On Attractiveness

Having now given some little thought to a consideration of the

essential qualifications of the Christian messenger, and also to the

content of his message, it remains to name certain qualities of form

and expression equally needed for success in the publication of the

truth. The first business of the preacher is, of course, to secure the

friendly attention of his hearers and his next business is to retain it

until he
akes an end of speaking. To accomplish these things it is

obviously needful that he possess some skill in the putting of things

in such a way as first to attract, then to enlighten, and finally, to


In beginning then, a very brief inquiry concerning these qualities, it

may be assumed that in the sermon as we know it we have by far the best

vehicle for the conveyance of the preacher's message. From time to

time experiments with other media have been tried, but the sermon has

not been superseded. A few years ago trial was made of what was called

the Sermon-story--a religious novel read by the preacher in weekly

parts. "Song services" and "lantern addresses" have been

well-intentioned attempts to enlist the ear and the eye in the

interests of the soul. In the miracle plays of the Middle Ages,

Scriptural truth and incident were thrown into dramatic form for the

benefit of the ignorant classes. The sermon still holds the field. No

form of preaching has use and acceptance so general, nor so lends

itself to meet changing times and differing circumstances as does this.

The thought is no less true than wonderful, and no less wonderful than

true, that of all who appeal to the public ear, none, even in these

days of comparative indifference to religion, draw so large an audience

as do the preachers of the Christian faith. The sermon is still the

most popular form of public address!

It will be wise therefore for the preacher not only to ask as to

whether he possesses within himself a preaching mind and heart and

knowledge and designation; whether he can say that he seeks to present

the truth in all its completeness, but also whether his sermons are

of such a sort as most readily to secure the entrance of the truth they

contain. God's truth may be--and often is--hindered in its saving

errand by reason of the form and manner in which it is presented,

though, behind such ineffective presentation, there may be sincerity of

motive and sublime enthusiasm. The preacher may fail as a messenger by

failing as a sermoniser. He may fail as a sermoniser from neglect of

principles which so wait upon his discovery that it is nothing less

than a mystery when they are not seen.

And yet, obvious as these principles are, the art of the sermon maker

needs learning, and even the study of methods of delivery is of immense

importance to success. We have spoken of "the born preacher"; even

he must cultivate his gifts in order to realise his highest

possibilities. We speak sometimes of "diamonds in the rough"; the

value of these precious stones increases as the art of the lapidary is

carefully exercised upon them. If it be only to prevent the formation

of false methods and bad habits of thought and utterance, a preacher

should give attention to the study of Homiletics. He may, as the end

of all his studies, feel led deliberately to reject much of what he has

been taught in favour of original methods of his own. As the years go

on he may forget many of the rules laboriously learned. Neither of

these circumstances should be held to prove that time spent in the

sermonising class has been wasted. It is a fact that most of us have

forgotten the greater part of what we learned at school. The dates

which made up so large a part of our historical lessons, the rules we

slavishly committed as we struggled to master the difficulties of

syntax and prosody, our latinity, our grounding in the tongue of

ancient Greece so hardly won--who amongst us, having grey hairs in

abundance, could face to-day the examination room where once we

triumphed in these things? Yet in a sense they are all still with us.

We reproduce them in effectiveness in the daily battle; in the thousand

and one duties forming the work of life. It may be much the same in

the case of homiletics. We may reject; we may forget; but we cannot

altogether fail to profit richly in many ways from studies the object

of which is to make the student more skilful in the use of the powers

bestowed upon him. Had these pages been written for young men only,

they would have contained more than one chapter devoted to an effort to

enforce the absolute necessity of bending the mind, and with the mind

the heart, to the earnest pursuit of all that can be learned about the

actual building-up of discourses from the foundation of exegesis to the

topstone of application. We do not refrain from emphasising this

necessity because of any thought that even the elder brethren will find

such studies without profit. To read once more some of the homiletic

manuals of our far-off days, would not be for many of us a foolish

method of spending a quiet hour "between the mount and multitude!"

