J. C. Ryle’s Five Hints for Simplicity in Preaching

ryle1bJ. C. Ryle’s preaching advice deserves at least as much attention as his amazing beard. After forty-five years in ministry as a preacher, J. C. Ryle delivered a lecture entitled “Simplicity in Preaching.” He recounts his early years in ministry, preaching to laborers and farmers in a rural parish. He remembered hearing of a farmer who enjoyed Sunday more than any other day in the week, “Because I can sit comfortably in church, put up my legs, have nothing to think about, and just go to sleep.”

Ryle learned that preaching with simple clarity was extremely important, and yet extremely difficult. By “simple” Ryle did not mean to imply childish or simplistic. Rather, he gives these five hints for attaining elegant simplicity: use clear thoughts, simple words, simple style, direct style and many stories.

First, take care that you have a clear view of the subject upon which you are going to preach. (Clear Thoughts)

Ryle says this is the most important of the five. “If you yourself begin in a fog, you may depend upon it you will leave your people in darkness.” Ryle says spending too much in obscure prophetic passages or the book of Revelation will not lead to simplicity. Such passages are “almost impossible” to make simple. Ryle doesn’t say to avoid these books, but only to handle them “occasionally, at fit times, before a suitable audience,” and only if you really understand the passage. Other advice in this section: 1) don’t force true doctrine out of the wrong text, 2) have clear divisions in your sermon, even if they aren’t explicit, 3)  the divisions should serve as hooks or pegs to help people remember your sermon, and 4) examine and analyze sermons which draw people together. Ryle says he regularly examine C. H. Spurgeon’s preaching because it was able to hold together a large crowd. “How thoroughly [Mr. Spurgeon] brings before you certain great truths, that hang to you like hooks of steel, and which, once planted in your memory you never forget!”

Second, try to use in all your sermons, as far as you can, simple words. (Simple Words)

Ryle isn’t necessarily suggesting single-syllable words only, but rather “words which are in daily common use amongst the people.” Ryle points out that knowing your audience is important here. The extent of your vocabulary should vary based on the education of your audience.

Third, take care to aim at a simple style of composition. (Simple Style)

“Beware of writing many lines without coming to a pause…Write as if you were asthmatical or short of breath.” Remember that a reader is able to help himself by looking back a few lines and refreshing his mind. The listener would be helped by a verbal equivalent. That is, the preacher should continually restate his idea in various ways. State your point fully, then offer the same idea in a proverb or epigram (something that’s tweetable). Ryle says that tweetable comments are of “vast importance” (maybe a slight paraphrase).

“Proverbial, epigrammatic, and antithetical sayings…give wonderful perspicuousness and force to a sermon. Labour to store your minds with them.”

Fourth, use a direct style. (Direct Style)

Address your congregation directly. Use ‘I’ and ‘you’ rather than ‘we’. Ryle says, “I remember good Bishop Villiers saying that ‘we’ was a word kings and corporations should use, and they alone, but that parish clergymen should always talk of ‘I’ and ‘you’.

Fifth, use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations. (Many Stories)

Stories are “windows through which light is let in upon your subject.” Jesus used illustrations, metaphors and stories constantly. If you pause in your sermon and say, “Now I will tell you a story,” then it might wake the sleepers. Therefore, preachers should heed the Arabian proverb, “He is the best speaker who can turn the ear into an eye.” Ryle says, “Illustration, I confidently assert, is one of the best receipts for making a sermon simple, clear, perspicuous and easily understood.” Yet he also warns that there is a limit. Overly detailed or drawn out stories, or too many of them in a single sermon, may be as dangerous as having none at all.

In some concluding words, Ryle says,  “We must talk to our people when we are out of church if we would understand how to preach to them in church.” And then he reminds the preacher that all the skill and simplicity in the world is useless without prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the grant of God’s blessing, and a life corresponding in some measure to what we preach.

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