Babies love to play "Peek-a-Boo." Cover your face with two hands in front of a small child, and you seemingly vanish from the world. Open them as a set of French doors, smile big, and you reappear much to their amazement and amusement.
I was playing this infant-friendly game with my 4-month-old daughter when I discovered something unexpected. At first, I hid my face in the traditional way—two hands together, finger tips pointing upward. As the game progressed, though, I started covering less and less of my face. By the end, I was merely placing three horizontal fingers over each of my eyes. Much to my surprise (and hers), the disappearing effect was the same. In her mind, once Daddy’s eyes were hidden, Daddy was hidden, too. As I quickly swiped my finger’s aside, her face lit up with the same shock and delight as before.
A game such as this illustrates the tremendous power of eye contact. Next to one’s voice, eye contact is your most valuable commodity in public speaking. The Greek orator Cicero wrote, “Everything (in public speaking) depends on the countenance (of the speaker), [and] the countenance itself is entirely dominated by the eye.” Stop looking at your audience, and very soon your audience will stop listening to you.
The old proverb says, “The eyes are the windows of the soul.” In sermon delivery, eye contact is vital to indicate interest, build trust, convey believability, express emotion and monitor in-the-moment feedback.
Eye contact indicates the preacher’s interest.
How often have you heard a parent or coach demand, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”? Glancing downward or staring off in the distance conveys indifference or distraction. No preacher wants to appear disinterested to his or her listeners. Wayne McDill has explained, “When you establish eye contact with a person, it is the equivalent of ringing her up on the phone…When the preacher comes to the pulpit and looks at his audience, he is opening that line of communication.” Eye contact reveals your interest.
In Acts 3, Peter and John experienced this for themselves. After walking past a disabled beggar, the apostles heard him plead for some much-needed charity. Immediately, a visual exchange took place. Acts 3:4-5 says, “But Peter, along with John, fixed his gaze on him, and said, ‘Look at us!’ And he (the beggar) began to give them his attention, expecting to receive something from them.”
The beggar, of course, was hoping to receive money; instead, he received healing. That point aside, notice the man looked at the apostles eagerly and expectantly because they first made intentional eye contact with him. Peter’s fixed gaze was an attention-grabbing signal to show his concern for the poor man. Show interest in the people by looking at the people.
Eye contact builds trust and conveys believability.
Research has shown that, “The quickest way to establish a communicative bond with your listeners is to look them in the eye, personally and pleasantly.” Given the trust factor inherently involved, some prefer the terms eye connection or eye touching. The preacher should build an eye-to-eye bridge with his hearers so they sense his friendliness, honesty and truthfulness. Look mostly at your manuscript, and you will communicate, “I care about my sermon.” Look mostly at your people, and you will communicate, “I care about you.”
More eye contact from the speaker means more receptivity from the listeners. This is because eye contact also establishes credibility. Suspicion hangs over the person who has shifty eyes. People tend to be skeptical of anyone who avoids eye contact. With novice preachers especially, there is a need to show as much confidence and comfort in the pulpit as possible. Eye contact will demonstrate both.
Eye contact expresses emotion.
While flipping channels on TV one evening, I came across a professional poker match. Of the four players at the table, I was amused to see that three of them were wearing dark-tinted sunglasses (though they were indoors.) These skillful card sharks intentionally were concealing their eyes from their competitors. Each of them knew that even the slightest peek at the cards can cause involuntary movements and emotional reactions in and around the eyes. A spontaneous dilating of the pupils or a twitch of the eyelid can be a crucial signal, exposing how they feel about their hands. Revealing emotions can be detrimental to a poker player, but it can be greatly beneficial to a preacher.
In the 1970s, two New York investors began to sell liquid crystal rings that allegedly could reveal a man or woman’s feelings by a change of color. They were called mood rings. (Truthfully, they were nothing more than overpriced, gaudy accessories.) Human eyes, however, are the closest thing to an authentic mood indicator. Wide eyes can convey happiness or surprise. A glazed-over stare means boredom has taken root. Darting or downcast eyes typically belong to a bitter, anxious or nervous person.
As the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “An eye can threaten like a loaded…gun or it can insult like hissing and kicking, or its altered mood, by means of kindness, make the heart dance with joy.” Proverb 15:30 says, “Bright eyes gladden the heart.” As you proclaim God’s Word, let your people hear the excitement in your voice, but let them see it in your eyes, as well.
Eye contact allows you to monitor in-the-moment feedback.
One appeal of Twitter is that it can provide us with instant commentary on an event. A person can sit at home and watch a live football game while simultaneously reading hundreds of second-by-second reactions from others doing the same. Similarly, a preacher can get live feedback on a message by noticing the body language of the people (no hash tag required).
