The Unfortunate Decline of Preaching

Mathew Cowley, Hugh B. Brown, J. Golden Kimball. What these men had in common (other than the fact that I think they were all Democrats) is that they were great preachers. Preaching, however, seems to be a lost art of sorts in the Church. Indeed, there is so little real preaching that I suspect that most of the time we don’t even recognize its absence.

By preaching, I do not of course mean simply “talks.” What I am talking about are sermons that are completely oral events rather than essays read from a teleprompter or a sheaf of notes. I am talking about sermons that recognize the value of rhetorical forms and flourishes and the use not only of language but the human voice itself as an insturment. To get a sense of what I am talking about, go to the BYU Speeches website and download some Hugh B. Brown sermons in MP3 and listen to them. We simply no longer have preachers like this.

Why? My theory is that it has to do with the change in missionary tactics. There was a time when missionary work consisted mainly of preaching sermons in public, either on the streets or at the pulpits of friendly churches. Hence, a two or three year mission would become a prolonged apprenticeship in the art of delivering sermons. As social dynamics shifted, this form of missionary work receded. Increasingly, the elders knocked on doors, where the goal was to carry on an intimate, personal discussion of the gospel. The value of conversation increased as the value of rhetoric and preaching waned. A century ago, a successful returned missionary would be a seasoned preacher, capable of giving a powerful impromptu sermon. This is no longer a skill that missionaries acquire.

The result is that from top to bottom in the Church we generally have talks rather than sermons. At best, these will ultimately consist of a public reading of a thoughtfully written essay. Many, I know, complain that they don’t like it when people in Church are preachy. The sad truth, however, is that their is very little real preaching in the Church any more. I for one would be willing to tolerate quite a bit of dogmatic fire and brimstone over the pulpit as long as it is delivered in a compelling and genuinely preachy sermon. We had a wonderful high councilor in Little Rock who was a genuine preacher. He is the only church leader who has ever called my aside regarding the content of one of my lessons, and he would regularly shout and call us to repentance over the pulpit. I loved it. The man could preach.

41 comments for “The Unfortunate Decline of Preaching

  1. Ivan Wolfe
    April 23, 2005 at 6:36 pm

    From your list – you left otu LeGrand Richards –

    From old conference I’ve seen, that man could preach.

  2. Jonathan Green
    April 23, 2005 at 7:07 pm

    The decline in preaching undoubtedly reflects a much wider decline in the value placed on oral rhetoric over the last century in a society that is increasingly founded on the practices of literacy. With a lay priesthood, we don’t have any specialized caste who maintain the training and practices of preaching.

    On the other hand, the average member of the church probably has more opportunities to practice public speaking than most other people. With training, we could all become more effective givers of talks, bearers of testimony, or teachers of lessons, but the prayers, talks, lessons, and testimonies that we offer do give us an advantage when we are asked to speak in other contexts.

  3. April 23, 2005 at 7:50 pm

    The few sermons of Heber J. Grant that I have heard have been quite energizing.

    One could make a correlation to other forms in our liturgy. Gone are the brass bands. Perhaps it was “Correlation” that drove talks to be what they are today? It would seem to be easier to assure harmony in a delivery of a pre-written essay.

    Side note: my favorite part of any discourse of the Prophet is when he interjects “Mark it Elder Rigdon” into the KFD. I’d love to see that in general conferance.

  4. Seth Rogers
    April 23, 2005 at 8:25 pm

    It’s also possible that today’s generation just isn’t receptive to really good oratory anymore.

    We tend to get suspicious when a public figure starts grandstanding. At least I do anyway …

    Too jaded I guess.

  5. April 23, 2005 at 8:42 pm

    Great link, Nate. These Hugh B. Brown sermons are fantastic.

