A seminary student was reporting to his preaching professor on a sermon he would never forget. He had attended worship at a megachurch with an auditorium seating thousands. The latest in audio-visual technology was used in the service. The preacher’s face was projected on two giant screens on either side of the platform. A video clip was used as an illustration. Scripture verses and sermon points were displayed on the screens.
The most unforgettable moment of the sermon came as the pastor told the story of the rescue by American forces of an airman shot down in Kosovo. As the pastor described the climax of the rescue, the thump-thump sound of a helicopter roared across the auditorium. The student was determined to preach like that.
Homileticians and preachers alike see such multi-media presentations as the future of preaching. Some claim that the attention span of today’s audience is much shorter than that of previous generations. Television has conditioned viewers to fast moving images and continuous action. Video games, internet communication and digital phones with continually upgraded features have made preaching seem slow and antiquated. So the call is for preaching to come of age and make use of the media available.
Preaching in its essence, however, has always been oral communication, one person declaring to others a word from God. The church will profit from the use of high-tech media for education. Some preachers will make use of audio visual media in their sermons as well, as they have done with chalk talks and object lessons in years past. Twenty-first century preachers would do well, however, to consider the power of simple oral communication before forsaking it for audio visual aids.
Revisiting Sermon Delivery
Many contemporary preachers have the attitude James Stalker expressed about sermon delivery more than a hundred years ago: “When I was at college, we used rather to despise delivery. We were so confident in the power of ideas that we thought nothing of the manner of setting them up. Only have good stuff, we thought, and it will preach itself … and many of us have since suffered for it. We know how many sermons are preached in the churches of the country every Sunday; but does anyone know how many are listened to?” (Stalker, 1891, 119).
From the time they complete seminary preaching courses, very few preachers ever expose themselves again to a critique of their sermon delivery. They rather continue on in whatever delivery patterns they developed, for the most part assuming they are doing well. The consumers of sermons, however, are more likely to consider most preaching rather dull, and to be delighted when they hear an engaging and helpful sermon.
The effectiveness of a spoken message is largely in the manner of its presentation rather than in the material presented. Allen H. Monroe found that audience members think of effective public speaking more in terms of delivery than content (Beebe and Beebe, 1991, 223). In a study of student responses to speeches, he discovered that the first six characteristics they associated with an ineffective speaker were related to delivery.
The most distracting feature of delivery named by Monroe’s students was a monotonous voice. Others were stiffness, lack of eye contact, fidgeting, lack of enthusiasm and a weak voice. The student audience liked direct eye contact, alertness, enthusiasm, a pleasant voice and physical movement. Another student study discovered that for persuasive speeches, delivery was almost three times as important for effectiveness as content (Beebe and Beebe, 1991, 223).
The audience is getting a number of messages from the preacher besides his words. Sixty-five percent of the message they are receiving comes by means other than the words he says. That means only 35 percent of speech communication may be verbal. These other channels for communication are tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, even the way he stands and how he is dressed (Ross, 1980, 68).
In one experiment the words of a speaker and the nonverbal signals were directly contradictory. Negative and hostile facial expressions and tone of voice were combined with pleasant and reassuring words. Then subjects in the study were asked what they thought was the real attitude of the speaker. The researchers reported that they depended only 7 percent on the actual words used. They depended about 38 percent on such features as tone of voice and rate of speech. The most credibility, 55 percent, was given to facial expression and other body language. Mark Knapp does not exaggerate when he writes, “how something is said is frequently what is said” (Hesselgrave, 1991, 437).
Though some of the perceived weaknesses of preaching today may be elsewhere, serious attention should be given to the issue of sermon delivery. It is an exhilarating experience for the preacher when his audience is fully connected with him and his message. They look at him intently. They hang on his every word. They are one with him in the communication process – fully engaged, attentive and alert.
