An Analysis of Pastor Franklin's Second Sermon on Ridiculous Faith
Speech Communication 220
Instructor: Jeff St. John
November 27, 1996
On the first Sunday in October, I attended services at Grace Apostolic Church, which has a predominantly black congregation. The guest preacher that week (this church has services every day) was Pastor Franklin, who had, with the Lord's help, built a million-dollar church in an economically depressed black neighborhood of Chicago. The purpose of his sermon was to encourage a "ridiculous" faith in the congregation. Judging from the number of parishioners making a second offering during the second offering of that Sunday, it appears that he succeeded.
First I will describe the setting and some of the events of the service preceding the sermon. Then I will discuss the delivery, structure, content, reasoning, and environmental factors of his sermon.
I was attending church that Sunday with my friend Kristin, and her friend Paula. Kristin had been looking for a church with some good gospel singing. I had been with Kristen to church before because I like her, and would like to understand this part of her, as well as the role of religion in people's lives in general. I was especially interested in visiting a gospel-type church, since it is a style of worshipping I have heard and seen much about but had never before had the chance to experience.
After meeting the wife of the pastor, June Harriston, and Bob, who I think is her son, as well as many other friendly and well-dressed blacks, we were led into a recently constructed church. We walked up the center aisle and sat three pews from the front. At the front of the church on my left was a full drum set and an electronic organ. To my right was another electronic keyboard. Near the front row of pews there were three microphones on stands, as one might see at a concert, and a large pulpit with a cross on the front of it. In the upper right and left of the front of the church, suspended from the ceiling, were very large speakers. The choir, dressed in blue robes, came in a little later and filled in the space behind the pulpit. In addition to Kristen and her two friends, two or three other white people came in as the church filled up. There may have been about 120 people in all with room for 100 more.
As people were still entering the church, the choir began to sing a song, and three plainclothes choir members sang at the three microphones in front. One of the coolest dressed, best dancing, best singing, most hip people I have ever seen took the cordless mike from the podium and danced and sang around the front of the church as people continued to arrive. The drummer was drumming and the men on the keyboards were playing. The singers were continuously dancing, moving with the rhythm, and the man with cordless mike would clap his hands in the air over his head, encouraging us all to join in--and I did.
Singing and dancing comprised a large part of the beginning of the service, but eventually we came around to the offering. An elderly woman was moved by the Lord to let us all know that today's offering would bring in $1300. She was brought up to the front to elaborate. After some further explanation, Bob, who I believe is the treasurer or head offering-person of this church, took over, and further persuaded us to help achieve this goal. I got out my dollar. However, the parishioners would not be allowed to "walk" until seven hundred dollars had been put in the offering. We waited for some time as a few people gave $100 bills, and others combined their twenties. I think we made it to $600. Then music with a lively beat was played as the parishioners filed out of their pews from the back of the church, danced their way to the front, dropped their money in a basket in front of the pulpit, and danced back to their seats. I did the same.
June Harriston then came up to introduce Pastor Franklin, who was sitting behind the pulpit. He was a scruffily bearded, overweight black man who did not yet appear to be out of his twenties. He wore a large white religious robe with purple armbands upon which the word "Pastor" was embroidered in gold. Had he not been so accoutered, I would never had guessed him to be the miracle-worker June Harriston was describing. But he did have a beautiful smile and a friendly face, and as soon as he began to speak, I knew he loved to preach.
Pastor Franklin's sermon was unlike any I have experienced before, and unlike most of the presentations and speeches I have seen. It is likely that Pastor Franklin had a rough idea of what the Lord hoped to accomplish through him that day, but it appeared that much of what he did was extemporaneous, and that his style and method of speaking were a natural part of him, learned through years of experience (I believe he had been preaching since he was 16 or 17), not practiced or contrived. It would be fascinating to do a study of the nature of his speaking, and others who speak like him, to learn how much thought he gives his sermon before delivering it. Such a study would be facilitated by the videotapes which most churches keep of the sermons at their services.
The main purpose of Pastor Franklin's sermon, and the whole service, was to bring about a certain mental state in the parishioners. The rhythmic music, the singing, the audience participation, and the huge sacrifices, in the form of offerings, are all oriented to create in the individuals present a state of optimal experience. These gospel-type churches create this environment for optimal experience so well that the parishioners continue to return, often attending services every day. Because these churches are such a focal point in the lives of their parishioners, they can be very successful and the foundation for a very strong community.
The most effective instrument in achieving the main purpose of encouraging an optimal experience in the audience was Pastor Franklin's delivery. Had we been in a sunny meadow, with no one but myself and the Pastor present, and me not knowing a word of English, it is possible that he would still have succeeded in exciting me as he did. It is less likely that he would have succeeded in exciting himself with such an unresponsive audience, however. In this respect, Pastor Franklin's interaction with his audience was a vital aspect of his delivery. There were frequent cries of "Amen!" and "Praise the Lord!" from the audience, and Pastor Franklin would often stop to ask if we understood what he was saying, only continuing once we responded vigorously enough.
Pastor Franklin was very loud, and his voice was amplified by the speakers so that it hurt my ears, and it took me about a day to recover. Had the volume been below the pain threshold, it would have been perfectly riveting without being distracting. People don't usually speak so loudly or enthusiastically. His expression, motions, and body movements were such that it was obvious he was very into what he was doing. And the audience is likely to get into a sermon if the preacher clearly is. In addition to this, the men with the instruments would maintain a sort of mood music which contributed to the special atmosphere of the sermon. Whenever an especially stirring appeal was made by Pastor Franklin, people would stand up and shout, and move their bodies in ways which you might be able to imagine if I describe them as having "raptures." All these characteristics of the sermon were very conducive to creating a feeling of resonance with the audience. Pastor Franklin was evidently "high" from his sermonizing, and he did a good job of creating the same feeling in his audience. As the sermon raced on, I did notice that some of the younger parishioners seemed to be wandering. At first I could not understand, but I realize now that it may have not been such an incredibly novel situation for them as it was for me, and it helps if one is as motivated to enjoy the service as I was (I came there of my own volition out of desire for a new experience).
