PC(USA)’s Synod of the Covenant offers up LaRue’s clues for preaching

Retired homiletics professor the Rev. Dr. Cleophus J. LaRue Jr. is the most recent guest on ‘Equipping Preachers’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Alexander Michl via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — When the Rev. Dr. Cleo LaRue hears a sermon, he’s listening for four things:

  • Was the biblical text central to the sermon?
  • Was there a controlling thought or identifiable sermonic idea, or was it, as LaRue calls it, “pearls without a string?”
  • Could you follow the sermon with your listening ear? “I am opposed to long quotes,” the former homiletics professor at Princeton Theological Seminary said. “It takes it out of your voice and makes it difficult to hear and follow with your listening ear. You have to write in conversational tone to engage your congregation.”
  • Did the sermon make a claim on your life? “Are you preaching because you have something to say,” he asked, “or are you preaching because you have to say something?”

LaRue appeared online earlier this month as part of the Synod of the Covenant’s Equipping Preachers series. His nearly 90-minute webinar, hosted by the synod’s executive, the Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick, was entitled “A Refresher Course on Sermon Preparation.” It’s available here.

“It thrills my heart to see these preachers signed up to have a discussion about preaching,” LaRue said, recalling Dr. Gardner C. Taylor calling the weekly task of delivering a sermon “the sweet torture of Sunday morning.”

When people ask LaRue about the current state of preaching, he tells them, “It’s what it has always been — all over the place.” Whatever rules preachers observe about their craft, “the opposite is also true,” according to LaRue. “Some say you have to sit down after 12 minutes, but there are churches where people are listening on a Sunday morning for 45 minutes or an hour. You may say, ‘If you don’t have scriptures [as the basis for your sermon], people won’t listen to you.’ But there are churches where you’d have a difficult time trying to hear scripture. We have been called to be faithful stewards as we understand our task to be.”

As for LaRue, “I believe that scripture is crucial and central to preaching.” A theologian once said, “A preacher without scripture is like a doctor without a black bag.”

“The biblical witness is important to preaching,” LaRue said, and so are other written sources. “There’s no way you can preach to people every Sunday morning if you don’t read. That’s my opinion,” he said. “You cannot pour forth into people, Sunday in and Sunday out, if you don’t read yourself.”

LaRue asked those present online — the monthly installments are also available to preachers serving communities of faith outside the Synod of the Covenant — if “we can talk about things you know to do, and just through the day-to-day, week-to-week routine of pastoral tasks sometimes let slip, get rusty, or, God forbid, get lazy in terms of what you need to do.”

The Rev. Dr. Cleo LaRue

The wonderful thing about call-and-response preaching, according to LaRue, is that “you get your grade immediately.” In workshops, some of LaRue’s white students will tell him, “I feel like I’m preaching to a congregation that’s not interested in the gospel. I get no response, and when I do, it’s somebody complaining.” Those churches “tend to kill your spirit and make you less inclined to give it your best Sunday in and Sunday out,” LaRue said.

Then he talked about a time he preached at a church in a farming community in New Jersey. “They just kind of looked at me. I thought, oh my God, I’m not getting through to these people. I’d grown so accustomed to the Black church,” LaRue said.

He nonetheless positioned himself at the door following worship, “and almost to a person they said, ‘Preacher, I was helped by your sermon this morning.’

“I was talking about waiting on the Lord,” LaRue said. “One guy said, ‘I’m a farmer, and I know what it means to have to wait on the Lord. I have to wait on my crops every year.’ A woman, bless her heart, said, ‘I am suffering from cancer and I’m trying my best to make it, and I heard you this morning.’”

“There are traditions where no response will be forthcoming, but the people are listening,” LaRue said. “All the more reason to give it your best on Sunday morning and trust the Spirit will be at work.”

LaRue had a few tips for growing as one who regularly preaches God’s word:

  • Aim for substance over style. “It’s so easy to be glib, to go for that cute little catchy phrase that does not give indication of deep thought or sustained study,” LaRue said. “In the end, substance will be remembered.”
  • Careful and sustained exegesis.
  • Learn to move from what the text says to what the text means. Theologian Karl Barth used to say people come to church for two reasons, LaRue noted: “They want to know if there’s a word from the Lord, and they want to know that it’s true.”
  • Gain a mastery of crafted speech as opposed to extemporaneous speech. “You’ve got to love words and put them in service to the gospel,” LaRue said.
  • Learn the power of editing and re-editing. “The first thing you write ought not to be the thing you say,” he said.
  • Do not get comfortable with “ho-hum.”

“We are living in an era of biblical illiteracy. We have the responsibility to teach the importance of scripture to people,” he said. “The scriptures matter when they are proclaimed, when they are embraced, when they are believed. They make a difference in the lives of people — maybe not overnight, but in the long haul, because it’s not only you expounding on those scriptures, but it’s the faithful witness where God has promised to lead us.”

The speaker during the Nov. 1 edition of Equipping Preachers, which is set for 10 a.m. through 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time, will be the Rev. Dr. Jerusha Matsen Neal of the Duke Divinity School, who will speak on “Preaching Exilic Hope in the Climate Crisis.” Learn more here.

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