Writing for the Ear, Preaching from the Heart

Donna Giver-Johnston
Fortress Press, 136 pages
Published: August 10, 2021

In a small town in South Georgia, the pastor told his Sunday night congregation why he carried only his Bible and an outline into the pulpit to preach. He would write out his sermons in full, but leave that manuscript in his study. He likened his process to what his son had told him about how he knew the words to many hymns years before he could read. The little boy said, “I just get them in my heart, and they come out.” That’s how Donna Giver-Johnston believes the best preaching is done.

The goal of this slim volume is to guide preachers to “write sermons for the ear so they can be remembered and to preach sermons from the heart, without a manuscript, so that they are memorable.” The first chapter explores changes in communication generally and preaching in particular. Chapter two addresses divine revelation and incarnation, as well as how Jesus conveyed his message. Writing for the ear is the focus of chapter three, and the fourth chapter focuses on preaching from the heart.

Citing only anecdotal evidence, the author advocates preaching without a written text or notes. Giver-Johnston, pastor of Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon in Pittsburgh and teacher of preaching as an adjunct professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, asserts that such preaching connects with listeners more effectively. Along the way, she also writes in favor of presenting Scripture from memory. She suggests that preaching without paper is more akin to the preaching of Jesus, though in his first Nazareth sermon, according to Luke, Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll, though surely he could have recited it by heart.

The third of this book’s three chapters may offer the most practical advice for the preacher seeking to write for the ear. It’s good to construct sentences that are short and that use familiar words that pack a punch. It’s especially helpful to read your sermon aloud, especially to a listener who will speak the truth in love when giving feedback. I suggest you spend a long time with Giver-Johnston’s description of the characteristics of Jesus’ preaching.

Whether you’re moved to preach without reading from a printed text or referring to written notes, Giver-Johnston’s description of her sermon preparation plan is useful with helpful references such as Sondra Willobee’s challenge to explore the biblical text with all of the senses.

Giver-Johnston’s fourth and final chapter addresses the preaching. She offers VOICE as a mnemonic device: Variety of volume and pace of speaking, including pauses; Openness of posture; Intonation by voice warm-up prior to preaching; Clarity by clear pronunciation and by avoiding speaking too quickly; and Emphasis of important words and phrases.

The boy who memorized hymns years before he could read them is now in his 70s and finds memorization much more of a challenge than when he was a 4-year-old … so I preach from a manuscript! I agree with Giver-Johnston that sermons should be written for the ear and that preaching needs to be lively and engaging, but, for me, a manuscript need not be a barrier, for listeners, or for preaching from the heart.

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Since retiring as the psychologist for North Carolina’s Services for the Blind, Dr. Paul Rowland Jr.
has served as commissioned pastor of Berea Presbyterian Church of Four Oaks, North Carolina. He’s a bread baker who marvels at the miracle of yeast and a greenway biker who photographs beautiful nature.