Chapter 4

Matching Delivery to Content

The two must mesh for your sermons to really shine.

Spurgeon was quoted as saying: "Maximizing the message and minimizing the messenger is not eradicating the messenger." Certainly all of us have at some time prayed, "Lord, hide me behind the cross as I preach." I'd like to go over some practical ways we can invest ourselves in this prayer.

The first involves understanding your congregation. The second requires familiarizing yourself with some general rules of communication theory. The third ties into the actual delivery itself.

Exegeting your congregation

The first way to maximize the message is through exegeting your congregation. Educational programmers believe there are three types of people when it comes to how messages are received.

The auditory type likes to hear information. This is the type who loves it when you say," This word is used in the New Testament 67 times, but only in this passage is it used in this way." They love information while shying away from feelings.

This trait brings up two additional points. First, an auditory usually has difficulty getting in touch with their own feelings. Say you ask an auditory, "How are you?" They reply, "I'm fine." You counter," No, I mean how are you?" The auditory is perplexed. They do not know how to communicate how they are, or what their feelings are.

Second, they like to sit away from the authority source. People have a variety of reasons for sitting where they do in church. Some locate to beat the Methodists to the cafeteria. Others have a 4-year-old in big church for the first time, and they don't want to disturb any more people than they have to. Some position themselves for the acoustics. But the auditory person is driven by the need to be un-involved with the authority figure. They want emotional separation so they can receive information without distraction.

The visual type is the second kind of message receiver. They love the illustrations in the sermon. If you had a visual person on a church committee and you said, "There's a necessity for such and such project in our church, and here is the information . . . Okay. What do you think?" The visual will say, "Pastor, I don't see what you're talking about." They need an illustration or analogy. Adjusting your message to fit their style you reply, "Well, let me give it to you this way. Church A didn't take this step, and they're in this condition. Church B did, and they're in that condition.” The visual person would likely respond, "Thanks, Pastor. Now I see what you mean."

The third type of message receiver is the kinesthetic. They're good-natured folks: outgoing huggers and hand-shakers with big smiles. The kinesthetic receiver loves application. They want to know, "What does this mean to me?" When you say, "This word is used 67 times in the New Testament," this type smiles and says, "Yeah, yeah. Get on with it, Pastor. How am I going to use that when I'm with my family, or when my boy's in rebellion?"

The kinesthetic also likes to participate. Because of this, I've noticed I do not have complete freedom to throw out a rhetorical question and not expect a response. There have always been these kinds of people. However, the majority of our congregations are the kinesthetic section.

Exegeting your congregation happens as you ask yourself, "How much explanation does my sermon have? How many illustrations does it have? How much application does it have? "From there you balance these three components through the functional elements of preaching.

Principles of Communication Theory for Preachers

The second way we maximize the message in preaching involves understanding communication theory. There is a maxim that states, "Impact is not equal to predictability or distance." Impact is simply what we would call response. When the invitation is given, someone comes down the aisle. The message has therefore had impact. In general, vital content and effective delivery impacts an audience.

Predictability means I know what you are going to say before you say it. Suppose you announce your text as John 3. Because I'm very familiar with that text, I think I know what you're going to say, which means I can think about something else. So I do. I tune you back in after a while and hear you saying, "So, therefore, you must be born again." I think, "Yeah, that's what I thought you were going to say." I tune you back out, and impact is lost.

You also lose impact if you have repetitive mannerisms in your delivery that distract from the message. For example, if you say "you know" every 20 seconds, it makes the message predictable. Sixty-two times in twenty minutes is the most "you know's" I've ever counted in a sermon. Afterwards, everybody said, "Man, I didn't catch anything except ‘you know.'" This can happen with any number of stock phrases.

A pastor becomes predictable when he makes irrelevant gestures at regular intervals throughout his sermon. The audience focuses on the meaningless gestures, which lessen the impact.

