The following is a piece entitled “Two Ships Passing in the Night” by Rev. Cleophus LaRue, Ph.D. in the book What’s the Matter with Preaching Today? edited by Mike Graves. LaRue does a piece to address the differences between what is considered black preaching styles and non-black preaching styles. Essentially saying that both sides have aspects that the other could benefit from; rather than being “two ships passing in the night” unaware of each other’s existence, to borrow and engage that which is useful for one’s context. The following is an except from this essay that actually made me laugh as I read it. Enjoy. Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL
Seldom is a sermon in the black church completely written off by the listeners at the outset, poor introduction notwithstanding. In fact, “Take your time, preacher,” is the most common refrain heard in the congregation at the beginning of the sermon. Levels of listening allow the parishioners to gain something even when it violates every established rule of thumb relative to introduction, body and close. There is a sense in which the listener simply changes gears in order to accomodate the preacher’s level of communication and clarity.
The first level is what I call high alert. This is the highest level of expectation. Oddly enough, while it usually occurs at the beginning of a sermon according to white homileticians, sometimes it can actually take place near the end of the sermon. High alert is that point in the sermon where listeners are willing to give the preacher a chance to address them in a meaningful, coherent and challenging manner. They are listening attentiveley, attempting to figure out how the word of God has addressed them that day and what claim is being made on their lives. Some preachers can hold the congregation’s attention from beginning to end, while others need time to hit their stride. The listening gears in the black church give preachers and listeners time to adjust to one another’s communication style.
The second level is pearls without a string. When the black listeners make up in their minds that the preacher lacks coherence, logical cflow and initial purposeful encounter, they don’t stop listening, they simply listen with different expectations. They change gears. The listeners decide to retrieve as much as possible from the sermon through the gathering of meaningful pears here and there. Pearls are ideas and concepts that stand alone, unrelated or at least disconnected in the listener’s mind to other parts of the sermon. But they are helpful, nonetheless, to the listener because they offers some word that is meaningful, enlightening, or that resonates with their lived experience. The listeners string together whatever word of truth, illustration or meaningful phrase they can in order to find something of worth in the sermon.
Third is broken pieces. The level represents a last ditch effort on the part of the listener to salvage something of worth from the sermon. All hope is gone for some clearly defined, controlling thought. Even pearls without string are in short supply. The listener is reduced to a search for that one thing that will bear the imprimatur of the sacred. It can be a line of truth, a slice of life, a well-timed cliche, or a sidebar illustration totally unrelated to anything concerning the title, focuse or announced intent of the sermon. Sometimes it is the preacher’s manner of speech and affable personality that end up carrying the day: “Well, at least he was well spoken and friendly.” Which is to say, the found grace in his [or her] willingness to be present for God, thought not necessarily preaching about God. Broken pieces point to a bit of something here and a part of something there. The listener is determined to ride some meaningful piece of truth to the shore of understanding.
Fourth is clock watching. At this stage of listening the clock is speaking louder than the preacher. The listeners have given up all hope that the preacher will have anything meaningful to say. They simply sit tight, content to run out the clock. If sympathetic, they give the preacher the benefit of the doubt, attributing ineffectiveness to a busy week or crowded schedule. If not, there is an inward disgust and silent anguish at the poor performance of the preacher, who was given every chance from beginning to end to salvage the sermon. These are the four levels at work throughout the sermon. The employment of any level at any given moment helps the black parishioner retrieve something from even the most poorly constructed, poorly delivered sermon.