The Message Is the Thing

What are some of the queer mannerisms seen and heard in the pulpit of today—man­nerisms that keep the congregation from grasping the preacher's message?

By CHARLES E. WENIGER, Professor, Pacific Union College

A little girl had risen with the rise of the preacher's voice and was sitting up­right in her mother's lap. "Whee-ee-ee sounded her shrill voice, as she responded tO the roar that came from the rostrum, where the preacher's volume had already exceeded the lawful bounds of climax. It was only the inhibitions of modern society and reverence for the house of God that kept us older wor­shipers from saying "Whee-ee-ee!" too, be­cause for the time being the preacher's method had eclipsed his message. His manner had become so obtrusive that our attention was concentrated on delivery rather than on the spiritual thought that he was trying to place in the hearts of his hearers.

The message is the supreme thing in the sermon. All else is subordinate to it. Gesture, grooming, grammar, and other elements of delivery and means of expression are of value only as they help the preacher to implant his message in the hearts of his hearers. If the hearers go away remembering the minister's movements on the platform, his slovenly , or pedantic pronunciation, his artistic or careless rhetoric, rather than his message—for them that preacher has failed.

The congregation should not say, "How well he preached!" or "How odd his gesture was!" or "What perfect diction he uses!" or "What poor pronunciation!" or "How he murders his mother tongue!" But rather, "Never before have I seen that message in so clear a light!" or "I must follow the path of conduct sug­gested by today's sermon," or "Did not our hearts burn within us as we listened to the discourse?"

What are some of the queer mannerisms seen and heard in the pulpit of today—man­nerisms that keep the congregation from grasping the preacher's message?

Deportment.—There are manners of de­portment. I once saw an experienced confer­ence worker shift his gaze to the left fore­ground of the pulpit seven times in a single minute.. For a while I fell to wondering why he could not look straight into our faces, and consequently my attention was diverted from his thought. This was perhaps just his way, but his manner had taken precedence of his message.

I have observed some queer physical man­nerisms on the rostrum: Holding the arm across the stomach as if to defend the speak­ers' body; holding the fingers of both hands together above the stomach and flapping the elbows as if manipulating a bellows; contin­ually touching one hand to the chin; lifting oneself up behind the desk by bracing both hands on top; intermittently rising and falling on the toes; stroking the chin; looking at the clock; playing with a watch chain; and a variety of similarly incongruous antics.

Bodily activity should assist in expressing thought; it should not detract from this expres­sion. Gesture, movement, and posture should be so consistent with the thought as to melt into the totality of the preacher's message. They should never be used for their own sake, —they are but means to an end, which is the transfer of the speaker's thought into the hearers' minds and hearts.

The speaker should remember that appear­ance usually precedes sound, and that visual impressions are almost always stronger than auditory images. According to a Chinese proverb, a picture is "worth ten thousand Words." But too frequently the visual impres­sion made by the speaker ruins the auditory impression, and the mental picture of the preacher formed by his congregation becomes his undoing. The means defeats the end.

Language.—Then there are manners of 'language. I was once found guilty of using the expression, "and on and on," to such an extent that it had become m'eaningless in my mouth and thoroughly tiring to my classes. Apparently I used it to close a sentence when­ever my mind ran out of factual material sufficiently definite to be expressed. The phrase became mere filler, and betrayed the tendency of the tongue to keep on wagging when the brain has momentarily stopped func­tioning. I value the day when a student friend told me of my bad habit. With pains­taking care, I overcame the tendency.

Another one of my students checked the diction of a ministerial friend. He had found him using the expression "you see" more than one hundred times in forty consecutive minutes. The phrase—perfectly acceptable in itself when used meaningfully—had become mere expletive. The same speaker frequently punctuates his remarks with the trite phrase, "Now then." What are your pet verbal fillers? They will never take the place of thoughts.

Voice.—And there are manners of voice. I began this chat with an illustration of the use of too much volume. Many men mistake volume for intensity, and fail to realize that sincere emphasis frequently shows itself in a quietly modulated voice. Conversational ease, with clear articulation, often secures and holds attention better than does increased volume. I fear that too many preachers are like the one who said of his pulpit efforts, "I always roar when I have nothing to say." They fail to sense that the best way to get and hold atten­tion is not by regularly and frequently shout­ing, but by gradually lowering the volume, while maintaining intensity and clear articula­tion, until the voice reposes on an almost inti­mate, confidential level, and the emphatic les­son of the sermon is revealed to the waiting listeners in the hush of a reverent awe. Rest­lessness may frequently be changed to rapt attention by this method, whereas the lifting of the voice would only produce inattention and nervousness among the worshipers.

Does method really play so vital a part in preaching? In one sense, a preacher's method of delivery may be compared to a window be­tween the light of his thought and the hearer. If the window is absolutely clean and trans­parent, the light flows through it without hindrance, and the thought is freely implanted in the listener's mind. Of course, the window may be blue or rose or yellow, as different speakers see truth in different ways and ex­press their thoughts through the medium of their individual style. But the point is that the window must be clean. If it is besmirched by poor grammar or grotesque gestures, or excessively adorned with extreme niceties of rhetoric or pedantically careful pronuncia­tions, the thought is hindered in its free pas­sage through the window to the mind of the hearer. The window has become a barrier instead of a transmitter of light. The speaker may even be so faulty in manner that this window has become a high board fence through the cracks of which little, if any, light can penetrate.

Surely it behooves the man of God to study to show himself approved unto God.

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By CHARLES E. WENIGER, Professor, Pacific Union College

December 1938

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