To these books, with others more recently published, we refer the

reader who is on the lookout for "rules." In our youth there were many

of them:--"Kidder," "Phelps," "Broadus," "Beecher," "Parker's Ad

Clerum." Add to these "Phillips Brooks," "Dale," "The Cure of Souls,"

and as many more as can be remembered; their name is legion--all

helpful to wise men and good. Our present duty seems to be that of

naming certain principles which must be remembered by all who would

attain to effectiveness in pulpit expression.

And the first of these principles seems to be this:--That the sermon

should have the quality of attractiveness, that it ought to be so

interesting that the man in the pew will wish to listen to it, find

it harder not to listen than to attend to its every word. You will

never save or help a man if you never interest him!

Now, whether there be need to emphasise this very obvious consideration

we may judge from the talk we hear about sermons in general. We have

already spoken of the wonderful popularity of this form of public

address; but this popularity is not unqualified by complaints, the most

frequent of which is, perhaps, about the preacher's dulness. "As dull

as a sermon" is a familiar expression--so familiar that no one troubles

to protest against its use and application. One of our most hoary and

patriarchal anecdotes tells of the minister who, finding a burglar in

his study, held the man in deep slumber by the reading of last Sunday's

discourse while his wife slipped out for the policeman. An American

humorist, who has laid us under life-long obligation for hours of

honest laughter, tells us, in the history of his courtship of Betsy

Jane, that her folks and his "slept in the same meeting house."

Again and again have we heard of the risks run by insurance companies

in granting fire policies upon the houses of the clergy, because of the

immense quantities of very dry material they contain. All these

humorous stories and sallies find appreciation because there is, alas!

a certain amount of truth at the heart of them. Then there is also

that demand for shorter sermons in which some see so ominous a portent.

We demur to the assumption that this demand invariably grows out of

dislike for the subjects upon which the preacher dilates. It is

objected that no one grumbles greatly concerning the length of a

Shakespearian representation, nor when a prominent and eloquent

politician occupies the platform for an hour and a half. A little

while ago, in a crowded hall in London, we heard a well-known statesman

speak for two hours and a quarter on a busy Saturday afternoon, and, at

the conclusion, hundreds were heard to express surprise on learning

that the address had been half so lengthy. "If we preached as long as

this what would happen?" asked a friend as we left the hall. "What,"

indeed? But suppose that we preached as interestingly as the

politician spoke? Suppose we had learned something from the great

dramatist of the art of assailing and winning the attention of the men

and women to whom we speak? It must not be forgotten, when we find

fault with the demand for short sermons, that there are some preachers

from whom their hearers demand not short sermons but long! Perhaps

this demand for brevity may not result so much from the depravity of

the pew as from the dulness of the pulpit, by which we mean the sermon

and not its subject. At this very moment, there is no subject--we dare

to say--on which the average man can be so deeply moved as on the

subject of his spiritual needs and questions. It can still be said

that more people attend the churches and chapels of London than are to

be found in all other places of popular resort. The things of the

spirit are still the things most thought of, and should those whose

business it is to speak of them fail to win, at least the ear, if not

the heart, of those they seek to influence, they ought to ask

themselves very faithfully whether it may not be possible that some of

the fault may lie in the form, or wording, or delivery of the message.

They should inquire whether sermon and delivery are such as to make it

easier to listen than to sleep. They should ask, "Can it be that even

I am guilty of being dull?"

For the truth must be confessed that some preachers--brethren with

golden truth to publish, and possessed of good natural gifts and a real

and deep desire to bless the people--are dull--drearily, dreadfully,

deadly dull! They are dull with the most interesting, the most

wonderful--may we not say the most sensational?--subject in the world

to talk about.

And what is the cause of this dulness? Again we say it does not lie in

the nature of the subjects committed to the preacher. To this denial

we will add another to the effect that, in almost every instance, the

dulness of the sermon does not proceed from a quality of dulness in the

preacher. There are few men who, in conversation, are unable to

interest us in subjects of intrinsic attractiveness. Many a man, dull

to boredom in the pulpit, becomes a delightful personality in the

social circle. Why the startling difference?

To answer this question fully might involve the use of many words, but

it may, at least, be suggested that preaching is often dull because the

preacher has inherited a notion that reverence for the truth and for

the sanctuary demands it. There still remain traces of a feeling, said

to have been common in old time, that dulness is a virtue. This same

feeling was wont, in other days, to fill the homes of the godly with a

gravity and a solemnity which almost effected the banishment of

laughter and drove forth music as an outcast from the domestic hearth.