  6. norm
    April 23, 2005 at 8:51 pm

    I’ve been reading the Journals of Addison Pratt for the last week, and I’ve been struck with the same drifting away from preaching/sermons as well as the gross shift in missionary work. Perhaps the lack of preaching can be traced to many of the same developments/instruments (microphones, multimedia, increased life expectancy, etc) that the similar trend away from oration and Lincoln-Douglas debates and toward sound-bytes/teleprompters/speechwriters in politics.

    This is among many other differences in missionary efforts and relations with other preachers/congregations. Was anyone here ever invited to speak at another church’s events?
    As the era of door-to-door salesmen has drawn to a close, and as its last vestiges die out, can we expect a similar shift COMPLETELY away from the direct marketing (door-to-door, in-home conversations) methods that once seemed to work well, but have become ‘less effective’? (and towards what?)

    No one is a vocational preacher anymore, and I think in the observation itself is another partial explanation. Now, those who once gave sermons (bishops and stake presidents) hardly ever give talks in most areas. Maybe at ward of stake conference. They preside. But they do not preach. It’s not the a publicly acknowledged essence of the calling. Moreover, bishops and stake presidents serve limited terms. It’s not a lifelong calling (in the proper sense of vocation), but a temporary service assignment. Missionaries might have thought of their calls as temporary even early in the church, but callings of indefinite periods to men who had families are very different than the rite of passage setup we have now. Missionaries now are even less inclined to ‘preach’–i only spoke once in church in two years, in an area where the church was still not firmly rooted–and are told they are ‘tools’ for the local leaders.

    I don’t know if we should mourn a departure from preaching or not, but I do know that our Sunday meetings (and other meetings) are much more dull than earlier ones. A visitor was likely to come away MOVED, whether to anger or spiritually; whereas now, i’m lucky if I invite someone to church and they 1) understand or even 2) can pay attention to announcements and talks composed of patching Ensign articles together.

  7. annegb
    April 23, 2005 at 8:59 pm

    Seth, I think you’re right, but I also think it’s sad. I think we tend (unfortunately) to reject the evangelical experience, and feel a little uncomfortable with grand emotion, unless, I guess, it’s a sobbing woman thanking God for her blessings during testimony meeting. There a few brave people that I’ve seen speak out in a clear and forthright manner, declaratively, and I love it. Although I guess it’s a fine line.

  8. April 23, 2005 at 9:16 pm

    When I was first called to be a bishop, I read from one of President Hinckley’s talks to bishops. He made it very clear that were he to do it all over again, he would preach more from “Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith”.

    I determined that this would be my course of action, so each month, on the fourth Sunday, whomever had conducted the previous month (sacrament meetings) from the bishopric, would be the primary speaker, and his content would come from “Teachings…”

    Not always did this come across the way I invisioned, but I think it made a small impact.

    Personally, I love to preach. I almost never use a written talk. I approach it this way: If I have to speak for 20 minutes, I will select a topic and make a list of 8-10 sub-topics related to the primary. I can speak for 2 minutes with passion on virtually anything, so I end up giving 10 2-minute talks. At the end, I try always to let the members know that part of what God expects is for us to improve our lives, and I leave them with a challenge to change something. I then try and end with my testimony of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

    My wife tells me that for the most part I do a real good job, but that I need to smile a liitle more. I think I get wrapped up on the message and forget about the politics of delivery. I guess that since my dream is public speaking, I should probably work on this.

    Anyway, yes, I agree that we need more preaching and less travelogue. We need more doctrine, and less fluff. Unfortunately, what is lacking is conviction. Most people simply do not speak with any measure of conviction of their subject. If they did, they could do so from the heart, not from a script.

  9. Anon
    April 23, 2005 at 9:25 pm

    So, Kelly, does your theory–Most people simply do not speak with any measure of conviction of their subject. If they did, they could do so from the heart, not from a script–apply to conference speakers?

