Preaching that's as cool as the other side of the pillow

January 9th, 2015

Stuart Scott, the great ESPN anchor, died a few days ago after fighting cancer for seven years. ESPN did a great memorial piece on him and, as they always do, they brought out the professional and personal side of Mr. Scott, who seemed to be a great man on and off camera.

When I was a kid, as early as 4th and 5th grade, I’d get up in the morning, get ready for school, and then go downstairs and watch Stuart Scott on SportsCenter. Then I’d come home after school and watch him some more. Then I’d watch him again before I went to bed. In between Stuart Scott, I crammed school and sports.

That was my life as a kid. And Stuart was a much a part of it as Bugs Bunny was to other kids.

When I decided that I wanted to become a preacher, I knew so little about public speaking or how to convey information to an audience. Of course, there were always other pastors to model myself after, but as I grew in the craft I found imitating other preachers to be less and less desirable. Everyone wanted to be John Piper or Rob Bell. But I wanted to be the Stuart Scott of homiletics.

Stuart taught me as much about preaching as any non-preacher, and possibly as much as any preacher. He taught me to push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable and desirable in your craft. In a sports broadcast world where everything was professionalized, he spoke in terms not only accessible to the average audience member, but ones they’d actually enjoy hearing. In the prim and proper professionalism, other broadcasters and anchors saw themselves as objective deliverers of information. Stuart saw himself as an entertainer whose work was to create a half-hour of respite for the average Joe.

While I don’t view myself as an entertainer, I understand the value of pushing the boundaries and speaking in a way that will be accessible and memorable to the average person in my audience. Everything from my dress code to my verbiage reflects the ends I’m seeking to accomplish in the pulpit each week. And if that’s not how things are always done, then all the better. That’s what makes your craft memorable to your hearers! My objective is not to deliver an academic paper; my objective is to spiritually form my hearers, to push them to Christ, to help them see how their lives can be oriented toward the purpose for which God created them. I have a half-hour, once a week, to accomplish all this, and Stuart taught me how to use that half-hour effectively.

This begins with your audience actually believing that your subject matter actually matters. This is what makes Stuart’s work ethic and artistry so valuable. When you watched him, you knew that sports, at their best and worst, were his single greatest passion. And I swear, if we were to take an honest vote, I’d almost guarantee you that people found him to be more passionate, more authentic and therefore more trustworthy than a lot of preachers they’ve heard. And I knew I’d rather emulate him than so many of the preachers I heard in chapel in college, or in the random churches I’ve attended, who I couldn’t even tell if they wanted to be up on that stage or not. How many lifeless sermons have you heard that nearly convinced you the preacher was bored with himself? You never got that impression with Stuart Scott.

Stuart also taught me the value of word choice and creating possible worlds through well-crafted sentences. In the wake of his death, people are hashtagging “booyah” and “cool as the other side of the pillow.” It’s amazing that such simple words, stated over and over through two decades, can embed themselves in the mind of hearers. This says something about the even more important words of the church, like redemption, kingdom, new creation, resurrection. These words, used in the right way, repeated in a persons ears for decades cannot help but embed themselves deeply in the soul. Well-chosen words and well-crafted sentences are not neutral, lifeless sound waves; they’re living, breathing soul-makers.

And these soul-making words get vibrant when the person speaking them does so with the appropriate inflection. Stuart Scott mastered the art of inflection. He knew when to be soft, when to be harsh, when to surprise us with humor and even when to push the boundaries of appropriateness. This too is something I learned from him. Half of the preacher’s communication comes from how she articulates the words she’s chosen. Words create worlds, but inflection helps that world becomes visible to the colorblind.

And then of course, there’s the beauty of practice. As I watched the memorial video of Stuart, I found it interesting that while you and I were watching commercials, he was practicing his way through the manuscript for his next segment. Seriously, how many pastors take the time to do that for preaching, something we say we believe is of eternal value? I can hardly think of a single thing that will make a preacher better that doesn’t involve lots and lots of practice outside of the pulpit. You can have all the right exegesis, the best illustrations and great theology, but if you’re not willing to put in the time to practice, practice, practice, then you’re not going to get better as quickly as you could. And when you’re writing your sermons on Saturday night, I’m sorry, but you’re not going to be able to practice. Yes, yes, I know we’re talkin’ ‘bout practice. But you know what? I think the church deserves our practice. We are called to the ministry of the word, and as such, making sure that word is said clearly, succinctly and in a way our audience can actually hear it is part of that task.

Stuart Scott taught me about art. Preaching is art. So Stuart Scott taught me about preaching. Maybe I’ve plundered the Egyptians. Maybe I’ve just learned from a master artist. Either way, I’m a better preacher for it. Thanks, Stuart. 

Tom Fuerst blogs at You can subscribe to his blog via email here.

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