Distance is equal to relevance. Suppose that I make my profession of faith on a Tuesday, and walk the aisle the following Sunday, even though the sermon wasn't evangelistic. The preacher smiles and says, "So you're responding to the promise of the coming eschaton." But I don't even know there is such a thing. I wonder if this is an Olympic event. I say, " No, sir. I made a profession of faith last Tuesday." The preacher replies, "Well, that's what I just asked you." His language was distant to me.

This is also called "frame of reference." Jesus knew the frame of reference for people when he spoke. "A certain sower went out to sow." "A certain man had two sons." Everyone could understand these two scenarios.

I remember the first time I went to preach in Alaska. I asked the locals, "Now what do I need to avoid?" They said, "Don't refer to Jesus as the Lamb of God. People here know about mountain goats, but they're clueless about lambs. Instead, talk about the light of the world. We know something about that up here." I had to get into their frame of reference.

The second communication theory principle is the most important: expertise and integrity. I'd place integrity first in our line of work. The integrity issue can hit you hard as you greet people after the sermon, when someone takes your hand and says, "Pastor, I've got this problem. "You reply, "I'll be praying for you." Next week comes along, and there he is again. "Pastor, I'm so glad you've been praying for me about my problem." Your confused glance reveals that you have forgotten his problem and have not prayed for him at all. The integrity level is dropping.

Integrity stock also plummets when you announce during a message," This reminds me of the time I was a little boy, and I had this experience" Meanwhile, everybody thinks, "Wait a minute, I've heard this same story about Billy Graham. Is the pastor trying to tell us this is his experience and not Billy's?" When you lose integrity like this, you've lost a lot.

I once heard a man stop in the middle of his sermon and say, "You won't know these people so it doesn't make any difference, but they told me this confidential information." I thought, "Oh no, don't do this." But he did it, and you can imagine the results.

Integrity. When you lose it, you may never recover it. If you do, it takes a long time.

Expertise is the second half of this principle. Suppose you say something in your message like, "Remember that Psalm we all learned as children, Psalm 73? 'The Lord is my shepherd.'" A half-asleep man in your congregation comes to, wondering, "Did he say Psalm 73?" You continue by saying, "Yes, Psalm 73 will always stay in my heart." He thinks, "The preacher did say Psalm 73. I am going to tease him after church."

If the blunder ends here, it may simply make the listener more alert for the moment. No big deal. But if it goes on, there's another problem. If you carry on by saying, " Not only Psalm 73, but who can forget Acts 3:16- 'For God so loved the world.'" Now the man in the pew is thinking, "Pastor's biorhythms must be really off today. I'm going to talk to his wife. What's she been feeding him? This guy needs some sleep or something." As a preacher, you begin to lose expertise at this point.

The third communication principle is dynamism. Simply put, the higher the dynamism, or energy, the more persuasive the speaker is. Corresponding to this, there's a sliding scale all the way down to the lowest energy level, belonging to Joe Cool. Cool speaks with their elbows pinned to their side, staring at the front row, and mumbling in incomplete sentences. They hardly raises their voice enough for anybody to hear. On the other hand, the persuasive high dynamism speaker also carries a cross: many people respond to them rather than to the message. They always have to fight that.

How do you respond to dynamism? In general, just be who you are. When I first started preaching I thought, "I've got to be a different person. I can't be me. So when I preach, I'm going to whip off my coat, loosen my tie, and unbutton my sweat soaked shirt in order to be effective." Of course, I tried that once and nobody was impressed. So I went to God for input and he reminded me, "I called you. I see gifts in you, and I want you to use them. Be you." Understand the dynamism principle, but be who God called you to be. You must be the same person inside and outside of the pulpit.

Delivery to Match Content

The final area that can help us to maximize a message involves recognizing that the emotional message is communicated more quickly, and often more forcefully, than the intellectual message. This is why so many people equate effective preaching with effective delivery.