  10. Julie in Austin
    April 23, 2005 at 9:41 pm

    I want to take a stab at diagnosing the problem, and I want to do it differently than Kelly Knight did:

    (1) the reason (most) GC talks aren’t as good as they used to be: (1) need to be translatable elimates lots of interesting material and stories, most irony, humor, and personalization and (2) awareness that words will be microanalyzed makes the speakers perhaps overcautious. There are, of course, exceptions. I was particularly touched by Elder Bednar’s talk last GC, still haven’t figured out why particularly, but I liked it.

    (2) local speakers are often sidetracked by (1) nervousness (2) lack of knowledge (3) lack of interesting material (hence, the same same quotes and scriptures over and over again (4) lack of preparation.

    But somehow, the Spirit still manages to touch people’s hearts despite these obstacles.

  11. April 23, 2005 at 9:56 pm

    Anon, interesting question.

    You and I both know the time constraints speaking in General Conference presents. LeGrand Richards is famous for ending his talks with “oh, the light has come on, I need to end. In the name of…” I am certain that to prevent this from occuring, written sermons are preferred.

    If you have ever been to a Stake Conference or any of it’s attending meetings where a general authority has spoken, rarely do they use a script. They know their material well, and speak with conviction. Too often, however, are sacrament meeting talks written the night before or the day of, with little thought of what a good sermon represents.

    It would be great if in our wards we could call someone to be the “Sacrament Meeting Sermon Specialist”, someone who works directly with those called to speak, helping them prepare well in advance.

  12. Mark B.
    April 23, 2005 at 10:09 pm

    It would be a good start if we could get rid of that lousy word “share” and all its conjugations. Start with “Sharing Time”, and follow it with a swift kick in the pants for “sharing” of testimony. If you have a testimony, declare it. Shout it from the rooftops. Say it loudly, with conviction. Don’t be a mealy-mouthed, pusillanimous “sharer” of your thoughts!

  13. Rosalynde Welch
    April 23, 2005 at 11:32 pm

    I don’t know, Nate. Sermons have a long history as a written genre: sermons are a Protestant form, and from its infancy Protestantism relied on literacy and the written word. You may be right about the effect that shifts in missionary techniques have had on church teachings, however, and I agree that the move from the streetcorner to the living room has profound implications for the sociological work of religion.

    I wonder whether the shift in style you describe has influenced the content delivered over the pulpit: it seems that a written-word model would be far more conducive to the long litanies of “quotes” that constitute most talks these days, and to the generation of new interpretations and readings (the “insight”), while an improvised oral performance would rely more on emotionality and repetition of scripture.

    As for me, I’m a creature of the written word, to the bone. Chalk me up for a thoughtfully-read essay over a preaching any day.

  14. gary
    April 24, 2005 at 12:15 am

    I am with Rosalynde in preferring the thoughtful essay. It is very rare that I see somebody who can deliver a decent talk or sermon that has not been well prepared in advance. I have attended several leadership meetings where visiting general authorities, including a few Apostles, have tried to wing it based on a few general thoughts, but without a prepared script. They were almost always underwhelming. I did love the preaching of Hugh B. Brown, but that does seem to be a lost art. Or maybe people figured out after a while that most leaders just aren’t very good at it, so they adopted a new style.

  15. April 24, 2005 at 1:24 am

    We simply no longer have preachers like this.

    I dunno. I think you might be selling us a little short, Nate.

    Elder Eyring came to our stake conference here in Arizona last fall and preached a 45 minute sermon that was clearly extemporaneous. The power and light that emanated from him during his sermon was astonishing to me. I wondered if it was just me that noticed until our after the closing prayer when my seven year old daughter told me “I know what it feels like to have God talk to you now. I could feel it when that guy was talking”.

