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Book Review: The Moment of Truth

The following is one of a dozen or so book reviews that I am doing for the Doctor of Ministry course.  I’ve done four so far.  I decided to post this one because I had a strong reaction to the book.  Tell me if you’d like to see the others.

Note that the review starts out with general overview and reaction and moves on to specific topics of interest to the reader (me).

Book cover

McDill, Wayne V. The Moment of Truth. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1999. 197 pages. ISBN: 0-8054-1827-X.

The Moment of Truth is about the act of preaching – standing in front of a congregation at a moment in time and communicating God’s truth. McDill says “We are dealing, of course, with sermon delivery, but we must not think of it as the mere presentation of a persuasive speech on a religious theme. Preaching is much more than that. God has ordained to use man as His agent of revelation. He has sent His agent forth to preach. This is His method. It is His way of keeping the original vision alive. It is His method of teaching and renewing his people. . . of communicating the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. On every occasion preaching has this potential. It is the moment of truth.” The burden of the book is to help the preacher to prepare for this moment. Thus McDill addresses God’s plan for preaching and emphasizes that preaching is oral communication, and that it requires a communicator. He tells pastors that like-it-or-not, they are a model and an example, and that the effectiveness of their preaching does depend on the quality of their character. The remaining chapters develop details of the oral communication process: a model for communication; the use of voice and body language; preaching style; preaching method (memorized, text, notes, extemporaneous); designing a sermon to fit the method and finally, some thoughts on what is happening as the preacher preaches.

McDill’s thesis that preaching is oral communication dominated my interaction with this book. Under the rubric of that thesis, McDill does present some information that I appreciated. For example, his various lists of ways to think about the audience were good, especially the types of audiences. His model of communication, while not original, was well developed. However, it seemed to me he spent an inordinate amount of time on voice and articulation without really being able to communicate how these things can be changed or improved (a limitation of the written medium he’s using to promote oral communication). He then goes on, again in conventional fashion, to emphasize that most communication takes place non-verbally. In this chapter he argues both for and against the use of a pulpit, and even addresses issues of clothing, grooming, and personal space, with a level of detail probably suitable for a Baptist seminary but not necessarily for a wider audience of preachers.

On the other hand I really liked his chapter on preaching style, and found the chart in which he rates such characteristics as ‘stiff . . . informal’ and ‘obscure . . . clear’ to be helpful.  What I really tripped over was chapter 8, in which he makes an extended argument for preaching extemporaneously, which he does not, fortunately, define as ‘without preparation’, but does define as ‘a well prepared sermon delivered with few notes or none at all’. The chapter argues for this position by arbitrarily dismissing the other options (memorized, manuscript, notes) and poorly supporting his idea from history. McDill spends seven pages listing the advantages of preaching without notes and two pages on the risks. He spends almost no time on the advantages of preaching from a manuscript.

Why does this bother me?  You can probably guess that I preach from a manuscript, and have done so on most occasions for 17 years of ministry. I find the other options unsatisfactory for various reasons.  I do consistently preach with no notes when doing first person messages: I still write out a manuscript, but by repetition I get very familiar with the material and with the flow of scenes, emotions, etc. so that when I stand to deliver it, I can do it ‘from memory’ without having memorized most of the words.  I get the impression this is what McDill wants me to do every week, but the simple truth is that the investment of an extra 12 hours to accomplish this is unworkable, and in my case the advantage is minimal.  Though the manuscript does mostly tie me to the pulpit, I can pick up sentences and whole paragraphs so effectively that most people do not know I’m using a manuscript.  It does not interfere with eye contact, gesture, facial expression or verbal style.

But there is a more important reason why I take exception to McDill’s advocacy of ‘no notes’, and it is related to his definition of preaching as oral communication.  While I agree that oral communication is vitally important to preaching, and that in past ages it was the only method of communication available for the preacher, I don’t think that’s true anymore.  For the past five or more years I have been experimenting with supporting oral communication on the visual channel.  Primarily this has meant some very sophisticated Powerpoint to go along with the sermon.  My thesis, which I hope to pursue in this D. Min experience, is that in a culture that has been exposed from birth to television, movies and other integrated forms of communication (sound and picture), we will reach our peers not by making them come in and close their eyes while they listen to a lecture, but by communicating on both the audio and visual channels.  As a model, consider The Civil War as chronicled by Ken Burns.  Burns pioneered the use of archival images with narration and music to communicate in-depth the history of that conflict.  I’m trying to do the same thing for exegetical preaching, putting on the screen not just any image, but images that communicate exegetical facts, by words and pictures, on the visual channel.  The result is that my sermon manuscript becomes much more like a script that I can share with those who help me create Powerpoint and those who operate the computers during worship.  If I was to preach without notes the cues which cause the visuals to progress in support with the words would almost certainly be forgotten (by me), missed (by the Powerpoint operator) or obscured.  Thus I reject all of McDill’s fine arguments for not working from a script and affirm that in our culture preaching needs to be not less but more than merely oral communication.  Scripting is the norm for all of the media to which we are constantly exposed; scripting is what makes it work; scripting is necessary for communicating with this culture.