Axiom #1: “The speech before the speech” is step one in audience bonding.

The narrative exposition more than any other expository form relies on bonding with the audience. This may be one of the very few preaching texts you will read that will talk about this strategic first step in pulpit communication. Bonding with an audience is both verbal and nonverbal. The nonverbal elements of bonding have to do with deportment, propriety, and an open demeanor. During those first critical moments when the audience to be addressed first catches sight of a speaker, the would?be listeners are making up their minds as to whether or not they will be listening.10At this point they have their thumb on the channel surfers of their intent. Will they change channels once the speaker has begun or will they change channels even before the speaker begins?

This latter issue is totally nonverbal. Each of the persons to be addressed is sizing the preacher up with a series of questions:

  • Does the speaker look listenable?
  • Is the speaker sincere, amiable, and my kind of person?
  • Is the speaker dressed in a pleasing and non-ostentatious style?
  • Is the speaker tattooed, dreadlocked, gushy, friendly, aloof, etc.?

First impressions pave or bar the way to being heard. My ministry is largely itinerant these days, and so Sunday by Sunday I go from denomination to denomination and church to church. In a day of megachurch neuroses, I call the pastor to see how he dresses. Some megachurches are casual, but fiercely so. If you show up in a tie where the congregational detente is shorts and sandals, you will be suspected of being elitist and out of touch with the grass roots, who want to see the keynoter dressed for a disheveled and dowdy look. It may seem a small issue in light of eternity, but it will be a huge issue with those who believe the Holy Spirit only falls on the devoted disciples in Tommy Bahama dress.

The opposite is also true: If the congregation is a “suit?and?tie” gathering, they will believe that the Spirit is looking for a good starched collar and a set of white gloves. To fail to pay attention to this is to violate the nonverbal code of acceptance and will make bonding more tenuous.

The most important issue of bonding has to do with the first words out of the preacher’s mouth. These should not be the first words of the sermon’s introduction. They proceed the sermon’s first formal thoughts. These words are the warm approaches to the first words of the sermon. These words don’t comment on the text. They don’t flog the audience toward rapt attention for all that the preacher intends to say. They are the “Hi there” words that notice the world around them and reach to the crowd with enough humanity so that the divinity being stirred up may become instantly palatable.

These words reference the little things of life: the weather, the Super Bowl, the choir which has just sung, the town in which the church is situated, the tragedy that has filled the newspaper for the week, the kindness the audience has extended, your admiration for the leadership of the constituency, or the warm opinion you have of the group who has come to listen to you.

The speech before the speech is not something you write down to say, anymore than you would write down your remarks for a reception line. You are there to acknowledge your openness and your joy in the circumstances of your togetherness. It is simple stuff, but essential. Without it, you will arrive too hurriedly at your private agenda. Without it, you say to your audience, “As I see it, what I am about to say, is more important than our friendship.” When done with sincerity, this axiom creates the bait for the important propositions with which you hope to snare their interest.

Axiom #2: Don’t ask for people’s attention, command it.

The violation of this axiom is often born in our insecurity. Every preacher I have ever known suffers from a common facet of low self?esteem: people are soon to quit listening to me. I planted a church which in time grew to a couple of thousand listeners. When the church was small, I suffered from the notion that I would arrive to preach on Sunday and not a soul would be there. It never happened. Yet I believed it would. Even as the church became a large congregation, I would wake on Sunday morning wondering, Will anybody come today? Of course, they did.

All speakers suffer from the notion that even when listeners are present, are they really present? When they look like they’re listening, are they? And when they don’t look like they’re listening, watch out, they probably aren’t. One of the hedges against these fears is to say things like “Listen up!” or “Will you give me your attention?”

There are, of course, parts of a sermon that may need a special emphasis on attention. If you are working through the Levitical priesthood – an understanding of which is essential to your working through the book of Hebrews – you may want to ask them to carefully attend your words of explanation, because if they miss out on this part of the sermon, what is to follow later will be unintelligible to them.

But there is a difference between this kind of call to attention and the kind which continually – even habitually – asks people to listen. The continual saying of “Listen up!” grows from the preacher’s insecurity that they may not be listening, perhaps because the sermon is poorly prepared and contains so little worth hearing, they have to keep insisting that people listen as though they actually did.

The best remedy for asking for attention is to have something so vital to say and to say it so well that people listen because they are fascinated and need not be called to attention. Such preaching is glorious. When the ear grows attached to the preacher’s brain and larynx, there is no need to ask for attention. Any call for it is like bringing coals to Newcastle: the very call for it has been rendered pointless by the preacher’s passionate and content?filled style.

Axiom #3: Move deliberately, don’t meander.