Smiles and head nods belong to those who agree with what they’re hearing. Frowns and scowls belong to those who disagree. Scrunched eyebrows and puzzled looks belong to those who are confused. Reactions such as these can allow the preacher to adjust the sermon as he or she preaches. However, the preacher cannot take advantage of this feedback if he stares only at a manuscript. Look up. Look out. Look often. As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”
By the way, if you notice people doodling, daydreaming, yawning, dozing or sleeping, don’t worry and don’t take it personally. It is only the most exceptional of public speaker who can maintain 100 percent of the people’s attention 100 percent of the time. (Remember, the apostle Paul put Eutychus to sleep.) Instead of being distracted by the disinterested, focus mostly on those who clearly are engaged in your sermon. You will draw energy and excitement from them as you feed on their feedback.
Given how crucial eye contact can be, preachers must be deliberate and mindful of how and when to use it. Eye contact, in sermon delivery, can be maximized by making the smallest of adjustments.
Make eye contact with the congregation as early as possible for as long as possible.
Immediate eye contact will generate immediate attention. Look at people from the get-go. To make this possible, deliver your introduction from memory (even if you are using notes for the rest of the message.) Make an effort, until the final amen to maintain eye contact for at least 80 percent of the time. Remember: Interested preachers are interesting preachers.
One problem area related to this is Scripture reading. Some preachers prefer to place their Bible flat in front of them, letting it slide down and rest against the bottom lip of the pulpit. When it then comes time to read a text, this placement forces the preacher to drop his head downward so that instead of seeing his eyes, listeners primarily see his bald spot!
To avoid this, hold your Bible up whenever you read it. Lift it high in front of your face for all to see. Not only does this remind your audience that your source material is Scripture, but it also allows your eyes to shift only a little between the passage and the people.
Additionally, if you use sermon notes or a manuscript, position them high near the top of the podium (though not so high as to hang over the edge). As the sermon progresses, this will ensure that your occasional glance down is more subtle and less noticeable to your congregation. Simple adjustments such as these can help you maintain more eye contact throughout the sermon.
Look directly into people’s eyes.
When I started preaching at 16, I was incredibly nervous. To help calm my jitters, an older preacher told me, “Don’t look at the people’s eyes. That will only make you more nervous. Instead, look at the tops of their heads or a blank spot on the wall.” While that may seem to be good advice for a novice, it can hinder communication and cause the preacher to appear aloof or insecure.
As John Stott suggested, “Look at your people face to face, eyeball to eyeball. Always talk to people. Never merely spray the building with words.” Don’t look over the congregation, below them, or near them—look at them. Deny people your eyes, and you deny them yourself.
If you find such direct eye contact particularly challenging, practice your message in front of a mirror. It sounds goofy, but it can work. Better yet, rehearse portions of your sermon to your spouse or children. Have them count the number of times you look at your notes. (Kids love this game.) Better yet, practice these parts of the message note-free. It may be difficult at first, but in time you will become more comfortable and confident as you preach. Even a mediocre preacher who makes good eye contact will make a great impression.
Visually sweep the entire room.
Most preachers have a visual comfort zone. Some prefer to look solely at their spouses; others like to focus on those obviously supportive church members. Instead, as Bryan Chapell advised, “Scan the entire congregation while pausing briefly on particular sets of eyes as you make special emphases. Take encouragement from those who look at you with appreciation. Take note of those who seem troubled or confused so that you can clarify or adjust your message.” Zero-in on just a few people, and your sermon may have zero impact on everyone else.
When visually sweeping the room, a good rule of thumb is to look at specific individuals for no more than two to four seconds at a time. Any less time than this and your head will be bobbing around like a bobble-head doll. Jerky head motions will exhaust your hearers. Look at people for more than four seconds, and they will begin to feel awkward, as if you are singling them out. As you preach, the Holy Spirit occasionally will make people feel uncomfortable. The crazy-eyed, staring preacher always makes people feel uncomfortable, but for all the wrong reasons.
Finally, remember to look at those oft-forgotten people in the sanctuary. These include the first few rows in front of you, the choir loft behind you, the orchestra pit beneath you, the balcony seats above you and the on-platform musicians beside you. Include as many people as possible in your visual sweep.
We all know that words communicate. Truthfully, eyes do, too. As you preach, be sure your eyes are communicating as well as possible. Make more eye contact, and chances are your preaching will make more of a difference.
1 Cicero, De Oratore (London: William Heinemann, 1942), III, 59, 221.
2 Wayne McDill, The Moment of Truth (Nashville, Broadman & Holman, 1999)
3 In addition to the event recorded in Acts 3:4, there are other moments, in Acts, when a sermon was immediately preceded by direct and obvious contact by the preacher. See Acts 6:15 and 14:9.
4 Stephen E. Lucas, The Art of Public Speaking, Third Edition (New York: Random House, 1989), 245.
5 Jerry Weissman, The Power Presenter (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2009), 91.
6 John Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1982), 252. As quoted in Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddox, Power in the Pulpit (Moody, Chicago, 1999), 324-325.
7 Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 335.
J. Tyler Scarlett is pastor of Forest Baptist Church in Forest, Va., and an adjunct professor for Liberty University.