Dominated by this sense of things, men shut their eyes to the

joyfulness of life and the beauties of nature and literature and poetry

and art. The Sabbaths of such men were days to be feared; their

sanctuaries places without a gleam of sunshine. What wonder if the

pulpit came under the yoke of bondage, or that, having been once

enslaved, it should even now have hardly attained to perfect freedom?

Then there are preachers whose great concern is to maintain "the

dignity of the pulpit," and this concern is allowed to crush out their

naturalness and brightness and humour--every quality that is human and

pleasant and alluring. It is on record that even so great and wise a

preacher as Dr. Dale of Birmingham had to confess that his own mighty

ministry had suffered because of a certain stateliness of composition

and delivery which had militated against the attractiveness of his

sermons, especially so far as the younger and less educated of his

hearers were concerned. From this solicitude for the dignity of the

pulpit have come "the pulpit manner," "the pulpit tone," "the pulpit

vocabulary," all of which, as being departures from honest Nature's

homely plans, have helped to spoil the charm and prevent the triumph of

holy, lovely truth. Still another may be dull from intellectual pride.

Not unknown is the man who may often be heard explaining the success

attained by other brethren but denied to himself, by references to what

he calls "playing to the gallery" or "catering for popular applause."

He, forsooth, will not so demean himself as to be guilty of practices

so degrading. Thought is his provision for those who come to hear.

He appeals to thinkers. Alas! for him, his "thinkers," if only he

knew it, are human and have a mind to be pleased. "Very intellectual,"

may be the verdict with which they leave the church, but people cannot

always be on the intellectual rack, and both the Sabbath and the

Sanctuary were designed for rest for weary brains. We have known a

very learned man to admit, as he came away from hearing an exceedingly

thoughtful discourse, that, to him, the preacher's address to the

children had been the most enjoyable part of the service. The sermon

was very clever; but--well, he had had a hard and trying week of it,

and came to church with a tired mind and a troubled heart.

So it has come to pass that many a preacher has fallen into a homiletic

dulness quite foreign to his own disposition. In the home, the social

circle, in every place saving the pulpit he was human and natural. He

had a jest to cheer the depressed, a tear for sorrow. He could rejoice

with those who rejoiced, weep with those who wept. He was responsive

to the piping of gladness. In pain or pleasure he was ever a welcome

guest, but in the temple he condemned by tone and manner every bit of

humanity into which he had been unwittingly betrayed, and atoned for

his every lapse into naturalness by dreariness growing drearier. Not

so did Jesus Christ preach, else the common people had not "heard Him

gladly;" not so, else the little children had not gathered around His

feet, nor shouted their Hosannas as he rode up to the city gate. Not

dull were those sermons that drew the multitudes from the towns to the

wilderness, and held them so entranced that the time for bodily

refreshment passed unheeded by. "Never man spake like this Man," they

said, as they spread their garments in the path by which the preacher

came up to Mount Zion. He revealed God; He rebuked sin; He poured His

denunciations upon the age; He tore off the mask from the face of

hypocrisy; not one jot or tittle of truth did He bate for the sake of

applause, yet all Judea went out to Him, and all the regions beyond

Jordan. In His preaching there was not only everything to save the

soul, there was everything to charm the ear!

From this divine example, if from no other consideration, let us set

ourselves to preach attractively; and let us begin by resolving to

preach naturally. The best preaching is talk at its best in subject

and in style, and provides exercise for every talent of preacher and

hearer alike. "Right here," as the Americans say, let us remember that

talk is always spoken and never read. For the production of the effect

of dulness; for the sure spoiling of good thought nobly conceived and

nobly phrased, commend us to a manuscript slavishly read to an audience

assembled to be spoken to by a man who was appointed to speak.

There may be churches which, through long suffering, have become so

used to being read to that they have learned to endure it, perhaps even

to fancy they like it. But watch the congregation in such a church.

