Sermons are full of something. Every sermon includes something logical, something emotional, something historical, something applicable and, of course, something biblical. The most effective sermons combine all these elements, something interspersed with some well-placed nothing. These critical moments of nothingness are called pauses. Too much something and not enough nothing, and your something will amount to nothing.
In sermon delivery, pausing at the right times and in the right ways may be the most effective, yet least appreciated, tool in the preacher’s toolbox. Green preachers especially are afraid of silence. When people are staring in your general direction, each you-coulda-hearda-pin-drop moment seems to last for an eternity of awkwardness. This is why novices tend to rattle on like M2 Browning machine guns. The natural gaps, where commas or periods normally should be are filled with ums, uhs, ahs and other fillers.
What these preachers fail to recognize, however, is that they are verbally overwhelming their listeners. An intentional pause here and there can make a novice preacher a better preacher overnight.
Here are four practical benefits to pausing as you preach.
Attention can be regained.
Just before a symphony fills a theatre with its beautiful music, the conductor will tap his stand lightly. Raising his hands into the air, he then freezes with his hands at their highest point and hold them there for a brief moment. That second or two of nothingness alerts the musicians and audience to pay close attention.
The room becomes pregnant with anticipation. Everyone hushes. They are waiting, watching, zeroed-in, looking up front and listening closely for that first note. This collective sense of expectation is all due to that little pause. As one author said, “Silence captures your audience in a way that noise never can.”1
As the sermon begins, chances are most people are listening. While you preach, however, many things begin happening in front of you. Pages are being flipped, Bible verses quietly read, legs being crossed, children being softly scolded, legs uncrossed, candy wrappers opened, legs crossed again, notes scribbled—and much more. While this is happening, the preacher’s steady voice provides a kind of background noise for this flurry of understated activity.
However, once the sound of silence hangs heavy in the air, everything changes. Restlessness, shifting, doodling, drowsiness, and daydreaming come to a halt. The soundtrack is paused. All eyes turn and become fixed on the platform. Curiosity sets in, and questions begin to form in everyone’s mind, “What’s he doing? What is about to happen? Why did he stop? What is he going to say next?” When the preacher pauses, the people listen. As Spurgeon said, “Speech is silver, but silence is golden when hearers are inattentive.”2 A pause effectively can call everyone to attention without a word.
The congregation can absorb.
I never will forget my first sermon (although some days I wish I could). I was a 16-year-old Alabama preacher-boy itching to “shuck corn.” Going into it, I thought I might preach for about 20 minutes. I was wrong. After a solid 55 minutes, I finally ended! Afterward, a kind deacon in the church approached me. He stuck out his hand, pulled me in for a warm hug, and reassuringly patted me on the back. In his slow southern drawl, he said, “Son, I liked your sermon, but I felt like I was trying to drink out of a fire hydrant. Next time, please give us a second to think about it.”
Be careful not to drown your congregation with a tidal wave of words and verses. Remember, you have had the luxury of thinking about the message all week long. More than likely, leading up to Sunday, you have read, rehearsed, reviewed, edited and reworded your points many different ways to yourself. Your congregation, on the other hand, is hearing it all for the first time. As you preach, give listeners time to digest what you are saying. Don’t overwhelm them.
Haddon Robinson has referred to pauses as “The punctuation marks of speech.”3 They give people permission and opportunity to feel, respond, agree, disagree or change their minds. A pause is not merely silence; it is a moment for reflection, thought and consideration. The goal is not to skip your theological rocks across the audience, but to let each one sink to the very depths of their souls—and that always takes a second or two. Pause.
The preacher can think ahead.
Pauses not only provide the congregation with the opportunity to think back on what was just said; they also provide the preacher with the opportunity to think ahead to what is about to be said. As the sermon progresses, preachers need time to gather their thoughts. Even a brief pause can serve as a mental rest stop, a special place in the preacher’s mind where upcoming statements can be glanced at in one’s mind’s eye like a roadmap of what is to come.
As said previously (in the section on eye contact), a preacher also must have time to “read” the congregation. It is important to gauge whether the message actually is connecting. A pause will provide you with just such an opportunity.
Non-words can disappear.
It is palpably uncomfortable to hear someone begin a sermon with, “Tonight, uh, I want to, er, share with you, ahhh, about my, umm, favorite, like, Bible verse. You-know?” Most audiences cringe at such unpolished and amateurish efforts. Certainly, no preacher wants to use these fillers, but every preacher is tempted to do so, especially at first.
These verbal fillers are non-words. While they may sound like words, they are not listed in any dictionary. They are meaningless sounds. They inevitably make the audience feel as if the preacher is unprepared, hesitant or lacks confidence. The more non-words you use, the more nervous and uneasy you will appear.
