Preaching with Intensity (part one)
How to communicate so listeners feel your passion.
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To read part two in this series, click here.
I couldn't wait to preach this sermon. The text, from 1 Samuel 20, captures one of the most poignant moments in all Scripture — David saying good-bye for the final time to his dearest friend Jonathan. " Then David bowed to Jonathan with his face to the ground, " the Bible relates. " Both of them were in tears as they embraced each other and said good-bye, especially David. " I got a lump in my throat as I studied the passage. The previous month I had helped one of my best friends load a big, yellow Ryder truck with his every belonging. The truck's metal back door had rolled down with a metallic thunk. Then my friend had driven away to another state, and I knew I would not see him again for a long time.
In preparation for the message, I had studied much of First Samuel to gain the context. I had pored through commentaries. That morning, I was like a sprinter in the blocks, waiting for the service to come to the moment when I would be able to deliver this message from the Bible and from my burning spirit.
As I preached, I included illustrations from current events, from history, from my life. I even choked up a little while telling the story of losing my close friend to a long-distance move.
The following week, in a bit of preacher's bravado, I sent the sermon tape to Leadership's audio series, Preaching Today. One of Preaching Today's expert screeners duly evaluated my sermon, and because I worked as editor for Leadership, I got to see the comments. The sermon was good, the screener said, though not quite good enough to earn a slot on Preaching Today. The content generally got high marks. But the delivery, my sermonic report card went on to say, was a little flat.
I couldn't believe it. Later that week I popped the sermon tape into my car's tape player and gave it another listen. As I heard the sermon from this distance, surprisingly, I had to agree: It lacked sizzle. Even though I had felt the message so deeply, somehow my conviction and emotion did not come across with the intensity I wanted. I puzzled over that.
Why is it that sometimes we as preachers feel a message so deeply, yet our listeners don't feel that? Why is something that's so intensely meaningful to us not always communicated in a way that grips the congregation as intensely?
In the final analysis, what determines whether our preaching has impact is not our presentation but the truths we are communicating. God's truth is compelling, and even a somewhat lackluster presentation can be used mightily by the Lord. My sermon on David and Jonathan did minister, according to several people who commented on it.
Still, as Spurgeon declared, " Royal truths deserve to ride in a regal carriage. " As a preacher, I am communicating ultimate truths, so I want my rhetorical presentation to carry those divine truths with a sense of energy, conviction, and importance.
Through focused thinking and research in the years since that sermon, I have learned what can cause deeply-felt sermons to fall flat — and how to preach with an intensity that carries.
Why intensity doesn't transfer
At least four factors keep a preacher's passion from moving the congregation:
The personality factor:
When I listen to sermons by many of the best-known preachers in this country, I am gripped and moved. Part of the power comes from the insight, the skill with which these ministers communicate God's truth. But part of the reason their sermons are so effective is because these preachers are so intense. Their energy draws me in.
In my work with Leadership, as I've interacted with some of these gifted communicators, I've discovered something surprising: They are just as intense out of the pulpit. Even talking to them one-on-one, they leave you a little breathless and feeling you must act now. The bottom line: These are high-energy people all the time. Their intensity for the gospel message comes through, in part, simply by virtue of their God-given personalities.
I'm a quieter sort. I can't expect my personal demeanor to adequately communicate how deeply I believe God's Word, how much I love Jesus Christ, how critical it is that people obey him. I must learn and use the time-tested means of communicating to a group so they feel the same conviction, emotion, and energy I feel inside.
The time factor:
By the time I step into the pulpit, I have studied for this message all week. I meditated on the text. I read commentaries. I prayed about the message. I gave this sermon from eight to twenty hours of my best thought, prayer, and energy.
But the people listening to me are hearing the sermon cold. What's become so meaningful to me has had no time to sink in to them. I can't expect the truths that have gripped me during hours of study to automatically grip a congregation — unless I practice the skills I will describe in part 2 of this article.
The position factor:
The way a preacher experiences a message and the way a listener experiences that exact same message are poles apart.
For example, when I pause while speaking, it seems like I'm pausing forever. But when I play back the tape, what seemed like a ten-second pause actually lasted only two or three seconds. In the same way, what seems like a big and important point to me may not come across as big or important to my listeners.
Why? I'm standing in front of dozens or hundreds of people, which makes the speaking moment intense for me; adrenaline races through my system, heightening my emotion, energy, and memory. Sorry to say, my listeners do not find simply listening to a sermon an adrenaline rush. Sunday morning is probably not the emotional peak of their week, and they have dragged in tired from yard work the day before and movies the night before. They aren't bringing intense focus and emotion on their own, so they need me to communicate in a way that conveys intensity.
The distance factor:
A sermon is like a stone dropped in a pond — the ripples flow outward from where the stone hit the water, getting weaker as they go. A preacher's facial expression of intense emotion looks powerful up close but like a blurry squiggle to the guy sitting in the last row (and the woman who closed her eyes for a second didn't even see it). The arm motion that seemed like a major sweep to you looked like a small finger wave to the people farthest from you.
Next week: Six questions to ask about your preaching to ensure your conviction communicates forcefully.
Kevin A. Miller is the Executive Director of Ministry Advancement at Christianity Today and senior pastor at Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois.