What does a sermon have in common with a performance by Marcel Marceau? More than you might think. What the mime artist does is to bring the inner vision of his thoughts and feelings to outward expression.
The Scriptures tell us that David “danced before the Lord.” He was bringing to visibility his faith, his thoughts, and his feelings in a particular act of worship.
In a sense this is what a preacher does in the delivery of a sermon: faith, thought, and feeling are projected in action. This action may or may not be worship of God; it is certainly an expression of what is in the mind and heart of the preacher.
This view of the delivery of the sermon invests the act with more than ordinary importance, does it not? The best sermons are not those buried in the valuable collections; they are, rather, the sermons that are born and die in the delivery.
The live sermon, the sermon danced, as it were, before God and the people, is the best sermon. With that conviction in mind, I turn to these questions, which, I hope, you will ask about your own sermon delivery.
1. Is your manner in presenting a sermon friendly?
This question may seem to ask it all, for, as we are told, God is love. We could do nothing better than to represent God in such a way as to bring forward His essential character in our own personality and style.
People warm to a smile and to words that indicate acceptance and a reaching out to establish friendship. This fact is so important that success in ministry might significantly depend on it.
What should we say, however, about the person who has a naturally heavy countenance or whose attempted smile looks like a sneer? Such persons have compensated for these liabilities in various ways.
An evangelist I heard sounded as if he were angry with the congregation, but his voice actually misrepresented him: he had ruined his voice through strain and improper use, and it was too late to correct it. Yet he was remarkably effective, and his message did come through as good news. He accomplished this, first, by being aware of his problem, and, second, by reassuring the listeners again and again that he was not angry.
2. Have you corrected vocal faults that can be corrected?
Some vocal faults, like that of the evangelist just described, cannot be corrected. Many others can be corrected, and the preacher who takes God’s call seriously will undertake a program of improvement.
Some harshness can be eliminated if the preacher simply gets rid of the idea that earnestness and harshness are twins. This change of mind might require turning a deaf ear to those listeners who compliment the preacher’s earnestness while a set of healthy vocal chords are on the way to ruin. One cannot long abuse one’s voice without suffering regrettable consequences.
Learning to breathe from the diaphragm, pushing out the breath by support from the abdominal region, rather than by pushing down the upper chest and all the while tightening the throat, can go far in solving the problem of harshness. Earnestness does not have to be lost when the irritating sounds disappear.
Also, excessive nasality may be overcome. Some of us tend to be unusually nasal because of our regional background. That is understandable. Yet we may be nasal beyond any regional influence. A speech therapist should be able to point out ways gradually to eliminate any perceived offensiveness in this regard.
Other vocal faults and peculiarities could profit from good-humored attention by the preacher and well-informed instruction by an expert in speech. Even without the help of a teacher, there is much that the individual preacher can do toward self-improvement.
A tape recorder will reveal some areas of our need. In addition a book like Virgil A. Anderson’s Training the Speaking Voice will offer both exercises and encouragement.
3. How is your rate of delivery?
The speed of delivery will vary greatly from person to person. It seems only natural for some to speak slowly and for others to speak fast. However, all of us know that one preacher can be tediously and painfully slow, while another speaks so rapidly as to exhaust us.
James S. Stewart observed: “Just as a dragging organ accompaniment can ruin congregational praise, so a too deliberate pulpit delivery can gravely decelerate interest in the message. Preaching ought to resemble a purposeful, rhythmic march rather than a slow-paced saunter: it is degraded when it becomes a slouch or a shuffle.”
What is really best, and here I do not contradict Stewart, is variety of rate. Some matters may be passed over quickly, and others need a brief change of pace and deliberateness. If we are in touch with our message and vocally following our feelings about what we are saying, then the variety ought to come rather naturally.
4. Is the phrasing of your sentences natural and pleasing?
Phrasing might be so pleasing that the congregation would find it easy to go to sleep. Spurgeon sometimes found himself becoming so smooth in his delivery that he read the writings of Thomas Carlyle, whose style was angular and abrupt, to help him put the bite back into his delivery. But Spurgeon took such medicine only in small doses; he did not need massive therapy. Nor should most preachers.