The structure and content of his sermon, while secondary in importance to his delivery, had a lot to do with bringing the audience, and the speaker himself, to more rapturous states of consciousness over the length of the sermon. Pastor Franklin began his sermon with, "I'm still feasting from Friday. . . " which met with excited cries of recognition from some audience members, and piqued the interest of the rest of us. Apparently quite an orgasmic state of consciousness had been reached that night, and this was reminisced about for a little while before beginning with a more traditional reference to the bible.
Pastor Franklin embellished a few old testament biblical stories about situations in which the Israelites had had to have "ridiculous faith." For example, he mentioned the time when the severely disadvantaged Israelites were told to conquer the fortified city of Jericho with the aid of seven priests with seven trumpets. Pastor Franklin would often read only a few lines, or merely make reference to a story, before presenting its meaning to us in a simple and memorable conclusion. These were some of the things he said: "If the devil brings up your past, tell him you've got a future!" or, after discussing the situation when the Israelites thought the Egyptians had it better: "You've got to add water to your grass. . . If you don't, it will dry up!"
A little ways into his sermon Pastor Franklin stopped to wipe his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief and drink a little water. He said, "I feel something coming on. . . " and a little later he closed his bible. He moved from biblical examples of practitioners of ridiculous faith to examples of his own ridiculous faith, while further elaborating on the nature of ridiculous faith. Throughout his sermon he gave fantastic and serious real-life examples of ridiculous faith, often presenting them in an humorous way. He especially focused on the rise of his church in Chicago which he started while on unemployment, even before he got his job with Fed-Ex. When he was on unemployment, he gave his whole check to the church because, as he said, "I can't even live off this!" The Lord told him to tear down the old building he was meeting in because they were going to build a new church. And the culmination of this episode of the sermon was that a million-dollar church was built and paid for without ever taking out a loan. He also described his experience of being an instrument in bringing one of his co-workers at Fed-Ex back to life. The man had had a heart attack and had been left for dead by the paramedics. But upon the Pastor's intense and loud praying with the man, the paramedics were astonished as his pulse returned.
Finally, at the end of the speech he made an actuating appeal. He related all of his examples to the need of Grace Apostolic Church to pay for its new construction, encouraging us make significant commitments to the church. He told us how we could take the year "1996" (because we are planting a seed for this year, for 1996) and either round the 19 to a 20 and donate $20 or the 96 to 100 and donate $100.
Pastor Franklin's anecdotes and reasoning would not stand up under traditional logical inquiry, but this aspect of the sermon is also conducive to the purpose of encouraging a ridiculous faith in the audience. He gave example after example of miracles, in such a way that I could be drawn along with him and believe that something extraordinary was occurring, except when it came down to the miracle of me donating $100. However, were I a member of the church I might have actually done this. His most beautiful explanation of ridiculous faith centered around the phrase, "It's not your faith, it's His faith." And there is nothing we can do about it. If it is God's faith that the church be built, don't worry about it, it has already happened, it has already been paid for. If God wants you to give $100 it has already been given. Not one of us can ever have faith in God or love of God, because it is His love and His faith whether we notice it or not. We can never have faith because it is not our faith to have. It is there whether we notice it or not.
While certainly Pastor Franklin succeeded in encouraging a ridiculous faith in much of the audience, not everyone ran up and offered $100 or $20, but a significant number did. Most amazing was that one woman who did not have $100 raised her hand when this amount was asked for (In the second offering!) and shortly afterward she found that someone had given her an envelope with that sum of money in it. Otherwise, these people sign themselves up to contribute such large sums, attend church every night, and work like the devil for the Lord during the day. This is conducive to a very focused life, which is a characteristic of happiness.
The delivery, structure, content and reasoning of the sermon were effective in achieving the purpose of the sermon. While there were some anecdotes which strayed from the focus of the sermon, they were the exception. The aspects of the sermon which were not conducive to encouraging a ridiculous faith in myself were the painful volume of the sermon and the focus on monetary sacrifice and monetary gain. The optimal experience created by the rhythmic music, singing, dancing, and audience-speaker interaction can never be diminished, but as those of us more familiar with financial well-being know, there is more to life than financial success. When the people get the money they have always wanted, if they ever do, they will wonder what to do with themselves, if all the while they had focused on money instead of the optimal experience itself. However, I realize that significant sacrifice is an important part of bringing these people together to work for a common goal. My perspective on financial gain is very different (and perhaps the distorted one) from the others in the audience. I would have been more convinced had I been able to find out more about Pastor Franklin's work in Chicago. I did have the feeling that others in the congregation, who probably had more financial security than those in Pastor Franklin's home congregation, were reserved about donating such large amounts. I believe that this reservation is a barrier to total involvement in the cause of the church and therefore a barrier to optimal experience. As for the high volume of the sermon, long time church-goers may not have felt the volume to be so painful as I did.
There are many issues here that deserve further exploration: the nature of and development of Pastor Franklin's speaking ability; the optimal experience and it's role in the success of the church; and the significance and durability of the financial focus of the church and it's members.