Imagine two pastors who are both fantastic preachers but seem to do nothing exactly the same in communication of Scripture. One is dynamic and charismatic; the other one is much more reserved. One paints amazing word pictures that cause Scripture to come alive in your mind; the other uses nothing that would exactly classify as illustration formally. One moves around and gestures almost completely free of any notes; the other uses a manuscript and is almost completely tied to the podium. And then there may be yet a third great expositor that is himself nothing like the other two in his preaching.
How is this explainable? I believe the answer lies in the nature of homiletics itself. I say in the classroom often that preaching is an art more than a science. And, if this is true of sermon construction, it is certainly true of sermon delivery. You hear some people preach, and they are fantastic, yet you just cannot simply put your finger on why or how.
So, when I teach sermon delivery, I usually give a whole lot more of “never’s” than “always’s!” I counsel young expositors that the goal essentially is to be you but to locate and eliminate any bad habits that you have. Essentially, you must learn to be the best “you” you can be yet all the while making sure that version of you doesn’t distract your audience. In this post, I offer three tips that have helped me learn to be the best “me” that I can be through the years.
First, Start with What You Believe Not Who You Want to Sound Like.
Essentially I am saying find out who you are. This includes both discovering what you believe and are convicted about concerning the Word of God and your delivery of the Word of God, and not having as your ultimate goal “sounding like . . . “ or being “the next . . . .” You have to know who you are before you can be you.
When I first went to seminary, Dr. Adrian Rogers had not gone onto glory and was still preaching at Bellevue Baptist Church. He was the quintessential Southern Baptist statesman . . . And he was good! In Arkansas where I grew up, every young preacher boy regularly heard Dr. Rogers’s sermons on the radio and wanted to be like him in the pulpit. I went to seminary to learn to sound like that. If could have gotten a candid answer from me as to why I was taking my introductory preaching course, I would have said, “Let’s by-bass all the other stuff and just tell me what I need to do to sound like that!”
I discovered that there are a few problems to this perspective and approach. First, I am not Adrian Rogers, never will be, and cannot sound like him. Perhaps that is the bad news. But, the good news is I don’t have to be nor is God asking me to be. Finally, taking this approach usually leads to one of two outcomes regarding your theology of preaching. You either back into your theology from your praxis. Or you never develop a cogent and intentional belief about your commitments to preaching and exposition at all. You may simply spend your ministry following the newest fads in homiletics or what seems to be working today. Neither leads to a healthy preaching methodology. I do not have the space here to explain why, so you will just have to trust me.
But, I will exhort you not to back into your theology; begin there. All of these mentioned above will be paramount for being the best you you can be instead of a cheap imitation of your favorite preacher or he who is currently most popular among the masses.
Second, Watch Yourself Often especially Early in Your Preaching Ministry.
What I am referring to here is making a practice and regular habit of recording and then reviewing your sermons on a regular basis. I would encourage you to do this even if it is painful. And, at first it will be. But, the good that you and your people will profit from this practice will far outweigh any level of personal discomfort you may endure. Yes, it is painful; but it is also necessary.
This practice is necessary for at least two reasons. First, this is the primary place you will discover the distracting habits you need to eliminate. Others can offer a gracious critique, but there is something about seeing or, better yet, experiencing what your audience is seeing for yourself. This will have more of an internal and lasting impact. In other words, you are less likely to forget or neglect correcting what you have witnessed, which leads me to the second point.
Watching yourself will also be the primary place and means of eliminating these distracting habits. Most will be easy fixes. And, once you become aware of them, you will be pleasantly surprised as to how natural it will be for you to avoid them in the future simply because you are now aware and have internalized the need to correct. Therefore, my encouragement would be to plan to watch yourself at least once a month when you are first starting and beginning to preach on a weekly basis.
Finally, Don’t be an Actor but be a Practicer . . . Outside of the Pulpit.
I love golf. I’m not good at golf. What’s more, golf is not a game you can play once every six months and improve in. My father-in-law used to say, “Golf is a muscle-memory game. To play well you have to play enough where your muscles remember how to play.” I absolutely agree with this sentiment.
So, to play well you have to practice . . . a lot! There are drills you can and should do. There are swing thoughts that you should implement. But, on the range; never on the course. If you try to practice and implement swing thoughts on the golf course while trying to enjoy golf, you will not play well. The golf course is not the place to analyze, correct, or practice. The golf course is the place and time to play the game.
What does this have to do with preaching? Similarly, in preaching you need to practice, think through, and correct some distractions . . . but not in the pulpit or in the preaching moment. In the pulpit, with freedom and naturalness, we must preach. However, outside of the pulpit on a regular basis is the time and place to practice. Let’s be clear, I am not advocating for pastors to be actors. Do not “stage” your sermon like a performance.
But, practicing certain aspects of delivery, including nonverbals, breathing, movements, vocal variety for emphasis, can help these become second nature in the moment of delivery. A great way to practice this outside the pulpit is to incorporate some of these elements into your normal routine of Scripture memory and recitation. Perhaps even planning a precise and perfectly timed gesture for you sermon is even warranted.
What we are really taking about in this post is eloquence. A lot of preachers may balk at this concept and for good reason. It certainly can carry a negative and even artificial connotation. There are times in my ministry when I may have been one who dismissed or even rejected the position that preachers should strive for excellence and eloquence in the pulpit.
However, I believe it was Vines and Shaddix in Power in the Pulpit who wrote, “All preachers have a style, whether good or bad.” If this is true then we should all strive to have the best version of “my style” as possible. You can prepare the greatest sermon in the world, but if no one hears it then it does not matter. If we understand eloquence to mean honing our style, we should be all in! I hope this helps you to become more “hearable” as you “Preach the Word!”