The best path for most of us is simply to let what we are saying dictate where the breaks will come in our sentences. For some reason we might develop a kind of sing-song delivery, perhaps characterized by saying four or five words, then pausing and saying another four or five words and pausing again — and so on throughout the sermon. This habit can be overcome, though it is easy to slip back into the same old pattern.
One of the best speeches made by President Jimmy Carter was the result of his intensive work with Dorothy Sarnoff, a speech specialist. His sometimes ill-timed phrasing was almost totally absent from the speech. The moral: Phrasing can be improved by attention and hard work.
5. Is the melody pattern of your preaching appropriate to your subject matter, your personality, and your congregation?
Some say that the day of oratory is past. Is that true?
The intimacy of radio and television have modified the speaker’s delivery. One does not orate when talking to one or two other persons. The lathered-up radio sermons of some preachers are ludicrous in style of delivery. They remind me of Queen Victoria’s criticism of Prime Minister Gladstone. She said that when he talked with her he spoke as if he were addressing a public meeting.
That aside, it must be said that some subject matter and some occasions invite oratory if the preacher is up to it. James Weldon Johnson described a certain kind of black “preacher of parts” who “was above all an orator, and in good measure an actor.” He knew the secret of oratory, that at bottom it is a progression of rhythmic words more than it is anything else.
“Indeed,” he said, “I have witnessed congregations moved to ecstasy by the rhythmic intoning of sheer incoherences. He was a master of all the modes of eloquence. He often possessed a voice that was a marvelous instrument, a voice he could modulate from a sepulchral whisper to a crashing thunder clap…. He had the power to sweep his hearers before him; and so himself was often swept away. At such times his language was not prose but poetry.”
In this matter, it is absolutely essential that we know the demands of our subject matter, that we be aware of our abilities or the lack of them, and that we offer ourselves to our message and to our congregation, responding trustingly with our best.
All preaching, however, does not have the same objective. For example, stirring oratory must decrease and patient, pedestrian teaching must increase when the people need an issue explored or a doctrine explained, and that will require a different manner: the “music” of the presentation will be different. Fortunate is the congregation whose pastor is versatile enough to rise to the demands of subject and occasion, yet a pastor who knows personal limitations as well as those that the make-up of the congregation imposes.
6. Does your preaching have passion in it?
Hamlet said, “Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise.”
Yet what Hamlet caricatured is quite different from the impassioned utterance of a speaker who has something worthy of being stirred up about.
“You’re a Methodist, aren’t you?,” Harry Emerson Fosdick asked a young seminary student after a practice sermon. “Yes,” he answered. “Well, then, where’s the passion?” This is a most significant question.
What we have to preach is so important and consequences are so vital, that we cannot be matter-of-fact and disinterested as we preach. Fosdick himself practiced what he taught. When he said that preaching at best means “drenching a congregation with one’s lifeblood,” he was talking about his own method.
“Preaching,” he said, “is wrestling with individuals over questions of life and death, and until that idea of it commands a preacher’s mind and method, eloquence will avail him little and theology not at all.”
7. Have you eliminated grammatical errors?
Most of us would have to answer in all honesty, “Not all of them!” Sometimes we revert unconsciously to ingrained habits of childhood. At other times we simply say things the way some of our friends and acquaintances say them. Or we hear educated persons say things differently, and we assume they must be right; then we ape their mistakes.
For example, right and left we hear educated people say, “They invited my wife and I to dinner.” Nobody, educated or not, would ever say, “They invited I to dinner,” yet some people say that in fact when they say, “They invited my wife and I!”
Perhaps time and usage will change the grammar of this matter; however, it is too early for the preacher to join the revolution. Just now, people who know English grammar cringe when they hear such mistakes.
