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.