But many preachers have a different experience every Sunday. Their audience is listless, bored, preoccupied with other matters, and distracted. Delivering the sermon takes all the energy the preacher has, and he still seems to be getting nowhere. At first this inattention bothers a new preacher. After a while, however, he may come to accept it as normal. Many preachers just trudge along, chalking up the boredom to spiritual deadness in the church.
Effective delivery style for this generation can be called conversational. This does not mean chatty or of little importance. It rather has to do with the communication emphasis of conversation. Conversational style is dialogical. It is a two-way flow of communication as the preacher pays as close attention to his audience as he hopes they will to him.
Conversational style employs the melody of normal speech. Preachers often change their voices when they enter the pulpit, adopting a speech pattern that is louder, higher in pitch, tends toward a monotone, and generally sounds like a stereotypical preacher. In their classic sermon delivery textbook, Stevenson and Diehl devoted an entire chapter to this “ministerial tune” (Stevenson and Diehl, 1958, 49).
Conversational style, on the other hand, allows for variety in rate, pitch, volume, mood, and language. Just as in a stimulating conversation the preacher may whisper and shout, rush and pause, laugh and ponder, philosophize and confess, conversational preaching expresses this same variety. There is room for drama and description, pathos and persuasion, argument and anguish.
Conversational style is more personal. The preacher does not talk at the audience but with the audience. There is a level of warmth and intimacy which cannot be achieved in other styles of preaching. The sermon is designed to be hearer oriented. Conversational style is simply the preacher’s natural manner. This means that the preacher uses his normal way of talking in the pulpit, enlarging his expression as necessary for the public speaking situation.
Unfortunately, much of the impact of effective delivery is lost with the use of some visual aids. Using an overhead projector or a Powerpoint presentation with the sermon draws the attention of the audience to the screen and away from the preacher. The presentation is no longer basic oral communication, with its power to engage the audience. The primary channel of communication has become the written word.
The Force of Personality
In his classic and oft quoted definition of preaching, Philips Brooks wrote that preaching is “truth through personality.” He explained his meaning, “Truth through Personality is our description of real preaching. The truth must come really through the person, not merely over his lips, not merely into his understanding and out through his pen. It must come through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being. It must come genuinely through him. I think that, granting equal intelligence and study, here is the great difference which we feel between two preachers of the Word” (Brooks, 1898, 8).
Matthew Simpson, a contemporary of Brooks, wrote in a similar vein, “The word of God is the constant quantity, the preacher the variable. If this be true, then that preaching is best which, on the one hand, is most full of the divine message, and which, on the other, has the greatest personality of the preacher” (Simpson, 1879, 166-7).
Aristotle named three fundamental factors in persuasive public speech: logos, ethos and pathos. These are the logical content of the speech, the character of the speaker, and the passion associated with the subject. Concerning ethos, he said, “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.” He asserted that the speaker’s character “may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses (Aristotle, 1952,1:2:4,13).”
God has chosen to use human messengers to communicate His truth, with all the risks and frailties that involves. Clyde Fant wrote, “The incarnation, therefore, is the truest theological model for preaching because it was God’s ultimate act of communication. Jesus, who was the Christ, most perfectly said God to us because the eternal Word took on human flesh in a contemporary situation. Preaching cannot do otherwise” (Fant, 1975,29).
So the preacher must plan his preaching for a balance of truth and personality, the word of God in scripture and the reality of human agency in the present moment. He must be fully in touch with that word in its own historical context, understanding its message and trusting its authority. He must also be fully in touch with his own generation, understanding his audience in their need and himself in his own unique personhood.
That personality is expressed primarily through the facial expressions, voice and gestures of the preacher. Eye contact tells the hearer at once that he is the object of attention. Eyes indicate a person’s mood more reliably than any other facial features. Eye signals are unselfconscious, genuine and hard to fake. We can tell from the eyes alone whether a person is pleased, wary, wistful or bored (Marsh, 1988,72).
