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Lessons In Preaching From Harry Emerson Fosdick
By Victor Parachin
“Preaching is personal counseling on a group basis.”
That simple statement of preaching philosophy was articulated by Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969). Regarded by many as a master preacher, his sermons attracted huge congregations and radio audiences.
The Baptist minister graduated from Union Theological Seminary in 1904. Fosdick served several churches in the New York City area and worked as a chaplain during World War I.
He quickly established himself as a gifted preacher, even capturing the attention of oil tycoon and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller. At the time Rockefeller was the main benefactor of the Riverside Church, a large cathedral church being built in upper Manhattan. At Rockefeller’s urging, Fosdick became the church’s first pastor in 1926, a position he held for 20 years.
Fosdick was arguably one of the most influential clergymen and preachers in American history. In addition to preaching several times weekly, he taught preaching at Union Theological Seminary, authored 47 books, and wrote hundreds of magazine articles. He delivered sermons for NBC’s National Vespers Hour, which aired for 19 years and was carried on short-wave radio to 17 countries. Fosdick appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in 1925 and 1930.
In 1928, Fosdick wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine titled, “What Is The Matter With Preaching?” Published in July of that year, the article included 12 timeless observations on preaching.
1. There Are Too Many Mediocre Sermons
In Fosdick’s day, as in ours, many sermons were forgettable.
Fosdick lamented the mediocre and uninteresting sermon, saying, “It produces this effect of emptiness and futility, largely because it establishes no connection with the real interests of the congregation.”
Fosdick’s observation should be a wake-up call to every minister serving a congregation. Clergy are often unaware of their congregants’ needs and life circumstances. They miss the vital concerns of the laity who come hoping to hear helpful words of inspiration.
Fosdick wrote, “It is pathetic to observe the number of preachers who commonly on Sunday speak religious pieces in the pulpit, utterly failing to establish real contact with the thinking or practical interests of their auditors.”
2. Every Sermon Should Help Listeners Solve Some Problem
Some people today dismiss the “self-help” sermon. Yet Fosdick advocated helping parishioners with daily issues. A sermon that addresses real needs demonstrates the gospel’s relevance.
“Every sermon should have for its main business the solving of some problem — a vital, important problem puzzling minds, burdening consciences,” Fosdick said. “Any sermon which thus does tackle a real problem, throw even a little light on it, and help some individuals practically to find their way through it cannot be altogether uninteresting.”
3. The Theme Should Be Identified Early in the Sermon
Listeners want to know up front where the sermon is going. The opening statements should capture their attention and convince them to keep listening.
Fosdick wrote: “Within a paragraph or two after a sermon has started, wide areas of any congregation ought to begin recognizing that the preacher is tackling something of vital concern to them … handling a subject they are puzzled about, or a way of living they have dangerously experimented with, or an experience that has bewildered them, or a sin that has come perilously near to wrecking them, or an ideal they have been trying to make real, or a need they have not known how to meet. One way or another, they should see that he is engaged in a serious and practical endeavor to state fairly a problem which actually exists in their lives and then to throw what light on it he can.”
4. Addressing the Needs of People is the Main Task of the Preacher
People in the pews find sermons interesting when their needs and concerns are addressed.
“Any preacher who even with moderate skill is thus helping folk to solve their real problems is functioning,” Fosdick said. “He will never lack an audience. He may have neither eloquence nor learning, but he is doing the one thing that is a preacher’s business. He is delivering the goods that the community has a right to expect from the pulpit as much as it has a right to expect shoes from a cobbler. And if any preacher is not doing this, even though he [may] have at his disposal both erudition and oratory, he is not functioning at all.”
5. Be Cautious with Expository Preaching
According to Fosdick, expository messages fixated on minute bits of Bible history or trivia fall flat with most listeners. Unless congregants see a way to apply the message to their lives, they probably won’t care or remember.
“Only the preacher proceeds upon the idea that folk come to church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites,” Fosdick said. “The result is that folks less and less come to church at all.”
6. Allow the Bible to Shed Light on Modern Living
Though Fosdick disdained some of the expository preaching of his day, he believed the Bible has great power to guide people of every generation.
