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gladly, and the cultivated none the less so, because in every respect which affects the materiel of preaching, he was a model of definiteness. Because he spoke definitely, he was an effective preacher. The great question for the preacher is how to present truth in a way so definite that it can not well fail of being effective. We propose to offer a few thoughts upon DEFINITE PREACHING.
Christ's preaching was eminently definite. He never spoke unless he had something to say, and some reason why he should say it. Perhaps preachers sometimes fail of their mark because they have nothing to say, or no good reason for saying what they do. There can be no doubt that men sometimes speak without definite thoughts, forcing themselves to utterance. A sermon should be a mirror in which every eye can see the thought, and that there is a thought, which runs through it. A definite style requires that a speaker first master and analyze his theme so that he may have thoughts to clothe with his language. The orator who would make a definite impression should be able to control his theme and harness it to his purposes, and not be its slave. There are a few causes of indefinite preaching which we wish to notice.
The First cause we shall notice is want of definiteness in the subject and matter of the sermon. Too many sermons are mere essays, not burdened with some thought that made them necessary. They are made up of words nicely poised, in accurate juxtaposition, so carefully fitted to each other that no flaw can be detected by the ring of the sentences. Where thought should speak to the intellect and move the heart, mere words greet the ear. A skillful net-work of mysterious words and phrases is woven to cover up a want of ideas; the sentences are inflated, and decked with the gay trappings of figures and illustrations which explain nothing because there is nothing to explain. The theme is rolled and tumbled about dexterously without being dissected and analyzed and applied. The preaching reminds one of the feats of a gymnast. From want of definite ideas upon a subject and its bearings, the preacher plays around, or jumps over, or creeps under it, but never drives straight at or through it. Sermons do not all have this fault, but too many do. We have heard such preaching from men, from whom we have a right to expect better things. Preachers who proclaim that negative religion called liberalism are specially liable to this indefinite style. Their sermons are oftener essays than sermons. A clergyman of this school preached once in Boston Theater. Two young men went away uttering the severe criticism, that it was as good as a play. A sermon should not, and would not justly, provoke such comparison. The deceptions of a play should not be suggested to the mind of a hearer. His thoughts should be forced, by the sermon, to the realities of great moral questions. For sermons ought to be, and to seem to be, usually, a necessity of some great spiritual thought which burdens the soul of the preacher.
Some men dash blindly at a theme wherever they can find a cranny, and as if with pick and shovel seek to force an opening. They begin to write before they are ready. Consequently the opening frequently belies the subject; and the preacher must resort to a muitiplicity of words to explain and modify what would explain and modify itself, if he had not been in too great haste to write. The hearer is bewildered as he is led about in this maze of words, and gets no notion of the theme discussed. People will begin to say that it costs the pastor many words to say few things. He strikes at and around the subject, but never hits it a telling blow. His preaching is much like the blows of a hammer, hitting now here, now there, anywhere except the nail on the head, and at last breaking the nail, or bending it down, rather than driving it home, leaving the smoothly planed board battered by the false blows of an unskillful workman. Preachers should remember that the popular mind demands in preaching, as in everything else, that they say, what they have got to say, in clear, sharp, direct words, which can not be mistaken. Men will bear to be told searching truths, if one does not go round about to do it.
Whenever, as an habitual fact, truth does not gleam from
the preacher's style, does not blaze in his sentences, either it is because he has no truth to utter, or has no definite conception of what he does utter. IIowever one may seek to avoid it, his style will, of necessity, be influenced by his mental state. If his ideas are clear and definite, they will express themselves naturally in a style clear and definite, expressing thought and ringing with ideas. On the other hand, if his ideas are vague and indefinite, his style will inevitably be so. Hence it sometimes happens that audiences gò away without carrying a single point of the sermon to which they have listened. For while it was complete merely as a composition, it thrust out no salient points which the mind could seize upon by which to hold the discussion. Memory requires aids. Unless these are furnished in the method of treating a theme, a discourse must not only slip immediately from the mind, but also it will not present any definite idea which can be fixed upon and held as its central thought. There is far too much talk in the pulpit that amounts to nothing, because of this one fault of indefiniteness in the subject and matter of sermons. Some of our most popular lecturers before lyceums are complete illustrations of our thought. They please you while you listen to them. You are charmed with their elegant style and beautiful language. But you carry nothing away with you. You have absolutely nothing to show for the money you paid for admission. Popular lectures have been a curse to us in a literary point of view. They have helped to cultivate a taste in the people which demands just such vague generalities in the pulpit. The pulpit ought, for its own sake and that of souls, to resist such demands sturdily, and give men bread to eat whether they will or not.