8. Have you experimented adequately to find your own best way of delivery?
Most people like speakers to speak directly, without notes or manuscript, if the speakers have something to say and can say it with clarity and feeling. Some listeners feel more confident and comfortable when the speakers use a carefully-prepared manuscript and stay close to it. Aside from personal preference, much can be said and justified on both sides of the matter.
The very nature of some subjects would seem to dictate an excited, almost breathless presentation. By the same token, other subjects and occasions call for careful, deliberate, precise presentation.
Most of us would do well to work toward homiletical liberation, which will mean that we will become increasingly more free of our notes and more responsive to the presence of the people before us, receiving inspiration from them even as we preach.
This will not mean less advance preparation; perhaps it will require more. Yet the rewards in attention, understanding, and appreciation from the congregation will make the effort worthwhile.
A sermon that the preacher can learn without too much difficulty has to be orderly and usually concrete. An illogically-arranged sermon cannot be learned easily, and an abstract sermon may be elusive. But a sermon with a clear progression of ideas and images that is logically or psychologically right can be learned by heart, without word-for-word memorization, and delivered with freedom and joy. Then the listeners can be winners, too!
Lest this sound like a counsel of perfection, let me say that individual personality, native ability, time for preparation, and occasion factor into this entire matter. Just be sure that your decision on your type of delivery is not determined by fear, laziness, or some other unworthy motive.
9. Is your body language appropriately expressive?
In the early years of photography, a man walked into a studio and announced that he wanted his picture taken. “What kind of picture do you want? A bust portrait or what?” “I want my whole system in it,” he said.
Public speaking, preaching or whatnot, is best when the whole person becomes a part of the message. There may indeed be an eloquence of the body.
It is sometimes assumed that the content of preaching is of greatest importance — and it is; that style and voice are of secondary importance — and they are; and that the way the message is delivered is of least importance — and that may or may not be true.
Aristotle said, “Delivery is — very properly — not regarded as an elevated subject of inquiry. Still the whole business of rhetoric being concerned with appearances, we must pay attention to the subject of delivery, unworthy though it is, because we cannot do without it.”
Gestures may involve head, face, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, trunk, legs, and feet. Any one of them, or all of them in concert, can express ideas without a word being spoken or can support ideas being verbally expressed.
A rolling of the eyes or a shrug of the shoulders often speaks volumes. This being so, the preacher may be saying more or less than intended by the use or non-use of gestures. Or the preacher may contradict by gestures the words the mouth is speaking.
Spurgeon advised, “Let the gesture tally with the words, and be a sort of running commentary and practical exegesis upon what you are saying.”
Are your gestures natural, or are they wooden and mechanical? Are they varied, or are they merely repetitive? Are they well timed, or do they drag behind the thought they are supposed to express or support? Are they a fitting extension of thought, or are they a substitute for thought?
10. Is the verbal language of delivery in line with your purpose for your sermons?
To be sure, a sermon can serve multiple purposes, but the dominant purpose should determine style and word choice. If the sermon is to convey information only, then the simplest, clearest vocabulary and style are what is needed. However, if your purpose is to create or sustain a mood, you may choose language that is more poetic and your style may have rhythms that help to achieve the feeling desired.
Some of us labor under the false impression that big, esoteric words somehow establish our identity and authority as intelligent, educated persons. The truth is, the smartest speaker will choose the most direct and effective route to the mind and heart of the hearer.
Who are the most influential speakers you know of? Are they men and women who mystify and frustrate their hearers with convoluted sentences and sesquipedalian words, or are they people who speak everyday-English even when they are discussing the most elevated subjects?
Sir Ernest Gowers, a leading authority on the English language, wrote, “Many wise men throughout the centuries, from Aristotle to Sir Winston Churchill, have emphasized the importance of using short and simple words. But no one knew better than these two authorities that sacrifice either of precision or of dignity is too high a price to pay for the familiar word.
“If the choice is between two words that convey a writer’s meaning equally well, one short and familiar and the other long and unusual, of course the short and familiar should be preferred. But one that is long and unusual should not be rejected merely on that account, if it is more apt in meaning.”

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