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How to Use Preaching Speeds Effectively

Hot and fast, cool and slow. Both are needed in our sermons.
How to Use Preaching Speeds Effectively
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Because I am a preacher, I sometimes dream I’m preaching.

Because I am an academic, I sometimes dream I’m back in school.

Because I am a teacher of preaching, I sometimes dream I’m pitching a baseball!

What does pitching have to do with preaching? Delivery, or to be more exact, the spin and speed of what we intend to deliver—be it a baseball or sermon.

Predictability is death both for pitchers and preachers. When Boston Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers expected New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman to throw him a fastball in the top of the ninth on August 13, 2017, he knocked it out of the yard. No matter that the pitch was clocked at 102.8 miles per hour! When Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve expected Chapman to throw him a slider in the bottom of the ninth on October 19, 2019, he blasted it for a two-run homer that walked his team into the World Series.

No matter how fast the pitch or how much it breaks, when hitters know it’s coming, pitchers are likely to get whiplash watching it sail over the fence. That’s why they vary the spin and speed of their pitches—producing a blazing fastball, slow change-up, darting slider, knee-buckling curve, vanishing sinker, or a knuckleball that dances like a butterfly on broken wings.

Seventy years ago, homiletician Andrew Blackwood lamented that expository preachers and their sermons were known for their sameness, tameness, and lameness! Homileticians since then have turned out dozens of books on how to preach with greater variety—respecting biblical genres; flipping the thesis from the sermon’s introduction to its conclusion, producing an inductive arrangement; reimagining the sermon as unfolding in moves rather than points; asking preachers to think more like storytellers, journalists, poets, and jazz musicians; imploring preachers to tailor their sermons according to their audiences’ cultural, sexual (male or female), and ethnic expectations and needs; or calling for greater attention to either the biblical text’s oral origins or final written form and how each should affect the preacher’s application of the text.

Talk about spin! Sermons can be spun in all sorts of ways. But let’s not talk about spin. Let’s talk about speed.

The Speed of Thought

It’s widely known that the human brain consists of two hemispheres—right and left. The right side is the sensorium, continually receiving and processing information from the outside world, carrying data from the bottom of the brain to its top about six times per second. It is here that we maintain our identity, house our values, experience emotions, exercise creativity, develop intuition, imagine, form our moral and social intelligence, pass moral judgement, trust, and feel curiosity and appreciation. The right side of the brain thinks fast.

The left side is conceptual, logical, rational, verbal, managerial, and textual. It is here that we think intentionally, deeply, and extensively. The left side of the brain thinks slow.

Let’s think about that practically for a moment. The brain’s right side thinks fast and the left side slow. When a person is all hot-and-bothered or otherwise emotionally triggered, if they’re not left at a complete loss for words, their speech spills out in a fit of starts and stops, in run-on and incomplete sentences, and in broken syntax as they stretch their common/vulgar vocabulary to express something that their brain’s left side hasn’t had time to process fully.

What do we tell a person who comes to us in that state? “Slow down. Breathe. Now, start over. Go back to the beginning.” We’re asking them to be logical, intentional, and to engage their brain’s other side. The implications from this brief foray into the field of neuroscience for preaching are significant.

The Ear Is Faster than the Tongue

Hearing is one of five senses continuously monitored by the brain’s right/fast side. Speech, particularly speech that is carefully marshalled for logical and aesthetic effect, is produced by the brain’s left/slow side. That’s a recipe for inattention! No wonder that listening to a sermon is such hard work.

How can a preacher make up for this difference in rates so that listeners’ minds don’t wander while the preacher is trying to think of the next thing to say? Pacing is key. Mark Galli and Craig Larson maintained in their book Preaching that Connects (117-126) that “pacing rids the sermon of dead spots, controls its emotional rhythms, and helps it hold a listener’s curiosity for the duration.” Did you notice those two right-side brain functions mentioned here—emotion and curiosity? Preachers can keep their hearers’ right brains engaged by paying attention to their sermons’ pacing.

Galli and Larson lay out four methods for good pacing:

-Balancing slow (definitions, principles, word studies, analysis, deduction, exegesis, explanations, and descriptions) and fast paced (stories, illustrations, exhortation, challenge, application, and humor) elements

-Developing elements in proper measure (moving through some items faster or slower than others)

-Employing complication and resolution (touching on problems, conflict, false assumptions, assertions that beg explanation or defense, potential action, emotion, coined phrases, withheld information, and surprise)

-Varying sermon elements (explanation, restatement, analogy, definition, quotation, cross references, original language word study, historical background, application, challenge, principles, personal reaction, description, argumentation, negation, classification, statistics, story, warning, and rebuke).