“It has light to shed on all sorts of human problems now and always,” Fosdick said. “What all the great writers of Scriptures were interested in was human living, and the modern preacher who honors them should start with that, should clearly visualize some real need, perplexity, sin, or desire in his auditors, and then should throw on the problem all the light he can find in the Scripture or anywhere else. No matter what one’s theory about the Bible is, this is the effective approach to preaching. The Bible is a searchlight … to be thrown upon a shadowed spot.”
7. Know Your Audience
From politicians to preachers, the most effective communicators know their audience. Fosdick urged clergy to get close to people and understand the struggles they face on a daily basis.
“A wise preacher can so build his sermon that it will be not a dogmatic monologue, but a cooperative dialogue in which all sorts of things in the minds of the congregation — objections, questions, doubts, and confirmations — will be brought to the front and fairly dealt with. This requires clairvoyance on the preacher’s part as to what the people are thinking, but any man who lacks that has no business to preach anyway.”
8. Appreciate the Difference between an Essay and a Sermon
Fosdick said too many sermons appeal to the intellect without stirring emotions.
“Here lies a basic distinction between a sermon and an essay,” Fosdick wrote. “The outstanding criticism … against a great deal of our preaching is that though it consists of neat, analytical discourses, pertinent to real problems and often well conceived and well phrased, it does nothing to anybody. Such sermons are not sermons but essays.
“It is lamentably easy to preach feebly about repentance without making anybody feel like repenting, or to deliver an accomplished discourse on peace without producing any of that valuable article in the auditors. On the other hand, a true preacher is creative. He does more than discuss a subject; he produces the thing itself in the people who hear it.”
9. The Goal of Preaching is Transformation
Transformation should be paramount in the mind of every person who prepares a sermon. Sadly, however, this is not always the case. Fosdick bemoaned the preaching of his day that brought about no results.
“One often reads modern sermons with amazement,” Fosdick said. “How do the preachers expect to get anything done in human life with such discourses? They do not come within reaching distance of any powerful motives in man’s conduct.
“They are keyed to argumentation rather than creation. They produce essays, which means that they are chiefly concerned with the elucidation of a theme. If they were producing sermons they would be chiefly concerned with the transformation of personality.”
10. Effective Preaching Empowers People
A sermon that resonates with listeners moves them to reflect, act, change, and seek further information and assistance. Fosdick said clergy who understand and address their flock’s problems, troubles, motives, failures, and desires will see transformation take place in their lives.
“People habitually come up after the sermon, not to offer some bland compliment, but to say, ‘How did you know I was facing that problem only this week? or ‘We were discussing that very matter at dinner last night,’ or, best of all, ‘I think you would understand my case — may I have a personal interview with you?’ This, I take it, is the final test of a sermon’s worth: how many individuals wish to see the preacher alone?”
11. Preaching is Challenging but Rewarding
Those who are committed to excellence in preaching know that each week the task includes hours of research, writing, rewriting, and mental rehearsal. Aware of the challenges, Fosdick also reminded preachers of the rewards.
“Of course, nothing can make preaching easy,” he said. “At best it means drenching a congregation with one’s lifeblood. But while, like all high work, it involves severe concentration, toil, and self-expenditure, it can be so exhilarating as to recreate in the preacher the strength it takes from him, as good agriculture replaces the soil it uses.”
12. Poor Preachers Can Improve
Fosdick did not write off weak and ineffective preachers. He maintained that ministers lacking natural gifts for communication can improve.
“No one need preach uninteresting sermons,” he said. “The fault generally lies not in the essential quality of the man’s mind or character, but in his mistaken methods. He has been wrongly trained, or he has blundered into a faulty approach, or he never has clearly seen what he should be trying to do in a sermon, and so, having no aim, hits the target only by accident.”
Such problems are correctable. Those who wish to improve their preaching skills can do so by taking additional courses in preaching and public speaking; reading about preaching; studying the sermons of outstanding preachers; and carefully listening to other gifted speakers. These time investments can help nudge an ordinary preacher into the realm of the extraordinary.
Today’s ministers can learn a lot from the men and women of God who have gone before them. Wisdom gleaned from the past may help transform lives today.