Podcast Episode 20 | 12 min
The Basics of Sermon Delivery (Part 1)
In this episode we focus on vocal variety and eye contact.
Matt Woodley: Welcome to Monday Morning Preacher, a podcast dedicated to the art and craft of preaching God’s Word. I’m Matt Woodley, editor of Preachingtoday.com and pastor at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. I’m here with my intelligent, witty, and at times very sarcastic guest host, Kevin Miller.
Kevin Miller: Wow, you just put me in a double bind there, Matt. You complimented me and then you criticized me. So, if I say thank you it means that I’m accepting your criticism, and if I don’t say anything then I come across as rude. I’m in a bind.
MW: Man, you think way too much. So Kevin, I had some back troubles recently. I went to the chiropractor, the guy goes to our church—and this is going to get around to preaching, by the way. I went to see him and he said, “You know, I’ve been watching you, been watching the way you sit and stand and walk—it’s just part of my profession,” he said—“and I noticed you have some very bad habits. You slouch when you sit, and your posture is really bad when you’re reading.”
KM: Well, that was direct.
MW: Yeah, faithful are the wounds of a friend, I guess. Actually, it was really helpful to me. Apparently, I had picked up some really bad habits without being aware of it, which leads to an important lesson for preachers.
KM: Should I give you a drumroll?
MW: Thank you. You know, I’ve noticed the same thing in my 25 years of preaching career, and with younger preachers and older preachers. Sometimes when it comes to sermon delivery, we’ve all picked up some really bad habits that we don’t notice.
KM: Oh yeah, sermon delivery.
MW: Yeah, our guru and maestro, Haddon Robinson, once wrote this: “While ministers spend hours every week on sermon construction, they seldom even give a few hours a year to thinking about their delivery.” Now, we’re not going to argue with Haddon, so let’s just assume that’s true. Why do you think that is, why do you think we neglect sermon delivery?
KM: Well, I would say what Haddon is true of me. I think part of it is as soon as I’m finished one sermon, I know Sunday’s coming again and I’ve got to get ready for the next one; so, I have to invest more time there moving forward than looking backward. But part of it is I wince when I listen to a sermon of mine and I hear delivery that I don’t think is very good. It’s kind of painful.
MW: Haddon said effective delivery depends on two things: What we say and how we say it. What would you say are the elements of delivery, Kevin?
KM: Well, for me a big one would be your voice. I mean, your volume, your rate of speed, your pitch, whether you’re high or low.
MW: Yep, so that’s voice. Then I would add a few other things. Eye contact is one, movement and gestures is another one, and facial expressions.
KM: Don’t look at me like that.
MW: Yeah, I’m looking mean at you right now. And filler words. That’s another one. Delivery is so involved, we’re going to spend two podcasts working on it, but in this podcast we’re going to focus on two things—vocal delivery and eye contact.
So vocal delivery is all about how you use and vary things like you mentioned, Kevin,—volume, pitch, pace, and tone. We’re going to tee it up with an example of effective vocal delivery from a preacher we both like a lot. His name is Rev. Claude Alexander, senior pastor of Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. This is from a sermon he preached called, “Can You Do Any Better?”
Claude Alexander: In the life of every believer there is a moment—and perhaps there are more than one moment—when every believer is looked to for leadership, looked to for guidance, looked to for expertise, looked to for some know-how, for some ability. There are times when you are expected to step up to the plate, stand in the gap, to deliver, to provide, to produce, to make something happen, work something out, to bring something to pass. There are moments where nobody else is able to do it, nobody else can handle it, nobody else can face it, nobody else can shoulder it, nobody else can take it on, nobody else can really deal with it, and you are given the opportunity with the hope of your being able to do what nobody else can do. And in such a time the question is raised, Can you do any better? Can you with the God whom you serve fare any better? Can you with the relationship with the Lord that you have, you the Bible-toting, cross-wearing, gospel CD-playing, Sunday morning church-attending, can you perform, can you lead, can you guide, can you face, can you endure, can you overcome any better than those who don’t know who the Lord is?
MW: Kevin, what did you notice about Claude’s use of volume in his delivery, pitch, pace, tone?
KM: I’ve listened to the bishop preach many times and one thing that stands out is that it doesn’t matter whether he’s whispering or whooping, his voice has this intensity in it. It’s like this urgency that says you must listen.
MW: I love the amount of variety Claude uses. I’ve heard preachers that constantly preach at an incredibly fast and intense pace, they never slow down, it’s a vocal sprint from intro to conclusion. Then there’s preachers who preach with monotony. It’s the same tone, same pitch. God designed our minds and our ears to crave variety. Vocal monotony is the enemy here.
