Friday, March 7, 2014

The Moment of Truth (Book Review)

The Moment of Truth: A Guide to Effective Sermon Delivery by Wayne V. McDill. Nashville: B&H Publishing, 1999. 181 pages. Reviewed by Clyde W. Overman.

According to McDill, a sermon is not an idea, outline, or even a manuscript. Rather, a “sermon only comes into existence in the moment” when the preacher preaches and the audience receive the message (p.1). That is the moment of truth. To that end, McDill writes a detailed guide that prepares and equips preachers for the moment of truth. The book achieves this purpose by exploring a number of topics, including the theology of preaching, the person of the preacher, aspects of communication theory, and how to design and deliver the sermon.

McDill begins in chapter one by examining the theology of preaching. He argues that the ultimate aim in the preaching event is “to make God known in order to call for a faith response in the hearer” (p.14). Chapter two explores the person of the preacher. The preacher must understand the forces that shape his personality, such as his education and upbringing and come to terms with his philosophy of ministry. Above all, the preacher is to be a model of character to his flock. He cannot be “one kind of person and another kind of preacher” (p.37).

Chapters three through six are based on communication theory. This section gives instruction for analyzing an audience and adapting to their needs (Ch. 3). McDill argues that it is the preacher’s responsibility to understand his audience and to keep them engaged (p.50). Readers also learn the challenges to oral communication and how preachers can overcome these challenges (Ch. 4). In the end, McDill states that it is the preacher’s task to overcome these barriers: “If you are committed to your calling, you will be willing to do whatever it takes to see that there are no distractions in your presentation of the biblical message” (p.64).

Next, McDill explains the science concerning how the human body produces sound and words, including information on proper breathing and posture for oral communication (Ch. 5).In the final chapter on communication theory (Ch. 6), McDill explains the importance of nonverbal communication. Among other things, he notes “only 35 percent of speech communication” is verbal” (p.91) and that “the audience will probably judge the effectiveness of your preaching more by nonverbal elements than verbal” (p.92).

The science of sermon delivery arrives in chapters seven through nine, where readers learn about preaching style (Ch. 7), effective presentation (Ch.8) and how to design a sermon (Ch..9). Regarding style, preachers should adopt a style that is natural to their personality and should preach conversationally (p.119). In chapter eight, McDill details the strengths and weakness of five common forms of sermon delivery: impromptu, memorization, manuscript, extemporaneous with notes, and extemporaneous without notes.

He argues that extemporaneous preaching without notes is the most effective form of sermon delivery, arguing that all preachers should consider this method. Fully extemporaneous sermons are best, he argues, because they promote preparation, clarity and simplicity (p.141). The clarity and simplicity aimed for in extemporaneous preaching carries over to sermon design as well, for it allows the preacher to design a clear and simple sermon outline that can be remembered with relative ease and communicated effectively.

The book closes with additional information for preachers to think through in preparation for the moment of truth (Ch. 10). This final chapter serves as a checklist for preachers to review before entering the pulpit. Here, McDill calls preachers to preach under the right motivation, with passion and persuasive speech while seekig God’s anointing in the task ahead. The chapter also includes some helpful reminders of lessons previously learned. Perhaps the most helpful reminder is that the “…aim of preaching is to call the hearer to faith in God” and that audience members will only grow in Christ as they lay “hold of God in faith” (p.169).

Strengths and Weaknesses

One of the primary strengths is the depth of information. This is most obvious in the chapters that focus on communication theory. Among other things, the book gives detailed information concerning audience analysis, the communication process, how the human body creates sound, and the prevalence and importance of nonverbal communication. McDill also gives a thorough treatment of preaching style and presentation. His analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the five common forms of presentation are especially beneficial. If nothing else, the volume of information makes The Moment of Truth a handy reference guide.

Another strength is the sound theological underpinning from which McDill writes. From the outset, the reader is reminded of God’s purpose for preaching: “We preach because God has spoken” (p.6). God has spoken the Word of God; thus preachers should “allow [the] Word of God to come through the sermon from the text of Scripture” (p.9). McDill’s sound doctrine carries over to his discussion of the person of the preacher (Ch.2). Preachers are called to live ethical and respectful lives before God and their fellow man in obedience to the Word of God. These theological convictions will serve pastors well as they strive to live out their calling.

The final strength to be considered is the straightforward and honest nature to which McDill makes his case. Whether he is arguing for the ethical demands of the preacher, the preacher’s role in keeping the audience engaged, or for the supremacy of preaching extemporaneously without notes, he does so in a straightforward and persuasive manner. He states his case and then almost dares the reader to refute it. This not only makes the book engaging to read, but it demands that the reader think critically about the matters at hand.

