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Great Preaching: What blacks and whites can learn from each other

Cleophus LaRue believes that black preachers and white preachers could make sermons more powerful by applying the best insights of the other's traditions.

Imagination. Information. Inspiration. What if you had to listen to Sunday sermons marked by only one of those qualities?

White preachers are often stereotyped as boring their listeners with information. Many black preachers are stereotyped as mesmerizing listeners with inspirational delivery but little content.

Though neither stereotype is fair, both white congregations and preachers and black congregations and preachers would benefit if they learned from the best of each other's traditions, according to Cleo LaRue. He is an author, ordained Baptist minister, and Francis Landey Patton Associate Professor of Homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary.

For preachers of any race, he says, imagination is the starting point. Imagination shapes information and inspiration into sermons that matter.

Stoke, organize, and massage the imagination

In his most recent public lectures at Calvin College, LaRue drew a roomful of chuckles when he advised preachers against suppressing their imagination before turning to commentaries. "You don't want to be an Einstein and talk over people's heads. You don't want to be a Tarzan either, just yelling and screaming.

"God in heaven knows there's a place for concordances, Bible dictionaries, commentaries, and scholarly pieces. Put yourself in conversation with them. They're not your gods, but they are your guides. These tools help your imagination take off toward a point," he said.

For example, when you know that Jesus used an imperative tone with the leaders who criticized the woman who anointed him with pure nard, then you know it's sometimes okay to be righteously angry or to command.

LaRue also advised preachers to feel free to add creative thoughts after they've finished writing a sermon. "A manuscript is but an arrested performance that can only be brought alive by the human voice.

"Entertain the thoughts even if they make you blush. Think of the women you know who have been cast aside. Imagine how the woman in Mark 14 might have felt to be welcomed by Christ. Thanks be to God for an openness to giftedness!" he said.

The point is engagement

LaRue used video clips to show how preachers as diverse as Barbara Brown Taylor, an author and small-town Episcopal preacher turned professor, and Johnny Ray Youngblood, senior pastor of Brooklyn's huge Saint Paul Community Baptist Church, demonstrate "organization and the power of words to evoke emotion. They accept the responsibility to prepare."

Barbara Brown Taylor has said she chooses words and stories that bring about palpable changes in body, spirit, and emotion. Yet her delivery is often understated, because she sees an inverse relationship between emotion produced by the preacher and emotion induced in the listener.

Johnny Ray Youngblood gets down to the nitty-gritty of exegesis, explaining the distinctives of a particular gospel or the significance of a pronoun in a single verse. His sermon delivery, however, is classic black preaching, exercising the full range of emotion and vocal pitch and inviting his listeners into call-and-response participation.

In the question and answer sessions after his Calvin College lectures, LaRue and his audience discussed how every great preacher aims to engage listeners. But preachers are free to match their own personal mix of imagination, information, and inspiration to their congregation's context.

Some white congregations may feel uncomfortable with strongly-expressed emotions. Some black congregations may respond best to an emotional preacher. The reverses may be true as well. And if preachers and congregations interacted more with other traditions, they'd find a fuller experience of preaching and hearing God's word.

Learning from each other

LaRue said that too many seminaries still treat learning as "a one-way street. Twenty centuries of preachers can be taught without ever mentioning the name of a black preacher. They may invoke the name of Martin Luther King Jr., but seldom is any effort made to look at the long line of preachers that shaped him."

Too many seminary professors don't know or don't acknowledge that many of their black students come to preaching class with more preaching experience than their white counterparts. And when seminary professors focus on issues relevant to white churches-such as that many mainline congregations dislike long sermon introductions and deductive three-point sermons-black students experience a disconnect.

The consequence? "Hearing little about the black preaching tradition they know causes them to turn a deaf ear to what they need to know-the formal tools of investigation and the in-depth theological insights one receives from completion of a certified theological program," LaRue said.

Meanwhile, white students miss out on hearing how black preachers prepare and deliver authoritative, deductive, three-point sermons that still elicit many an Amen from worshipers eager to hear and apply the Sunday message.

Black seminarians often come to class with more preaching experience, because "the black church sees its role in training the minister as important as the seminary's role. In general, when you announce your call, you are placed under a seasoned pastor who will guide and direct you.

"'Next Tuesday you will preach your first sermon. The church will make an assessment of your gifts.' The young preacher makes his or her best pitch. Sometimes the church decides that he or she has not demonstrated a call or is not yet ready to go to seminary. Otherwise the church shapes, directs, and teaches the newly-called preacher," La Rue said.

In mainline white churches, however, those who feel called to ministry must first go to a seminary and get certified before they are declared fit to preach or have a chance to work with accomplished pastors. "Seminaries get many who are not ready," LaRue said.

Besides helping would-be preachers assess whether they have the gifts, black congregations give continual feedback during sermons. They also offer more grace before tuning out.

In a recent survey of Calvin Theological Seminary graduates, most of whom preach to white congregations, 43% said they wish they had more accountability in preaching. In other words, white congregations and preachers could benefit from the black tradition of taking a more active role in identifying, training, guiding, and giving feedback to preachers.

Though his lectures focused on differences between black and white preaching traditions, LaRue concluded: "We need preachers who understand the best insights of each tradition. Those who resist and refuse will find themselves preaching to smaller congregations. Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, and others have much to contribute. As we move into a more diverse era, the Holy Spirit will help us appreciate each others' aesthetics."

Learn More

Cleo LaRue is an expert on black preaching. Listen to his address on this topic. Read, listen to, or watch a LaRue sermon, or read his books, The Heart of Black Preaching and Power in the Pulpit: How America's Most Effective Black Preachers Prepare Their Sermons.

Watch video clips of more than 30 preachers, including Barbara Brown Taylor and Johnny Ray Youngblood, in the Great Preachers series. Many denominational offices own and loan out videos from this series.

Plan a series of meetings to discuss the book Preaching in Black and White by Warren Wiersbe and the late E.K. Bailey. The book comes with a CD.

Read The Liberating Pulpit, a book on Hispanic preaching by Justo and Catherine González. Theologian Justo González says that limited income prevents many Hispanic pastors from pursuing seminary degrees.

View a video of Thomas G. Long's address "Preaching to a Postmodern Culture." Long supervised LaRue's dissertation.

Start a Discussion

  • What criteria does your church use for evaluating good preaching? Who is in charge of communicating this to your preacher(s)?
  • How comfortable are your congregation and preacher with audible audience response during the sermon? Do you find it helpful, disruptive, something else? What changes would you like to see?
  • How much responsibility does your congregation feel for identifying or training would-be pastors?
  • What are the advantages (or disadvantages) of sending would-be pastors to seminary?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to learn from preachers and congregations of other races?

  • Have you invited preachers from another race-or volunteered your own expertise-to preach or talk about one culture's preaching and listening traditions?
  • Have you arranged a dialogue among ministers of different races so you can share resources on preparing sermons or improving your ability to connect with listeners?
  • What are the best seminars, conferences, or books you've found for learning more about preaching? Have you spread the news through book reviews, online postings, or other means?
  • What are the best ways your church has found to identify or disciple newly-called preachers?