The emotional message travels at the speed of light. It's what people see in a preacher's face and decide, "If they feel this way about this matter, then I'm supposed to feel this way as well."

You've probably heard the joke about the fellow who told his grandmother, "I've been out in the woods, and I believe God has called me to preach." "Well, then do it," she replied. "You mean preach right here? There's nobody here but you," he responded. "If you're called to preach, do it," she countered. So he racked his brain for a text, and saw his dog chasing a rabbit into a hollow log. He said, "Okay. The dog chased the rabbit into the log." Grandma was not impressed.

He went back to the woods and prayed some more. After returning he said, "I'd like to try one more time." She said, "Go ahead and try." So he said, "Okay. The daawoog-ah, chased the raaaabbit-ah into the laawoog-ah." She said, "My, son you are called to preach!"

It doesn't matter what you say. It's how you say it. The velocity of the emotional message means we have to work hard at conveying the content.

I can take the same wording and communicate it two different ways. If I were to pick up my daughter at high school I might see her in a crowd of people coming out of the building. I'd make eye contact as she came to my car and say, "Hi, Melinda. Get in. Let's go."

But suppose the school counselor had called earlier me to say, "Your daughter was a problem today, and as her father I want you to take care of it." So I decide to pick her up from school. I see her in the same crowd, make the same eye contact, and say the same words. But there's a difference, isn't there?" Hi, Melinda. Get in. Let's go."

Now, in a court of law I can argue that these were the same words. But Melinda would tell you there was something different. The way we express ourselves travels faster than the information we are delivering, so we have to make our expression support the content so the content has a chance to get through.

How do we do that? By focusing on vocal variables: rate, pitch, volume, and pause. Take a look at the content of your sermon and listen to yourself. See how these variables relate to your content.

I had a signal experience once when a preacher read a text, and said, "That reminds me of the time." It clicked with me that night that I hear this phrase a lot. It means "I will now make a quantum jump in logic. What I read has nothing to do with what I'm going to say." Sure enough, it didn't.

He hit it with high dynamism: shout, stomp, spit, coat thrown off, shirt unbuttoned, and tie loose. He began, "That reminds me of the time when I was a little boy. My mother sent me to the store. She said, `You will go to the store. You will take this list. You'll take this money. You'll go by yourself.' I thought, No, no. I'd never been outside the house by myself before. I went to the door. I waited for her to say, `No, son, no. Don't go. I'll go with you.'" But he went alone.

On his way home he had a theological revelation. He realized that even without his mother, Jesus is with him wherever he goes. By this point in the story the pastor is tired and is draped over the pulpit. He's glancing at his notes to figure out what he's going to say next. So he says softly, "Yes, Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Lord." At this point I thought, "Wait a minute. That's what you ought to be shouting about." The moral is: give conversational tone to the illustration. Then declare the lesson learned (Jesus is Lord) with emphatic style.

This is an example of how vocal variables could have supported content. People are depending on preachers to communicate how they should feel about what they're hearing. This may be the most important thing I've taught in my 25 years at Southwestern: vocal variables in support of content gives content a chance! People see what you're saying. When they see what you're saying, they're not seeing you. You are hidden behind the cross just as you prayed. Message maximized!

Obviously, body language has something to do with it as well. Eye contact, facial expression, gestures, and posture support content. When they do, people don't pay any attention to body language. They don't say, "I want to pose like my pastor does," because they're not paying attention to that. They're seeing what you're saying.

The most expeditious way I've seen to immediately improve your preaching is to take two paragraphs out of a sermon tape every six weeks and go over how you're coming across. Otherwise, you'll default back toward preacher tones, a pattern where you start up high at the beginning of the sentence and drop at the end, or worse yet, "preacher ministerial whine" with its sea sickness inducing pitch pattern. Both patterns have nothing to do with content.

