On Transparency

There is one quality of such vital importance to the effectiveness of

our sermons as to merit more than passing mention, and that is the

quality of lucidity. The business of the preacher is to make his

meaning understood, to make his audience see what he sees, understand

what he understands. It is laid upon him as a special instruction to

present the truth with such plainness that "a wayfaring man, though a

fool, nee
not err therein." Failing here, he fails badly. It is

possible, perhaps, to excite a hearer's admiration without clearness.

There is to be found in some men a curious liking for being puzzled;

and they will credit with high talent and deep learning him who is able

thoroughly to mystify them. We have more than once heard a man

described as "far learned" because of a style in which polysyllables,

not always correctly chosen, did duty for thought, as polysyllables

often do. But the mere winning of ignorant admiration is a poor result

of pulpit work, and no manly man will set such an end before him as the

goal of his ambition. Admit that hearers may receive a measure of

blessing out of all proportion to the degree of their understanding--a

friend of ours tells us that he has had wonderful times in listening to

sermons in the Welsh language of which he knows not a word,--it still

remains true that men are saved through the knowledge of the truth.

In joining himself to the Eunuch from Ethiopia who, sitting in his

chariot read the Prophet Esaias, Philip asked, "Understandest thou what

thou readest?" and all his effort went to make the dusky stranger

comprehend. To make men understand, is our bounden duty still.

And to accomplish this necessary achievement is not invariably the

easiest thing imaginable. Indeed, it may well be contended that in

none of his aims does the preacher fail more frequently than in this.

Often would we be greatly surprised and deeply discouraged had we the

means of comparing the idea received with the idea we meant to

convey. The reticence of our hearers is wisdom in them and mercy to us.

For it is absolutely certain that most preachers overestimate--we do

not say the intelligence of their congregations,--but their ability to

grasp the truth presented at the speed, and in the way in which it is

brought before them. Because the trained mind of the preacher can

readily and easily understand religious literature and speech, it does

not follow that the hearer has the same power; nor does it follow that

the lack of it proves him a person of smaller intellectuality than the

man whose utterances bring perplexity to his mind. The preacher should

remember that what are matters of daily thought and research to him are

not so familiar to his hearers. To him they form a well-known

country. He should not assume that the man who turns to him for

direction as to the points and places of this holy land will always be

able to comprehend these directions as easily as he gives them. We

speak from experience when we assert that it is much easier, in a land

one knows very well, to direct the traveller on his way than it is to

understand such directions when, from strangeness in the path, we have

in turn to seek them ourselves.

Not only is this true, but it is also true that we are too apt to take

for granted that what is knowledge to the preacher is knowledge to the

hearer. It is to be feared that in these days the average church-goer

is not so well versed in Biblical knowledge as the assumptions of our

sermons might suggest. Most men nowadays live in a hurry, and are busy

about many things, and it cannot be pretended that the Scriptures

receive that reading and study which give such advantage to the hearer

of preaching. Probably an examination of any ten men chosen without

discrimination out of the congregation of one of our churches would

reveal a state of things both startling and sad. It is so easy to be

misled by appearances. The congregation is well dressed, respectable,

keen. There are the usual signs of education, even of culture. All

these things are consistent with great shallowness of sacred knowledge.

Men are careful to till their own fields, but common land is generally

sorely neglected. There is a scientist in yonder pew; in his own

science he is supreme. Near him sits a politician; few there are who

know the questions of the hour better than he. In the pulpit stands

the preacher; he is--shall we venture the assertion?--a man mighty in

the Bible. It is his book. It is, in a general way, the book of

the scientist, of the statesman, of every person in the congregation,

but the preacher specialises in it and in all that relates to it. He

will make a mistake if he assumes too much either to the credit of one

man before him or another. Here a memory of many years ago rises to

the surface. Having to preach one Sunday to an audience which usually

contained two or three men of positions rather above the common run, we

confessed great nervousness to an aged minister of our church now no

more. "Never bother a bit, lad," was the reply; "remember one

thing:--You will know more about that subject than any man in the

chapel, because you will have been working at it. The doctor will

have spent his week mixing physic, the lawyer his in mixing law.

You will have spent yours in getting to know all about this text of

which, like as not, neither of them has ever heard." There was

consolation in the old man's assurances, though they recognised a

sorrowful fact too often forgotten. Probably if we knew everything we

should come to the conclusion that one fault of our sermons is that

they are not half sufficiently elementary.