The difference between a pond and a stream is mobility. Streams are ever more fascinating than ponds, and nearly everyone I know prefers white water to stagnant pools. This principle holds in the pulpit as well. Preachers who move are more interesting than those who don’t. I realize that such a preacher’s principle of pedagogy is widely debated. More formal and liturgical congregations may want their preachers to stay “behind the pulpit,” and in older church buildings, which have wineglass pulpits, they actually prefer the preacher to climb in and out of “the barrel” for all godly pronouncements.

The first time I ever heard Norman Peale preach (and indeed, every time I heard Peale preach) he left the divided lectern and lit out for the center of a chancel and stood there, unseparated from his audience by the pulpit barrier of eighty pounds of wood. Only oxygen came between us as he preached to us. I was a young pastor the first time I heard him, and I made a decision that if he could get by with that at Marble Collegiate Church, I could also get by with it in the church I was attempting to plant in Nebraska.

The best thing to be said of a pulpit is that (in spite of the fact it hides the speaker) it does locate the preacher to one place. Some preachers need that. Without the pulpit they become meandering messengers who pace back and forth like a caged lion while they shout out the words of their sermons. Pacing is bad, and it betrays the preacher’s nerves, setting all insecurities right out in the open for all to see. But pulpits do not necessarily prevent the preacher from becoming a roaming reverend. In fact, many preachers have developed a peripatetic pedagogy just trying to abandon the pulpit. The trustees will not allow these preachers to take the pulpit out of the sanctuary, so they are forced to spend their years walking around it in an attempt to get away from having it come between them and their audiences.

This axiom champions the notion, that while movement is commanding, pacing is not. So move deliberately. Take a few paces at planned intervals, moving deliberately. Plant yourself in that position for a few minutes of your sermon before you move easily to the next point from which you deliver more of the message.

Above all, remember this: a chancel is to church what a stage is to the theater. In the theater movements from upstage center to downstage center is the most powerful kind of movements in terms of making the playwright’s words come alive. The same is true in the chancel. Walking toward an audience when you are making a point has far more effect than walking away from them toward the rear of the chancel. In either the theater or the church, the weakest kind of communication movement comes in moving from one side of the stage to the other.

But either actors or preachers should not wander about the stage. Actors work at “blocking” or planning their movements. They realize their position on the stage is part of their interpretation of the role they play. I have never seen either King Lear or Hamlet do their soliloquies from anywhere other than center stage. There is a reason for that. The best of preachers know what the reason is and behave accordingly during the delivery of their sermons. Always move deliberately on the stage or platform.

Axiom #4: Identify as much as you can with your audience in dress and politic.

We have already spoken of the importance of audience identity. But the issue of “like” is powerful. People want the preacher to believe what they believe in just about everything. They like their heroes – cultural or subcultural – to behave, dress and think as they do.

I remember when George W. Bush went to the World Series to throw in the first pitch of the World Series, shortly after 9/11. I was so impressed with the fact that he wore a brown bomber jacket and a pair of brown slacks, I caught myself wearing a similar jacket and pair of slacks the next day. I never realized I was doing it until my wife remarked that I looked “presidential” that day. I suddenly realized that most people are anxious to imitate or at least to celebrate people they admire. I had never really isolated the feeling before. But Bush had earned my copycat esteem. I could see that in his world where any one of a hundred thousand people might have taken a potshot at him, it really was an openly courageous thing he did especially at that intense time of national paranoia.

To a much lesser degree, most people either like their pastor or they have a strong yen to admire him or her. One shouldn’t make a god of this adoration lest we leave off speaking the word of God in favor of what would make us popular. But to care about this as much as we might brings a camaraderie into communication, which would not be there were we to act in ways that might intentionally “jangle” them.

This is so important to me that I call every church where I am to preach on any given Sunday. I call to see what the detente is in terms of style, worship, and politics. In evangelical churches, Democrats are increasingly in short supply. If the preacher is honestly a Democrat, he or she does not have to become a pseudo?Republican just to “butter up the audience,” but it would be wise not to antagonize them for unimportant reasons. In a nation as deeply divided as ours is, it is just smart to avoid saying anything deeply partisan, with passion. As the cliche runs, pick carefully the “hill you want to die on.”

Axiom #5: Light the pulpit: people won’t hear what they can’t see.

Obviously, this concern about good lighting is not a “hill to die on” for itinerants like me. I simply accept having to preach in dark old, poorly? illumined sanctuaries, many of which were built before electrification had become sophisticated. But for local pastors, it may be that they will want to explore what might be done to get light on the pulpit.

I have twice preached in a dimly lit church where the people were looking back at me with that “squinty eyed” stare that one sees in theaters as the lights are being dimmed. The worst thing about such poorly lit sermons is that people need to be able see the passion, the body language, and the drama of what they attend. Great words spoken in darkness quickly become invisible as well as inaudible.

