziness and sloppiness.

  3. True enough, its not that we have to use rhetorical tricks, nor that a pastor should spend all his time doing it - merely a small part of leadership development,...

    ...or it's West Wing addiction seeking to justify itself.

  4. Bish,

    I see your challenge and I like it.

    Do you think that the mastery of phrase, word and sentence is a kind of art? We have other forms of art - music, songwriting, and err..... cooking??

    I'm sure that you would agree that the way that Toby and Sam construct great speeches isn't just linguistic. It is at least 50% logical.

    Jesus is a logical artisan.

  5. I think this is a fantastic idea. I agree that artistry and good vocabluary can make a big difference - especially in certain contexts.

    I wonder if there are any church buildings which have teleprompters installed, or pastors who enlist the help of volunteer speech-writers to flesh out / refine their sermon outlines. I guess there is no reason why sermon preparation cannot be more of a team enterprize?

  6. I've just bought the boxed set of The West Wing to test your theory ;-)

  7. Tom: I do think it's a kind of art. Some have it instinctively but even then it takes work to master. Logic is clearly part of it. You can use all the nice words you like but it gets you no where substantial if they don't make sense.

    Martin: Always knew you were a godly man.

    Stanton: I've found myself coaching a number of preachers in recent months, and sometimes we have to work the exegesis, sometimes the structure and argument, and on a number of occasions it's been a pleasure to have the time to just work on making the language clearer and more piercing.