Imagine that General Motors constructed a new car plant and appointed it with the most sophisticated technological innovations, staffed it with the most experienced and productive workers, and specifically tasked it with producing the world's most trustworthy and visually stunning vehicle. Imagine further that the workers and mangers applaud wildly as the first product of so much innovation and preparation finally rolls off the assembly line—only to realize in complete embarrassment a tragic omission: they gave no thought or planning to deliver the new cars to dealers or the public. Even though they have produced what they consider to be the world's finest automobile, the massive operation is not near any railroads or interstates, so they have no system to get their breakthrough product to the consumers who need and want them.
Would anyone be so shortsighted and obtuse as to work diligently at design without thinking about delivery?
Preachers seem to be the last ones to admit that delivery matters. The same preachers who spend years in seminary or hours in the study often assume that their job is done once the sermon is prepared. They give deplorably little forethought to how they will communicate the message. While painstakingly parsing the syntax, they pay no attention to the emotional content. Though they carefully craft their words, they completely discount the effect of their demeanor when they speak them.
If we do not want the hard work done in the study to stop short of an authentic hearing by our audience, then we must also give careful attention to the manner in which we communicate the biblical truth to the audience.
One has to wonder how anyone can read the Bible and conclude that content without planning, passion, and emotion is an acceptable way to deliver God's message. Ezekiel went to elaborate extremes to illustrate the truth he conveyed. Isaiah walked barefoot and naked to deliver God's word to Israel (not a recommended method, but it certainly proves the point!). Nathan told a heart-wrenching story to get David emotionally involved and committed before he delivered the intense confrontation of his sin. Paul's preaching was drenched with deep desire to see people receive Christ. Fishermen, housewives, and farmers would never stand for hours in the Galilean sun if Jesus were not inviting and engaging.
If content were all that mattered, preachers could save everyone a lot of time and trouble by emailing the manuscript to parishioners and encouraging them to stay home. If it were only about the substance of the message, the preacher would be totally irrelevant, but everyone who has ever sat through a sermon that is both true and boring knows better.
Instinctively, intuitively, and experientially everyone knows the power of personal human communication. Whether it be the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial calling America to honor her ideals, Ronald Reagan comforting a grieving nation after the crash of the Challenger, or an enthusiastic Steve Jobs revealing the first iPhone, words conveyed with earnest zeal and heartfelt eloquence get to the heart. That matrix of language, passion, posture, expression, volume, pitch, and pace is far more powerful than flat ink on a page could ever be. God could have chosen any form of communication as the primary means of teaching the church and spreading the gospel, but he chose preaching, an oral means. Any preacher who is serious about the message must also be serious about the manner in which that message is preached.
Engaging and effective sermon delivery
Engaging sermon delivery doesn't guarantee results, but bad preaching does: it guarantees that people won't listen and therefore they don't even make an authentic decision to reject what was preached, let alone believe it. Everyone who has ever been to a preaching conference knows this. Two preachers can preach successively and one may hold the audience's attention while the other, though just as true and biblical, puts everyone to sleep. In fact, the magnitude of effective delivery is even starker. Two ministers could preach the same sermon verbatim and one of them might lift his congregation to the throne of God and the other one tuck them in for a nap, the only difference between them being the way they delivered the same message.
This is the paradox of excellent sermon delivery: the better the delivery, the less anyone notices the preacher. Dull or bad communication skills distract the listener so she cannot pay much attention to the content; good sermon delivery frees the listener to consider and perhaps absorb it.
With so many tools available in oral communication and so much at stake in the lives of listeners, why wouldn't preachers invest as much effort in communication as they do in content? Why would any preacher invest in books to study and then labor diligently at sermon building, only to ignore the delivery system?
If we do not want the hard work done in the study to stop short of an authentic hearing by our audience, then we must also give careful attention to the manner in which we communicate the biblical truth to the audience. Effective preachers understand and employ four key strategies that help them become more faithful communicators of biblical truth.
The emotion of the sermon must match the emotion of the text.
Just as every biblical passage has an inherent meaning, it also has an intrinsic emotion. A careful preacher should exegete the emotion of the text with the same careful consideration as the meaning. Does the author intend to communicate joy, sorrow, terror, delight, or hopeful confidence? No text is flat. Like a block of wood, it has a grain and a shape that the woodworker must consider before he cuts; like a fabric it displays a warp and a woof that contribute to the beauty.
Just as the sermon should have a goal of cognitively revealing and teaching the truth of the text, so the preacher should understand and expose the emotional content because they are inseparable. In fact, presenting the truth without the emotion only distorts the message. Think of a person who ambles calmly to the front of a crowded theater, sighs loudly as if bored, and then says in a wearied monotone, "You might want to, like, maybe, think about getting out of here or something. The, um, building is, like, sort of, you know, on fire. So … whatever." The audience would be confused. Some might even be amused. No one would be moved. The speaker's behavior would completely undermine the meaning of the words themselves and would compel no one to respond.