Along the same line follows the remark, that it is also a mistake to

assume that the terminology familiar to the preacher and conveying to

his mind certain ideas, must of necessity be equally familiar and

convey the very same ideas to every other man. Much of this language

is technical; much of it consists of words and phrases which have long

been obsolete so far as daily use and wont are concerned. Let the

preacher set himself to listen to a professional man who elects to

speak upon the subjects in which he is most interested in the language

of his profession; or let him hearken to an artisan who talks about his

craft in the terms in use at the bench, or in the factory, and then he

will in some degree comprehend the effect of technical language in

mystifying the uninitiated hearer. We recall in this connection a

sermon in which, years ago, we heard a very young preacher declaiming

to an audience of labouring men and women concerning a certain

"anthropomorphic" passage. As we say he was very young, and probably

no longer uses the word outside the study. Another worthy man in our

hearing solemnly advised a congregation largely composed of factory

girls to make their lives "Christo-centric." We acknowledge our

indebtedness to the Rev. W. L. Watkinson, himself a splendid example of

the excellence for which we plead, for two humorous illustrations of

the mistake now being considered. One is that of a local preacher who,

during a revival of religion, most earnestly counselled his auditors to

exercise "fiduciary" faith; the other, of a learned divine whose

appointment in a certain village coincided with the visit of a

travelling menagerie. "I perceive," he said, in sensational tones,

"that a spirit of German transcendental ratiocination is creeping into

the Church." The congregation, remembering the adjacent caravans, left

at once in hurry and alarm.

In that very interesting volume in which the proprietors of The Daily

News tabulated the results of a census of church attendance in the

metropolis, Mr. F. C. Masterman, writing on the religious problem of

South East London, has the following words:--

"The prevailing theology, even more perhaps than the prevailing

liturgy, is wrapped up in an ancient language. The very terms are

technical--grace, justification, conversion, perseverance. They flow

out glibly from the student who has soaked himself in their historical

meanings; they are Greek to the general. They were once living

realities for which men fought and gladly died; they still symbolise

realities, the permanent elements of the life history of the soul--but

they are wrapped around in cobwebs and the complications of a technical

system, frozen into sterility; and they have no more meaning and no

more appeal to the audience at whom they are thrown in such profusion

than the details of the performance of the Mosaic ritual, or the

genealogies of the legendary heroes of the Hebrew Bible. We want

neither edifying lessons drawn from the wanderings of Israel or the

Book of Joshua; nor brilliant 'word-painting' of some of the scenes

described in the Bible with a more appealing eloquence; nor the

exposition of the machinery of schemes of salvation once real from

which the life has departed; but some message concerning the things of

the spirit, delivered in simplicity and humility and sincerity to men

who would fain be simple and humble and sincere." These are weighty

words, and many a preacher might do worse than take them seriously to

heart. Such an event might mean the blessing of many who have so far

been mystified rather than edified. Mr. Masterman represents, we are

sure, multitudes who could add proof to his words from frequent

experience; he speaks, also, for many more who, because of similar

experience, come no more to the house of the Lord.

But the difficulty does not always arise from the preacher's

terminology alone. It is possible to fall into the fault of

over-condensation in our preaching. Highly concentrated foods are

proverbially hard of digestion, and the same may be true of highly

concentrated sermons. "Words packed with profoundest meanings" are apt

to pass over the mind carrying much of their meaning with them

undiscovered. A "highly sententious style" may have some of the

qualities of a thunder shower, in which the rain falls so fast as to be

of little use in watering the thirsty ground, over which it courses

unabsorbed to join the brook down yonder in the vale. The maxim

"multum in parvo" may be an admirable one for an author whose book

will lie in the reader's hand the while he has time to grasp the full

significance of every well-filled sentence. By a public speaker,

however, packing may easily be overdone; and here is one of the dangers

of the written sermon as compared with one in which the preacher,

having gathered together his knowledge and his thought upon a matter,

leaves the choice of words to the hour of delivery. A little wise

prolixity may be necessary to the speaker. A little repetition; the

putting of a truth, first in this way, then in that, and again

perhaps in quite a different fashion, so that different minds may have

in turn their chance--even this may be needed, and though the

preacher's impatience may find such a method irksome, duty may lie that

way while inclination turns to a more sententious and expeditious mode.

