Don’t preach as would a writer; preach as a preacher! Preachers who fail to appreciate the vast difference between their oral craft and writing usually display very different understandings of their task—centered in the pulpit and congregation for one and in the desk and study for the other.
Written words may indeed enjoy a more lasting legacy, but they lie flat on a page, detached from voice or volume in one dimension, subject to a reader’s inferred emphasis and experience. Spoken words, on the other hand, fly to the listener in a matrix of pitch, pace, posture, timbre, gestures, energy, movement, inflection, emphasis, facial expression and eye contact. Each parameter widens and deepens the context by which the listener can comprehend the intended message.
The spoken word fires on so many more cylinders, communicates on so many more levels of meaning than does writing. If the pen is mightier than the sword, the voice is powerful in a different and more immediate way. They each have their role, to be sure; but preaching is intimate and immediate because it’s inherently oral and visual.
The words of the sermon comprise an enormously important instrument, but merely one among many. If our preaching centers only on the words, we fail to utilize the other power tools of human interaction God also has given us.
From Pentecost to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, God has used the passion and energy of preachers who focused on moving the audience to action. In other words, they preached as preachers, delivering the Word of God to a particular audience at a propitious moment with such power that their listeners responded by asking, “What shall we do?”
Preachers who preach as writers make three critical mistakes:
They focus more on wordcraft than on heart connection. Imagine Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. standing before the great statue of our 16th president and reading the words of his speech with no emotion, no lilt of his voice, no quaver in the phrase: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” What if he had contented himself just to read the words and not deliver them with his personality? What if, in fact, he had merely printed the manuscript and passed it out?
The words King wrote were certainly powerful by themselves, but when transmitted through him, they remain so strong that reading them 50 years later, we still hear his sonorous voice because he connected with more than words. He connected with our hearts.
They care more about their words than about those who hear them. Have you ever had a conversation in a busy room with someone who wouldn’t look you in the eye? His or her eyes kept darting around the room as if searching for someone else, someone more interesting to engage. How does it make you feel when he or she talks but won’t make eye contact? Don’t you feel unimportant, almost as if the person’s looking for someone better than you?
Surely a church congregation feels no different when the pastor reads the sermon from a pulpit cocoon, eyes darting between the thermostat on one wall and the stained glass window on the other. The words are undermined by a lack of passion and connection between speaker and hearer. I’m not saying one never should use a manuscript, but I freely admit it’s much harder to connect with an audience when preaching from one.
Preach to the head without entering through the heart. When Nathan confronted David, he did not march before him and bluntly confront his sin. He told David a story that made the king commit emotionally first. By the time Nathan revealed David’s sin, the king couldn’t go anywhere else. Had Nathan skipped that important step, ignoring the power of the emotional connection, the king’s reaction could have been very different. Nathan had to change David’s mind about his sin, but he knew reaching his heart was the key.
Planning the sermon does not stop with composing a clever outline or writing a well-crafted manuscript. What makes preaching unique is that the preacher shares a singular experience with the audience. Writers usually never see their audience; preachers are moved with theirs.