Preaching something other than the emotion of the biblical passage obscures and clouds the text. To preach the lament of Psalm 137, for example, without conveying the sense of longing and grief that pervades it would alter and eclipse its meaning. How can the audience understand the agony and desperation of the rich man's plea to father Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers if the preacher reports it dispassionately? Everything the preacher does should have the goal of transmitting the emotion of the text because that, too, conveys meaning.
Good delivery means using specific communication skills.
Emotion, urgency, and passion are all demonstrated through specific behaviors. These behaviors are the tools that make oral communication so much more powerful and immediate than merely writing. Words on a page are flat and two-dimensional, but words combined with communicative behaviors that enhance and drive them home have so much greater impact. The preacher's communicative task, then, is to master and employ the behavioral skills that increase effectiveness.
Eye Communication: The primary skill for gaining credibility is the ability to make and to maintain eye contact. It has the greatest impact in both one-on-one communications and large group communications. Your eyes literally connect your mind to someone else's since your eyes are the only part of your central nervous system in direct contact with another human being during the sermon. When your eyes meet the eyes of another person, the connection is personal and intimate. When you fail to make that link, it matters little what you say because they are not drawn in to listen. A preacher who reads his sermon with only brief glances will not hold the attention of the typical audience, but the ability to look at people in a meaningful way keeps them engaged.
Eye contact and eye communication are not nearly the same things. Mere eye contact can be fleeting, even darting. Communicating by looking at various individuals in the audience for three to five seconds greatly enhances the sense of intimacy and urgency. Whatever the emotion of the text may be, it will require a sustained and frequent eye connection.
Gestures and Facial Expression: Preachers must animate the message through facial expressions and arm movements that correspond with the message and convey energy. Charles Spurgeon told his students "When you speak of heaven, let your face light up with a heavenly gleam. Let your eyes shine with reflected glory. And when you speak of hell-well, then your ordinary face will do." "The Prince of Preachers" was reminding his students that their faces had to match their subject matter.
Sometimes to illustrate this I tell my students a story about a little boy's dog being hit by a truck while the boy watches in horror, and the entire time I tell it I am laughing almost uncontrollably. Though they are terribly confused by the way I relate my completely fictional account, a strange smile stays on their faces for the duration of my story. My behavior shapes their response. They smile because I'm smiling, even when cognitively they know that it's not a laughing matter. My behavior trumps the meaning of the words!
After explaining what just happened, I then warn them I have an even more offensive and troubling example, and with as lifeless and unemotional an appearance as I can muster, I explain the good news of the gospel to them with no passion, no smile, no warmth. They always break out in laughter as the realization that multitudes of preachers present the gospel exactly like that dawns on them.
Half of the battle of facial expression is learning to smile appropriately when preaching. I routinely get calls from pastors who confess to me that some of their congregation complains that they look "mean" when they preach. A smile disarms people and puts them at ease with the speaker. Obviously a preacher will encounter texts that would make a smile unsuitable, but that would be the exception. The default facial expression should be a pleasant smile with eyebrows raised rather than furrowed.
Similarly, avoid gestures that are threatening, like directly pointing at people. Use inviting gestures like extending your arms slightly downward with your palms up and toward your audience instead. As with facial expression, be conscious of how your gestures either convey or obscure the emotion of the text. Nothing has greater potential for reflecting that emotional content like the appropriate use of your face and gestures.
Posture and Movement: Good posture and measured movement on the platform reflect confidence and energy and hold an audience's attention. A speaker with poor posture fails to appreciate that people evaluate him or her and make assumptions in the first few seconds of the message. They make assumptions about the level of confidence, competence, and credibility. Poor posture seriously undermines the trust and openness of listeners.
Tall people often hunch over because they grew fast or early and perhaps feel self-conscious. Height, however, was not the problem, consciousness was. Still others slump because of a related weakness; they stick their nose in a manuscript or notes, so they slouch over to read them.
Whatever your reasons for slouching may be, some basic rules will help you stand with confidence and credibility. First, stand tall. Posture and poise go together, so stand with your shoulders back and your stomach in. Stand straight and move naturally, knees slightly bent rather than locked and rigid.
You also need to watch your lower body. You may limit your effectiveness and negate your energy if you rock back on one hip. That communicates that you really don't want to be there and distances you from your listener. Common variations of this mistake are rocking from side to side or going forward and back from heel to toe. Physically you will lean slightly forward, knees somewhat flexed. Keep your weight on the balls of your feet. Direct your energy forward, physically and psychologically, toward your listener.