The preacher’s voice is one of the most important factors affecting his image in the minds of others. The way they “see” him is constructed by what they hear. As soon as he begins to speak, his spoken image becomes dominant and overrides his visual image. When he talks, he is either reinforcing or destroying the message he is sending by gestures, facial expressions, clothing, posture and other nonverbal channels (Milandro and Barker, 1985, 276).
Since nonverbal elements in speech are not easily isolated, the hearer does not really analyze why he feels the way he does about the speaker. He just gets an overall impression by all the signals he is receiving. It is the harmony of many factors that makes the message clear. Pearson and Nelson cite research indicating that most misunderstandings in oral communication can be traced to the non-verbal signals (Pearson and Nelson, 1994, 116).
The use of visual media in the sermon tends to minimize the personality of the preacher as a factor for persuasion in the sermon. The non-verbal signals that communicate attitudes and convictions are obscured. The incarnational element is largely lost. Instead of a life to life communication, the sermon tends to become a presentation of information and the preacher a servant of the media.
Audience Sensitivity
Every person comes to church with a lot on his mind. As we might expect, each one is fully preoccupied with his own personal concerns: family, work, future, health, marriage, children, bills, recreation and so on. These are the matters he has on his mind as he faces the preacher on Sunday.
The preacher, on the other hand, has his own agenda. His role as pastor brings with it a set of responsibilities and concerns that shape that agenda. He is concerned with the success of the church. He is interested in tithing, attendance, outreach, moral integrity, faithfulness, Sunday school, the building fund, missions and so on. No matter what text he chooses, his mind tends to gravitate back to these concerns as pastor. His agenda is to interest the people of the church in these matters so the church can prosper for the glory of God.
The conflict of interests is obvious. The man in the pew has a different set of concerns from the pastor. This puts the pastor and his preaching outside his circle of personal concerns. As he listens to the sermon he hears the same appeal for church faithfulness, witnessing, tithing, etc. It is easy to see why his mind wanders. He has enough to think about without taking on the preacher’s concerns as well. Preachers have been talking about those things for generations, but his rebellious teenaged son is a problem for right now.
Spurgeon admonished his students to sympathize with their audience: “Recollect that to some of our people it is not so easy to be attentive; many of them are not so interested in the matter …. Many of them have through the week been borne down by the press of business cares…. Do you always find it easy to escape from anxieties? Are you able to forget the sick wife and the ailing children at home?” (Spurgeon, 1955, 128).
One key for engaging the audience is to present sermon material that is relevant to their own concerns. When a believer is worrying about a lab report due next Tuesday, it is difficult for him to concentrate on subscribing the church budget. When a couple knows they are drifting apart and that their marriage is threatened, they cannot generate much interest in the building program. Teenagers facing the constant pressure to forsake their convictions in an immoral world have a hard time getting serious about high attendance day.
When the preacher’s sermons are largely institutional, promoting the work and programs of the church, he is missing his audience as to their personal concerns. When he preaches historical sermons about ancient religious people and how Christians should all be like them, he misses them. When he deals in exegetical trivia that is not necessary to the purpose of the sermon, he misses them.
Spurgeon said, “In order to get attention, the first golden rule is, always say something worth hearing” (Spurgeon, 1955,130). The question must then be asked whether the “something” of the sermon is worth hearing from the preacher’s viewpoint or from the viewpoint of the hearer. It is obvious that the preacher might be intensely interested in church matters, but many of his listeners are too burdened with personal problems to pay much attention.
Every preaching text has theological truths that are applicable to the life experience of the audience. Making those applications believable and faith-building is the challenge the preacher faces. The listlessness and apathy in many a congregation may well be due to the irrelevancy of the sermon material. Using audio-visual media in the sermon will not compensate for ideas that do not connect with the hearer. Low-tech preaching can have a high impact when the message addresses the needs of the audience.
