Book review: Preaching and the thirty-Second Commercial by O. Wesley Allen and Carrie La Ferle

Alyce McKenzie is the Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor, and Director of the Center for Preaching Excellence At Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

Dr. McKenzie has partnered with Westminster John Knox Press to create a book series called “Preaching And . . .” Each book will match homiletics and preaching with another field of study for comparison and application. The intent is to widen the scope of today’s homiletic and employ best practices in communication. This book, Preaching and the Thirty-Second Commercial: Lessons in Advertising from the Pulpit is the first in the “Preaching and . . .” series. McKenzie will author the second in the series, which is forthcoming, and titled A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Pulpit. It will examine the critical use of humor and its nuances in preaching.

Preaching and the Thirty-Second Commercial is authored by two people:

  • O. Wesley Allen, who is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology
  • Carrie La Ferle, the Marriott Endowed Professor of Ethics and Culture at the Temerlin Advertising Institute at Southern Methodist University

While the authors begin by sharing the seemingly divergent ends of preaching and advertising – the latter a celebration of culture linking desire or temptation to action by purchasing a product, and the former a countercultural endeavor rooted in the denial of self – the capable duo boils the book’s plot into a simple and concrete claim:

. . . the purposes of preaching and advertising are aligned: both are communicative endeavors aimed at persuading the audience to consider new options for their lives.

Allen, La Ferle

The advertising case studies and sermon samples alone make the book a worthy purchase for use in continuing education, small groups, and preaching cohorts. Allen and La Ferle paint a clear picture of the evolution of communication and the economy of authority and trust that has changed over the last two centuries.

From Preaching and . . . :

Advertising in one form or another has been around for centuries, dating back to evidence of ads in the form of posters and notices in Egyptian steel carvings, wall or stone paintings, and papyri. As changes have occurred in economic systems—especially the evolution of free-market capitalism—and with advancements in technology and media—so too has advertising changed. The first U.S. newspaper advertisement ran in 1704 in the Boston News-Letter informing readers of property for sale in Long Island.

According to Business Insider (2018), the global population went from 5.9 billion in 1998 to 7.6 billion in 2018, while 2007 found the world’s urban population surpassing that of people living in rural settings.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2019, 81 percent of Americans owned a smartphone and 96 percent owned some type of cell phone device.

So much has changed so quickly between 1704 and 2021 in authority, trust, and communication. While the sermon and its preparation and use were so long protected by early writers and rhetoricians, the world of promoting a brand that sticks and keeps up with the current psychographics has not been as kind to leading brands.

La Ferle brings up Lean Cuisine, a brand that rose to prominence in the 1990’s during the dieting craze. In the 2000’s, however, emphasis shifted from dieting to healthy living, or lifestyle change. Lean Cuisine’s profits plummeted as consumers were embarrassed to be seen purchasing the frozen meals and saw them as marketed toward single women struggling with their weight. When Lean Cuisine invested heavily in market research, targeted advertising, and rebranding (an area where the Church certainly lags behind the advertising industry!) they discovered that by removing the words “diet’ and “dieting” and creating narrative commercials – stories about empowering women – their sales increased by $56,000,000.00 in the following year.

The next powerful case study was that of Doritos who, in 2006, ran a competition that challenged consumers to create a commercial promoting the product. The prize? Being featured during the Super Bowl, one of the most expensive and most watched moments of airtime on television. This case study emphasizes the authors’ previous point: most people have moved into urban areas and are seeing anywhere from 500-5,000 advertisements per day, and 81 percent of the US population owns a smartphone that can record and instantly upload content accessible across the world. This move put advertising squarely in the hands of consumers and fundamentally changed the sense of ownership between producer and consumer. Preaching and included several helpful diagrams to show the progression of linear communication to cyclical and multidimensional communication:

This is the basic encoding/decoding path for advertisers and communicators for years. The Source/Sender who has implicit trust and respect and is an expert and authority sends messages that are then decoded by those who have given the implicit trust and are not experts. They then decode and respond to the message while the Source/Sender monitors that response as well as the movement of competitors.
This is a more recent “Means-End” model of advertising directed at the consumer. This model gets the consumer talking about the practical uses of the product and leads to emotional/mental response. If I have this product, I’ll be this kind of person. I’ll live this kind of life. This process relies less on the authority of the source,
This is the model the authors utilize to transition the book from changes in communication and the hearers/consumers and into applications to sermons, preparation, and preaching. In this model, there is an conspicuous lack of linear communication. There is no reliance upon the authority or expertise of a sender and the decoding by receivers. Rather, the receiver is now considered within the model to have authority and expertise, and advertisers and brands now decode troves of data points from the uploaded content of consumers.

