Preaching with Intensity
Preaching with Intensity
How to communicate so listeners feel your passion.
I couldn't wait to preach this sermon. The text, from 1 Samuel 20, captures one of the most poignant moments in all Scripture — David saying good-bye for the final time to his dearest friend Jonathan. " Then David bowed to Jonathan with his face to the ground, " the Bible relates. " Both of them were in tears as they embraced each other and said good-bye, especially David. " I got a lump in my throat as I studied the passage. The previous month I had helped one of my best friends load a big, yellow Ryder truck with his every belonging. The truck's metal back door had rolled down with a metallic thunk. Then my friend had driven away to another state, and I knew I would not see him again for a long time.
In preparation for the message, I had studied much of First Samuel to gain the context. I had pored through commentaries. That morning, I was like a sprinter in the blocks, waiting for the service to come to the moment when I would be able to deliver this message from the Bible and from my burning spirit.
As I preached, I included illustrations from current events, from history, from my life. I even choked up a little while telling the story of losing my close friend to a long-distance move.
The following week, in a bit of preacher's bravado, I sent the sermon tape to Leadership's audio series, Preaching Today. One of Preaching Today's expert screeners duly evaluated my sermon, and because I worked as editor for Leadership, I got to see the comments. The sermon was good, the screener said, though not quite good enough to earn a slot on Preaching Today. The content generally got high marks. But the delivery, my sermonic report card went on to say, was a little flat.
I couldn't believe it. Later that week I popped the sermon tape into my car's tape player and gave it another listen. As I heard the sermon from this distance, surprisingly, I had to agree: It lacked sizzle. Even though I had felt the message so deeply, somehow my conviction and emotion did not come across with the intensity I wanted. I puzzled over that.
Why is it that sometimes we as preachers feel a message so deeply, yet our listeners don't feel that? Why is something that's so intensely meaningful to us not always communicated in a way that grips the congregation as intensely?
In the final analysis, what determines whether our preaching has impact is not our presentation but the truths we are communicating. God's truth is compelling, and even a somewhat lackluster presentation can be used mightily by the Lord. My sermon on David and Jonathan did minister, according to several people who commented on it.
Still, as Spurgeon declared, " Royal truths deserve to ride in a regal carriage. " As a preacher, I am communicating ultimate truths, so I want my rhetorical presentation to carry those divine truths with a sense of energy, conviction, and importance.
Through focused thinking and research in the years since that sermon, I have learned what can cause deeply-felt sermons to fall flat — and how to preach with an intensity that carries.
Why intensity doesn't transfer
At least four factors keep a preacher's passion from moving the congregation:
The personality factor:
When I listen to sermons by many of the best-known preachers in this country, I am gripped and moved. Part of the power comes from the insight, the skill with which these ministers communicate God's truth. But part of the reason their sermons are so effective is because these preachers are so intense. Their energy draws me in.
In my work with Leadership, as I've interacted with some of these gifted communicators, I've discovered something surprising: They are just as intense out of the pulpit. Even talking to them one-on-one, they leave you a little breathless and feeling you must act now. The bottom line: These are high-energy people all the time. Their intensity for the gospel message comes through, in part, simply by virtue of their God-given personalities.
I'm a quieter sort. I can't expect my personal demeanor to adequately communicate how deeply I believe God's Word, how much I love Jesus Christ, how critical it is that people obey him. I must learn and use the time-tested means of communicating to a group so they feel the same conviction, emotion, and energy I feel inside.
The time factor:
By the time I step into the pulpit, I have studied for this message all week. I meditated on the text. I read commentaries. I prayed about the message. I gave this sermon from eight to twenty hours of my best thought, prayer, and energy.
But the people listening to me are hearing the sermon cold. What's become so meaningful to me has had no time to sink in to them. I can't expect the truths that have gripped me during hours of study to automatically grip a congregation — unless I practice the skills I will describe in part 2 of this article.
The position factor:
The way a preacher experiences a message and the way a listener experiences that exact same message are poles apart.
For example, when I pause while speaking, it seems like I'm pausing forever. But when I play back the tape, what seemed like a ten-second pause actually lasted only two or three seconds. In the same way, what seems like a big and important point to me may not come across as big or important to my listeners.