KM: Yeah. The area that I think I struggle with there is that I drive too fast. If there were cops for preaching speed, I would be getting speeding tickets a lot. What’s interesting is that when I get to a more emotional or intense part of the biblical passage or my pastoral application, I actually pick up speed. So for me, apparently intensity must equal speed. But that’s not always a good way for listeners, because sometimes you want to slow down and let them really drink it in. So I’ve been working on that.
MW: Yeah, again, vocal variety is the key. One of the things that we really want to encourage preachers to do is to take an honest look at yourself and how you can improve. So I took an honest look at myself as I was looking at this topic. I have a very natural sounding, kind of draw people in kind of vocal delivery.
KM: You do. You’re kind of like everybody’s friendly uncle.
MW: Uncle? I was thinking maybe brother but that’s okay.
KM: Hot young stud?
MW: Yeah, I like that. It’s a strength in my preaching but it does have a down side. When I need to drive something home with a lot of intensity, I need to work on ramping up my pitch and my volume and emphasizing certain words and phrases. So that’s one of the things I’m working on.
KM: Well, one way I’ve started to work on my sprint to the finish delivery style is I’ll actually write in my notes, “Pause.” It tells me, “Kevin, you’ve got to give your listeners a breath, you’ve got to let them catch up with you.” Especially if I ask a question where it’s not a rhetorical question, I want them to think and come, in their own minds, as to the answer, I’ll put “Pause” twice to make sure I really let people process.
MW: I like that. I’m going to try that, Kevin. I got something out of this podcast, thank you.
KM: I’m glad you showed up today.
MW: Sure. The second thing we’re going to talk about is eye contact. Bryan Chappell, preaching professor, said, “You must look people in the eyes; the eyes can spit fire, pour out compassion and preach Christ in you.” Then he went on to say, “When you deny people your eyes, you really deny them yourself.” What are your initial thoughts about eye contact?
KM: What I try to do is take what I call a quick mental snapshot. What I mean is I’ll look, say, to the front and look in the eyes of, say, a teenager sitting there near the front—although, usually they sit in the back—and I make eye contact just as long as it would take to take a picture. Just—click—like that. Then I move and look at another section of the room, maybe the woman in the back, and I look at her just long enough to do that same thing. Because if I make eye contact with one person in that section, the six or eight people who are sitting around that person all feel like I made eye contact with them also.
MW: Yeah, that’s really good. I’ve been preaching over 25 years and I’m getting a renewed or a deepened sense of the importance of eye contact because preaching is such an in the moment thing and it is such an interaction. It’s not really a dialogue, there’s just one person talking, but it is a very interactive form of communication, so you have to watch what’s happening in people as you’re preaching. How are they responding in the moment to this, and you may adjust some things in your sermon. That’s why it’s so important for me to get away from my notes, as much as possible, and to be able to look people in the eye.
KM: Yeah, I had a great example of that a couple weeks ago. I was preaching from Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7, that leads to him getting killed, and I was talking about how sometimes as Christians we have to speak the hard word, even knowing it’s not going to go over well. I’m preaching this to my church, which is a very gentle church, it’s a very loving church, so this was a hard message for them to try to take in. As I was preaching, I literally could see their eyes getting wider. I could see the white in their eyes. Of course, it’s not a big room but I could see them. So then what that told me is slow down and really emphasize that the Spirit gives you the words you need to speak when you need to speak them, Luke 12:12, so that it would lower their anxiety about that.
MW: Yeah, that’s a really good practical thing of being in the moment. You only got that by looking at people. You only saw that with eye contact. So preachers, we’ve been talking about the importance of sermon delivery, and attending to that as an essential part of how you convey God’s Word.
So I want to leave you with two challenges. First, assess how you use vocal variety, get a little louder and then a little softer, speed up and slow down, then pause completely, as Kevin suggested maybe even write “Pause” in your notes, talk a little lower and then just a little higher. Your voice is an amazing instrument in the Lord’s hand, don’t just play the same note with it. So think through in your sermon how you’re going to use some vocal variety.
The second challenge is, look people in the eye as much as possible. Whether you use lots of notes, little notes, whatever, try to get away from your notes as much as possible so you can see what’s going on in your listener’s eyes, on their faces, and how they’re responding. That will change a little bit how you deliver your sermon. So look at them personally.
Claude Alexander is the Senior Pastor of The Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.