“You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his.” Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives
A sermon is not a sermon until we preach it. Books of sermons abound. Journals like Preaching devote much space to printed sermons. But like the dry bones of Ezekiel 37, until life is breathed into them, sermons locked into the words of a page will never live. I have obtained printed manuscripts, even transcripts, of sermons that I had heard preached: moving sermons that challenged my faith and encouraged my life. When I went back and read the manuscript, I felt like Peggy Lee, saying, “Is that all there is?” Something was missing: the personal presence of a preacher.
The warmth of the preacher’s voice in communicating excitement, anxiety, joy, and passion — the immediacy of a person sharing intimately with other persons — makes preaching a dynamic event. Sermons take on life when we deliver them. Effective sermon delivery is a major consideration for identification and preaching.
Personal Presence
Every preaching textbook has a section, or at least a chapter, on sermon delivery. My concern is to focus on aspects of sermon delivery needed to enhance identification with your congregation. Rhetorician Kenneth Burke felt that one’s entire body takes part in the communication process. For instance, Burke stated that “communication deals with the choice of gesture for the inducement of corresponding attitudes.”1 He saw a relationship between thought processes and the way speakers express and communicate thoughts.2
It is not only the words that we use but the way that we use our voices and bodies while preaching that reinforces or inhibits identification; we must be interested in the physical elements of preaching. Body posture and movement, eye contact, hand gestures, facial expressions, the use of the voice — tonality, pitch, volume, range, and rate of speech — and the handling of notes are all part of the preaching moment. You should consider these elements as intentionally as you do the exegesis of the biblical text and the composition of the sermon.
When you stand up to preach, all eyes in the congregation are watching you. You are already communicating as you make your way to the pulpit or, if you do not use a pulpit, to where you will preach. Your physical presence tells the hearers something about the message they are about to hear. A preacher who slouches behind the pulpit and fumbles around with notes communicates that what is about to take place is not important or relevant.
Preaching is important. You spent hours studying the biblical text. You struggled to find the appropriate strategies to make your sermon dynamic and interesting. You worked hard to make the sermon relevant to the life situation of your congregation. With great anticipation, like a child who has brought home a report card with all A’s, you cannot wait to share this week’s sermon. Your physical presence should communicate that excitement.
Stand erect, look at the people, and preach. It is not time for additional announcements about the annual “Breakfast for Missions” coming up next Saturday. And it is not time for a little stand-up comedy, as though Sunday morning worship was a facsimile of “An Evening at the Improv.” Some preachers attempt to be cute and clever, always telling a couple of jokes to warm up the congregation before they preach. Such antics are totally inappropriate for worship. If we take preaching seriously, perhaps our congregations also will.
There is room for the appropriate use of humor in preaching. Humor, like all other elements of preaching, should be servant to the purpose of the sermon. Sometimes our sermons begin with the reading of the biblical text. Sometimes the text is read as a part of the sermon or has been read earlier as a part of the liturgy. My point is, whenever you begin to preach, preach with intentionality and purpose.
Avoid Preacherisms in Sermon Delivery
As you preach, avoid stereotypical preacherisms. One of these is leaning on the pulpit. Some preachers hold on to the pulpit so tightly that it gives the impression that if they let go, the pulpit would fly away. Leaning on the pulpit or grabbing the pulpit with white-knuckled fists communicates anger and confrontation. Is that what you really want to communicate? Such stances do not show that you have your congregation’s best interests at heart, which is a crucial consideration for creating identification.
Another common preacherism is pointing the index finger at the congregation. When I was growing up the only people who pointed fingers at me were people who were mad at me. When my mother was angry because of something I had done, she pointed her finger and scolded me for being bad. Teachers in school pointed their fingers when the class was unruly and disruptive. When a preacher points his or her finger at me, I become defensive and angry; I do not appreciate a preacher talking down or scolding me from the pulpit. Pointing the index finger is a condescending gesture that does not foster identification.
Again, if you want to create identification with the congregation, avoid the preacher voice. Some preachers amaze me with the unbelievable metamorphosis that happens to their voices when they preach. An artificial deepening of the voice to attempt to create piety is as transparent as Saran Wrap. Where did we learn that preachers need a voice like James Earl Jones (the voice of Darth Vader) to preach effectively? If you are not believable with your natural voice, disguising your voice and sounding like a great orator will only fool yourself.
Identification means relating to the people where they are and where they know you are. Speak to them with the same voice you use when you pray with them around the fellowship table, when you visit them in the hospital, when you counsel with them in your study. Your natural voice comforted them in crisis; use your voice to create depth, passion, and identification in your sermon.
You are not a generic preacher; you are this congregation’s preacher with a message for them as one with them. Be yourself and preach. The preachers who most effectively speak to me and my needs are those who capture my attention because they are not like every other preacher I have ever heard. Their messages are fresh. They are fresh. They have discovered the wonderful grace to be themselves in Christ.
Be Deliberate About Your Sermon Delivery
As you preach, remember that you are sharing a message of vital importance to you and your listeners. In so doing, you must do some intentional planning about the way you are going to deliver the sermon. When telling a story, you can create wonderful images with the words you choose and the gestures you use. Some preachers can do this extemporaneously; most of us must plan and prepare beforehand so that our words and gestures are appropriate to the occasion and communicate the point of the story.
