Style is content: preparing style

This is the second part to my thinking about the idea that style is content. Here’s part one.

It’s strange to talk about preparing style. Style seems to flow naturally out of a personality, and to prepare it would be to kill the personality that should carry the message. Spontaneity cannot exist if you prepare style, right?

I agree that there is a bad kind of style preparation that results in a formalistic or fake-ish presentation that doesn’t connect with the audience. Nonetheless, style is massively important, and it should be considered. Does good teaching only lend itself to those who are predisposed with the right personality? Is every stuttering, bashful, slow-thinking person unequivocally doomed to be a bad teacher? Maybe. But I think it might be good to think this one through.

This post will be aimed more at preachers than teachers, and specifically those who preach and teach the Bible, though it is applicable for both.

In my last post I quoted well known teacher D.A. Carson, and I think he hit it on the head. He said that excitement teaches. The kind of style that exudes excitement will catch. In other words, the teacher really has to believe that what he’s saying is important.

Now I just said something big. I said that teaching style is directly connected to belief. I’m saying that a teacher must really, truly, deeply believe what he’s teaching in order to be effective. We usually call this conviction: “Spurgeon preached with conviction“– what we’re saying is that Spurgeon really believed what he was saying; he actually believed his message was of great importance. And his belief wasn’t mere mental assent–it was a deeply rooted heart belief; it wasn’t vague and ethereal philosophic truth– it was concrete reality, and he made sure they knew it.

So when I talk about belief, from now on I’m not only talking of acknowledgement of academic facts. I’m not talking about agreeing with the data. I’m talking about belief so real that it affects how you feel about it. It’s one thing to teach accurately the truth of heaven. It’s quite another to feel accurately the truth of heaven. It’s one thing to teach about sanctification; it’s and another thing to long for holiness. Perfect belief not only gets the theology right, it gets the attitude right. It feels it right.

That being said, it also must be noted that all of us stand now with imperfect belief. Even if it’s true that our theology earns an A+, our heart response to that theology doesn’t. The corruption of sin has undone us; we no longer can see the glory of God and give it the appreciation it deserves. The story of redemption doesn’t capture us like it should. The sway of sin still obscures our heavenly vision. We are all, in a sense, like the man in Mark 9: “Lord I believe; help my unbelief!” We believe, but we don’t believe as we ought. And since at the heart of teaching is conviction; since excitement is key to relaying information– since real, authentic belief resides in the heart of a masterful teacher– the aim of every preacher is to believe what he’s saying.

In other words, there is a kind of teaching that is perfectly accurate and perfectly boring. It’s possible to teach truth in such a way that convinces people it’s not true. We actually experience it all the time in everyday conversation, except we call it sarcasm. When a person speaks sarcastically, they usually giving an exaggerated statement that is obviously not true. We can usually tell by voice inflection, facial expression, and the conversational context. There are voice inflections, facial expressions (or lack thereof), and preaching contexts that negate what the preacher is saying. If a preacher speaks of the glories of God, and redemption from hell, and eternal bliss in heaven through Christ– in monotone, with no facial expression– I’ll have a hard time really believing him– one wonders if he even believes it. This is why it’s said that “it’s the life that preaches.”

Now, back to style preparation. The main style we’re looking for is the style of confidence and conviction– a style communicates the veracity and urgency of the message; a style that bleeds excitement. A style that makes the hearer long for the Godward affections emanating from the teacher. A style that teaches the hearer that this truth is not simply propositional truth– but it’s life. These are not facts to memorize, they are realities to experience.

How should we prepare this? It’s a spiritual conditioning, not a simple five-step process. It involves lingering over truths for extended periods of time. It takes much prayer– begging God for illumination, for proper affections, and for clarity of mind in presentation. It’s working to understand not only the theological outline, but also for heart application. It’s the result of daily seeking God, confessing sins, remembering Christ’s work. The pursuit of God will make a man a preacher. God will so capture you that you will be like Jeremiah, with a fire in his bones, needing to speak of God.

“When you set yourself on fire, people love to come and see you burn.” —John Wesley

So, in conclusion, the best way to prepare style is by not preparing for style, but rather working, striving, and longing to see God’s majesty. Man doesn’t learn to preach by observing man. Man learns to preach by observing God. The preacher whose face shines like that of Moses, having seen the King of Glory, will have style. And that style will say: “I have seen glory– come, and see what I’ve found.”

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