  16. Jed
    April 24, 2005 at 2:15 am

    I agree that there has been a shift in the oratory. Jonathan Green is right that oral rhetoric is in decline. Radio was the big change and after that TV. Those mediums took everyday people out of the role of entertainers and into the role of the entertained. Increasingly young people stopped talking and started listing and watching. It’s an unfortunate trend. Teenagers today cannot even talk coherently, let alone give a speech or compose a paper with an argument. They have not been asked to practice. TV and radio, which are under constant time contraints, do not allow the development of argument. Rhetoric goes out the window. We can see the decline of film scripts over time. Hollywood used to produce movies with clever dialogue written by seasoned literati. The cleverer the better. Now the cheap one-liner is in, an unfortunate cross-fertilization from TV. The Hugh B. Browns of the world grew up before TV and radio were around.

    To your idea of missionary sermon I will add another: YMMIA and YWMIA. Between about 1880 and 1950, every youth in the church learned how to craft an argument. They learned this in mutal. Debate, recitation, mini sermons–this was all part of the curriculum. The kids put on their own programs. Scouts and basketball were on other nights in the 1920s and 30s, but over time these grew into hairy behemoths pushing the refined arts out. The basketball gyms entered our buidlings and set up shop while the stages and curtains have started to disappear. Look at the old manuals and you’ll find some very stimulating activities. This was the world McConkie grew up in.

    I’m not convinced the decline in oratory is detrimental to spiritual growth. The smooth oratory is as much entertainment as it is edification. One can be edified by a humble missionary who says “we was” if both have the spirit of God. It may put more burden on the hearer than in past years, but that may be a good thing. The poor oratory forces the hearer to atune their ears and makes one’s own spiritual readiness and preparation all the more crucial for getting anything out of the talk at all. Talks force discipline that peaching does not. Melifulousness is not goodness, truth, righteousness, i.e., the big picture of any sermon. If aphorism or simple testimony moves me to repent, does preaching in the grand style really matter all that much?

  17. Wilfried
    April 24, 2005 at 6:13 am

    I agree with several commenters who have pointed at the power of preaching by visiting GA’s at Stake conferences and multi-stake conferences. Seemingly without written preparation, they can talk for 30 minutes to an hour, with enthusiasm and conviction, moving their audience. I think they still do so in the tradition of the preaching Nate talks about.

    However, there may also be some drawbacks:

    – Average members may think that this is the example to follow, hence sacrament meeting talks without written preparation, rambling about the topic, repetitive, self-indulgent… As a matter of fact, even transmitted General conference talks give that wrong message: many members, especially abroad, have no idea that GA’s are actually reading from a teleprompter. They think they speak impromptu, never even glancing at a paper on the pulpit, and then they feel this is the way to do it themselves, “prompted by the Spirit”…

    – GA’s may not recall what they said the last time they came. I remember when the same GA came to a multi-stake conference in Amsterdam. He had been there some 6 or 7 years before. He came with exactly the same stories and jokes, told from routine. Because of his high position and, for the audience, the exceptional nature of such a visit, people remembered very well what he had said the first time. It was somewhat awkward because it seemed hollow repetition without respect for the members, many of whom had traveled from far for a unique experience.

    – Impromptu speaking by an American GA, for a non-American audience, raises the risks of cultural misunderstandings and even blunders. In Europe I sometimes had to translate-at-the-pulpit for visiting authorities: I dreaded the impromptu, often fast preaching, that would mix baseball stories and heroic war feats by a U.S. pilot and examples tied to an American lifestyle…

    I believe a strong preaching style does not exclude careful written preparation, also taking into account cultural sensitivities. In all those years I have seen only one American visitor who sent me (as translator) his text a week ahead and asked me to give him suggestions to change what could be misunderstood. When he finally spoke, reading from his preparation, he had weighed every word beforehand. And the translator could finally do a normal job…

  18. Rosalynde Welch
    April 24, 2005 at 2:03 pm

    I don’t know, Jed and Jonathan, that the vanquishment of the oral tradition has been as precipitous and as recent as you’re arguing. It seems like the same claim has been around for an awfully long time–Plato’s Phaedrus, anyone? I’d guess that the sense that the young’uns just don’t know how to speak properly anymore has been a perennial generational complaint.

    If there was a definitive decline in the oral tradition, it certainly happened long before the last half of the twentieth century.