What is the cost of this kind of saturation? For many who moved their ministries online during waves of COVID-19, the answer is the “3-second view.” This is the number of people who watched a service, event, or study on Facebook for three seconds and then moved on. With everyone holding a device connected to the internet, and everyone capable of skipping commercials entirely, the entire emphasis of commercials has changed. Instead of setting out to prove points, the emphasis is now to tell a story that puts you on the top rung of the ladder – music, images, sights, sound, and script that can make you as invested in the commercial as you are in the show you are waiting to watch.

This is where Preaching and became most exciting for me. I am a student of Dr. Mike Graves, former professor of preaching and worship at Saint Paul School of Theology, who was a student of Fred Craddock. Craddock is the father of inductive preaching and story-telling sermons that “stumble across the Gospel.” I still remember Dr. Graves standing up in class and proclaiming,

“No one writes a murder mystery novel and then gives it the title The Butler Did It!”

This was Graves’ way of indicating the waning effectiveness of the expository and deductive sermon that names a thesis that will be proved, offers points to defend that thesis (often three!), and then restates the thesis after proved. Allen and La Ferle presented it this way:

In this model, it is easy to see that story becomes adjacent to the emphasis of the style, which is deep exegesis to reveal a theological truth. Inductive preaching, story-telling preaching, allows story to become the driving force to lead people into exegesis and the revelation of theological truths. David Buttrick calls it creating a “collective conscious.” Eugene Lowry, whose commentary on Craddock’s work and emphasized the New Homiletic of inductive preaching and the “Lowry Loop,” calls it “moving from an itch to a scratch.”

The hearer has changed. The culture has changed. Access to information has changed. Why shouldn’t the communication from the pulpit change? Preaching and asserts that,

“People choose what is true for them . . . authority has shifted from reason to experience . . . No longer does some expert own the message and simply deliver it to a receptive audience. In today’s world, audiences must be engaged as participants and co-creators of meaning if they are going to take communication initially directed to them seriously and build a relationship with communicators . . .”

Allen, La Ferle

At this point, the book shifts into practical suggestions and case studies that emphasize the importance of story-telling and working out our creative muscles as pulpit ministers. Combining the emphases and suggestions of the great inductive preachers and professors of the 21st Century, the authors drive home the synthesis of preaching and advertising in what is called “the sticky story.” The sticky story is the story that leaves with you when you leave the presence of the story-teller. It is the story that taps into your intellect and your emotions and allows to to experience the setting and senses of the story. Contrast this with the deductive sermon driven by facts and proofs, in which story plays the supporting role, and you can see why so many preachers have become so boring, and why so many advertisers reserve millions of dollars for continually testing their brand against the most current psychographics. Allen and La Ferle include those psychographic groups as follows:

Match this information with the needs of a preacher in a multi-generation church, and you have just stumbled across the intense challenge of making meaning Sunday after Sunday:

Preaching to people who were born in 1946 all the way to people who were born in 2009 puts many in the position of offering the Good News to five different generations. This is where the rubber hits the road in Preaching and‘s closing points:

  1. Stories must stick
  2. Sermons must be simple and concrete, but not simplistic
  3. The story-teller must be authentic
  4. The stories must be credible and the listener must say, “I can see that happening to me.”
  5. Story must be rooted in sound exegesis, must offer commentary on an existentially relevant topic, and must find a resolution that the hearers believe they can also find

At this point in the book, advertising strategies and goals are offered as ideas for structuring sermons and common creativity-building techniques in advertising are trotted out for preachers to attempt on their own after reading.

Preaching and concludes with a comparison between the Ad Campaign and the Sermon Series:

An advertising campaign is “a specifically designed strategy that is carried out across different mediums in order to both achieve results and to increase brand awareness, sales and communication.

In a sermon series, this overarching focus should be fairly tight . . . The focus for the series could be on theology, spiritual health, a book of the Bible, a social justice issue, denominational identity, an emphasis of a liturgical season, and so forth. Then preachers look at the issue through different lenses throughout the series and avoid series that are divided into progressive parts.

In my local church setting, we create sermon series’ based upon the Revised Common Lectionary or significant events in the life of the mission field. One of the most important ideas in the book comes at the end, and reinforces the idea that both preaching and advertising are communicative endeavors designed to persuade and to cause listeners to consider a new way of living. Sermon series’ and worship series’ need to take on the same seriousness of preparation as an ad campaign. There are simply too many isogetical and hokey/punny/shallow themes hastily thrown together whose attractional quality is short-lived and ultimately disappointing.

I highly recommend this book to any and all who want to become better story-tellers, and I look forward to the forthcoming books in the series.

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