I had a student use "the whine" in a preaching lab once. As I walked the aisle after his message to lead a discussion about the sermon and its delivery, I was asking the Lord to help me. Suddenly, the guy jumps up in the front pew and says, "I know what you're going to criticize me about. The reason I speak that way is because I want to communicate warmth and sincerity." So I countered, "Well, were you warm and sincere in what you just said?" "Of course," he replied. “But you didn't say it like you did behind the pulpit." "Well," he said, "that's behind the pulpit."

We had already cautioned students about dual personalities in the pulpit, so I asked, "Are you married?" He looked at me quizzically as if to say, "What does that have to do with it?" I continued, "Were you warm and sincere when you proposed to your wife?" Then I mimicked his pulpit pitch pattern to ask," Would you please marry me? I'll make you a good husband." There were a couple of females visiting the class that day. I asked them if any of them would have been impressed with such a proposal. They each said, "No, I believe I'd turn that one down."

Matching delivery to content gives content the best possible chance to come through.

Workshop Questions

Have you seen changes over the last 10 to 15 years in preaching style?

Yes. I think it's reflecting the changing ways people receive messages. I've always had my doubts about sermons containing three points, a poem and a sob story. I had my doubts about this in the 1950s. I was converted in 1958.

Today, people aren't as interested in the deductive approach as they are in the images approach. The best inductive sermon is in the Bible: "Thou art the man! "(Talk about a bomb exploding at the end of a sermon.) That kind of approach, though, means saying, "We have this problem." The people are thinking, "Someone's got to do something about it." So you respond, "But the problem is located right outside these doors, and we're the people who should be doing something about it."

I think inductive preaching and second narrative preaching are going to be the primary ways congregations receive the message with the most impact in the foreseeable future.

Are you seeing pastors adjust to change?

I don't know when it started, but three points, a poem, and a sob story was the accepted style of preaching in the 1950s. My first sermon in 1959 had two points. My second sermon that night had two points. A beloved friend, who happens to be a deacon, came up to me and said, "You're new as a Christian, and these are your first sermons. You need to know that a sermon has three points. "I said," Brother Bob, I had as many points as I found in my text." "Well (He didn't know what to do with that) it's supposed to have three. "I said," Brother Bob, I'd be overlapping in each sermon if I had three."

Finally, I realized I was confusing him. So I asked, "Brother Bob, why does a sermon have to have three points?" He smiled-he was now in his territory. He then gave me the best answer I've ever had to that question, and I still don't understand it to this day. He said, "A sermon has three points because of the Trinity."

One of the components of communication is the trust factor. Is trust made up entirely of integrity, or is it a combination of qualities? Why is it that certain people seem to elicit that trust factor?

Dynamism is the big thing. The kinesthetic pastor, the one who sparkles when you walk into the room, makes you feel special; he shakes your hand, remembers your name, and asks about the prayer request from last week you feel drawn to him because he makes you feel special. Then, along the way, you verify his integrity.

Trust is made up of a combination of things. But dynamism hits people first. When you have that quality you can be awful in some other areas and even make drastic mistakes, but folks will go a long way defending you before they finally give up.

Are sermons shorter today?

Yes. I often hear this from fellows who have just retired. I hear it from George Barna too. I don't know exactly how to respond to that yet. I've gone both directions in my second year during this current interim, and I have the youth front and center. I've gone with a 15-minute sermon several Sunday nights in a row. But sometimes I realize that's not going to do it. I've also gone 35 minutes. I cannot tell any difference in their attitude, nor have I heard them complain, "You took up five minutes of our fellowship time after church tonight."

I haven't yet decided what I think should be the maximum amount of time for sermons these days. In the same breath, let me mention that the fastest growing churches I pass by on the way to my interim are those that are still in progress when I come back that direction at 12:30. Usually they had a pretty good crowd there when I drove by between 8:30 and 9:00. They tell me their services sometimes go on for a couple of hours. They don't have any time limits. They'll go on with the service and the preaching well past the time that I'm home and seated at my table from the interim.