Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is known as a civil rights leader and as a great orator. His iconic speech, “I Have a Dream,” is one of the greatest pieces of oratory in American history.
Yet before he was either a civil rights leader or orator, King was a preacher. He was pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., and preached widely in other pulpits.
Today’s pastors can learn a great deal from King, the preacher.
Eleven of King’s sermons are collected in the book A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., also available in audio.
Listening to King’s sermons in his own voice reveals a slightly different side of the civil rights leader but also a different kind of preaching from what we commonly hear today. By our standards the ornate preaching of the 1950s may seem a bit ostentatious. Yet it was highly effective and has something to offer students of preaching.
Here are six ways to improve your preaching based on the sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
1. Challenge your listeners to think.
Preachers today like to “keep the cookies on the bottom shelf,” avoiding the use of complex terms and breaking all ideas down into small bites. King didn’t do that. While his messages were easy to understand, they were highly literary and packed with weighty ideas.
King read widely and quoted great thinkers liberally. In a single message, he quotes Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and John Donne. He wasn’t afraid to stretch his listeners to engage lofty ideas using complex, even erudite, language. Affective sermons are fine, but your listeners may hunger for substantive messages also.
2. Speak to a wider audience.
King always seemed conscious of the fact that his words were being overheard by those outside his congregation. He addressed political leaders, members of other religions, Whites, Hispanics, and Jews. Preaching that aims at the moment, salted with references to pop culture, is quickly forgotten. Great preaching is never provincial. It speaks to the whole world.
3. Experiment with forms.
As did many pastors in his day, King took liberties with the text that would make today’s expository preachers cringe. The sermon “A Knock at Midnight” essentially uses the parable of the friend who knocks at midnight as a metaphor for the moral condition of the United States and the church’s role in society. His sermons were biblical, but not expositional. Nearly all sermons today are either expository or topical. Could we gain something by recovering the use of allegorical, dramatic, prophetic, or devotional sermons?
4. Deliver punch lines.
Though his style was oratorical and used a good deal of ornate language, King wasn’t afraid to play the populist. Some of his best-known quotations are really sound bytes repeated in several sermons. Commenting on personal morality, King said, “These days, the only thing right is to get by and the only thing wrong is to get caught.” His famous line “We must all live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools” shows up in more than one message.
5. Use your voice and presence to direct attention.
King had a commanding presence, and he was a master at regulating the pitch, rate, and volume of his voice. His sermons generally begin slowly and calmly, building to a dramatic crescendo. To today’s audiences, this practiced use of the voice may seem inauthentic. Yet we might learn something from speakers like King about drawing the audience in, creating dramatic tension, and resolving it while relying only on voice rather than props, images, or video.
6. Preach your passion.
All of King’s sermons reverberate with the theme of justice, though he did address personal morality as well. Every preacher seems to have a driving passion, a theme that he or she returns to over and over again.
Times change, and preaching styles seem to change with them. Some elements of good preaching, however, are timeless.