  19. April 24, 2005 at 3:52 pm

    Nate: Well, if you still have the goatee; just switch party registration, and the next time you give a ‘sermon’ in Church…i’ll drive down from Philly to listen. :)

  20. John Mansfield
    April 24, 2005 at 7:48 pm

    Elder Holland’s delivery is often more than just the reading of an essay. Does it come from having studied English?

  21. Nate Oman
    April 24, 2005 at 7:55 pm

    Rosalynde: Have you ever actually listened to recordings of political speeches or sermons from the first half of the twentieth century? I think that you would be hard-pressed to defend the claim that there has not been a shift. Compare Churchill’s speeches with that of any modern politician? Compare Hugh B. Brown’s delivery with that of 90% of all conferences speeches. There has been a decline and a loss.

    I find your hostility to the oral medium puzzling, and your denial of its recent existence simply bizarre.

  22. Rosalynde Welch
    April 24, 2005 at 8:19 pm

    Nate, I’m not an expert, but I would certainly say that yes, there’s been a real shift in style. What I’m contesting is the idea that the sermon has only recently become a written genre. I’m also a little skeptical of Jonathan and Jed’s argument that the late twentieth century has seen a culture-wide shift from orality to textuality. I think both have coexisted for some time in various forms.

    As for my preference for textuality, it’s just a personal thing–and it very well could be puzzling and bizarre.

  23. April 24, 2005 at 8:30 pm

    Rosalynde wants things written down so she can write in the margins! Orality without textuality doesn’t give her that pleasure!

  24. April 24, 2005 at 8:55 pm

    There has been a decline and a loss.

    As German perfectly expresses, “das ist Geschmacksache!”- a matter of taste.

    Your loss is my gain in that area. I’m glad I don’t have to sit through embarrassing displays of theatrical passion every week.

  25. April 24, 2005 at 9:23 pm

    I have recently been opining that preaching is very analogous to live musical performing. There are two parts to it:

    1. The quality of the material
    2. The delivery

    With music you can range from classical performances where everything is written out already (sometimes hundreds of years in advance) to jazz performances where the song (like, say, “I Got Rhythm”) is loosely played at the head and it is pure improvisation on the chord changes from there. With both types of performance both the base material and the delivery matter, but the base material is much more important with classical and the delivery is much more important in jazz. Which is better is mostly a matter of taste. I personally would much rather listen to a live performance by a great jazz combo than one by a great string quartet (though I like both and would mix in both if I could).

    I think extemporaneous preaching is more like jazz improv and reading essays is more like classical performances.

  26. Jonathan Green
    April 24, 2005 at 11:35 pm

    I don’t think the decline in orality was precipitous in the 20th century, or even that it was a bad thing overall, only that the long shift away from orality reached an unprecedented degree of completion during our lifetimes. That we don’t preach like we used to is not just a function of speakers not speaking like they used to, but also audiences who wouldn’t know what to think if they did. We’re trained to deal with written texts and to treat the spoken word as if it were an oral text.

    As for the Phaedrus, Plato was on to something: our technologies of information storage and recall affect how we think and how we remember. Print and universal literacy change the congregation’s expectations of what constitutes a good sermon.

    Sure, we have printed sermons since the 15th century and written sermons since before Augustine, but it’s only in the last century that a preacher could assume that the audience was mostly or entirely literate. Half a phrase from a Bible verse may not elicit much response from an audience who doesn’t have half the book memorized, but citation of chapter and verse probably will, if the audience is literate. Sermon studies is not my line, but I suspect that the idea of reading a prepared sermon off a printed page is alien to any century before the 20th.