When all has been done that can be done to render every argument and

lesson absolutely transparent there will still be some who will not

have quite understood. The simplest of preachers must some day

encounter the old lady who accosted, so it is said, a former Bishop of

Chester, who, at great pains to be lucid, had unfolded the argument

against the errors of atheism, with the words, "Well, my lord, I must

say as I think there is a God after all you've told us."

Another thing to be remembered is, that much depends upon the order and

arrangement of a sermon whether it is "easy to follow" or not. We are

old-fashioned enough to believe rather strongly in the method according

to which the preacher divided his subject into "heads." We had heard

that this method was falling into disuse, but have been surprised

during recent months to discover how many of the more acceptable and

successful preachers still find it the most effective plan. Of course

there are those who vote the method out of date; and we have listened

to the preaching of some who hold this view and act upon it. Our

experience teaches us that in respect of clearness and, perhaps

especially, of memorability, the method of distinct division has many

advantages. It is easier to the preacher; much easier to the hearer.

Only, let it be remembered that an "introduction" should introduce;

that "divisions" should divide, and sub-divisions sub-divide. Needless

and trifling "majors" or "minors" are irritating and confusing.

"Firstly," "Secondly," "Thirdly," and--under very special

circumstances--even "Fourthly" may contribute to the making of the dark

places plain, but the days have long since passed away in which

"Ninthly" and "Tenthly" could be borne; though there have actually been

such days. We have read, or tried to read, discourses whose major

divisions ran to "eighteenthly" with minor divisions grouped under each

like companies in a regiment. People came to preaching early in those

days and stayed late. Can it be one result of their experiences that

we, their posterity, have inherited that strange weariness which so

frequently attacks us as "One word more" is announced from the sacred


Simplicity in language, and in putting things; as much repetition as

may be needed; great care not to assume more knowledge in the hearer

than he possesses; much allowance for the fact that the minds addressed

may not be trained in the theme under discussion, and that there is a

wide difference between the catching of an idea which waits upon a

printed page and of an idea in flight of spoken discourse; clear and

memorable arrangement of the whole address--all these concessions must

be made if men are to be sent away from the sanctuary carrying with

them any considerable part of the provision with which the preacher

climbed the pulpit stair. And after all these concessions have been

allowed the great effort to make things plain has yet to be begun!

This great effort for the attainment of transparency will be made, we

need hardly say, along two lines, the line of illustration and the line

of application. Possibly it may be held by some that these two lines

are really one.

And concerning illustration:--The greatest preachers, and the most

effective, have been those who have shown the greatest mastery of this

art. The writing of these words brings to our minds names sufficient

to establish their truth. Who can forget the illustrations of C. H.

Spurgeon; the illustrations of McLaren of Manchester, whose expositions

of Scripture received illumination in this way at every turning of the

path along which the preacher led us, happy and entranced? It has been

pronounced by some a mistake to class D. L. Moody among the great

preachers. The answer will depend upon our definition of a great

preacher. We would support the inclusion and our reason lies

here:--We heard the man in boyhood and so clear, by simplicity and

aptness of language, of phrase and of illustration did he make his

every contention, that we understood him from beginning to end. An

example happily still with us has already been named in the earlier

part of this chapter. Every preacher should hear the Rev. W. L.

Watkinson, if he walk a score of miles to do it!

But the art of illustration, excepting in those rare cases where a man

brings to its learning a natural gift waiting only to be brought into

use, is not easily acquired. Every preacher of experience will be

prepared to testify that in attempting to illustrate it is not only

easy to make mistakes but difficult to avoid making them at times.

Sometimes an illustration, intended to light up a subject, rather takes

away the thought of a congregation from that subject than otherwise.