Note when for a moment the preacher lifts his head and ventures a brief

excursion from the sheets before him, how obviously their interest

quickens and their eyes brighten. Even they, in the depths of their

hearts, would rather be spoken to, though such a practice might mean,

now and then, a little looseness in expression, a little breakdown in

the preacher's grammar. More than this may be said:--It has seemed to

us, as the result of attending many churches, that in such sanctuaries

as we have referred to reading is going out of fashion. We have

listened of late months to many well-known preachers of various

denominations and not one of them "read." On the other hand, we have

heard it asserted that while the method of reading becomes less common

in these churches, it tends to become more usual in Methodism. Alas!

for Methodist preaching if this startling assertion be really true.

Methodism does not want the read sermon--is not likely, unless it

ceases to be Methodism, to learn to want it--will only endure it when

it cannot help itself, or when, for other reasons, it has great

reverence and affection for the man who weakly offers it; or again,

when the preacher is old and has outlived his intellectual nimbleness,

in which case sympathy may so plead his cause as to secure him a

reluctant hearing. Methodism grew to greatness under the preaching of

men who spoke, and that method is traditional to her pulpit; some day

she will crystallise her tradition into a law that the speaker alone

shall stand in her high place. To attract and hold the people the

preacher must speak!

And let him speak in the voice and manner with which it is most natural

for him to speak to his fellow men. There is as yet no organ sweeter

than the human voice in its own natural tones, none so adapted to reach

the heart. The pity is, that so often, from simple ignorance, this

fine instrument is spoiled. Gladly would we see a course of voice

tuition included as a necessary part of all pulpit training. So would

the spoiling of many a gracious utterance be prevented. It is faulty

methods of speech rather than overwork that are responsible for many a

"clergyman's sore throat." Speaking is as natural an exercise to the

voice of a man as is walking to his feet, or handling to his hands, but

it must be done naturally; and the use of training is found in its

bringing home this lesson. The "pulpit voice" must become a

yesterday's blunder.

To attractiveness in delivery must be added, if people are to be kept

in audience, an attractiveness in treatment; here, again, the method of

success is to let Nature have her way. Let the preacher permit himself

to devote all his gifts to the setting forth of his theme. The great

thing is to get the word right home and to that end all considerations

as to style, language, arrangement, should be subordinate. There be

some highly intellectual persons who affect contempt when a preacher

tells a story. There are very solemn persons who gravely disapprove

when the sermon contains a touch of humour which causes a ripple of

laughter in the holy place. Some people, again, hate an epigram, and

say "the preacher is trying to be smart." It is impossible to please

all the critics. The great business of the preacher is to get his work

done; and if by a story, a touch of humour or of sarcasm, the use of

any gift, he can, keeping within the limits of that good taste which

should guide him at all times, entice men to listen, the critics may be


One more paragraph may be added before bringing this chapter to an end.

After all, the great secret of being interesting lies in being

interested. The really enthralling preacher is he who is himself

enthralled by his subject and who realises, also, a deep interest in

the people before Him. Should it ever come to pass that the subject

grow stale, worn and hackneyed to the man in the pulpit, it will not be

a hopeful quest to look for much interest in the pew. Again should it

ever come to pass that the preacher lose interest in those before whom

he stands, and this has been known to occur, there will remain small

reason to listen to him for preaching of the sort we most desire. May

it not be possible that "the sermon-box" is responsible for much of the

dulness we deplore. Whitefield, it is said, used to contend that a man

could preach the same discourse forty-nine times with ever-increasing

effect. There may be some who have not this power, but who faithfully

toil to prove the truth of the dictum. It was such a good sermon and

went so well when we preached it the first few times, the while our

hearts were fired by the truth it taught. So we whispered to ourselves

as we turned over the contents of that precious box. Other days had

come, other circumstances, other people, other needs and other views,

but forth came the well-worn and faded manuscript once again. A

baptism of holy madness in which every preacher should make a fire of

all his sermons dry enough to burn might not be a bad thing for the

Church and the world. Such a baptism may, perhaps, be too great a

thing to pray for; such a sacrifice as it would involve, may possibly

be too much to ask--and some sermons are worth preaching over and

over again, even long after Whitefield's maximum has been exceeded.

Still there is a dangerous temptation in the possession of hoarded

sermons from which we will do well to pray to be delivered. To that

petition thousands in all the churches would be glad to say Amen!