The Words Get in the Way
by Waldemar E. Meyer (November / December 2001 • Volume 17 • Number 6)
If a preacher is attempting to provide a visual experience for the hearers, why let words get in the way? Why not proceed directly to a picture? It may help to get your listener's attention.
What would you say if you saw the drawing above on your sermon notes in the pulpit Sunday morning? Or would you try not to say anything from the pulpit, and wait until you could get hold of that 5-year-old preacher's kid who must have been drawing on things he was not supposed to again?
What I said when I came to that picture in my outline was that the Israelites made a golden calf while Moses was on the mountain. They had sacrificed some of their most precious jewelry to acquire this calf. If turtle wax for calves had been invented back then, they would have brought out the shine and pulled it out of the garage only when the weather was nice.
But the calf was bound to disappoint them, just as happens every time God's people break the first commandment and construct other gods. There is always the first scratch, or worse, the first time it gets hauled off by the tow truck and we receive a large repair bill before we can get our calf back.
My sermon outlines are full of pictures. For me they have grown from being a helpful to being a central element in my style of proclamation.
Why draw pictures?
It is certainly not because I am a good artist. I have worked long and hard drawing the pictures for this article. Normally those in the pulpit are recognizable only to me.
I draw pictures because they take a more direct route to the listener's attention. Many preachers like myself have been trying to preach visually over the past couple of decades. The literature is plentiful about the need for this approach to today's hearers. But if a preacher is attempting to provide a visual experience for the hearers, why let words get in the way? Why not proceed directly to the picture?
Drawings ensure that at least one person in the church that day, the preacher, will be able to see what is happening in the sermon. If the preacher can see it, there is at least a chance that others may see and experience it as well.
What would cause an exegetically trained preacher to turn from designing traditional outlines for use in the pulpit to drawing pictures?
I did not always draw pictures. In seminary we were taught to use an outline, not a manuscript, in the pulpit. We were taught a very useful procedure called "functional memorization." It meant that you would know your outline so well that you could probably do without it. You would memorize the headings and subheadings, probably about 12 sentences. You would spend additional time getting your introduction and conclusion down nearly word for word. This served very well for years. Then the preaching literature began to tell of a change in the way people think and listen. Suddenly, the words seemed to get in the way.
I have been drawing more and more pictures on my outlines as the years pass. I hesitate to call them "outlines" anymore because they possess fewer and fewer of the elements of an outline.
On my early sermons, I would sometimes draw a simple cross on the outline to remind me that this was the place where I should not forget to tell the gospel. After a few years, I dropped the numbers and letters for the headings and subheadings. Then I stopped putting subheadings in order and rearranged them according to their relation to each other. So if I wanted to speak of increasing discouragement, the factors or stages might be written resembling stairs heading downward.
When pictures started appearing on my outlines, they were small and usually one per sermon. Now I often eliminate words altogether for major sections of the "outline."
I preached on the Jonah 3 text for the Third Sunday of Epiphany in 1994 and again in 1997. The former outline was all words except for one picture, a small whale complete with spout of water coming from the top. The latter had an elaborate progression tracing Jonah's journey from the mouth of the whale through various encounters with the people he detested along the three-day journey into Nineveh. I could have written that the cattle also put on sackcloth (v. 8), but a bit of the astonishment that Jonah experienced at Nineveh's complete and universal repentance occurred to me also when I saw the cow thus clad on my outline.
Words seem to have served the communication needs of humanity well for some time. Was there a problem with words?
Words were not originally written down. They served the purpose of copying a picture from one person's memory and pasting it in another person's imagination. Since it was inconvenient to recreate the hunt scene, the story was told with a combination of visual and increasingly verbal communication tools. (The visual method is still used, as you will see if you ask someone about the last fish he or she caught.) When common convention accepted that the vocable "deer" meant a certain animal, stories got easier to tell, though slightly further removed from the reality of actually holding hands on one's head to represent antlers.
The first written language was pictures. But efficiency demanded that letters be devised and allowed to represent sounds and parts of a word. Written communication became much less cumbersome then, but again it was not as realistic as a good cave painting of a dying deer.
Moving from hunting stories to faith stories, drama arose in the church to recreate events from the Bible or contemporary situations in a way that preaching could not. Spoken words are a step further removed from the reality. Yet, with good eye contact and a few good motions, with the preacher seeing the action right there in the room and pointing out the location of the characters, the imagination of the hearers allows them to receive the message.
Writing the words down puts one more obstacle between the event and the hearer. It requires the preacher to go from words on a page to a picture in her mind to words spokenthree stagesbefore the event can be imagined. Beginning with a picture eliminates the need for the first stage.