Why? I'm standing in front of dozens or hundreds of people, which makes the speaking moment intense for me; adrenaline races through my system, heightening my emotion, energy, and memory. Sorry to say, my listeners do not find simply listening to a sermon an adrenaline rush. Sunday morning is probably not the emotional peak of their week, and they have dragged in tired from yard work the day before and movies the night before. They aren't bringing intense focus and emotion on their own, so they need me to communicate in a way that conveys intensity.
The distance factor:
A sermon is like a stone dropped in a pond — the ripples flow outward from where the stone hit the water, getting weaker as they go. A preacher's facial expression of intense emotion looks powerful up close but like a blurry squiggle to the guy sitting in the last row (and the woman who closed her eyes for a second didn't even see it). The arm motion that seemed like a major sweep to you looked like a small finger wave to the people farthest from you.
Why is it that sometimes we as preachers feel a message deeply, yet our listeners don't feel that? Why is something that's intensely meaningful to us not always communicated in a way that grips the congregation as intensely? As a preacher, I am communicating ultimate truths, so I want my rhetorical presentation to carry those divine truths with a sense of energy, conviction, and importance.
I've developed six questions I ask about my preaching to ensure my conviction communicates forcefully. The first two questions deal with content. I ask these questions as I look over my manuscript.
1. Am I keeping the bold statements bold?
Few elements in a sermon pack as much punch as a simple declarative statement or command. But read through a few recent sermons and you may find precious few of them.
Educated people — and ministers are some of the most highly educated people in the world — are taught throughout college and graduate school to qualify their statements. For example, if you write in a seminary term paper that " In his Ninety-Five Theses, Luther attacked indulgences with ferocity, " the prof will circle the statement in red and write in the margin, " But at this early stage of his theological development, Luther attacked only the abuse of indulgences, not the very idea of them — see Thesis 73. " After you get two or three such comments, you start to shy from making bold declarations, because you don't want to be looked down upon as making sweeping statements or oversimplifications. You want to show that you have done your homework and understand the nuances and subtleties.
It's easy to take this ingrained academic practice into the pulpit. Instead of boldly saying, " If you have two coats, you should give away one " (Luke 3:11), we manage, " This text cautions us from excessive indulgence. It's important to realize, though, that this doesn't mean we have to quit enjoying life, or that we must all become monks in the desert. " The nuances of the second statement might sometimes be necessary, but they can also snuff the burning fire of John the Baptist's words.
Every nuance and qualifier, though it may add technical accuracy, also blunts the force of the statement we're trying to make. Even if we believe something intensely, we can drain the energy out of our statement so that the congregation doesn't sense that. It's good to be accurate, to use nuance, to balance. But we must never let those good practices dull the sharp edge of the Bible's two-edged sword.
I've decided that if simple boldness turns off some of the more educated people, so be it. Martin Luther once said, " When I preach, I regard neither doctors nor magistrates, of whom I have above forty in my congregation; I have all my eyes on the servant maids and on the children. And if the learned men are not well pleased with what they hear, well, the door is open. "
If a desire to be technically careful can sometimes lower our intensity, so can our God-given love for people. We feel awkward saying, " God hates divorce, " because we look out and see someone in the third pew who just went through a rough divorce after years of unfair treatment from her husband. Or we back off the simple phrase " Don't lay up treasures on earth " because we don't want to unnecessarily put off a member who is a certified financial planner and spends his days helping people do just that. We must show compassion, but we lower our intensity and effectiveness as preachers if we allow oversensitivity to keep us from making bold statements.
2. Am I delaying the denouement?
A novel's denouement, or resolution, is when every event ties together and gives the reader a sense of completion and satisfaction. But what makes anyone want to read a novel is not knowing what that denouement will be. To preach with intensity, we must follow this principle: keep the end till the end.
That applies to the sermon as a whole, but also to each element in it. Nothing ruins an anecdote like tipping off halfway through how it's going to end. We all know that, but it's quite easy to do it inadvertently. For example, if I'm telling a story from my college days to illustrate human folly, I might say, " I remember one time I got suspended by my college dean. I got involved in this raid on another dorm " The problem is, I've just accidentally given away the punchline — namely, my foolish actions led to suspension. The story packs more punch when the listeners have no idea how it's going to turn out: " I'll never forget climbing the brick walls of Hauser Dormitory at 2 a.m. in the morning, one foot braced on a downspout, and both hands gripping the ivy vines for dear life "
R. C. Sproul used this principle of delayed resolution brilliantly in a recent message on the meaning of the Cross. Early in his introduction, Sproul said he was going to tell people a crucial theological point about salvation — yet it's one that most Christians today, even Christian leaders, don't seem to know. That piqued my curiosity, but Sproul intensified the curiosity by not divulging the doctrine for several more minutes. As I listened to the tape, I found myself internally begging Sproul to reveal this overlooked essential doctrine, and I listened eagerly when he finally pointed out that salvation means being saved from God's wrath.
