Preachers communicate. No, change that. Preachers are called to be, and must learn to be, communicators.
Often, though, we preachers make rather a bad job of it. We want our words to give a particular message, but our faces, voices and bodies are actually giving a very different one. It’s communication, alright, but it’s totally confused, and confusing.
So what are two of the preacher’s biggest communication problems? For my money, it’s shouting and whispering. Many a good ministry has been spoilt by these tendencies. Preachers need to own up to them if found guilty – and learn to change!
Givin’ it large!
By shouting, I mean that tendency in the pulpit to preach at 100 decibels when it’s really not needed. That could mean actual shouting, belting it out as the noise bounces off the walls. It certainly means that strained, overly-intense delivery which assaults the mind, rather than feeds it. The listeners probably won’t be listening, though they’ll be putting up an attempt to fake it. Shouters are exhausting. They exhaust themselves, and those they’re called to communicate to. The sermon is delivered with such volume that they’ve long since stopped communicating.
I was listening to a Reverend Shouter last year. He said very little that was new, and nothing stimulating. Yet he worked himself into a frenzy of exhaustion, straining and sweating himself into a torrent of unedifying verbiage. All fireworks, but no fire. And no edification. Let’s be clear: preaching is an urgent business. It’s a living word from the living God. But heaven give us the wit to see when it’s the preacher who’s set himself on fire and not the Spirit of God. Shouting may impress, but it is not gospel communication.
But what of the whisperer? I’m not thinking here of actual whispering. Of course, the preacher must be audible, and clear in his speech. A preacher who can’t fill the room with his voice needs urgent help. I’m thinking more of the man who preaches everything with a very English reserve, poise, and quietness. Nothing is urgent, nothing is pressed on the congregation. It’s a ministry full of propositions, even encouragements. But there are no ultimata, no clear ‘turn or burn’ challenges. The pulpit of the Reverend Whisperer never shocks, never shames, never argues, never rebukes, and never, never, raises its voice.
Imagine a preacher who preached hell with no obvious sense of dread and horror, and heaven with no brimming emotion? Instead, he just gave us ideas, factually accurate truth about them. How nice. But how awful. It should be unthinkable. Pulpit communication means handling each truth with the right emotion, to help the hearers feel the weight of the truths, and to give them the space in the sermon to process them. They need rousing, and stirring, and, on occasion, pulpit tears may be the Spirit’s gift to bring truth home. They also need compelling Bible logic, clearly delivered as they work out the Bible’s message for their lives.
Let me offend everybody!
I’ll stick my neck out, and tell you where you’re likely to find these preachers. The shouter’s a Baptist, more than likely (his Celtic cousins may be Presbyterian ministers). After all, Baptists have always been a largely uneducated lot, so they probably need a good shout (and might even enjoy it). The whisperer preaches to his Anglican parish, in moderate, dulcet tones. His people are educated, of course. They probably know their Bibles, so his business, he reasons, is to remind them, and invite them to believe what the Good Book says. Exceptions abound, but the rule, I think, applies.
So, sermon hearers, help your preacher. It’s not wrong to help him think about how he could communicate more effectively. Do it with care, and spoonfuls of tactful love, and you are doing him a great service
And, my dear brother preachers, look at yourselves. Better still, listen to yourselves. Go on, I dare you! Listen to a recording of yourself preaching, and identify how you could communicate God’s Word better. And please don’t think you’re safe because occasionally you ask a trusted congregant, ‘what did you think of the sermon?’. Instead, pluck up the courage to ask them, ‘how did I communicate in my sermon?’. Find out what your communication bad habits are. Learn to change, while you can.
Pastor Anonymous is in full-time pastoral ministry somewhere in the UK.