Teachers, style is content

A few days ago I watched an episode of a DVD series I recently bought called, “Building Great Sentences.” When you buy one of these series, they send you a contract that makes your entry into nerd-dom official. Anyway, the teacher kept reiterating a concept that I had thought about for a while but had never articulated. The concept was this: style is content.

What the guy was saying was that the way you write something actually says something. In other words, there is much more to what is being communicated than the words that make up the sentence. The style is not only the way you form the words; the style is a message in itself. This style sends a message that either substantiates or undermines the message. Style is like an unwritten sentence. It speaks. It is content.

This is true in writing. But the principle carries over into teaching as well. The way you speak sends a message. In fact, whenever a preacher enters the pulpit and begins his discourse, two messages are going out. The first (and most obvious) message is the meaning of the words that are being said. The second message is in the way those words are being said. For example, I preach a perfect, theologically sound sermon about the glories of Christ with a dry, dull style, and the content of the style will undermine the content of the words.  If I preach about something that is important, it better sound important. That’s why I hate when preachers make jokes about big deals like divine judgment, imminent wrath, and eternal hell. The levity of a joke undermines the weightiness of the topic. The style must serve to propound the meaning of the message.

Style is important, but it’s not as important as the didactics of a sermon. The didactic meaning of the message holds the highest priority– it doesn’t matter how one teaches heresy; heresy is heresy. A good rule is this: the sermon must make sense if it were transcribed. In other words, the preacher must not be so dependent on the style that he gives up content. Content is king. Style is a servant to content; indeed, it is content, only of lesser priority.

Style is content because it says something important. To the listener, who is asking himself whether it’s worth it for him to hear this, style says: “this is exciting; you’ll miss out if you don’t hear this.” A while ago I read part of a manuscript of one of D.A. Carson’s sermons where he said:

If I have learned anything in 35 or 40 years of teaching, it is that students don’t learn everything I teach them. What they learn is what I am excited about, the kinds of things I emphasize again and again and again and again. That had better be the gospel.

What he is saying is that excitement teaches. Excitement wordlessly substantiates the message. It declares the urgency and importance and glory and truth of something. It appeals to the affections. Like Jonathan Edwards taught, if you’re talking about something horrible, you should want your people to feel the horror. And it takes words and style to make that happen.

Style expresses, perhaps, the inexpressible.

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I might do another post on this topic, which will address how to prepare style. We might feel that style is simply a byproduct of our personality, which it is. But I want to ask: does that necessarily mean that we can’t/shouldn’t prepare style? Should we prepare the best didactic content and let the chips of style fall where they may? Or should we prepare style? If so, how much stylistic preparation is too much? When does too much become void of personality and spontaneity?

I might address these questions in another post.

Actually, here’s the deal. If *one* person comments on this post, I’ll follow it up with another post.

4 Replies to “Teachers, style is content”

  1. I don’t think I consciously work too much on style. Like Chris, I think my style usually flows naturally. However, style is rooted in preparation, confidence, prayer, knowledge, etc.

  2. Good post. Totally agree – style (i.e. actually caring and having some teaching ability = style) is content – it is just as important as the raw facts. IMO the preparation of “style” depends on what you are teaching and your personality. Personally, I hate preparing my style – because when I teach my style flows through naturally – if I were to plan it I don’t believe that it would sound organic.

    1. I tried to think hard about this– I would say style is NOT just as important as the raw facts, but it substantiates them, and therefore they are very important. I think the raw facts have to the hold highest priority. If the raw facts aren’t clearly presented, or if they’re simply wrong, no mastery of style can redeem them.

      I’m gonna work on a follow up to this post regarding how I think about style prep.

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