Axiom #6: Never let the audio system work against your delivery.

I was on a program with Robert Schuller once. He never knew it. He was, after all, one of the most prominent preachers in America. I was, after all, not prominent anywhere. One of the greatest differences between our sermons – other than the size of the honoraria we each received – was the microphones we were given. He was, of course, given a great state?of?the?art lapel microphone, while I was given one that looked like a 1945 Army surplus walkie?talkie. His was a “positive thinkers, be?happy?attitude” FM tuner. Mine was a whistling feed?backer that shrieked into splitting eardrums, virtually defying the Holy Spirit to get involved in what I was saying.

But I did learn something that baleful night. If you must follow a national celebrity, ask the sound technicians to give you the big man’s mike as soon as he is through with it. This has been my policy ever since. Most technicians will know you are not the big deal and will struggle with your insistence on the matter. What works here – other than a full nelson and a body slam – is being tough. If you are not, you will find yourself wearing the ’45 walkie?talkie and thereby serve to make the pundit look wiser than you are by feed?backing your squawky rhetoric into the ears of people who will agree with the sound crew that you are clearly not of any great importance or you would have gotten better equipment.

Tell the sound crew to keep your sound level midrange and not to play with the knobs while you are preaching. It is better to be bit loud or a tad soft than to be up and down throughout the sermon. Some of them will smile piteously at any suggestion that you make since all sound crews are Calvinist, even in Arminian churches, and feel they are predestined to do what they want. But try anyway because there have been a few isolated cases of sound crews actually behaving in a Christian manner. When they do, it is a wonderful gift to those who listen and those who preach.

The only other observation is to watch out for floor cords. They can trip you up literally. If you have the good fortune to preach after the Olivet Octet, there will usually be a full eight mikes and cords for you to negotiate as you try to remember what you want to say, keeping your eye contact with the audience while you study the zigzagging wires that coil like anorexic anacondas about your feet. One false move and you could stumble into a seven?ton amplifier and electrocute yourself.

Axiom #7: Work to eliminate all affections of manner and voice in delivery.

Of all the axioms this one is the very hardest to eliminate for it requires dividing your brain into two parts, one of which is delivering your sermon and the other of which is monitoring the delivery. Almost every preacher (at the beginning of ministry) has some affectation in delivery that prevents the sermon from arriving in a crisp, intelligent, and forceful manner. The affectation may be as simple as a vocalized pause or a nervous pacing during the delivery that keeps the sermon from being understood, or at least bars the preacher from ease of comprehension.

I’ve seen student preachers (in years of homiletics classes) run their hands distractedly into their pockets twenty times during a ten?minute sermon. There is a Presbyterian pastor?author whose writing I admire much more than his preaching. His preaching comes punctuated by a nervous clearing of his throat. He is a kind of tubercular Demosthenes. His written oration is potentially as pretty as his manuscripts are riveting. Alas, his affectation is so bad that most of us at first want to lend him an inhaler and at last want to hear someone else speak. There is no physical reason for his affectation, and yet one of this intensity is very hard to clear up.

As a young man I was affected by what Edwin Newman (in Strictly Speaking) calls the “y’know” sydrome. During a twenty?minute sermon I would say “you know” at least fifty times. I finally managed to subdue the bad habit, but it required the utmost in discipline until I achieved it.

All affectation requires the dividing of the brain into two specific lobes, one of which runs the sermon through the larynx and the other which sits like a school master pointing out when the affectation is inserting itself into your speech. Naturally, it is maddening work, but it must be performed over and over again until the horrible little interrupting demons have all been exorcised.

In my case it required a year of effort to get the “you know” grit out of my speech. I have worked with students on the “uhs” and “ers” of vocalized pauses. I usually count them during a presentation so they will know how pervasive these little interrupters are. I can’t keep them from continuing down the trail of affected sermonizing, but I can point out to them that it is their responsibility to take care of their problem or else spend all their preaching careers locked up in poor communication.

Correcting the problem is complicated by passion. If we really want to say what possesses our souls, it is difficult to care about what may at first appear to be trivial. This kind of problem is like a stutterer making a 9?1?1 call. The passionate need of the moment seems more important than being understood. But it is not. To cry, “Eric J?J?J?Jones, h?h?here! I live at f?f?f? fifty three f?f?f?forty, th?th?th?Thunderbird Drive and my h?h?h?house is on f? f?f?fire!” leaves the question of passion versus affectation a begging issue.

In preaching, clear speech and an unaffected delivery is essential to strong persuasion of riveting interest.


From Preaching: The Art of Narrative Exposition by Calvin Miller. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Copyright © 2006. Used by permission.


Calvin A. Miller is Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, AL. He is a Senior Consulting Editor of Preaching.

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