In the last week or so, I have had a couple of conversations regarding the Black Preaching Tradition and using it to improve sermonic construction, delivery, and reception. One Black Preacher, when he found out that I was the primary contributor to SoulPreaching.Com, told me that he was seeking to implement elements of the tradition. He then began to talk about some of the media preachers. This preacher even called one of these media preachers a genius in Black Preaching. I asked him what was so appealing about the preacher. He then talked mostly about stylistic concerns.
My preacher friend fell into the trap of thinking that the Black Preaching Tradition is only about style. He wanted to “preach black” and thus he attempted to incorporate the style of the popular preacher. Certainly there is nothing wrong with learning from others, but we must not fall into the trap of thinking that this is all there is to the tradition. Certainly there are stylistic concerns. But there is also the tendency of the Black Preacher to address certain themes. The tendency to look from the angle of the underdog and those who live “with their back against the wall.” There is a tendency, in Black Preaching, to see the practical rather than a theoretical angle. There is a tendency, in sermons according to the tradition, to see God on the side of humanity in real ways. These concerns, and many other important ones, were lost on this preacher as he was attempting to just emulate the style, a style that can be used to preach anything, including things antithetical to the Gospel as well as what God has traditionally used the African American Preacher to preach.
In the seminar that I just presented, we talked about the Black Preaching Tradition in terms of Style, Sermonic Structure, Bible Interpretive Approach, and Common Folk Theology. These dimensions are all aspects of the tradition. To diminish or ignore one is to not address the full counsel. Someone may shout. Someone may whoop, but that don’t make them stand in the line of the great tradition that gave us birth. Let’s be true to the whole tradition and not abuse it for a “cheap shout.”
Henry Mitchell’s book Celebration and Experience in Preaching provides 2 very important sermonic structural components that can guide the preacher in structuring Black Sermons. The first component is celebration. Mitchell argues that celebration is the pervasive distinctive that Black preaching brings to the homiletic universe. Black preaching appeals to the emotive and the intuitive to promote a holistic celebration of the Gospel. I have written on Mitchell’s celebration idea in this article.
The second component of Mitchell’s book is a discussion of what he calls the “genres of preaching.” These are different structures that effective sermons in the Black tradition take.
Vincent Wimbush, in his book The Bible and African Americans, provides a way to analyze how the Bible is operative in the Black sermon. You can read about Wimbush’s description of Black Bible reading at this link. Cleophus LaRue, in his book The Heart of Black Preaching, provides a way to analyze how Black culture is addressed in sermons. I have written on LaRue’s way of doing this at this link. Mitchell gives us a way to look at how these two perspectives are brought together in a sermon. Many of Mitchell’s sermon types are simply variations on a narrative theme.
The first genre is narrative. Here the preacher preaches a sermon like a story. There must be a protagonist, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. Then at the end of the sermon there is a celebration of the resolution.
The second genre is the character sketch. Here the preacher presents one character of the Bible and preaches that character. The preacher must look at many places in the Bible to piece together the sketch. In addition, the preacher will have to use imagination to fill in gaps left by the Biblical record.
The third genre is the group study. This sermon type is just like the character study only we look at a group instead of an individual. Just like the character sketch the preacher will look all through the Bible for references to put together the story.
The forth genre is the dialogue type. In this type of sermon you bring a real conversation from the scriptures into the pulpit. The next one is the Monologue and Testimony. This is like the dialog only you take one side of the conversation and tell it. It is a story in the first person.
Another important genre is the metaphors similes and analogues. Here the preacher uses one of these to build a sermon around. An example might be the metaphor of a bridge and then you can talk about how the bridge demonstrates your sermon. Another example would be to use the car as a metaphor. Here the preacher might take each major component of the car and make it a point in the sermon. Finally there is stream of consciousness sermon. Here the preacher simply jumps into the scripture and walks around and follows the scripture.
To create the sermon you must internalize the text. You must be able to look at the sights in the text. You must smell the stench or perfume in the text. This type of preaching is not only intellectual, but also experiential. You have to really live in the text to get the details out of it that you need to preach these kinds of sermons. Click here to listen to an audio about how to really experience the text.
Next you must have a behavioral purpose to a sermon. You need to know what you are trying to say and why. You cannot just preach without a purpose if you are to be an effective preacher in the Mitchell Method.
Finally, you need to close with a strong celebration. You should celebrate the gospel in the sermon if you are to be a strong preacher making use of Mitchell’s method.
Henry Mitchell notes that these two features of Black Preaching Style are not as dominant as other ones. Mitchell notes that aphorisms are common in all traditions of preaching, but aphorisms or “clever, pithy statements.”
Mitchell notes and I concur that these short statements actually bring forth a strong response from the people. Mitchell notes that these short pithy statements can open the door to congregation attention.
Another Black Preaching Style component is the Hesitation. Here the preacher stammers in a way that implies that the preacher is grasping for the correct words. It builds a connection with the congregation. While both of these are not necessary, the aphorisms can be helpful especially as a sermon title.
As we continue our series on Black Preaching Style, Henry Mitchell notes that a slower rate of vocal speed is usually used when presenting Black sermons. He notes that there are those who do have rapid fire delivery. Dr. Frederick D. Haynes III seems to have such a rapid delivery and he is definitely an accomplished preacher in the Black Preaching Tradition, but I would tend to agree with Mitchell’s thesis that most black preachers “take their time” in the speed of their delivery.
Mitchell notes that the rate is “measured to increase comprehension.” In addition Mitchell believes that this comprehensive is holistic, he states:
The Fundamental significance of the slow rate is impact on the whole person: on cognitive, intuitive, and emotive consciousness. (Black Preaching, 96)
Mitchell sees that the Negro Spiritual “Lord I want to be a Christian in my heart” mirrors the Black Preaching Tradition, or the tradition mirrors the spiritual. This is because of its few words, delivered slowly with much repetition.
Mitchell closes the section by saying:
The slow rate of Black preaching, as well as repetition, is the natural pattern of Black speaking and singing , neither of which is prone to depend on great numbers of words or abstract thought.
Mitchell is not arguing that there is not much content, only as stated above, that the content is holistic affecting the whole person.
There are some preachers who say way too much in a sermon. The Black Preaching Tradition can help to drive home that one idea that you are trying to teach. Instead of giving a ton of ideas, think of your main one, and just slowly give it and repeat it in various ways. But like all these stylistic components of the Black Preaching Tradition, always be true to the individual that God made you to be as you holistically present the Gospel.
Henry Mitchell states: “Real soul preaching demands rhetorical flair” in the book Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art. He also states: “The flow and phraseology of the King James Version will never die in America while Black Christianity stays Black.”
Black preaching demands not just saying what you want to say, but the way in which you say it. The preacher should use “rhetorical flair” to aid the presentation of the gospel through the sermonic event.
This is why I suggest that one should have at least three edits of the black preacher’s sermon manuscript. One of them is a rhetorical edit. Here you should attempt to say what you say in as poetic a way as possible. You can download the free book You Can Preach where I describe this.
Also related to this, Mitchell notes that the preacher should not attempt to be objective in the presentation. The preacher is not objective but is invested deeply in the presentation. The preacher is attempting to give God’s side of the story and to be a vehicle to convert others to that view.
The preacher is not an objective reporter of the news, but a subjective cheerleader for the gospel. When the preacher takes into account the actual word choice and attempt to line that up with the behavioral purpose of the sermon then it will have a good chance of reaching the deep “core belief” of the hearers.