Movement should not be frenetic or symmetrical, but should be easy and poised. Move to the side of the pulpit and stand confidently. Pivot to one side and then to the other. Gently move back behind the pulpit or lectern to glance at your notes for a while, then move to the other side.
Remember: sameness is the enemy. The preacher who does nothing to interrupt the visual field will not hold their attention very well, especially if a baby cries or any other kind of disturbance commences. Variation in movement aids the audience in their need to listen.
Voice and Vocal Variety: After nearly two decades of listening to student's sermons, I can say unequivocally that the biggest problem I see in sermon delivery is a lack of employing pitch, volume, and vocal energy that keeps a listener engaged in the content of what the speaker is saying. A listless, monotonous voice can suck the life out of the most profound biblical truths. The richest, most versatile instrument that exists, the human voice can produce an infinite matrix of volume, pitch, color, resonance, pace, tone, emphasis, and accent. Even so, few preachers use more than 20% of its range of possibilities.
Our minds are designed by our Creator to shut out sameness. People who live by train tracks can sleep through all of its noise every hour on the hour because they get accustomed to it. Even if a preacher hollers throughout the entire sermon, people can sleep right through it because it lacks a variety that keeps them engaged.
If you want to command the attention of an audience as well as reflect the emotional content of the text, consciously push yourself to extend the boundaries of those parameters the next time you preach. Get a little louder and a little softer; go higher and lower. Speed up and slow down. Take advantage of that rich matrix available in your instrument. Don't settle in to one level of pitch, pace, and volume and stay there.
Words and Fillers: Make certain that every sound that comes out of your mouth meaningfully contributes to the sermon. Choose language that is replete with meaning, with effective pauses and devoid of "fillers"—those annoying "ums," "ahs," and meaningless phrases such as "whatever," "you know," "like," and "I mean."
Fillers, also known as verbal bridges, tend to creep into our speech or sermon when we are trying to think of what to say next. Instead of worrying that you have to fill that space, learn to be silent until you get your thought and say the next thing. I guarantee that everyone who has momentarily drifted away will immediately lift their heads and be back in the sermon with you. Nothing gets attention as easily and yet effectively as a pause. It interrupts the barrage of sound and indicates a thoughtful deliberation. The pause indicates that what is to follow is momentous, worth listening to, weighty. Silence is your friend. Let it work for you just like your words do. Don't fill the silence with sounds or words that do not contribute to your meaning.
Self-evaluation must be frequent and ruthless.
The quickest and most effective cure to bad habits can be found in getting video feedback. Carefully watch a video recording of your sermon, focusing especially on these key behaviors. Do you move naturally or do you stand stiffly and passively behind the pulpit? Are your gestures threatening or inviting? Do you keep your head down and your eyes on your notes or do you show your audience that they matter to you by looking at them? How about your eye movements? Notice your length of contact and be aware of possible idiosyncrasies like eye dart or slow-blink.
Count the verbal bridges, the "ums" and "ahs." It will be emotionally painful and not a little embarrassing, but you will become conscious of all those fillers and more likely to break a bad habit.
Does your facial expression make even the most joyful truths look heavy and burdensome? Do you smile enough? Do you seem appropriately likable as you preach? Does your delivery inspire trust in the messenger so they hear the message?
Listen specifically to your voice and make a rough chart of your inflection. With pen and paper in hand as you listen to yourself, draw an approximate graph line on the page that represents your voice. When your voice goes up, draw the line up, and then down when your voice gets lower. Before watching yourself on tape you may be unaware of your habits and movements, but the tape will not lie!
It feels different than it looks.
Anytime you change something about your delivery, it will feel strange. Almost anything feels silly the first time—the first time you move out from behind the pulpit, the first time you use a real vocal variety, or the first time you pause instead of filling the silence with "and, uh …" The benefits you will experience, however, almost immediately are worth any temporary discomfort you may feel.
Remember that while it may feel very strange to you, it probably looks just right to your audience. That disparity between how it feels and how it looks will diminish as you get more and more comfortable with the new behavior.
Few preachers are naturally good communicators, certainly not at the level of holding an audience's interest for a sustained period of time. We have to work at it, just like we work at learning Greek or writing sermon outlines. If you will alternately choose just one of these behaviors to work on consciously each time you preach, over time they will feel more natural and your delivery will improve dramatically. As the gap of disparity between how you feel and how you look closes, so will the gap between the content of the text and way you present it. The Word of God deserves our best efforts to get it right, and so does the congregation who faithfully shows up each week to hear it.
Hershael York is pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, as well as Professor of Christian Preaching and Associate Dean of Ministry and Proclamation in the School of Theology of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.