  27. Bill
    April 25, 2005 at 12:23 am

    A few years ago I read a book called “The Inarticulate Society,” which chronicled the decline and loss. Here’s a short blurb outlining some of the culprits as identified by author Tom Schachtman:

    Sadly, the deterioration can be self-reinforcing as those who are capable of eloquence censor themselves in an effort to be understood. I suppose we will not see the return of the salon of Madame de Stael, but it would be nice to have conversations not marred by continual interruption, or to hear speeches that develop an idea rather than degenerate into business-speak and meaningless jargon. Perhaps not everyone will master Quintilian and Cicero, but of the trivium, although grammar and logic are suffering, it seems like skill in rhetoric has declined most. The great orators would disguise their artifice so that their speech should appear natural. Now a speaker will proudly advertise that his presentation has been “organized” by so many “bullet points.”

    There are still examples of extemporized eloquence today, however rare. One is an older fellow from Barbados, the priest at a church in the Bronx where I sometimes play the organ. Another is a younger fellow, my former bishop, who spoke on one memorable occasion last year for a half hour without any prepared text, yet managed to construct a beautiful and many-layered argument that wound inexorably to a peroration which recalled the opening theme to great effect (This was David Passey; some of you philosophy guys may know him). Of course these performances are partly the result of talent, but they are also the result of serious study and a lifetime of contemplation.

  28. Bill
    April 25, 2005 at 12:52 am

    Geoff is right about jazz improvisation. This is why jazz musicians among themselves often refer to improvisation as “preaching.” I think that I would reverse the terms, however. Most classical musicians today are concerned primarily with interpretation (delivery), while jazz musicians need a better knowledge of basic materials, in order to elaborate on skeletal stuctures.

    It was not always this way however. Today some classical musicians still improvise; the better organists prelude on chant and chorale tunes, and baroque period performers are increasingly daring and successful in adding all manner of ornamentation. But during the baroque and classical periods themselves, much of music was conceived in terms of rhetoric. All sorts of formulas and patterns were based on the rhetorical devices from classical oratory and the competent musician would be able to string them together in improvisation. There are hundreds of studies on the topic. One of the better ones is a book by Mark Evan Bonds: “Wordless Rhetoric: Musical Form and the Metaphor of the Oration.”

  29. J. R. Knight
    April 25, 2005 at 7:41 am

    It does seem like many of our conference talks are becoming more formulaic, but still instructive nonetheless. In addition to Elder Brown and others I miss Elder Robert Simpson, he of the perpetual smile — seems like he was presiding bishop at one time. Gave a great talk in stake conference once, and the next week I took a girlfriend to her stake conference and surprise! There he was. Gave the same talk word for word. I freaked my date out several times by whispering his next line to her. Conferences used to be such fun.

  30. April 25, 2005 at 10:43 am

    Most classical musicians today are concerned primarily with interpretation (delivery), while jazz musicians need a better knowledge of basic materials, in order to elaborate on skeletal stuctures.

    Good observation, Bill. It illustrates another reason to appreciate good extemporaneous preaching and skilled jazz improv! As Nate posted, the decline of either skill in the world is indeed unfortunate and lamentable.

  31. Dave
    April 25, 2005 at 11:47 am

    In his book “Teaching by the Spirit”, Elder Gene R. Cook is very clear in stating that we should only read talks when we have too (i.e. in conference). He says that we should learn to always “treasure up the words of eternal life” and study the scriptures daily (and if we now what topic we will be speaking on, we should study scriptures relating to the topic) and then simply stand up in church and start talking. Read the book, it is very interesting and he says that he came to many of his conclusions from watching members of the twelve at stake conferences.

  32. Jim F
    April 25, 2005 at 12:42 pm

    There has been an emphasis in some stakes lately on speaking without reading a text. I doubt that we are getting what that emphasis intended, for in most of our meetings when people do speak without a text, we get rambling, disconnected, poorly-timed “chats” at best. I doubt that the Spirit is responsible for those.

    The problem is that people believe that “speaking by the Spirit” requires little preparation, no notes, and no practice, though it requires all three. It is not easy to do.

