Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Preachers, Avoid Alliteration Always

To some preachers I am a heretic. No, not because of any doctrinal deviation but rather because I oppose alliteration.

You know what that is, right? It is when a pastor forces each of his sermon's points to start with the same letter. Entire generations of believers have been forced to listen to sermons offering the "3 F's of Forgiveness" or the "6 P's of Salvation". Recently I stumbled across a sermon on John 3:16 which offered the following outline:

  1. The PASSION of God's love: "so"
  2. The PERIMETER of God's love: "the world"
  3. The PROOF of God's love: "he gave"
  4. The PRICE of God's love: "his only begotten Son"
  5. The PREREQUISITE for God's love: "whosoever believes"
  6. The PROTECTION of God's love: "will not perish"
  7. The PROVISION of God's love: "have everlasting life"
Now, some of you might be looking at that and ask, "what's the problem?" Some pastors would even consider me a heretic for daring to question the appropriateness of alliteration. I've had at least one pastor tell me that he doesn't believe faithful preaching can be done without it! 

Listen, I am not saying that alliteration can never be helpful. In the example above, I would argue the preacher certainly captured the thought of the biblical verse. But there are several reasons why I am dead set against ever using alliteration and strongly recommend that other pastors stop the practice. 

First, it isn't helpful as a memory device: This is the standard line we are fed by alliterating preachers: "people need alliteration in order to be able to remember the sermon". This assumes that people are actually trying to remember the points of your sermon. Let's be honest with ourselves, we don't even try to remember our best friends' phone numbers (that's what the Contact list is for on our phones). I have never bumped into the Christian whose told me "last month my pastor preached on the '4 G's of Love' and it revolutionized my life." The reality is that our congregants have never remembered the points of our sermon. Now, they may remember the big idea of the sermon, but rarely the main points.

Second, the congregation doesn't care: This may be hard for alliterating pastors to hear, but all the labor you spent on trying to find that third G-word or the seventh H-word was wasted time. The Body simply doesn't care. Several times, back in my alliteration days, I experimented by offering all of the sermon's points in alliteration with the exception of the last one. I was curious if anyone would be annoyed or even notice. No one did. Not a single person. Ever. 

Third, it tempts pastors to use a word nobody knows: Consider this sermon given by an alliterating preacher on the subject of Prayer: (1) The PURPOSE of Prayer, (2) The POWER of Prayer, and (3) the PERSPICACITY of Prayer. All that will happen is that 98% of the congregation will wonder "what in the world is perspicacity" and spent 10 minutes trying to google the word on their smart phones. Or consider the pastor who preached a message titled "Three Things God Wants From You": (1) Surrender, (2) Service, (3) Supplication. Really? The word "prayer" would have been more natural to most hearers and easier to understand. The whole purpose of preaching is to make things clear and relevant, but these kinds of words make the message unclear and harder to understand.

Fourth, it runs great risk of changing the author's meaning: Don Sunukjan, another critic of alliteration, offer this example: Suppose one hears a sermon from 1 Samuel 17:17-54 titled "Characteristics of a Leader". The preacher then lists the following points:
  1. Cooperative (17:17-24)
  2. Curious (17:25-27)
  3. Courageous (17:31-37)
  4. Careful (17:38-40)
  5. Confident (17:41-47)
  6. Conclusive (17:48-51)
Many would walk away praising God for a powerful "expository" sermon from a preacher who was "faithful to God's Word". Well, all except for the fact that the sermon wasn't faithful to God's Word. Not even a little. The first problem, as Don points out, is that many of these 'characteristics' of a good leader are not even mentioned in the passage. In what sense can someone legitimately claim that in vv.25-27 God's message is that godly leaders are to be curious? Worse yet, in what sense can one claim that 1 Sam 17:17-54 is even talking about the necessary characteristics of a godly leader? This isn't even the message of the biblical text. 

I would go so far to say that the vast majority of alliterated sermons I've heard have twisted the text to fit the alliteration, at least on one of the alliterated points. The temptation is just too great, as pastors bend the meaning of the text to fit one of more alliterated words. I believe this is usually done unconsciously and without malicious intent, but it is done nonetheless. I'm to the point now that when I hear a pastor alliterate my brain immediately sends up red flags, as the preacher is most likely bending the text instead of being bent to it.

Fifth, it can become overly complicated: This is the problem with the example given above from John 3:16. That verse is remarkably simple and clear, yet the outline is complicated and therefore confusing. Perhaps there is a reason thousands flocked to hear Jesus speak and the majority of our churches have a few dozen.

Sixth, it feels contrived and does not sound natural: Let's be honest. Nobody speaks this way. Preachers, read that statement again: NOBODY SPEAK THIS WAY. Real life doesn't rhyme and, frankly, an alliterated sermon sounds phony. Your job as a preacher is to connect with your audience...something you are making much harder by speaking in a way that is unnatural and foreign to them.

Seventh, people prefer one practical idea over several points that happen to be alliterated: A decade of preaching ministry is teaching me the need to be clear, simple, and straightforward. What is the takeaway for my people? What is the big idea I want them to get behind? What is the single truth that I want to plant into their heart with this message?

This doesn't mean you can never alliterate. But it does mean that as preachers we need to rely more on the flow and logic of the Biblical passage, not try to repackage and recreate it into something more "memorable" (though see point #1 above).

1 comment:

  1. I have thought in many sermons alliteration was kind of hokey. As a Bible study leader in our church our lesson this week is in Genesis 3. The lesson writer's 3 points are titled The Sham, The Shame and The Shambles. I Googled preachers and alliteration and came across your site. I really appreciate your seven non-alliterated points and I am reminder that as preachers and teachers our prime responsibility is to be true to the Word and not how creative WE can be.