McClellan, Dave with Karen McClellan. Preaching By Ear: Speaking God’s Truth from the Inside Out. Wooster, OH: Weaver Book, 2014. 171 pp., $15.99. Purchase at Amazon or on Kindle for less.
Unfortunately it is all too easy as preachers to preach messages that are solid and biblical, even helpful, but aren’t personal. We can fall into a routine of mining the biblical text, writing our outline or manuscript, and delivering our message without ever being changed by God’s truth ourselves. This remove from Scripture doesn’t only hurt us, it hurts the congregations we preach to every week. Dave McClellan aims to rescue us from that reality, to re-invigorate our preaching by urging us to preach from the heart, from the inside out. He uses the controlling metaphor of playing music by ear as opposed to playing by musical score. His goal isn’t necessarily to get us to stop using notes when we preach, but to help us purposely preach from “personally held, deep convictions in a way that enables our words to unfold in the moment by considering the actual people present to us” (5). Drawing upon ancient rhetoricians such as Aristotle, Quintilian, and Augustine, as well as more modern scholars like Walter Ong, McClellan explains that we learn to do this by focusing first on who we are as preachers rather than our preaching, and then practicing an oral rather than a literary model of preaching.
McClellan’s overriding concern is for our preaching to be authentic and personal, for God’s Word to take root in the preacher first, so that our preaching is no longer based on theory, but practice. He believes that since the invention of the printing press, our focus in preaching has been on preparing an outline or a manuscript instead of preparing ourselves to preach. Premodern preachers, orally driven instead of literary, viewed the sermon as something inside the preacher, as a spoken event rather than a thing written down on paper. A literary focus would be appropriate if we read or distributed copies of our sermons every Sunday, but because we deliver sermons orally, we should prepare them orally. This means preparing ourselves as preachers first, focusing on becoming the people God wants us to be before we ever preach the sermons he wants us to preach. It then means studying and practicing the text we are going to preach until we know it and can present it from the inside out. We should prepare, we should use the text devotionally and in a discipling context throughout the week, we should rehearse, and then we should go into our pulpits to deliver our sermons extemporaneously, by ear instead of by note. McClellan makes the case that this oral model of preaching is more faithful to the Scriptural model, better for the congregation, and better for us as preachers.
After reading the first chapter of this book I found myself intrigued, but doubtful. I manuscript my sermons, and while I deliver them extemporaneously, much of my effort and preparation throughout the week goes into writing my manuscript so I know what I am going to say on Sunday mornings. The more I read, however, the more convinced I became that McClellan is onto something fundamental in how we should approach preaching. We should work hard at internalizing the biblical text, not just exegeting it, before we preach it. We should commit ourselves to authenticity and vulnerability before our churches, even if it costs us some polish in our delivery. Sermons are first and foremost oral events that only happen in real time, and should be explicitly for our congregations; this truth should drive our preparation and delivery. McClellan spends a chapter describing his weekly routine of sermon preparation, and I have already started to incorporate some of his practices and suggestions into my weekly routine. His work is scholarly, but he also takes care to ground his assertions in Scripture and in years of practice and pastoral experience. I recommend it especially for experienced preachers looking for something fresh in their approach, as well as professors who are looking for a textbook that emphasizes the oral, personal nature of preaching.