The Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary where I teach is blessed to have local African Americans from the Pittsburgh area studying here. Serving in a denomination that is historically a predominantly Anglo-Saxon one, the presence of these students has been a rich blessing to our community as the Lord helps us see the greatness of his kingdom in its diversity and power. We rejoice that the dividing walls are broken down in Christ where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female,” for we are all one in Christ (Gal 3:28). Yet we can also discuss, appreciate, and laugh good-naturedly over our different backgrounds, traditions, and races as we learn from one another.
I love having these men in my preaching classes. Many of them have been preaching a long time before they arrive here, and they often do more teaching with their own preaching than I can hope to impart to them. More than once a brother a few shades darker than me has asked after witnessing a typical Presbyterian-style sermon, “Do I have to preach like that?” I usually like to respond, “Please don’t!”
For one of the lessons we do learn in homiletics is that the Lord of the church raises up ministers in all shapes and styles to deliver his eternal truth. He has designed each messenger of his as a unique mouthpiece to speak to the people to whom he is called. Different ethnic communities have patterns and styles of communicating that are characteristic of them. But that does not mean we cannot learn from another. Indeed, some of my Presbyterian students, after hearing some of these men preach, have asked how they can preach more like them.
So I have given them a few pointers regarding why these men are such effective communicators. They rely little on notes, having worked the message deep into their hearts and having practiced until truly ready to deliver. They preach with vivid language and pictures to capture the imagination and heart as well as the mind. Instead of the linear style of preaching common to Reformed churches, African American preaching is usually rich in themes that are woven into their discourse and which are meditated upon for an extended time. They make good use of rhetorical devices, such as the anaphora (starting several sentences in a row with the same phrase – see this clip one of my students drew my attention to of Gardner C. Taylor’s In His Own Clothes for several examples), rhetorical questions, one or two word exclamations, or the antimetabole (reversing the word order of phrases, like JFK’s line “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”). In short, they recognize preaching is an oral medium and so craft sermons with that in mind. They not only make sure their doctrine is sound, but pay attention to the sound of their doctrine (and that was an antimetabole!).
Yet better than trying to describe it is simply to listen to it. Here are two men who blessed us recently with Spirit-filled messages, Gerald Akrie of the Community of Grace AME Zion Church and Will Baker of Mt. Olive Baptist Church.