  33. Carl Youngblood
    April 25, 2005 at 12:51 pm

    A great read on this subject is AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH, by Neil Postman. He argues that 100 years ago society was largely based on the printed word, so much so that even public discourse was elevated to the point where speakers were adept enough to articulate complex thoughts in eloquent words extemporaneously. Examine the Lincoln-Douglas debates and you will see that their words read just as well as they sound, with nary a grammatical error. Radio and TV, claims Postman, have degraded the level of discourse to brief soundbites that struggle to reach audiences with ever-diminishing attention spans.

    So it would seem Postman has broken the dialectic of textuality vs. orality and claimed instead that good orality depends on a strong textual foundation.

  34. Carl Youngblood
    April 25, 2005 at 12:54 pm

    This topic also reminds me of Joseph McConkie’s biography of his father, in which he states that Elder McConkie never listened to the radio while driving but instead preferred to choose a subject and do his best to deliver a good sermon on it.

  35. Stephen Hardy
    April 25, 2005 at 1:19 pm

    A few random comments about this very intersting topic:

    I think that there is still a strong sermon culture in some African American churches. I think of MLK Jr and his famous sermons. These were highly prepared, and probably read, but listen to that man speak! Sermonizing on this level is a talent akin to acting.

    I think that far far more discourging than our lack of vigorous sermonizing, is our respectful, but boring, lack-luster, but oh-so-reverent singing. Honestly, the conference choirs, especially the Sunday Sessions simply serve to prompt me to roll up in a ball and go to sleep. It is reverent, but for me profoundly boring and un-moving. I think that the loss of sermonizing and less-vigorous singing go hand-in-hand. We like to think of our selves as a somewhat cerebral religion, and we don’t need to clap, shout, cry-out, or demonstrate major emotions. We find it dis-respectful, un-reverent, perhaps un-professional.

  36. Seth Rogers
    April 25, 2005 at 1:24 pm

    You earn the right to improvise. This means you sit down, you research your topic and you right up a detailed outline. If you have an unexplained mental block and forget everything you wanted to say, the outline should be detailed enough to save you.

    Only when you have done the appropriate preparation do you have the right to “tear up the talk” and speak from the heart. Remember the revelation directed at Oliver Cowdrey, who had assumed he could just “wing-it” without any work or preparation on his part.

    A Sunday School teacher should come to class prepared to talk non-stop the entire 45 minutes. Do the legwork first, then you can experiment if you want to (such as soliciting comments from the class).

  37. Eric S
    April 25, 2005 at 3:57 pm

    Stephen S:

    Nice threadjack. Must comment. How in the world could the MoTab take a song as inspirational and uplifting as Oh How Lovely Was the Morning (I refuse to call it by its pain-inducing new title used in the ’85 hymnal) and turn it into a funeral dirge! Aaargh. Who decided that singing without soul was “reverent?” Who came up with the notion that the slower the tempo, the more spiritual the song?

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  39. April 25, 2005 at 11:35 pm

    On Saturday night, just after posting my last remarks on this thread, the phone rang. It was the bishop. It seems that the speakers he had lined up for Sunday were stuck in LA and couldn’t get back in time for the Sacrament meeting. Ergo, he called me to speak on my calling as the ward food storage specialist.

    I have only had the calling for a couple of months and still learning. So, I went to the Provident Living website and downloaded all of the talks on food storage, and printed them out. After reading through them and highlighting several key features, I decided I would do something I never have done before, and just read one of them verbatim to the congregation.

    Sunday came, and as I took my place on the stand, I sat next to the bishop’s wife. I glanced over at her lap and noticed that she had the exact same talks I had, and not only that, but had highlighted all of the same passages. Of course, she was first to speak and had the advantage.

    In introducing me, the bishop referred to me as his “minuteman” (I seem to do a lot of last minute speaking in our ward). When I stood to speak, I acknowledged his comment and said it was appropo, for after his wife was done using all of my material, I had only about a minute’s worth left.