We are speaking of indefiniteness of materiel, as affecting definiteness in preaching. There are two causes. One is want of thorough mastery of a theme before one begins to write. He does not get the matter in him so that it must come out. A great thought does not drive him to his pen. When he is thus forced to utter ideas that have become too great and too clamorous to be kept back, the preacher will have little difficulty in lodging thoughts permanently in the minds of his hearers. It costs too much to write before one is ready. A clergyman, who was accustomed to make a dash at his theme before he had mapped his thought, once confessed to us that often the first hour's labor with the pen was cast aside upon revision of his sermon. Quite unlike those who never revise their thoughts, because their first thoughts, born of careful analysis, are the best. If one becomes master of his theme, so that it presses out at every pore, as it were, he will write under such inspiration that he will rarely be able to improve his thoughts. Sometimes when the mind gets under way upon a theme which fills it, it leads the pen a hob race, but always straight to the mark; for it is too intent to be diverted by unimportant side issues which hinder rather than help the progress of the discussion. Only those minds grasp at side issues, which grope their way blindly, because they do not thoroughly know their theme. One can not ramble an hour with the pen to no purpose, without having the deleterious influence of this hour felt through the whole sermon. The only economical method of writing is to digest thoroughly a plan of labor, before one begins. As a farmer plans his labors, sn should a preacher. A sermon should have a central thought, clearly running through it, which the preacher persistently pursues to the end, and around which every part of the discussion plays. We have sometimes seen the Aurora Borealis center in the zenith and spread down to horizon on every side. So a sermon should be a blaze of light slooting out from one center; and if it seems to illuminate the whole heavens of truth, this light should nevertheless be seen to emanate from but one source. Such a discussion will not be barren and indefinite in its aim.
Subjects often present, in the course of discussion, lines of thought of minor importance in relation to the main subject of the sermon. These must be omitted, because one can not say everything about any theme in a half hour, and because such lines of thought impair the force of the sermon. We once listened to a course of lectures upon a certain subject. The lecturer paused to canvass every minor thought by the way, and at the end the hearers could not find themselves. They were lost in the labyrinth in which the lecturer had led them. If one is not master of his theme, and has not a definite purpose before him as he writes, he will be diverted by these beckoning thoughts, and get lost himself and lose his hearers, so that neither can find their way back to the great highway upon which they started. It requires a thorough mastery of a subject at the out-set-mastery not for ourselves alone, but also for our hearers—to discover just what does and what does not throw light upon a discussion. The effect of such ramifying preaching upon speaker and hearer, is much like that upon a traveler who leaves the main road to explore every by-path at the right or left. A long life would be required to travel a short distance in this method. One can less afford to ramble when speaking as a dying man to dying men. A few sharp blows, direct and powerful, are demanded.
The only law for the preacher in this respect is, to know his theme so well as to take its great highway of thought, and follow that. Then he will not be troubled with indefiniteness of materiel, and his preaching will have directness and force.
We said there are two causes of indefiniteness of materiel, which occasions indefinite preaching. Another cause is, a certain morbid taste demands it. The pews are partly to blame for whatever fault of this character is in the pulpit. If a sermon spreads itself over all the possible extent of ground which a theme can be made to cover, and some more, this taste pronounces it profound and exhaustive; and that too when no thought has been probed to the bottom. Because, perhaps, no one has been hit. There is a taste, we know not what else to name it, which shrinks from the blazing truth. Men are lazy and fat in their worldliness, and do not like to be roused from their lethargy; so that which would be, and would be called, insufferable out of the pulpit, is praised and petted in the pulpit. It is painful to believe that the pulpit has sometimes sacrificed itself to such a popular taste. There is too great a tendency to multiply words without knowledge.