My wife, Martha, and I often wondered what kind of preacher our friend was. So when we received an invitation to visit him one weekend, we eagerly said “Yes.” It turned out, however, to be an embarrassing experience.
Our friend stumbled badly. Here and there we caught glimmers of thought, but they got covered by countless “ahs” as he searched for his next thought. In place of sharp insights, he offered commonplace generalizations and uncertainty. When he finally sat down we felt relief.
Many ministers devote themselves to hours of hard study, thought and prayer in sermon preparation. But if they lose what they have attained from their effort — through poor delivery and faulty mechanics — what a loss! The pulpit, by far, is the largest continuing contact point between pastors and their flocks. It is not the place for a shabby witness.
Effective preaching, I’ve happily discovered, is within the reach of nearly everyone. In fact, many of the problems attendant in poor delivery, can be corrected through the simple discipline of rehearsal. Rehearsal, the literal practice-preaching of a sermon, can be as much a part of the pastor’s preparation as study, thought and prayer.
Why rehearse?
Rehearsing enables a preacher to hear if the sermon “hangs together.” Does it move forward sensibly and come to a logical conclusion?
The eye and mind can convince a speaker that what is written down (manuscript, outline, notes) will be easily communicated to the listener. But when the voice is added and the focus shifts from the written word to attentive faces, that clear line of thought may evaporate as the morning mist.
Hearing your own voice “make sense” is also a great confidence builder. The more confident you become, the more easily you speak. The more easily you speak, the less effort the congregation employs in “pulling you through” the sermon, and the more available thought they can give to the content of your message.
Rehearsing exposes grammatical errors. Verb tenses have a way of changing in mid-paragraph and pronouns from one person to another in mid-sentence. Up to this point in your preparation, you may have been looking for these errors. Now they will be coming to you through your hearing.
Practicing your sermon aloud to an imaginary congregation will make you less dependent on your written preparation. As a consequence you will be able to give your listeners increasing eye contact. Though my aunt’s minister regularly produced carefully-crafted sermons, she was angry with him because he always read them. “I wish he would just talk to us once,” she groused. “I get tired of looking at the top of his head.”
After rehearsing your sermon four to six times, you will appear to be speaking more spontaneously. The less your eyes and mind are dependent on your manuscript, the more free you become to engage the congregation. Your freedom in delivery will enable the worshippers to focus on what you ae saying, not on how you say it.
What to rehearse?
Obviously the entire sermon needs to be rehearsed, but particular sections call for closer attention. For example, take the opening sentence and paragraph. If you mumble and stumble here, you may lose the worshipper for the entire sermon.
Famous persons or great national leaders may get away with wool-gathering in front of an audience, but for the many of us who do not have novelty or prestige aiding us, we need to introduce our thinking with carefully-selected words. The first sentence can’t be too lean. M. Scott Peck started a book with the sentence, “Life is difficult.” That hooked me into the next sentence and the next sentence and finally the entire book.
I wrote a sermon beginning with the sentence, “Man has always had difficulty understanding himself.” In rehearsal that sentence came across flat. It was more suited for a term paper. After several other attempts, the first sentence became “Man puzzles himself.” It zipped to the heart of the problem in three words.
In a sermon on love as experienced in childhood, I began with, “When I was a boy, love was my father buying me a baseball mitt.” To start a sermon portraying a truth I came across by the slimmest of chances, I said, “It may be hard to believe, but I found a needle in a haystack.”
Also requiring attention are transitional sentences. If you don’t move logically and smoothly from one point to another, don’t expect your congregation to do it for you. When you present clear transitions, you enable the congregation to see the framework upon which you have built your thinking. If you halt after each point and need to look for your place, you have some bridge work to do.
The last lines of anecdotes need the same careful attention as do punch lines for jokes. Even if the line is delivered only slightly askew, it can render the story pointless.
Finally, the closing paragraph and sentence need to be rehearsed with great care. I have practiced closing paragraphs and sentences ten or more times to make certain they said what I wanted them to say. Remember, you’re streaking to the point. Blubbery words and sentences leave a sermon unresolved and the listener frustrated.
How to rehearse
To improve your delivery, practice your sermon using one (more if you wish) of the following: tape recorder, video camera, or mirror. Once you witness your weak and strong points, you will be motivated to correct the one and enhance the other.
When you rehearse your sermon, select a place where you’ll not be interrupted. Imagine the congregation in front of you and preach to them. The way my study is arranged I preach to my word processor and a shelf full of Bibles. Without their permission I turn them into people in the pews and earnestly address them with my sermon. (Up to this point they have made no attempt to escape.)
I time the last several rehearsals. If at all possible rehearse the sermon from the pulpit where it is to be given. This allows you to “fit” the sermon to the place of delivery.
I like arriving at the church an hour-and-a-half ahead of the first event. I can usually preach my sermon twice before any early attenders appear. However, occasionally someone enters the sanctuary ahead of time and is greeted with my thunder. I don’t know which of us is more surprised.
One of my clergy friends, after listening to me expound on the benefits of rehearsing sermons, asked, “Where does the Holy Spirit come into your preparation?” My answer only mildly surprised him.
I revealed that it was the Holy Spirit who led me to this discipline. Up to that time I was “winging” sermons and, as a consequence, was repeating myself and failing to establish a central point. The Holy Spirit made it clear that I could do better.
On a recent TV show, a producer of commercials described all the effort that goes into a 30-second “spot.” The cost, the attention to detail and the thoroughness are staggering. So are the number of “takes.”
This producer keeps shooting “takes” until he reaches as flawless a production as possible. He goes far past six times, which I have suggested for sermon rehearsals. He has a product to sell and frequently millions of dollars are riding on the outcome. Technique, hopefully, will never replace content, but it can make the content more easily understood.
So you and I rehearse, rehearse, rehearse — for we have far more than millions of dollars riding on the outcome.

Share This On: