Preaching specialist Cleophus J. LaRue shared--and demonstrated--tips on great preaching with students at Samford University' Beeson Divinity School during a series of lectures Feb. 20-22.
"The number one thing a pulpit search committee wants to know about a prospect is if he or she can preach," he said.
Regardless of a church's quality programs and ministries, the committee knows that getting people to church depends a lot on what they hear from the pulpit on Sunday, said Dr. LaRue, presenter of this year's William E. Conger, Jr. Lectures on Biblical Preaching at Beeson.
LaRue is professor of homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he earned master of divinity and Ph.D degrees. A specialist in the theory and method of African-American preaching and worship, he also holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Baylor University.
In the second of his three Conger presentations, LaRue, an ordained minister in the National Baptist Convention of America, suggested ways to improve preaching skills.
Listening to good preaching is a start. "Listen to preachers in whom you have found something that draws you," advised LaRue. Much is lost in the written sermon, he said, such as intonation, inflection or the twinkle in the preacher's eye. "Emulate, but do not imitate," he cautioned.
Study and persistence are also important, he said, but before preparation can begin, there must be a desire to proclaim the word. "Look to Sunday's sermon not as a chore, but as an opportunity," he said.
LaRue also urged students to focus on the people who will sit in the pews. People have different concerns and needs, whether teens with peer pressure, adults with career challenges or senior citizens struggling with decisions about the future. "They all sit on Sunday morning wanting to know is the word from the Lord and is it true."
Different people hear the gospel in different ways, he noted. Some prefer the rational style presented in a logical straight-forward manner, while others prefer the narrative style accompanied with a story. Some people relate better to images and metaphors.
Good preaching, he said, is born of keen insight into the human situation. "Good preachers are inquisitive. Go and observe life," he advised, adding that preachers should possess the twin powers of observation and imagination.
"Above all, tell it like it is the truth, like it is the saving power. Be prepared and articulate, and speak with authority," he said of sharing the gospel message.
LaRue illustrated his final point with the story of a lawyer who returned to his home town to defend a guilty man who was on trial. Arriving in town on Sunday, he attended a sermon preached by a less than enthusiastic preacher whose congregation was in fast decline.
The attorney invited his discouraged preacher-friend to attend the next day's trial, at which his convincing presentation coaxed the jury to a non-guilty verdict.
"The lawyer then said to the preacher, I told a lie like it was the truth, and you told the truth like it was a lie,'" said LaRue.
In the gospel, he said, "We have the truth, so tell it like it is the truth."
Guests at LaRue's opening sermon on Feb. 20 included Mrs. Betty Conger, widow of the late Colonel Conger for whom the series is named, and famed theologian/educator Dr. James Earl Massey, a two-time Conger lecturer.