Chapter 190

Holding Hearers Captive

Three things that make it hard for listeners to escape a sermon.

Asking others to change electrifies a message because the thought of change both traumatizes and excites a congregation.

What makes a sermon captivating — a message not just true and biblical, but one people must listen to?

Of course, if we address painfully felt needs, people listen, but what about all those important sermons that ground believers but do not address torment or ambition? How do we engage hearers no matter what the topic?

After listening to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sermons on tape for Preaching Today, I think I know. Hearing a sermon on tape is the acid test. On tape preachers lose the benefit of their winsome facial expressions, physical movement and gestures, the excitement of a crowd, and the presence of God in the meeting. Taped sermons strip preachers down to their voice and words. I have heard many sermons in person that I thought were world class, only to listen later on tape and be unmoved. So if you can captivate hearers on tape, then in person you can preach.

What grabs hearers even on tape is energy. I have observed three types of energy in sermons. If preachers have at least one type, their messages can capture hearers so they might fully hear the Word.

1. Emotional energy.

Rarely can I turn off a preacher who speaks with heart — even when the sermon lacks organization. Passion overcomes a multitude of preaching sins. (Of course, passion also raises red flags. But just because manipulators and heretics abuse emotion does not mean ethical speakers must avoid it. Quite the opposite!)

Emotional vitality springs from the feelings of both the speaker and the listener, as heart touches heart. In my observation, emotional energy comes from the following sources:

2. Intellectual energy.

Some preachers think particularly interesting thoughts, and I have to listen because I must know what they think. They form sermons in a way that makes ideas hum.

Intellectual dynamism comes naturally from a growing mind and from meditating long on a text and its application to today's hearers under the leading of the Spirit. Here are some personal disciplines and message preparation steps that increase mental energy in sermons:

3. Vocal energy.

My idealistic side wants to say we can present the Word in any vocal delivery, and the preaching will bear fruit. But preaching involves both divine and human dimensions, and of the human factors one of the most influential is the voice.

Forget whether your voice is high or low, strong or weak, or whether you speak in a conversational or speaker mode. What a preacher's voice must have is not beauty but vitality. Some preachers with surging emotions and thoughts have a disconnect between that inner energy and their voice, and so they must work on vocal energy.

The following factors affect vocal vitality:

Aiming to comfort. When you try to soothe hearers, you risk losing them. One preacher I know who has energetic ideas speaks in intimate tones from beginning to end. His sermons just lie there because when we soothe, we lower our volume, smooth the edges off our enunciation, slow down — in other words, stop doing everything that energizes our voice.

I often hear preachers throttle-back in the same way in the conclusion, even when they are not trying to comfort. They intend to wind up the sermon, and unconsciously, perhaps, they start to wind down their delivery.

The moral: use soothing tones for variety, but not for long.

Not using the sources of vocal dynamism.

  1. Volume. Even with a public address system, in preaching we need to speak louder than we would in normal conversation. It helps me to think more about projecting my voice to those in the back of the room than speaking loudly.
  2. Pitch. We all speak in a melody, in movement up and down in pitch. Compare the melody of your voice with that of speakers with a dynamic voice.
  3. Rate. Like a fast car, word speed is dynamic and exciting. Even a slight increase in speed does wonders. The older we get, the more we need to push ourselves to keep the tempo alive.
  4. Emphatic enunciation. Emphasizing some sounds and not others is one of the lesser-used secrets of dy namic speaking. We emphasize sounds through volume, pitch, pauses before or after, and articulation.
  5. Variety in all of the above. For example, used sparingly, a pause in the midst of rapid speaking can be the most charged moment in the sermon.

Striving for formality. Preachers who try to speak in a serious manner often lose the life in their voice. They get stiff. If we use our speaker's voice, it still has to be our voice raised to another level, not someone else's voice.

On a recent commute home, I listened to a sermon on tape that stirred my heart and mind deeply. When I pulled into the driveway, the message had not yet finished, but I put the car in park and kept listening, my cheeks wet with tears. When the preacher concluded, I turned the key and sat in the car thinking and praying. The Spirit and the Word changed me to be more like Christ through a sermon that had an energy I could not escape.

Craig Brian Larson is editor of and Preaching Today audio, as well as pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago. He is co-author of Preaching That Connects (Zondervan, 1994)