Extemporaneous Method
In his classic book, The Art of Extempore Speaking, M. Bautain, eloquent professor at the Sorbonne, wrote two statements about extemporaneous speech that reveal its character (Bautain, 1915,2-3). “Extemporization consists of speaking on the first impulse; that is to say, without a preliminary arrangement of phrases. It is the instantaneous manifestation, the expression, of an actual thought, or the sudden explosion of a feeling or mental movement.” In the first place, then, extemporaneous speech is a spontaneous use of phraseology.
Bautain then wrote on the next page, “We will devote our attention only to prepared extempore speaking, that is to say, to those addresses which have to be delivered in public before a specified auditory, on a particular day, on a given subject, and with the view of achieving a certain result” (Bautain, 1915,4). The second factor defining extemporaneous speech is that it is well prepared.
In modern speech communication the term extempore does not mean “off the cuff” as the popular understanding of the word seems to suggest. An extemporaneous speech is one in which the speaker assembles his material, plans an order, and may even rehearse his delivery. But he allows the specific language of the presentation to develop as he speaks. Zimmerman is correct in his simple characterization of the extemporaneous method, “That is the key: careful preparation and practice, but spontaneous language development” (Zimmerman, 1979, 117).
The difference between extemporaneous preaching with notes and without notes is so significant that these may be said to be two different forms. Preaching with notes can be extemporaneous to a limited degree, but it also has much of the quality of manuscript preaching. The preacher is tied to his written material in either case. His eye contact with the audience will be broken repeatedly, much more often than he thinks. He will never quite get into the mode of a fully oral presentation, with all its advantages for effective communication.
In his book, Expository Preaching without Notes, Charles Koller wrote that “the preacher commits to memory a progression of thought rather than words, and is never tied to a particular phraseology” (Koller, 1962, 86). Preaching without notes is best not only for traditional deductive preaching, but for inductive forms as well. Ralph Lewis advocates extemporaneous delivery in his Inductive Preaching, especially preaching without notes, as best for connecting with the audience, a key aim of inductive sermon form (Lewis and Lewis, 1983, Ch. 11).
Referring to the habit of some preachers of following the words of their manuscript with the index finger while they read, Henry Ward Beecher wrote, “A man who speaks right before his audience, without notes, will speak, little by little, with the gestures of the whole body, and not with the gestures of one finger only” (Beecher, 1892, I, 71).
Preaching without notes allows the preacher to have only his Bible in hand as he faces the congregation. He does not even need a pulpit or speaker’s stand. He can be much more free and spontaneous in all his movements. This will help to capture and hold the attention of the audience. It will enhance his verbal message by the full use of nonverbal channels of communication.
An aspect of preparation that preachers often neglect is oral preparation. When a preacher thinks of sermon preparation, he usually means the writing of the sermon material. A sermon is an oral presentation. If the preacher does not expect to read his sermon, shouldn’t he give some preparation time to the oral delivery? After he has his content well prepared, he might take a walk and talk it out from memory. Maybe he would prefer just pacing about the study.
A preacher may think of “talking it out” as practicing his sermon. He will discover, however, that the sermon will change and grow as he speaks it. Certain terms will come to mind, certain phrases, new illustrations, better ways of saying what he wants to say. In this sense, he is not practicing a completed sermon, he is still completing it. His written preparation should never be the only experience he has with his sermon ideas before he preaches. When he goes to the pulpit he should have already expressed his ideas orally as part of his preparation.
The use of audio-visual media in the sermon immediately changes the dynamic of extemporaneous speech. The preacher will by necessity be tied to the media presentation and be limited in the freedom he has to speak out of the moment.
Appealing to Imagination
An elderly woman was reporting enthusiastically on a sermon she had heard the previous night from John 8. “I saw that woman,” she said. “I saw her hair. I saw those old men looking down their noses at her. And I saw Jesus. He was gentle and caring. He looked her in the eye and forgave her.” The sermon had been so vivid to her that she recounted it in narrative terms as though she had been there when Jesus wrote in the sand. The preacher had appealed to her imagination.