Are words really that bad?
In defense of words, these combinations of letters also represent pictures themselves. Teachers of reading tell us that after we get to a certain level in our reading, we do not look at the individual letters and sound the word out anymore. We actually recognize a combination of letters and understand what is meant. Look, for instance, at the word "knife." It would not pay us to sound it out since the "k" is silent. Nor do we take time to remember the principle that we are not to pronounce the first letter. The image of this kitchen tool or weapon simply comes to our minds, probably with many connotations and remembered experiences with knives.
If, on the other hand, you saw the word spelled "nife," you could sound it out all right, but it would take you longer to actually picture a knife than if you saw it spelled correctly.
But words still cannot do what pictures can. Suppose you want to dramatize Amos 5:18-19. Here the prophet warns those hoping for the day of the Lord that what is to come may be worse than what they now have. Amos writes that it is as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. You could write "Lion...Bear...Snake" on the outline and would remember the sequence.
But why not draw a lion, a bear, and a man leaning against the wall having escaped the others and putting his hand on a snake? This is a simple example, and it may not have been necessary even to use the key words for all three animals to remind yourself. The big advantage, though, is that you not only are reminded which animal comes first, second, and third. You also picture the event and focus on the action rather than on accurate sequence and saying correct words.
Will listeners who may be less visual have trouble following a visual type of preaching?
Like who? Everyone thinks visually. Some people have developed abilities for abstract thinking better than others have. But they have not lost their ability to comprehend the language of events.
Are there some sermons where this will not work?
No doubt! Pictures on the outline work when content is more visual than cerebral. It is also true that drawing on the outline may encourage moving toward more visual sermons.
Are there some scriptural texts where this will not work?
Probably not. There is a story on each side of every deeply theological text. Something happened before Paul's theological reflections, and Paul hoped that something would happen also as a result of his reflections. Those stories may be visualized and thus drawn.
We also can look for picture words or action words within the theological texts themselves. In Ephesians 2:11-22 concerning reconciliation, even if we avoid the delicate and crassly visual subject of circumcision (11), we find aliens and strangers being brought near (12-13), creating one new humanity in place of the two (15), and building upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone (20). The most active part of this text may be where Christ has broken down the dividing wall (14).
In a sermon on this text entitled "A Sinner-Accessible Church," I invited the people to visualize with me a church with a wheelchair ramp in front that bypassed a long set of stairs. As one opened the door of the church, however, a large brick wall stood just inside. As one negotiated the way around this wall, there were other walls all through the church, creating a maze separating the one who would worship from the altar. The walls represented not the obligation of circumcision but all the other obstacles that separate people from people and people from their Lord. They included things from race or social status to dress to merely being new.
Is this method important or merely interesting?
It is not on the level of importance of, say, the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. It does not save us. But it does make communication of the Word of God easier.
Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh. In God's Word, God not only said something but did something. What God did is the whole salvation story of Jesus Christ and his life, death, and resurrection. Words have always gotten in the way. Look what Paul did to Eutychus. We are merely trying to get a little closer to God's action. As John wrote, these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and that believing you may have life in his name (20:31). The same is the purpose of these pictures.
How do I start drawing visual outlines? What if my whole sermon does not lend itself to a picture?
If the sermon takes the form of a narrative without any explanation or reflection before or after, it is possible that a picture or series of pictures could do the whole job. Most sermons would be better outlined using at least some words. At the same time, almost all sermons will have parts that are visual. Mix and match, especially while becoming comfortable with this form. A two-minute section using picture notes in next week's sermon should be enough to tell you whether you would like to expand your use of this technique.
In a recent sermon on Amos 7 I drew a plumb line held against a crooked wall. God could have told Amos about a plumb line but chose instead to show him one. The prophet spoke about much more than just construction tools. He prophesied of crooked practices taking place in buildings of commerce, worship, and the royal house.
I could preach prophetically about sinful practices, but my initial drawing led me in my sermon preparation to see in v. 9 not just practices but buildings that were crooked, bent in on themselves. So there appeared more drawings on the outline. I thought of the cross where Jesus died for all those crooked practices, and it occurred to me that the cross was probably not all that straight and plumb either, dropped into place not by craftsmen but by torturers. So another picture appeared on my outline. It gave a unity to the sermon.
But the main advantage of the picture at the beginning of the outline is that, as much as my poor drawings could manage, I was seeing what Amos was seeing and what Amos wanted his congregation to see. Hopefully our hearers will also see as the prophet did, if God gives them and us the vision.
Waldemar E. Meyer is pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Pensacola, Florida.This article is published by permission. It was originally published in Preaching magazine in the May/June 1999 issue.