Think about using your facial expressions and body posture to emphasize emotions in the sermon. Your voice and body can express fear, anxiety, happiness, grief, and many other emotions. When you plan for these before you preach the sermon, the congregation will not just hear the emotions, they will feel them with you — identification.
Delivery should be appropriate to the content of the sermon. Putting your hands in your pockets generally communicates calm and relaxation. Be sure that the content of the sermon at that point calls for a relaxed style. Talking with your hands in your pockets about the crucifixion of Jesus does not communicate clearly. The congregation will sense a major discrepancy between what you are saying and how you are saying it. One theorist said, “Whatever I say with words I must also say with my body.”3 Communication is a complicated endeavor.
Planning sermon delivery does not mean that you must choreograph every word and movement ahead of time. Such a process would make preaching wooden and artificial. It does mean asking and answering questions about delivery. For example, if the sermon calls for excitement, how can I show I am excited? Think about a child running into the house telling his or her parents that the ice cream truck is coming down the street: “The ice cream truck! The ice cream truck! Can I have some money?!!! That is excitement. Do you convince your hearers that you are as excited about the sermon as the child is about the ice cream? Increasing your rate of speech, using a higher tone of voice, raising your eyebrows, opening your eyes wide, and involving your hands will communicate excitement.
If a part of the sermon is challenging, how do I communicate the challenge? If a personal story is sad, how can I express sadness while avoiding emotionalism? Thinking about these issues before you preach will make your sermons come alive. You will preach with passion and power; your hearers will identify with that.
Timing is a crucial aspect of sermon delivery. Some preachers have never thought about the importance of timing, and then they wonder why their hearers did not get the point. Skillful story tellers know when to speed up, when to slow down, when to build to a climax, and, finally, when to provide resolution. They know that an incorrectly-timed punchline can ruin a story. They also know that a punchline delivered correctly brings home the point immediately. Remember the skillful timing of Nathan in his sermon to David? Timing should be carefully thought out and planned ahead of time.
A key to timing in oral communication is the use of pauses. For example, if you want to emphasize a crucial idea, you might think about using a well-placed pause. We forget that we are introducing the congregation to material that we have been working on all week. We must give them time to absorb, to consider, and to reflect during our sermons. Effective pauses are wonderful tools to give the congregation a chance to do that.
Understanding in oral communication is always at the ear of the hearer. Just because you are completely clear about what you mean, does not mean you have communicated that meaning to your hearers. A colleague shared the following quotation: “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Effective communication is a complex process. The key to effective preaching is for you to remember that preaching is a dynamic event that requires you to use effectively all your skills of communication: your voice, your gestures, your personality, your spirit, your total self.
Evaluating Your Sermon Delivery
The best way to analyze your preaching is to have your sermons videotaped. Most congregations have someone who owns a portable camcorder that you can ask to videotape sermons. I suggest that you wait at least a week before doing any critique of a particular sermon. This allows some distance from the event; you will be more objective in your evaluation.
When you view the tape, look and listen for each of the following: the use of your voice; hand gestures; facial expressions; body movement and position. Ask yourself questions like these: Is my delivery at this place in the sermon appropriate to the content of the sermon? Am I communicating to the congregation, or am I disconnected from them? Am I identifying with the congregation through my tone of voice and gestures? Have I developed distracting preacherisms?
You probably will find things you want to change and others upon which you want to improve. Try working on changing or improving one thing at a time. If you attempt to eliminate leaning on the pulpit, preaching with your hand in your pocket, and speaking too fast, all in one sermon, you may get so hung up on techniques that communicating the sermon suffers. If you evaluate one of your sermons a month this way, you will be surprised at how quickly you will enhance your preaching.
To Read or Not to Read: That is the Question
In a doctor of ministry seminar dealing with preaching, we asked several laypersons to come and talk to the gathered preachers about their expectations of preaching. One woman remarked: “I don’t want a sermon read to me. If the preacher has to read to me, just give me the manuscript and I’ll take it home and read it myself.” The other laypeople on the panel convincingly agreed. Perhaps their tradition or denominational bias influenced their response. Their reply shows, however, that the issue of reading or not reading a sermon is of concern for effective sermon delivery.
Experienced preachers at conferences and students in the classroom want to know what is the best way to preach: Should I take a full manuscript into the pulpit? Are extended notes allowed? What about one notecard with just a couple of reminders? Is it better to use no notes at all? I know preachers who take a full manuscript into the pulpit and read every word and those who preach without a single note in front of them. They all preach effectively and are excellent communicators. I also know some preachers who would bore a congregation no matter what method they used — from reading to a free delivery style. When it comes to identification, however, there is something to be said for preaching without notes.