As bad as these ordinary ones are, we preachers often have our own sanctified versions. Jerry Vines has noted, “For a preacher, such filler words may be ‘Praise the Lord,’ ‘Amen’ or ‘Glory to God!’”4 He continues, “Although nothing is wrong with using any of these expressions, the capricious use of such terms simply to fill in your pauses will rob them of their spiritual meaning and impact.”5 Furthermore, your listeners likely will be annoyed as they detect a whiff of phoniness.
Pausing is always preferable to umm-ing. When you feel the urge to er or ah, discipline yourself to say nothing. Break yourself of this habit as early and quickly as possible. Replace non-words with no words and your message will be received eagerly.
The best part of learning to pause is that there is nothing new to learn. Just stop doing what you are doing and, voila, you are pausing. In one sense, it is that simple. In another sense, it is much more difficult. Learning how to pause is the easy part. Learning when to pause (and for how long) is the challenge. Ill-timed pauses come across as hesitation, dawdling or stalling. Well-timed pauses become useful moments which enhance the overall sermon.
Here are a few suggestions for when pauses can be used most effectively.
• Pause briefly before and after each prayer.
Prayers typically serve as a transition element for the sermon. They often occur at the beginning and at the conclusion. Fence off each pastoral prayer with a few moments of silence and it will draw attention to this vital element of worship. Fail to do this and you unintentionally will teach your people to rush through prayer haphazardly.
• Pause before reading a Scripture passage, especially the sermon text.
If you want your listeners to follow along in their own copies of God’s Word, pausing is essential. Announce the text once. (Pause) Announce it a second time. (Pause) Then allow listeners enough time to locate the passage in their Bibles. Once you hear the rustling of tissue-thin pages die down, it is time to speak again.
• Pause longer than usual before and after a humorous punchline.
While preachers are not comedians—and frankly, should not aspire to be—most preachers do use a dose or two of humor. As a result, we can and should learn a few lessons from these masters of speech delivery. The best comedians know that a punchline has to be set up, and pausing does that effectively. Once it is spoken, the punch line then requires an extra moment for people (who are hearing it for the first time) to get it. Furthermore, once they get it, they also know listeners naturally will want to laugh, chuckle or smile. Skilled comedians are willing to wait for the audience to do both. Preachers should be, too. Pausing may feel awkward at first, but give an extra second of silence, and you’ll reap the dividends. Hurry past the humor, and you might as well not use it. Pausing assures your people that it is OK to enjoy the moment.
• Pause before the climax of a story.
All stories need dramatic effect. As is true with jokes and humor, most stories conclude with the main idea or lesson. Create interest in the story’s conclusion by slowing your pace as you near the end, pausing momentarily, and then delivering the conclusion with force. Pauses draw people in to listen more intently.
• Pause from one section of the sermon to the next.
If you are moving from one point to the next, there is no need to announce, “Now that I have finished point one, let me move on to point two.” Instead, a simple pause, similar to changing gears, typically is sufficient. If you neglect to do this, the sermon details will begin to pile up like an interstate car crash.
• Pause after asking a rhetorical, application question.
Not all questions require answers, but rhetorical questions require a time of reflection. When a preacher asks, “Who do you know who needs Jesus?” the question obviously is intended to make people think. The preacher does not expect anyone to stand up and catalog a list of lost family members. Still, provide each person with a moment or two to take the matter to heart for themselves. Give them permission to mill it around in their own brains.
To take full advantage of the powerful pause, try these exercises.
Record your next sermon and listen to it. (I recommend waiting a week or two so the sermon material is not as fresh in your mind. This will allow you to hear it more as an audience member than a preacher.) As you listen, make note of those places where you talked too quickly. Also, be aware of when you did pause appropriately. Review several different sermons and compare your findings.
Also, as you watch or listen to your favorite preachers, notice when and how they pause. Try counting how long their different pauses may be. Add them together, and you may be surprised to find that in a 30-minute sermon there can be as much as one to three minutes of complete silence!
In everyday conversation, work on pausing. Instead of saying um or uh, just breathe in quietly. (By the way, it is impossible to say anything while inhaling. Try it.) Remember, pausing is about having confidence in what you are saying. Exhibit self-control by letting the words speaks for themselves. Remember, a pause always seems longer to the preacher than it does to the audience. Work on it.
If you use sermon notes or a manuscript, pencil some visual cues into the margins, which can remind you to pause. These can become helpful speed bumps along the preaching path to help slow you down. Vary their placement until you find what works best. Until you learn to do it naturally, a subtle reminder can be helpful.
Sermons are full of a lot of something. Next Sunday, add a little more nothing to your something, and your something will become something special. “The right word may be effective,” said Mark Twain, “but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”6 Truly, pauses…are…powerful.
1 Arthur Phelps, Public Speaking for Ministers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), 67.
2 Spurgeon, Lectures, 138.
3 Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching (XXX, XXX: XXXX), 206.
4 Vines, Shaddix (323).
5 Vines, Shaddix (323)