Bill Clinton and the Art of Preaching
Jonathan Martin more from this author »
Let’s get this straight: I believe the kingdom of God to be a radical alternative altogether to the politics of the world. I get very nervous when politicians on either side attempt to co-opt the church for political purposes. I get nervous about civil religion in any form. It is very important to me to maintain the “over/againstness” of the kingdom to both right and left.
That said, I’m a student of rhetoric. I love speeches in general and preaching in particular. It’s art to me. I love to hear speakers of all kinds, because I’m always looking for ways to sharpen my craft. I’ve taken notes from everybody from Martin Luther King to Chris Rock on what effective public speaking looks like. And from a rhetorical perspective, whether you love him or hate him, agree or disagree with him—Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention this year was frankly stunning. That wasn’t just a speech; that was jazz. It was Michael Jordan in game six in his last finals with the Bulls. It was Picasso at the height of his powers. It was everything that has ever worked about Clinton speeches on steroids—folksy, charming, funny, perfectly paced, combative—throwing punches and pulling them when needed.
Before you write me that scathing e-mail, I am making no value judgments as to whether or not he was right. You may have hated every word, found it disingenuous, disagreed with the policies. But there was one thing in particular about the Clinton speech I loved that I find to be a glaring issue in contemporary preaching, and it makes me wish every preacher I know watched it. It’s just this simple: Clinton doesn’t talk down. Clinton doesn’t patronize his audience. Clinton talked substance last night. For all the rhetorical flourishes and homespun charm, that was a speech chock-full of statistics, facts, ideas—in a word, CONTENT. And you can put facts in quotation marks, question the math, say he took things out of context—have at it, I really don’t care. What I’m saying is that today, after the fact, people are doing a remarkable thing: they are talking about whether or not they agree or disagree with the content of his speech. These days, that’s a novelty.
What makes contemporary politics so insulting to me right now is the shameless parade of sound bites. Both sides do it all the time. Politics have become reduced to sentimentality. You say the right word to the right crowd (“Jesus,” “the wealthy,” “the poor,” “the middle class,” “values,”), and nobody cares about whether or not there is an agenda or a plan—they respond emotionally to the words. In political conventions in particular, when folks are playing largely to their party base, real content is conspicuously absent. We have never been dumber. We are accustomed to being talked down to, we are used to being patronized. So it is honestly surprising these days when anybody attempts to engage us with anything like actual ideas.
And while I’m sad to say it, this is just as true about preaching in this day and age. We preachers, like everybody else, largely play to the lowest common denominator. Preachers speak in buzzwords and sound bites. Preachers don’t talk to people as if they are intelligent.
This is getting worse, not better, because most people don’t care and aren’t going to know the difference. In a culture that values style over substance, you can get a sermon to go over just fine without challenging a congregation. We are far past the days when preachers were prophets who paint an alternative vision of the world. We are not expected to be visionaries, but mere marketing experts. We don’t have enough “prophetic imagination” (in Brueggemann’s phrase), or for that matter, real content to actually shape culture.
Part of what makes Clinton so effective these days, beyond decades of just honing his craft, is that he really does traffic in ideas. I’ve listened to multiple interviews with him post-presidency where he was downright brainy, almost frustrating to interviewers in his insistence to talk substantively about the issues. Whether or not you agree with him, you can’t deny he is a guy who does his homework. No wonder he can go off script for roughly 40% of a speech that big and be so effective—he’s practiced enough and researched enough to trust his instincts, and there has been enough discipline to bring freedom in delivery.
I’m a Pentecostal preacher, so I place a high premium on “leaving room for the Spirit” in a sermon. I think the best messages are less like delivering a speech and more like surfing, a constant awareness and sensitivity to what I feel God doing in the room, what I feel people are receiving or not receiving. There is so much more to it than intellectual preparation. My grandfather turned in his badge and gun as a Charlotte police officer and was preaching revivals weeks later, so I don’t think everybody has to go to seminary to be qualified to preach. But I do believe that in preaching as well as political speeches, you’ve got to do your homework!!!
