I was reading an article this weekend about the things that preachers do to kill their own sermons. I was originally going to write about that, but when I started typing, I couldn’t help but think back to my early life as a preacher, and some of the things I’ve encountered that led me to the philosophy of preaching that I hold to today. So, maybe I’ll get back to killing your own sermon later. (I’ve done it enough by this point to call myself an expert.) For now, I’m just going to talk some about the early days – particularly the idea that you shouldn’t work at improving your delivery.
There’s an interesting dichotomy in preaching, at least as it was presented to me when I was a young(er) preacher. First, I was taught the basics of homiletics – the art of crafting and presenting a sermon. Of course, we were taught the “standard” approach of an introduction, three points, and a conclusion (which, of course, is also how I was taught to write essays in high school). At the beginning, my homiletics education was little more than an exercise in seeing if I could make my points, subpoints, and sub-sub points (yeah, sometimes) start with the same letter, the same sound, or possibly turn the first letters of each into an acrostic. As time passed, I was taught much more about sermon construction and delivery.
On the other side of the isle, I was also instructed on multiple occasions that “the word of God will not return void”. That’s an idea from Isaiah 55:
Isaiah 55:11 – It is the same with my word. I send it out, and it always produces fruit. It will accomplish all I want it to, and it will prosper everywhere I send it. (NLT)
The interpretation that I often hear from this is that God’s word won’t return void (or empty). It always produces fruit. The implication was that you shouldn’t rely too much on your own speaking abilities – God’s in control, and his word will always have some sort of result, though perhaps not exactly what the speaker expects. That’s certainly true, but with some of my fellow students (and not a few teachers), this seemed to mean something more – that all focus should be on the message, and that spending time worrying about the presentation was somehow inappropriate, and perhaps even sinful.
So, even while I was taking classes about how to engage and capture your audience’s attention, I was being told by other preachers (and plenty of students) that presentation was at best, unimportant, and at worst, something actively un-Godly.
Of course, one of the main reasons I’d run from God’s call for so long was that I’d been listening to what I considered to be boring, pointless, irrelevant sermons, week after week, for years. (That comment, I suspect, will get me in trouble.) When I began to realize that sermons could be interesting, timely, and completely applicable to people’s lives, I jumped all over that.
I began reading books and listening to seminars and lessons dealing with the “how-to’s” of presentation from speakers outside my local area (and my comfort zones, at the time), and I loved it. I devoured everything concerning the topic that I could get my hands on, and practicing my newfound techniques when I was granted the opportunites to.
I thought all this was great, and it was surprising to me how often my friends showed no interest – or even outright rejected any offer of sharing my books or tapes (Yeah, tapes. It was 1998, sue me). In fact, when I admitted to several people that I’d rehearsed my sermons for homiletics class beforehand, you’d think I’d announced that I spent my weekends kicking puppies.
There’s a reason, I think, for this idea.
1. It’s evil! First, for a lot of the guys I studied with and trained under, “presentation” is equivalent to “entertainment” – a collection of tricks designed to attract people and make them happy and fulfilled without having to offend them with God’s word.
The dreaded e-word. Entertainment. This was a big deal back then, and I still hear a lot of wailing and tooth-gnashing about this when I take time to visit some of the more fundamental places where I grew up. To them, these new megachurches and mega-pastors were all about entertaining people, and not actually teaching them anything about Scripture (and, in some cases, I don’t doubt they were correct). To me, however, I turned to the dictionary definition of entertainment – keeping someone’s attention for a period of time. I can’t imagine any pastor who would think that was a bad thing.
To some of these men, though, so much as telling a joke from the pulpit was a serious offense. The Bible says that the Word of God will “offend”, I often heard, and doing anything to cut down on that offense is tantamount to diluting the Word itself. And hey, I’ve seen plenty of presentation elements that had no point whatsoever. I remember one particular event where a pastor showed a clip from one of the terrible Hulk movies. This particular one featured an exploding frog. He had no reason for it, no point to take from it. He just thought it was funny, and that the teens he was speaking to would enjoy it. (That’ll be another post one day – why do so many “senior pastors” completely underestimate teenagers?)
His clip got a reaction, I’ll grant him that – but with no attempt to draw a lesson point from it, it just served to be a disgusting distraction from his actual message.
While I agree that the message of the Gospel can be offensive in a world where people hate to admit they can’t do anything on their own, I disagree that taking steps to make your delivery more interesting (and yeah, entertaining) is a bad thing.
2. It’s easier not to try. Some folks just aren’t natural entertainers. Let’s be honest, we all know some guy who can’t seem to tell a joke to save his life. To me, standing up in front of a bunch of Christians and talking about what the Bible says about any given topic isn’t terribly worrying anymore. However, if you throw in the idea of telling a personal story, it gets much worse – what if people don’t like it? What if I admit to something that will get me in trouble? Add in telling a joke or two, and the whole thing comes crashing down – the idea of trying to be funny while nobody laughs is like a bad nightmare for a lot of speakers.
3. It’s…and this is the big one… it’s a whole lot less pressure. If you worry about things like sermon presentation, then you’re accepting a level of responsibility for whether or not people listen. If the message falls flat, then you have to consider exactly what you might have done to cause that. However, if you take the position that delivery doesn’t matter, then there’s no pressure. You stand up, say what you think you need to say, and if nobody listens? If people spend their time checking their phones and making paper airplanes? That’s on God, not you. He’s the one who said his word wouldn’t return void, after all. All you have to do is throw it out there.
I’d think it’s obvious how foolish that attitude is, but I still hear it, again and again. I know men who’ve built careers on this approach to preaching. Granted, they haven’t been building any churches, but they’ve got a paycheck and a parsonage, and that weird self-assurance that they’re right, despite any amount of evidence to the contrary that seems to be the hallmark of a certain type of pastor.
If there’s one thing I have to say, it’s that delivery is important. How you say it is often just as important as what you say, especially in today’s world. People aren’t becoming more resistant to God’s word, they’re just becoming more resistant to our old-fashioned approaches to presenting it – and if we, as pastors, abandon our attempts to innovate, practice, and refine our delivery and presentation, then we’re basically abandoning our own members to a life of stagnant, immature pew-sitting, and we’re basically telling the rest of the world to go to hell.
When I was in seminary, I was asked why on earth I’d practice my sermons beforehand. The answer is the same today. Why should we continue to work on delivery and presentation? Our job is too important to NOT work on it.