    Anyway, before going to the meeting, I knelt down and asked my heavenly Father for that inspiration that comes in a pinch when one has been trying to do the right things. As it turns out, I spoke for 20 minutes, had plenty to say, made some good challenges, and came home with more than $350 in dry pack canning orders.

    Full disclosure- Public speaking is my one true love. Were I able to spread the word enough, I would be speaking as a career. The Lord has blessed me with the gift of gab, and the ability to gather my thoughts on the run. However, it has come at the expense of 40 years of study, attendance, thought, prayer, and circumspection.

    It has been said that public speaking ranks just below death as a preferred hobby. Perhaps that is true, but I thank God for those who have set an example for me to follow. I remember practicing Hugh B Brown’s “Profile of a Prophet” while on my mission. Or “The Curent Bush”.

    Heber J Grant’s favorite quote, however, holds truth: “That which we persist in doing becomes easier. Not that the nature of the thing has changed, but that our ability to do has increased.” (I believe R W Emerson made the original statement)

  40. danithew
    April 25, 2005 at 11:59 pm

    The two points I have to make have already been stated many times in this thread but I’ll just sum up my thoughts. Great preaching requires a gift for ad-libbing and a long duration of time in which to speak. I heard somewhere that LeGrand Richards (who has been mentioned as a great preacher) never had his talks prepared ahead of time. He simply relied on his great knowledge of the gospel and the Spirit. I think duration is needed for ad-libbing preachers … I imagine the great preachers need time to warm up, to get “into the zone” so to speak.

    The normal format for our sacrament meetings don’t really provide well for ad-libbing or duration of public speaking. If there are three speakers and a musical number (in addition to the opening and closing prayers and hymns, announcements, ward business, stake business and of course the sacrament) then each speaker has about eight-to-ten minutes to speak. Even with that format in our ward, we usually go over about five minutes.

    If we want to have great preaching in Church, perhaps we would have to give the time to only one or two people to speak on a topic. I only say two because its hard to imagine any bishop being willing to put the entire ward at the mercy of a single speaker.

    Maybe the closest chance of hearing old-style preaching is at firesides and similar meetings, where a speaker is given forty minutes or more to speak on a particular subject.

  41. Mark Martin
    April 26, 2005 at 5:06 pm

    Two main points:

    1. President Hinckley has emphasized that we need to get teachers to “speak out of their hearts rather than out of their books”.

    2. Speaking and preaching are skills. Like any other skill, practice and helpful feedback are needed to make substantial improvement.

    Hearts: If we think back on those times we’ve been moved by church speakers, whether they were ineloquent or expressive in their delivery, we were moved when they spoke from the heart. The talk was not spoken or written just to “sound like” what they would be expected to say on the topic.

    Practicing the skill of public speaking: I have one word of advice — Toastmasters! I learned about this international organization while I worked in Ohio, and after joining and participating weekly, I was amazed at the difference. I saw one lady who was a shy housewife in a small town, in one year, transform into a confident speaker and interesting conversationalist. The skills you practice include listening, giving and receiving feedback, giving prepared talks, and impromptu speaking. (

    I agree with Jed that it’s sad that church sports have supplanted art and oratory. I’ve often heard “Church members have an advantage because they have public speaking experience.” True, it is better than none at all. However, speaking to a group once a year, with a lack of instructive coaching and feedback (beyond “Nice talk, Mark!”), allows many amateurish habits to persist.

    In Toastmasters I learned that with skill you can communicate a lot in a 5 to 7 minute speech. In fact, that was my early challenge — to stay within the allotted time window for a specific speech.

    Above, some commenters have suggested we need fewer and longer sermons to make them better. I wouldn’t want to give speakers 20 to 40 minutes unless they can also give a meaningful 5 to 10 minute talk. In fact, in one of my favorite elders quorum meetings I ever remember, the president had assigned 4 or 5 quorum members to speak on particular topics. As it turned out, each 7 minute speaker gave a power mini-lesson, teaching with power about specific principles and applications.

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