The next three questions make me think through my delivery.
3. Am I varying my volume and emotion enough?
Not doing this is one of the main reasons, I concluded, that my sermon on David and Jonathan felt flat. When I was explaining background information about the text, I spoke in a moderate volume and even emotional tone. But when I got to the poignant core of the text, when David bows on the ground before Jonathan and rises to hug him, weeping — I still spoke in the same moderate volume and even emotional tone.
One reason African-American preaching hits home is it draws on the full range of human volume, from whisper to shout, and the full range of human emotion, from rage to joy. One of the most powerful sermons I've ever heard is the now-famous message " When Was God at His Best? " by E. V. Hill. Hill begins the sermon speaking slowly, in a deep, quiet voice — almost with an emotional neutrality and distance. Through the sermon, as he examines different possible moments when God was at his best — when he created the world, when he created human beings, when he led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, and so on — Hill gradually builds with intensity. By the end of the sermon, when Hill reveals the moment when God was truly at his best — " when God saved a sinner like me " — Hill tells his own story of conversion joyfully and at the top of his voice, with a shout.
I ask myself, " What is the most important section of this sermon? What is the peak moment? " Then I try to make sure my greatest intensity is communicated at that spot.
4. Am I making my motions expansive?
Have you ever noticed what you do when you're talking to someone and you want to say something that's critically important or highly sensitive? I find myself moving my head a little lower and closer to the other person, lowering my voice, and pulling my hands in to the center of my body. Even my neck and upper back hunch over slightly, because I want to get close and personal to communicate this news. All this is natural and perfectly appropriate when we're talking intensely one-on-one.
It's easy, though, to use instinctively the same body language when we're talking intensely to 175 people. And when we pull in our hands and lean our head a little lower, we can end up looking smaller and cramped, at just the moment our bodies should be communicating, " This is big news! Listen to this! "
Haddon Robinson, author of Biblical Preaching, wisely counsels preachers to make sure their motions are natural. But within your natural range of motions, try to open up. When you want to communicate the wideness of God's mercy, stretch your arms to full length. When you want to communicate the poignant moment when Jesus cried, " Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, " tilt your head back and look far up into the blackened sky.
5. Am I speaking fast enough?
It's true that speaking slowly can be a powerful tool for emphasis. It's also true that a sermon works best when there's variety: fast, slow, and medium tempos. But as a general rule, I can increase the intensity of my communication if I turn up the default setting on my metronome. The increase in speed should not be a great deal, and not beyond what feels comfortable. But a quicker tempo conveys energy, excitement, and thus, importance. It can be one more way to make sure that the intensity you feel comes through to your congregation.
Finally, and most importantly, I ask this question:
6. Am I trying to live what I'm about to say?
The most powerful intensifier of our communication is not our content and it's not our delivery. It's our life.
If we have visited people in the hospital, then when we preach about showing compassion, our statements will hit the mark. If we have weathered faithfully a tragedy — a car accident, the death of a child — then whatever we say thereafter about trusting God during suffering will go straight to the heart of our listeners. Craig Brian Larson, editor of Preaching Today and my friend (despite the fact he didn't accept my sermon), has pastored several small congregations and endured on-the-edge finances for years. So when he preaches about perseverance, about going the distance, his words enlarge with the anointing of God.
I suppose that since Roe v. Wade in 1973, hundreds of thousands of sermons have been preached against abortion in this country. Some have described the gruesome physical process of late-term abortions, which one would think would easily make them the most intense sermons preached on the topic. But I think the most intense sermon ever leveled against abortion was a plain-spoken, halting message delivered by a shriveled, elderly, Albanian woman who spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994. Her sentences were painfully simple: " Please don't kill the child. I love the child. Give me the child. " But when she called out for America to stop aborting babies, instead to learn compassion, her words hit with the intensity of a laser, because her name was Mother Teresa.