Pastor's Pastor

Pastor's Pastor: Sermons are seen

Pastor's Pastor: Sermons are seen

Floyd Bresee is the Secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association.

Preaching is some thing you do, not just with your mouth, but with your whole body. Research indicates that when you preach, your listeners are more influenced by what they see than by what you say. We may not like it, but our body language can speak so loudly our people hardly hear our sermon. Here are five good ways to improve pulpit body language:

1. Beware of mannerisms

Mannerisms are not the exclusive property of the preacher. Watch the baseball pitcher as he prepares to pitch, the batter as he gets ready to hit, the basketball player at the free-throw line, or the tennis player about to serve. Almost invariably each will go through precisely the same routine of meaningless mannerisms just before putting the ball in play. These mannerisms are so deeply ingrained that the player is unaware of them, yet would feel completely unnatural without them.

Chances are, you unconsciously make many meaningless movements in the pulpit. You may move your Bible or notes, adjust your clothing, put your hands in and out of your pockets, or fidget with your glasses. These manner isms are probably as unconscious yet necessary to you as the athlete's are to him. The problem is, your mannerisms may be so distracting that people have a hard time concentrating on your mes sage.

One Methodist minister's wife always lined up the family to check their appearance just before church. Her ritual included unfolding and checking her husband's handkerchief. She knew that one of his pulpit mannerisms was to thread his handkerchief back and forth between his fingers as he preached, and she was mortified at the thought of his doing it some day with a "holey" handkerchief. Your spouse may not be trained in theology or rhetoric, but she'll pick up on distracting mannerisms in a hurry. The only problem is whether he or she dares tell you--and whether you care enough to change.

2. Improve gestures in daily conversation

The place to learn gestures is in every day conversation. Watch how people ex press themselves as naturally through body movements as through words. Any officious tone of voice or mannerism that is out of place in friendly conversation is also out of place in the pulpit. Pretentiousness not only turns listeners off, but calls our Christian experience into question. Jesus "made himself of no reputation" (Phil. 2:7).

3. Be sure your body and mouth agree

Should you move from one side of the pulpit or platform to the other as you preach? Body movement that says nothing can be very distracting to listeners. Logically, the time to move from one place to another is when your sermon makes a transition from one direction to another. Body movement can help listeners visualize the transition.

Should you lean on the pulpit or cozy up to the microphone? Leaning forward can portray intimacy, appeal. The right rule is not one about leaning, but about making certain your gesture is reenforcing your message rather than interfering with your message. Be sure your body agrees with your mouth.

4. Keep your eye on your target

Since the eye is the window of the soul, your eyes should focus primarily, not on the ceiling, or even on your notes, but on the people to whom you are baring your soul. Never allow poor lighting or tinted glasses to prevent your eyes from speaking to your people. If your congregation cannot see your eyes and the expression on your face, they may miss half the sermon.

5. See it, feel it, and forget it

See it. See pictures in your mind as you prepare your sermon and you'll naturally use gestures to describe what you see. See yourself saying it from the pulpit. Don't let Calvary be up there on your right for the first part of the sermon then down there to your left for the remainder. Imagining yourself viewing the scene from the pulpit as you prepare the sermon will prevent you from making such a distracting blunder.

Feel it. Improved gestures most easily result, not from practicing more, but from feeling more. Feelings naturally find their expression in the sparkling eye, the contracted brow, compressed lips, or rigid muscles as the whole body speaks. Generally, the more you rely on notes the more difficult it is to use gestures well. Following notes makes it difficult to feel your sermon as you preach.

Forget it. A gesture must be the spontaneous product of present feeling or it will seem unnatural to you and ridiculous to your congregation. In the pulpit, concentrate on just three things: your subject, your audience, and what you want your subject to do for your audience. Then your feelings and movements should come naturally, and you can rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to help you bring Christ to your people.

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Floyd Bresee is the Secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association.

September 1988

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