Sometimes, again, the illustration may be found to carry other

suggestions than were intended. The lad, to whom the wisdom of early

rising was sought to be illustrated by the good fortune of the early

bird in securing the first worm, drew precisely the opposite moral,

holding that the fate of the worm taught the wisdom of remaining in bed

until a later hour. Then an illustration may be even less clear than

the argument to be illustrated. We have heard scientific illustrations

of this character, from which the hearer derived a supplementary dose

of mystification rather than an elucidation of the problem with which

he was already manfully grappling. An illustration may be too

pathetic, and people may weep from the wrong cause, an event which

often occurs in church. It is one thing to shed tears over a touching

story and another to shed them from penitence. An illustration should

not be more sublime than the lesson to be taught lest there follow a

swift descent with loss of reverence by the way. There is a place for

humour in the pulpit, if it be natural to the preacher and flow

spontaneously, but a humorous illustration requires to be very

carefully chosen, lest, instead of the healthy and holy laughter often

so fatal to anger and meanness and pride, you have the guffaw in which

blessing is lost in excess. Other reflections as to illustrations are

the following:--First, the illustration, if a story, ought at least to

contain the element of probability. No preacher can always satisfy

himself as to the literal truth of a story he may hear and wish to use,

but he can, at least, consider whether the event recounted was

possible. We have heard stories from the pulpit which were so hard to

swallow as to leave no room for the moral. We have heard illustrations

in sermons which have led to criticisms wherein the strength of the

preacher's imagination has not been passed over unrecognised. Further,

an illustration derives power from being drawn from sources familiar to

those to whom it is addressed. In some confessions regarding his early

ministry, Henry Ward Beecher enforces this very lesson in telling of

his failure to impress the people until he turned for his illustrations

to fields well known to them. Who has not seen a farm-labouring

audience lift their heads when a preacher, saying, "It is like," has

led his hearers into the fields where they had toiled during the

previous week? Often have we seen a mining congregation captured en

bloc when some brother miner, speaking in native doric from the wagon

at a camp meeting, has taken them "doon the pit," or "in bye." We have

watched the faces of sea-going men gleam with a new interest as the

preacher drew a simile, or caught a metaphor from the mighty deep.

Only, in using such illustrations as these, let the user be quite

certain that he is accurate. One mistake about the farm, the mine,

the sea, and all is over! With accuracy as a quality constantly

present, those illustrations are most effective whose material is most

homely and familiar. Things startling, novel and foreign, may arouse

interest and excite wonder, but it will probably be at the expense of

that realisation of truth which was sought to be created. Jesus said

"Like unto leaven," "Like to a grain of mustard seed," "Behold a sower

went forth to sow," "Consider the lilies of the field." His hearers

saw these things every day. Perhaps they were in view as He spoke.

Finally, the less hackneyed our illustrations are, the better. If this

were more generally remembered we would miss, and that with a sense of

relief, a few grey-headed similes which, having haunted our youth,

threaten to haunt also our age; and which have assailed us so often as

to create the kind of familiarity that breeds contempt. In how many

Sunday school addresses--and a Sunday school address is preaching in a

way--in how many such addresses have we seen the twig bent; in how many

the giant oak which none can train? How often have we heard of that

boy in Holland who saved his country by the simple expedient of pushing

his finger into a hole in the dyke through which the dammed-up waters

had begun to escape? There is that other lad, too, who has come down

in history by reason of his insane resolve to climb "one niche the

higher"--how often have we been told his thrilling story? These two

boys are no longer young and have surely earned an honourable

superannuation. That little incident of Michael Angelo and the block

of marble from which he "let the angel out"--even that improving

narrative might with advantage be pigeon-holed for a generation or two.

The reason why these hardy perennials are seen in the gardens of so

contains them. We have nothing to say in praise of such treasuries.

We have none to recommend for purchase. The best treasury of

illustrations is the memory of that man who keeps his eyes and ears

open and has a preaching mind.

Following the naming of illustration as a means of lighting up the

sermon comes the mention of application. Truth must be related to be

understood. How wonderfully the application of a truth to familiar

circumstances makes it clear. It may be laboriously defined and leave

but a dim and indistinct impression upon the mind; but apply it to the

age, to the life of men; show its relation to the passing days, to

daily duties, daily trials, daily sins, and how deeply is it impressed.

In the greater shops are models whose business it is to "show off" the

gown the shopkeeper wishes to sell by wearing it before the possible

purchaser. The advantage of the plan is obvious. We must show truth

in the wear to make it understood!

After all these reflections, the fundamental word still remains to be

said:--Clear preaching can only come from clear thinking. What we

see ourselves we may, by great effort and rare good fortune, make

others see; but when the preacher only beholds men as trees walking,

how can he make clear their features to his fellows? The foggy sermon

often proves the preacher's possession of a foggy mind. "If the light

that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness," so said One

of old.