Dr. Paul Brand was a medical doctor who once served in the Christian Medical College in Vellore, India. On one occasion he was visited by Abbé Pierre, portrayed in the video above, a French monk who had started a work among the beggars in Paris after World War II. The college had a custom of allowing visitors to speak for a few minutes to the medical students during lunch — but only for a few minutes. The students, like students everywhere, were not known for their attentiveness or kindness to visitors.
Abbé Pierre spoke in French through an interpreter. As he did so, he began to speak so rapidly and earnestly that the translators could not keep up with him and gave up. Yet, the passion of the man continued to captivate his listeners. In the end, they gave him a tremendous ovation, although they did not understand most of his message.
Dr. Brand asked a student, “How did you understand? No one here speaks French.” The answer he received was, “We did not need a language. We felt the presence of God and the presence of love” (from Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, pages 54-55).
What is incarnational preaching? It is preaching out of the encounter with God that we live out in our lives.
Bishop William A. Quayle once said that preaching is not the art of making a sermon … it is the art of making a preacher. Phillips Brooks taught that preaching is truth speaking through personality.
Haddon W. Robinson, in defining expository preaching, mentions its incarnational aspects:
Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers.
From Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages
A sermon is a Word that lives in our hearts. It speaks through our whole personality. It is a Word event in our lives, an oral encounter. The Old Testament prophets used the word na’um, “oracle” or “burden,” to describe the messages they received from God, messages that weighed heavily on their hearts (cf. Numbers 23:7, Psalm 36:1, Isaiah 13:1, Jeremiah 23:33-38, Ezekiel 12:10).
The rationalism of the modern era made many of our sermons seem so emotionless and detached from life. We dispensed truth as if we were dishing out food, instead of being prophets and sages. Postmodern preaching ought to be heart-felt. We want to speak out of our personal encounters with the living God.
I have a friend, from the African American tradition, whom I greatly respect. He serves in a small inner-city Baptist church founded by his father. The work is discouraging and difficult and the church barely survives. He and his wife have to work other jobs.
One day, I invited my friend to preach in my church, not because of his fame or connections, but because of his suffering. I knew he could say things I never could have.
Toward the end of his sermon, as he slipped into the rhythmic call and response exhortation of the African American sermon, when the main point is driven home, I could sense him touching lives. His whole personality and his heart-felt emotion spoke to a whole class of people who never responded to me before. It was his life lived before God that was speaking.
Postmodern society is filled with plastic voices. These are the advertisements of our age that call out to people for attention, like painted ladies from corners. The danger we face is to become just another plastic voice. It happens when our message is not backed by our authenticity and our private suffering for God. We become just counterfeit bills floating around the neighborhood stores, until someone finally spots us.
When we allow truth to speak through our whole personality, it means that our greatest moments may come when we least expect them, when our genuineness and immediacy are just there, at a time when people need them, in a way we can never plan. Those times may not be smooth and elegant. There might be raw moments, when spirits fight for dominance. We won’t be able to control ourselves then. Every gesture, every eye glance, every nuance will reveal our authenticity, or lack thereof.
If preaching is truth speaking through personality, we will expect our preaching to reflect our full personality. The development of narrative and inductive sermons in recent decades has been a needed step. We are rediscovering emotion and story and song and drama and metaphor as we seek to teach the faith. The postmodern sermon is sensitive to the significance of non-logical arguments.
Jeremiah smashed clay vessels as he preached. Elijah lay down for months beside a little mud city he built. For three years Isaiah preached stark naked! In the New Testament, Jesus preached parables. From tales about sheep and weeds he drew illogical conclusions about the kingdom of God. Who cares if his reasoning style would be thrown out of a logic classroom—it worked! And when signs and wonders accompanied the early preaching, people responded—not because the power of an argument convinced them, but because the power of God had.
Manuscripts and Incarnational Preaching
Preaching has to be more than reading a manuscript. It is a Voice, nestled in our hearts, that we feel comes from God and that we know we must communicate as we live before God. Paper alone is insufficient to hold a Word like that. Only the human heart can.
The greatest hindrance to whole-personality preaching may be our own preparation.
We should prepare for the preaching moment, but we deceive ourselves if we think we can, through preparation, capture the moment in advance. Preparation does, indeed, heighten our readiness for the preaching event, but preaching is a real-time event. That’s what makes it so unpredictable. When we preach, we engage in live theater of the highest drama, with the fate of the lonely, the lost and the listless at stake.
I have spent hundreds of Sundays straining myself in front of a crowd as I tried to pry words off paper—words I carefully glued there in my Thursday study.
Then, one Sunday I decided to go into the pulpit without weight of manuscript or note. I felt like the prophet Isaiah without a stitch! “It’s just you and me, now, Lord,” I quickly prayed as I left my office for that worship service. Preaching for me was about to become a real-time event.
When I preach without manuscript or with little, I sometimes pause longer than normal. While speaking, sometimes I have no idea why I change course in mid-stream, but then I learn why in the end. Sometimes I’m not as literary-sounding as I would like, but then again, my voice never broke with emotion before. I never found myself speaking words that got the better of me. Once I just talked about God. Now, once in a while, I find God speaking through me.
Dr. David Teague is a theologian, pastor and missionary. He has taught in seminaries in Egypt and now is an adjunct for Gordon-Conwell Seminary, USA.