I don’t think I’m a great preacher. I really don’t. But I think not believing I’m great is my greatest strength as a communicator. Every single week I’m scared to death that I’m going to forget how to do this, that I’ll fall flat on my face, that God won’t show up, that it will just be me in my underwear up there babbling about Lord knows what. As a result, I stay hungry. I read more than I have to read. I study more than I have to study. I prepare more than I need to prepare. I think about sermons when I don’t need to think about sermons. There is very little in life or culture that is not potential ammunition for the next Sunday. I try to be attentive to what God is saying in the world everywhere I am and whatever I’m doing.
When it’s time to deliver the message, I go off script ALL THE TIME. And if it works, first and foremost it is because the Spirit of God is faithful to get the right word to the right people at the right time—it’s about His love for people, not my skill as a communicator. But that said, I still find that it takes a lot of work and discipline to have enough in me for the Spirit to use/leverage/organize/direct when I’m in those moments. The WORST preaching I’ve heard in all of my life is from people who “open up their mouths and let the Lord fill it” as they would say, when in reality they just flat haven’t put in the time and done the work.
I long for the day when we as preachers re-learn the work ethic to put in the time pouring over Scripture, roaming through commentaries, looking at the texts from all angles—studying the information, yet giving room for revelation. Being attentive to the context in which the texts were written, being attentive to the context in which our message will be received.
And then stepping to the stage and speaking a challenging word that calls people to rise up instead of dumbing down. I’d love for us to stop insulting the intelligence of our people, and start being unafraid to give them a meal that may not be easy to digest. Do not misunderstand me: I’m not talking about cluttering a sermon with technical theological jargon. That is self-congratulatory at best and cowardly at worst. We don’t want to be smug or impressed with ourselves. I’m talking about, as Jesus did, speaking plain and using metaphors/images that our culture understands—and yet being okay in sharing hard sayings that people may not be able to immediately receive. I’m talking about not saying the reactionary thing, but the nuanced thing.
I saw a bumper sticker years ago that said “If you won’t make me pray in my school I won’t make you think in your church.” Ouch. While overstated, there is truth in the indictment. We’ve got the most important job in the world. We’ve got to be literate in Scripture and literate in culture, because we are charged with painting a vivid picture of an alternative kingdom to the world, and even with the Spirit on our side it’s going to take all we’ve got. We can’t afford to get pulled into the sound bite stupidity of our times, much less speak in sound bites ourselves. There is no place in the world where people should be forced to think harder about God, life, and the world than where the people of God gather.
The message that we’ve got is too important to be unprepared, and too particular to to not be presented with nuance and precision. And people are too valuable to God to be treated like cattle. We should love people enough to aim high, assume the best, play to the highest common denominator rather than the least. We shouldn’t speak in platitudes, we should deliver substance.
After all, our job is more important than giving campaign speeches. While I am fascinated by politics, I have never been more convinced that our current political process is far too broken to bring the kind of change the world needs. I still vote and participate, but I have staked my hope exclusively in the power of the Church to be God’s embodied presence in the world. Thus while the stakes might seem high for a speech like Clinton’s last night, the stakes for what we are given to do on Sunday are considerably higher.
To be certain, real preaching does not work apart from God’s Spirit. We have to look to Him to do that which only He can do. But that doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to do what we are called to do—to study Scripture in context, study our culture in context, and generally prepare like mad. There are no shortcuts for the preacher. We have to completely immerse ourselves in a prophetic vision of the world where the peace of God reigns, and then let God infuse us with the other-worldly confidence to speak the unspeakable. We can’t use the Word as a tool to accomplish our goals, we have to become the tool the Word uses. We can’t just deliver the Word, we have to let the Word deliver us. And that takes time.
Unlike Clinton at the DNC, we aren’t charged with matters so trivial as getting people to vote for our favorite candidate for president. We are charged to give people a vision of Jesus as King—and that’s a much bigger deal.