My Personal Journey
I began preaching as a full manuscript preacher. I slaved over my sermon manuscript, honing every jot and polishing every tittle. Sweating over the phrasing of every sentence and every twist of a phrase was a major part of my sermon preparation. I could not wait until Sunday so that I could go into the pulpit and wax eloquent as I delivered my masterpiece to the congregation. I was sure that the sermon would not have impact unless I said it exactly as I had written it down. As enamored as I was with the sermon I had prayed about and written, and as passionate as I tried to deliver it, I found that the congregation’s response was not what I thought it should be.
How do you gauge the congregation’s response? Empirically that is tough, but preachers do it intuitively. The expressions on their faces, the nod of a head, a look of contemplation, the way they are sitting, the way they speak to us after the service are not scientific means, but they do say something about our hearers’ response to sermons. Intuitively, I sensed I was not communicating the message I had composed. After some analysis and critique from a helpful mentor, I came to the conclusion that I had made the fatal mistake of creating something for the eye rather than for the ear.
A sermon is something that is heard, not read. Preaching is an event created, not a document delivered. With these ideas in mind, I began to rethink my sermon composition strategy. Clyde Fant’s discussion of the oral manuscript was extremely helpful in cultivating my thinking.4 I watched and heard several models who preached without notes. I moved from reading a full manuscript to preaching with extended notecards to preaching without notes. The responses I began to receive, more explicit now than intuitive, convinced me that I was now communicating more effectively with the congregation. My preaching had moved from me reading a printed page to me in dialogue with my hearers.
Stevenson and Diehl write that preachers must be aware of their hearers “not in a general or confused way, but sharply enough to be able to observe and respond to their changing reactions, and to talk with them as individuals.”5 I found that when I was reading a sermon to them, I was unable to have that kind of intimate communication take place. A free delivery style enables me to communicate with the congregation as I deliver my sermon. The sermon becomes an event happening now; the sermon manuscript stands behind me (actually, it stays in my study) as a reminder of the work I have done in preparing the sermon. Identification is established because I am no longer giving them a manuscript; I am communicating, as Phillips Brooks would say, the Truth through my personality.
My Approach to Preaching Without Notes
Here is a sketch of my sermon preparation method. I begin Monday morning with a study of the text for Sunday’s sermon. By Tuesday, I complete my own exegetical study of the passage and begin to select sermon strategies, keeping in mind the needs and concerns of the congregation and the prayerful direction of the Holy Spirit. Wednesday, I consult several commentaries and evaluate my interpretation of the text in light of that study. I think of some appropriate sermon illustrations that might shed light on the text or might make the sermon interesting. On Thursday I sketch out a rough plan for the development of the sermon. I try to be creative and let my imagination run wild. I come up with many ideas I cannot use for this sermon and file them away for future contemplation.
Friday is the day I compose the sermon. The text has been on my mind all week. Events of the week, billboards I have read, newspapers I have seen, people I have met, prayers I have prayed have influenced my thinking. I write out a full sermon manuscript. I do this for several reasons. I want to save the work I have done. Writing out a manuscript slows down my thinking, helps me organize and clarify my thoughts, and tests my way of saying some things. When I write the manuscript, however, it is a script for the ear and not for the eye. I like to say “I talk the sermon onto the page.” It is not a polished manuscript. Sometimes there is a transition missing here and a complete thought missing there. These will come by the time I preach Sunday morning.
I look over the manuscript once on Saturday. I get up early Sunday morning and spend some time in meditation, preparing for the worship events of the day. I begin to think about the sermon. I read over the manuscript once or twice, perhaps memorizing an important phrase or the punch-line to a crucial story. By this time the manuscript is taking a back seat and an oral product emerges. I think of the sermon as blocks of ideas — rather than words — I want to communicate. I talk through the sermon several times in my head. I try not to over-prepare. When I preach the sermon, I forgive myself if I forget an illustration I wanted to use or an idea I had hoped to convey. I believe that what I sacrifice in precision I more than gain in communication. My preaching sounds like me talking when I am not preaching, unlike the polished manuscripts of old, which sounded too refined and too perfect to be oral events.
As I preach, I intentionally try to identify with my hearers. I watch them, rather than notes or a manuscript, to find if what I am saying makes sense. If the congregation did not understand something I said, I can say it in other words to try to clarify the idea. I try to look at the entire congregation. I attempt to communicate to the children and youth who are present, as well as the adults who make up the congregation. I have found that preaching without notes enhances my sense that identification is taking place. In the preaching moment, I become one with my hearers.
This method works for me. Real identification means that you must find the method of sermon delivery that enhances your gifts and skills as a preacher to identify with your hearers. As you do, you are truly becoming one with them.
1. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 281.
2. Ibid., p. 130.
3. Hans van der Geist, Presence in the Pulpit: The Impact of Personality in Preaching, trans. Douglass W. Stott (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 42.
4. See the discussion about the oral manuscript and the sermon brief in the revised edition of Clyde Fant’s Preaching For Today (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1987), pp. 165ff.
5. Dwight E. Stevenson and Charles F. Diehl, Reaching People from the Pulpit: A Guide to Effective Sermon Delivery (1958; rpt. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1985), p. 98.
Reprinted with permission from Preaching Sermons That Connect by Craig A. Loscalzo. Copyright (c) 1992 by Craig A. Loscalzo. Published by InterVarsity Press.

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