To these four methods, the authors add a fifth right-brain property: intuition. Preachers must develop their feel for a sermon’s rise and fall, their hearers’ emotional state, their own feelings, the Holy Spirit’s promptings, and the occasion and setting of the sermon.

Reading Is Slower than Talking

Compared to the rate at which they talk, most people slow down when reading. The more unfamiliar the text, the stranger its syntax, and uncommon its words, the slower their reading becomes. When we ask hearers to listen or follow along as we read a passage from Scripture, both we and they naturally slow down—engaging our brains’ left side. Sometimes that slowness can serve our purpose at that point in the sermon, when we want our audience to pause and ponder. At others, it can work against us, as when we’re building to a crescendo. The decision to read should be a deliberate one considering the affect we’re trying to produce.

This is a good place to revisit that long-running debate over which version of Bible to read in the pulpit. The King James Version reads slowly. The English Standard Version, for example, reads fast. When preaching a psalm, the KJV will encourage readers to slow down and see the beauty and brokenness found in poetic verse. A sermon drawn from a tightly reasoned argument in one of Paul’s letters, on the other hand, might be better preached from the ESV or other plain-spoken version.

Pauses can be Pregnant

Haddon Robinson once said that the biggest difference between the novice preacher and seasoned pro is the novice is afraid of silence. Newbie preachers feel like they must fill every moment in the pulpit with sound. Old hands know better.

Good sermons are conversational, but they are not chatty. Sometimes, the less said, the better. Consider: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” “Jesus wept.” “Our God is a consuming fire.” What more needs to be said? Read each of these sentences out loud, then pause for a few seconds of silence. Notice how your brain’s left side automatically starts filling in the gaps.

Non-verbal pauses arrest attention, for better or worse. Bad pauses happen when we lose our train of thought. They embarrass preachers and hearers alike, which is why we try spackling them over with “ums,” “uhs,” “likes,” “you knows,” “amens,” and “praise the Lords.” Good pauses are intentional. The preacher knows precisely what s/he is doing, drawing hearers close and stimulating their brains’ left side.

Preaching can be Hot and Cool

I grew up in a tradition that equated hot-and-fast with preaching and cool-and-slow with teaching. Rate trumped content. Preachers were emotional. Teachers were cerebral. Preaching came from the heart (or what neuroscience now calls the right brain); teaching came from the head (or left brain more precisely). What I noticed across the years was that right-brain “preaching” was moving/thrilling/convicting in the moment, but left-brain “teaching” stayed with me longer.

I no longer accept that distinction. Preaching can be both hot and cool. It can move and remain. But doing both in the same sermon requires preparation (left brain) and passion (right brain). Preparation entails close reading of the biblical text, careful research, unhurried meditation, thoughtful writing, and repeated editing. Passion comes from prayer, curiosity, discovery, imagination, the fire that burns in a preacher’s heart, and the breath of the Holy Spirit. Preparation produces notes, outlines, and manuscripts. Passion pours out extemporaneously.

The ongoing struggle for me, forty years after answering “the call to preach,” remains the balancing of preparation and passion, left and right brain. The more I manuscript my sermons and commit them to memory, the colder they feel. The more I can imagine them in the pulpit, the warmer they feel. Well-turned phrases live in manuscripts; natural talk, with all its personality and imperfections, is born in the moment of delivery.

How can a preacher retain the light that comes from preparation while maintaining the heat of passion? Stephen Olford spoke to this question when I once asked him how many notes he carried into the pulpit. He confided he’d done it all: no notes, outlines, and full manuscripts. Apparently, I’m not the only preacher who has ever struggled to figure out this right-brain, left-brain conundrum.

My recent practice has been to limit my manuscripting to 700-800 word sermon briefs. That’s plenty enough verbiage to record serious thought clothed in carefully crafted phrases but not so much that I’m left with no room to extemporize. Full manuscripts invite memorization and reading (engaging the left/slow brain). A sermon brief demands extemporization (engaging the right/fast brain). The ideal for which I’m constantly striving and only occasionally realizing is a sermon that effortlessly speeds up and slows down as my Spirit-attuned intuition dictates.


Preachers, like pitchers, must learn to vary their delivery lest they fall into the ruts of sameness, tameness, and lameness that Blackwood lamented last century. Unlike pitchers, the preacher’s objective isn’t to get hearers to whiff at their delivery, to walk back to their dugouts shaking their heads wondering what was just thrown past them. Instead, it’s to spin their sermons and adjust their rates so that their hearers make solid contact with God’s truth every time up. That’s home run preaching!

Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.

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