Today’s audience is said to be more visual in its learning style than previous generations. But there has been no generation since man was created for which imagination was not a key element in learning. Even though the prevalence of print media changed the way literate societies think, people still live their lives in the images of their particular world.
Ralph Lewis has advocated “inductive” preaching as an answer to the dull, academic and tedious traditional sermon (Lewis, 1983, Ch. 11). While making some very good points about the need for inductive elements in preaching, Lewis paints a negative caricature of traditional preaching. He criticizes sermon points as propositions not interesting to the audience. He calls for inductive material that will appeal to the imagination.
Two general characteristics distinguish between deductive and inductive elements in preaching. In the first place, this difference involves the direction of movement in the presentation of the material. Deductive thinking begins with general truths and moves to specific examples of those truths. Inductive thinking begins with specific experiences or examples and moves to general conclusions.
Beyond the direction of movement in a sermon, the kind of material employed will indicate whether it is more inductive or deductive. All sermon material could be classified as generals or particulars (Davis, 1958, Ch. 8). A general statement of truth like “Love your neighbor” is obviously different from a particular example of such a truth in action like the story of the Good Samaritan. Deductive material makes theological assertions while inductive material involves particular experiences.
As to the kind of material to use, Lewis calls for more concrete and specific development. Any sermon, whatever its direction of thought, will be dull and uninteresting if it does not use a good bit of down-to-earth life experience particulars. Lewis says inductive preaching like that of Jesus involves a lot of personal references, human need, parables, stories, narrative logic, common experiences, visual appeal, questions, dialog and so forth (Lewis, 1983, 152-153). There is no doubt that good preaching will utilize these “inductive” elements. But good preaching will also involve clearly stated biblical truths. The imagination, however, is only awakened by the particulars.
There is a circuit breaker in the mind of every hearer that trips when he is presented with too much abstraction. The preacher can see it in the faces of his audience when their interest flags. The eyes seem to glaze over and the face takes on a lifeless look. Sometimes they begin to fiddle with purses, look through a hymnal, or make “to do” lists on the back of offering envelopes. When the preacher notices these signals, he can immediately respond with something to regain attention, something concrete and vivid, something personal and relevant. He can appeal to imagination.
An important factor for appealing to imagination is the careful use of language. The words the preacher uses can be predictable on the one hand or have impact on the other. Hesselgrave describes the problem of predictability in preaching, “The sermon that is simply a series of generalizations capped off with a familiar illustration will not only be soon forgotten, it will probably not be ‘heard’ in the first place” (Hesselgrave, 1991, 75-76). This is the kind of preaching in which one can almost complete every sentence for the preacher. It is the “same old same old.” That kind of sermon cannot have impact on the audience. It does not appeal to imagination.
The key to imaginative impact is to frame the old story in new terms. The preacher can try to “see” and “hear” and “touch” and “smell” the biblical stories and the contemporary illustrations. He can avoid over use of generalities in favor of a good portion of particulars. He can use language that is concrete, specific, figurative, descriptive and sensate. He can keep everything he says down to earth with examples, applications and specific details. He can work for freshness, the kind of novelty and originality that make the sermon ideas sound new and interesting. Vividness results in high impact.
The use of visual media in sermons is often aimed at appealing to the imagination of the hearer. But a stronger appeal to imagination comes more with a vividly described scene than with a photograph or painting presented in all its particulars and leaving nothing to the imagination. Oral speech has a tremendous potential for creating a motion picture in the minds of the audience. But the preacher will have to work on the use of particular language over general if he is to turn on that video and awaken the imagination of his hearers.
Homiletical traditions will continue to be challenged as new media emerge and new ideas about communication are promoted. Before the preacher gives up on the sermon as simple oral communication, however, let him consider how to enhance his delivery, honor the incarnational nature of preaching, address the audience in their own experience, use an extemporaneous method of presentation and appeal to the imagination. Whatever he decides to do, his aim should always be the most effective communication of the revelation of God to his generation.
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