My son, John, has expressed an interest in becoming a pastor and the other day, after he heard me preach, he asked, “Dad, do you get nervous and scared when you have to preach?” It was an interesting question. I thought for a moment and said, “No, John, honestly, I don’t get nervous or scared anymore. Instead I am filled with happy excitement. But it wasn’t always that way.”
At one time, I was absolutely terrified at the thought of public speaking. Like many people, I was scared out of my mind at the thought of speaking in front of groups of people. Routinely, studies indicate people are as afraid to get up in front of other people and speak as are afraid of death, even more so in many cases. Count me in that group. I saved my required public speaking class in college for my last quarter, of my last year. During that class I received a revelation that has stuck with me since then: if you are not feeling that “butterflies in the stomach” feeling, you aren’t going to do well. Our professor said, “You better always feel that little tickle and twinge in your stomach, if you don’t, that’s when you should be afraid.” Let me explain. That “fluttery” feeling that many people think are “nerves” is actually the feeling of adrenalin pumping into your bloodstream, and if you don’t feel that, you are not going to be “up” to preach. What I do fear now when I have to preach, or speak publicly, is not feeling that excited “let’s go!” feeling. It’s the same feeling I always had when I got up to bat. Let’s go! Let’s do this! That’s an ok feeling to have.
I think a lot of pastors remain “nervous” and “uptight” because their focus is too much on themselves, and not enough on what they are preaching about. When your focus is so much on “doing it right” rather than what you are doing, you will always come off as stiff, formal, aloof and insincere, and, forgive me, but you are just going to be boring. When a pastor is working hard to make sure he has “covered the bases” in a sermon, and hit all the right notes, the sermon feels rote and formulaic. If you have to think too much about playing the piano, you won’t play it well. Similarly for preaching.
Here are some things for aspiring preachers to keep in mind:
(1) Be yourself. Learn from other preachers, but be yourself. Develop your own voice. Nothing is more grating than hearing a young pastor preaching who sounds just like his favorite seminary professor. And, to be honest, what works for your favorite seminary professor, in all likelihood, isn’t going to work for you. Just because your favorite professor used nouns as verbs, and verbs as nouns, and spoke in incomplete phrases and sentences, doesn’t mean you should.
(2) Be prepared. I do not mean you have to feel that unless you have spent thirty hours each week in excruciating study of every possible meaning and nuance of the verb forms in the text, you have no business in the pulpit. No, you’ll learn that good sermons are not seminary exegetical lectures or “musings on every possible meaning of the text.” But, on the other hand, if you have not given good quality “think time” to your sermon, it will show. You will end up saying the same thing, the same way, Sunday after Sunday. You’ll get bored with your sermons. And if you are bored, the congregation will be too. Some pastors try to excuse their boring sermons by claiming that people are just bored with the Word of God. That’s far too facile an explanation.
(3) Be passionate. No, you should not imitate the Pentecostal tongue-speaker down the road at Family Friendly Church of Happy People, but, if you think the “gold standard” for preaching is the guy you saw at seminary standing in the pulpit reading his sermon in a dry, monotone, well, good luck with that. Sometimes, after I have heard a sermon, I want to shake the preacher and say, “For the love of God, man, why are you talking about the most important things in the world, the most serious of matters, matters of life and matters of death, and the greatest and most glorious good news that there ever in a way that reminds me of a person reading stereo instructions 1?” Everyone has their own style, to be sure. Some people are naturally more dynamic and effusive than others, but if you can’t must a bit of passion when you preach, then, that’s a problem to be overcome.
(4) Be clear. Simple is good. If you can’t communicate your message without relying on a lot of jargon, terms and complicated outlines, you aren’t getting the job done. You are not preaching to impress the most learned in your parish. You are preaching to be understood. If you do not have a clear outline for what you are saying, you will ramble and people won’t be able to follow you. Have a point. Make it. And then stop. Start slow, rise higher, strike fire, retire.
(5) Be real. Don’t assume a “pulpit voice” or “stained glass voice.” I understand back in the days when there was no possible way to amplify a voice, other than to raise it, how and why our pastors developed a booming pulpit voice. And let me say this: If the little old lady in the back row with a hearing problem, can’t hear you clearly, then for her sake and others, speak up! Don’t stand there and mumble and speak softly. But on the other hand, if you sound entirely different in the pulpit than when you speak in real life, you will come off like a fake. If you don’t naturally pronounce the Almighty’s name as “Gawwwd” in real life, then don’t do so in the pulpit. Get the picture?
(6) Be practical. Your hearers deserve messages that are down to earth and practical, not esoteric exercises in lofty rhetoric and literary devices. This is not to say you have to be a slob with the language to do a good job, but if your sermons are out of reach of most of the people in your congregation, then ratchet it back a few notches. Don’t be a slob, but don’t be a snob. You are not there to impress people with your clever turns of phrase and rhetorical flourishes. You are not trying to win a debate contest, or a drama contest. You are preaching, and nothing attracts people to church more than good, clear, practical sermons that speak to where people are in their daily lives and experiences. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ Himself is the model preacher in this regard.
(7) Be a speaker, not a reader. I know this is a sore point among many pastors, but if you are reading your sermon manuscript in the pulpit, you are not communicating as effectively and as clearly as you do when you are actually talking to your congregation. A manuscript read in the pulpit is a barrier between the pastor and the congregation. They are hearing you read an essay, not preach a sermon. Notes and outlines? Sure, but a sermon is a sermon, not a written essay. Afraid to “go without a manuscript”? Work to get over it. Practice more. Break the manuscript habit. Leave your manuscript in the sacristy, take a brief outline into the pulpit and go for it. If there is something so profound in your sermon that you are afraid you will forget it in the pulpit, then if you do forget it, it wasn’t worth remembering . You’ll remember to say what you most need and want to say. You’ll learn how. Don’t develop a dependency on the crutch of having a manuscript in the pulpit.
(8) Be a pastor, not an entertainer. I’ve seen way too many pastors working hard to get a chuckle out the congregation, telling insipid little stories that have nothing to do with the point of the text, and trying to amuse, titillate or entertain “the crowd.” And it works. Let’s admit it. It works. You can pull the heartstrings of the little old ladies and cause the men to clear their throats. You can go for the cheap and easy emotional reaction, but our calling is to be pastors, not entertainers, to be preachers, not comedians, to be messengers, not manipulators. I’m saddened when I see pastors going for the cheap laugh. Pastors proclaim Law and Gospel. Pastors point to Christ. If your sermon is talking more about yourself, than about Jesus, then please, don’t preach. Don’t underestimate how much your people come to hear a Word from God, not a word from you, or about your family, or about children, or your dog, or the latest interesting movie you’ve seen, or book you’ve read, or what your professor in seminary said when you were there. When I hear a pastor gushing on about himself in the pulpit I find it hard not to shout out, “Oh, would you please just shut up about yourself and tell me about Jesus?!?” Seriously, I don’t want to hear about your seminary experience. I want to hear about Jesus. I want to hear what the Bible readings are all about, and how they apply to my life and what a difference they make. I want to hear about God, not about you. I want to hear about my sin and about my Savior, not you. No offense, Rev. Pastor, but Church is about Jesus Christ, Crucified and Risen, not about you.
What advice would you have, either as a preacher, or a hearer, for an aspiring preacher?