However, the book is not without its weaknesses. In a book filled with a lot of information, it should be no surprise that some of the information is unnecessary, making the book cumbersome and difficult to retain. Case in point is chapter five. While the science concerning how the human body makes noise may be fascinating to some, it is probably too technical for a book that should primarily focus on the science of preaching. Chapter four is another example of too much technical jargon. Here, McDill dives deep into the elements and levels of communication. While this information is helpful, one wonders if the he could have communicated this information more succinctly.

Another weakness is McDill’s case for extemporaneous preaching without notes. Although he is fair to the other forms of sermon delivery, he is unwavering in his conviction that preaching is “best when written material is not brought to the pulpit” (p.136). Admittedly, the case he makes is quite persuasive. However, his insistence on the matter does not adequately take into account certain factors such as the personality and giftedness of each preacher. In the final analysis, his conclusions may persuade some preachers to attempt to preach in a manner that may be unedifying to their congregations.

Because of his insistence upon extemporaneous preaching without notes, McDill writes the chapter on sermon design specifically with that form of delivery in mind. This narrow view of sermon preparation and design benefits only those preachers who commit to preaching according to McDill’s preferred method. This is perhaps the greatest weakness of the book. Instead of offering a comprehensive guide for all preachers, McDill writes with the intent of persuading preachers to preach according to one style. Accordingly, McDill aims much of his instruction toward equipping preachers to preach extemporaneously without notes. For this reason, some preachers might discover The Moment of Truth more of a hindrance than a helpful guide.

Lessons Learned and Favorite Quotes

Nevertheless, The Moment of Truth is a superb work on the art of communication and sermon delivery. There are many fruitful lessons contained within its pages that will help a wide range of preachers hone their craft in the pulpit. Perhaps the biggest lesson gleaned centers around the importance of the audience. As McDill says, “The most important element in the preaching situation is the audience” (p.39). He makes a convincing case that it is the preacher’s responsibility to learn about his audience and to keep them engaged. He provides a good reminder that many parishioners come to church with heavy burdens and distractions. To that point, McDill says the preacher “must take his message past all the distractions to the heart of his audience” (p.51). My aim will be to do just that each week.

Another important lesson is to preach with the right motivation. In chapter 10, McDill offers a number of valid motivations for preaching and the one that struck me concerns preaching from an inner call or compulsion: “…make sure that inner desire is the call of God and not the drive of ego” (p.168). I sense an inner call and compulsion to preach and teach, but this is a good reminder that I must always check my motives for preaching before entering that pulpit every Sunday.

A third lesson learned is the importance of developing my craft as a preacher. McDill repeatedly makes the case that the preacher must be committed to growing as a preacher. Preachers must not remain stagnant. Rather, they must intentionally seek to improve. This can be achieved in a number of ways. I can watch or listen to recordings of my sermons. I can invite feedback from others. I can also learn from other pastors who might be stronger in certain areas than myself.

The fourth lesson is to commit to growing as a man of God. This is not something new per se, but McDill provides interesting insight into what this means exactly. We all know that preachers must be men of respect and set examples for others. But McDill delves further into this issue by reminding readers of all the variables that affect the person of the preacher, with the important reminder that the preacher must take all of this into account and alter his personality or delivery where applicable to be the best example and communicator he can be.

The final lesson gleaned is to commit to preaching without notes. This may not happen right away, but I must admit that McDill convinced me that it is worth the effort. Though I recognize this form of delivery is not for all preachers, I like how McDill describes its many benefits, including preparation and effectiveness with audiences. At some point in the future, I will commit to preaching this way.

My favorite quote from the book is: “If you are committed to your calling, you will be willing to do whatever it takes to see that there are no distractions in your presentation of the biblical message” (p.64). I like this quote because it reinforces the fact that it is my responsibility to communicate clearly and effectively. Another quote I liked said: “The trouble with sermons is that many of them don’t have anything to do with anything” (p.53). I have heard many sermons like this. My sermons must have a point. The third quote I liked is this: “Unless you maintain at least 50 percent eye contact with your audience, they will likely consider you unfriendly, uninformed, inexperienced, and even dishonest” (p.101). My personal experience in the pew confirms McDill’s point.

Another quote that struck me is this: “The overarching aim of preaching is to call the hearer to faith in God” (p.169). This serves as good reminder of what I should aim for every week. Finally, I liked this following quote on passion in the pulpit: “Passion in preaching is a necessary element” that should “arise out of an intimate personal relationship with Christ rather than out [the preacher’s] own frustrations” (p.171). I know that teaching and preaching can be frustrating, especially when little change is visible in the congregation. I will commit to preaching out of love for Christ and his Word and never from a heart of frustration.

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