Too much of a good thing can sometimes make it a bad thing. Especially when it comes to rhetorical devices in preaching. Any strategic tool in speech communication can be overused. But some seem to be implemented much more frequently than others and they lose their edge. Last week I reviewed 5 rhetorical devices that help make preaching more effective. This week we’re looking at 5 that could use a rest.
A hypophora is when the speaker raises a question and then immediately provides the answer. Usually it is a question the speaker thinks might be on the mind of the listener or else it is a question that the listener should be asking if they are thinking critically. This is not the same as a rhetorical question. Rhetorical questions do not need answers. Hypophoras do. This is actually an effective device and I often use it for transitions in my sermons. But it is often overused. Especially when speakers string several of them together as is common. “Am I saying you’re not saved if you sin? No I’m not. Am I saying Christians are perfect? Of course not. But does a saved person continue in unrepentant sin? No. Does a true Christian persist in ignoring sin? Surely not.” There’s nothing wrong with this. It only grates when it appears in your sermons too often. Use it sparingly and use it intentionally.
2. Audience Command
I’m going to put myself in hot water with this one. Many will say this is cultural but I would beg to differ. I’ve seen it everywhere. Preachers like to tell the audience to repeat something after them or to say something in response. It often appears with the familiar “Turn to your neighbor and say…” I am not going to pretend to know where it came from or why it may be more or less prevalent in certain cultures. I am looking at this from the perspective of rhetorical advantage. And I see very little. There are so many other ways to emphasize a point or make it more memorable, it doesn’t seem to me a worthy tool. When I am in the audience I feel silly, bossed around, unsure of which neighbor to turn to… it’s just weird. And if you think I am the only one, I invite you to do a quick Google search and count how many of the hits on the first page are complaints about the practice. If you use this and you pore over your notes to strategically find the right place to use it in a given sermon and you see that it helps drive home the truth, then I would find it hard to argue with that. But if you spontaneously drop it in here and there throughout your sermons extemporaneously, I would challenge you to be more intentional about your approach and consider giving this one a break.
This one’s too easy. We all know this is a hackneyed approach to outlines. But so many preachers still use it in so many of their sermons. This is where every major point begins with the same letter.
The three ingredients to an overcoming life are:
The danger here is not just the cutesiness of it or even the overstay of its welcome. It is the temptation the preacher has to squeeze texts into the alliteration mold. Perhaps the passage really does point to the necessity of prayer and the importance of patience but ends on a note of hope in Christ’s return. The preacher might say, “Okay hope… hmm… I need a “P”. A “P” would be great… Well perseverance is related to hope…” I would much rather shed the shackles of this sermon shape (you saw that) and just say what the text says without alliterating it, rhyming it or in any way conforming it to sound better if it does not accurately reflect the meaning of the passage.
4. Proxemic Movement
Proxemics, a term coined by Edward T. Hall in the early 60’s, refers to the effect personal space has on interpersonal communication. If you ever thought someone talking to you three inches from your face felt violating, you get the idea. In public discourse, proxemics is about the distance the speaker keeps from the audience. By proxemic movement I mean the way in which a speaker changes proxemic effect by moving toward or away from the audience. In most scenarios, as congregations or audiences gather, the front two or so rows tend to remain empty. I call these “buffer rows.” People generally do not like to sit that close to the speaker. Some preachers, presumably in order to compensate, leave the pulpit to approach the front row. They will often “pace” the aisles. When I am in the first rows and the preacher passes me to close the distance with the rows behind me, even for just a few moments, I never know what to do. Do I strain to turn? Do I look at the empty platform?
Use movement intentionally. But I would rethink the pacing of the aisles. Maintain eye contact with the whole group. Move in ways that communicate. Perhaps you step to the right of the pulpit when you are talking about bondage in Egypt. You step to the middle again when you reference the wilderness experience. You step to the left when you say a few words about the promised “better country.” Pacing (in any direction) is a nervous leak. We want to stamp that out as a habit. Walking toward the audience can be effective. But when it is every sermon or multiple times per sermon, it becomes a non-verbal disfluency rather than a strategic aid.
Repetition is a powerful tool. Most listeners are not going to remember an important point if you say it only once. So you should say it more than once. Repetition, without a doubt, is a powerful tool. But it can be overdone. Rather than using the same words and phrases, consider saying the same thing but by swapping out the subject or the predicate or both. This is restatement.
We should cast our anxieties on God because he cares for us.
We need to take our cares to God because he cares for us.
We must leave our worries with the Lord because he demonstrates his love for us.
Repetition is necessary in every sermon. But restatement drives it home without overdoing it. Our concern is not that they memorize catchphrases. We want them to learn the truth, however it is worded. So long as the words accurately reflect the intention of the passage. Saying the same thing again, but with different words, is an advantageous strategy.