When the preacher takes the pulpit during any given liturgy, what do they stand upon? This is the question Jon Meyer Ericson attempts to analyze and answer in his book The Rhetoric of the Pulpit: A Preacher’s Guide to Effective Sermons (Wipf and Stock, 2016), and it’s a question worth some communal thought, especially as many sermons are being publicized more widely over the internet due to the pandemic. What’s happening (or sometimes not happening) in a given sermon, and why?

Pulling from giants such as Joseph Sittler all the way to Pope Francis, Ericson notes compelling reasons for why a sermon must be carefully crafted, not just a compilation of crowdsourced catchphrases. This is not only because the sermon intends to convey a particular message but primarily because the sermon stands upon the particular shoulders of a time-honored but often disregarded discipline: rhetoric.

Rhetoric is the means for the gospel message given in the sermon—and may be the most obvious vehicle in the liturgical setting. Rhetorical theory is old, as old as the sermon, and still has something to say to the craft. The Rhetoric of the Pulpit resurrects this ancient art for modern readers, and, I think, the church is better for it.

This concise treatment, as the work is roughly one-third appendices, still packs quite the punch, as Ericson nimbly weaves together the varying levels of the homiletic moment. Sermons are not just content; they are a way of communicating that requires not slickness—which is untrustworthy—but thoughtfulness. Ericson isn’t merely inviting the reader into a thought exercise, however. The book truly is, at its title suggests, a how-to (even as it also explains the “what-why”).

Ericson’s step-by-step guide through the rhetorical enterprise will be a refresher for philosophy majors and theology aficionados, and refreshing for those who may have stumbled into the pulpit yet have become well-acquainted with the steps of sermon-crafting (though not necessarily with intent). The book offers processes for sifting through content, arriving at what a sermon might want to accomplish and exploring the different kinds of proofs a sermon might subtly tiptoe through, providing gracious takeaways preachers can actively use. After all, there is much to attend to in the process!

Ericson offers here an informative tour through the tools needed to build, and deliver, a solid sermon.

The sermon is, in no small part, influenced by several factors: logic, motivation, emotion. These are all necessary, but none is sufficient by itself in the final product. A good sermonizer is aware of this in many ways—but in case it is unconscious, The Rhetoric of the Pulpit ensures it won’t remain so.

The sermon lies within a larger context too: that of the particular service it is spoken in, the particular time it is proclaimed and the particular Scriptures and ears it falls upon. All of this comes into dialogue in the sermon’s creation and proclamation, and the mindful pastor must pull at the thread connecting these separate but connected elements to draw the assembly along the path.

They must also do so while avoiding the shiny objects that so many poor sermons stumble on: outdated anecdotes, internet-cobbled stories, forced content and careless theology. Ericson offers here an informative tour through the tools needed to build, and deliver, a solid sermon.

The final portions of the book provide sermons for reading and reflection, as well as some addendums that will help a pastor navigate specific seasons in the church year that fall outside of the liturgical calendar (namely, fallow times such as sabbaticals and stewardship appeals). Just as good actors must read many plays, good preachers must read a variety of sermons—and not just any sermons, but good sermons. Ericson knows this and offers a variety for reflection and instruction.

The Rhetoric of the Pulpit, while geared toward preachers, is certainly applicable to anyone who engages in public speaking on a regular basis. Its final chapter on delivery will be of particular help to orators who may be behind a podium rather than in the pulpit. Gesture, eye contact and embodiment are as much a part of the rhetorical process as content, outline and a speaker’s ability to lean into their own personal style, all of which Ericson lays out with skill and attention.

This book is not wide, but it is deep, careful and seemingly effortless—like the best sermons. It sticks to its message, brings the audience along for the ride, asks relevant questions, teaches and creates an impact. In other words, it practices what it preaches and encourages the reader to do so as well.

Tim Brown
Tim Brown is a pastor, writer, and ELCA director for congregational stewardship.

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