Effective sermon delivery
My wife and I were excited at the prospect of becoming parents for the first time. My wife signed up for natural childbirth classes, and I was happy to attend with her. I wanted to be a great father. Toward the end of my wife’s pregnancy, her doctor asked me a startling question: “Derek, would you like to deliver the baby?” Foolishly, without much careful thought, I said, “Sure!” I had not even delivered newspapers at any time in my life, let alone babies. I should have been a little concerned when the doctor gave me a small book titled Emergency Childbirth, but I read through the book and it did not seem that complicated, at least on paper.
Finally the day came when my wife went into labor. I tried to remember everything I had learned: first-stage labor, second-stage labor. Then the doctor came into the birthing room and said, “It’s time to get ready!” I followed the doctor’s example as he scrubbed his hands and arms, put on my surgical gown and hat, and headed back into the birthing room. By this time, my wife was fully dilated, and she was ready to deliver our firstborn. The doctor turned to me and said, “Restrain the head!” At that point I was already breaking out in a cold sweat. I gingerly placed a few fingers on the crown of my baby’s head, and it was obvious that I lacked any confidence in this delivery process. Without hesitation the doctor yelled at me: “I said restrain the head!” At that moment, I remember thinking, “What am I doing here?”
Soon the baby’s head was between my trembling hands. Then the doctor said to me, “Help the baby’s shoulder to be delivered.” If I had read the emergency childbirth book more carefully, I would have known that once the shoulder is delivered, it is all over—the baby is on its way. But in my ignorance about good delivery practice, I helped the baby’s shoulder to be delivered without careful consideration of the implications. The doctor turned to my wife and said, “Push.” Before I had a chance to take a deep breath, our baby went airborne between my open hands! The nurse actually took a picture of our baby flying through the air with the greatest of ease. Fortunately, my wife was lying on a birthing bed or our baby might have ended up on the floor.
That traumatic experience yielded two important outcomes: my wife did not allow me to assist with the birth of our second child, and I learned the importance of effective delivery.
What does my experience with the birth of our firstborn have to do with preaching? Simply this—you can have a powerful biblical sermon manu- script, carefully prepared and bathed in prayer, but if you have poor delivery, the sermon can be irreparably damaged.
Elements of effective delivery
In order to effectively deliver a sermon you need to remember the results of a classic communication study by Dr. Albert Mehrabian: only 7 percent of your communication includes the words you speak; 38 percent is the way you say those words, your oral interpreta- tion; and 55 percent is your nonverbal communication.1 In order to maximize the impact of your communication, the words, oral interpretation, and body language must agree. If they do not agree, people will disregard your words and believe your oral interpretation and/or your body language.
What is the vital lesson for preachers who want to deliver powerful biblical sermons effectively? Do not spend all your preparation time working with words. Your words are vitally important; but if you do not have solid biblical content and relevant application, your sermon will fail. You also need to take time to consider how you will deliver those words, both your oral interpretation and your non-verbal communication.
Congruent oral interpretation. There are four basic elements of oral interpretation: pitch, volume, rate of speech, and pause.
1. Pitch. Have you ever heard a person sing a song with just one note? We would describe that person’s pitch as monotone. Monotone is boring. That is where we get the English word monotonous! Variety of pitch adds interest, where the content of the message is effectively interpreted by the pitch of the speaker’s voice. Take a single phrase, like “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and say it several times using different pitch for different words. You will notice how the meaning of the phrase changes. The pitch you select for your words not only adds interest but also interprets your message. Listen to successful storytellers and you will be impressed by their effective use of pitch variation to communicate effectively the content of the message.
2. Volume. What is more effective—a quiet voice or a loud voice? It depends. If you are announcing, “Lift up the trumpet and loud let it ring,” it would be incongruent to say those words in a whisper. The volume of your voice should be informed by the content of the message. Once again, the key word to remember is variety. Sometimes a whisper is more effective than a shout. At other times, you need to project your words like an urgent warning to a noisy crowd.
3. Rate of speech. People typically hear and vocalize words at 150 to 160 words per minute.2 Some speak more quickly, allowing little lag time for the listener to process what is being said. Others speak so slowly that some in the audience fall asleep before they finish the sentence. But whatever your natural rate of speech, if you lack variety in your rate of speech, you will put your audience to sleep. Have you ever taken an early morning ride on a train? Have you noticed how many of the passengers are sleeping? A consistent rate of speed lulls a person to sleep. The same is true with the rate of speech. Your rate of speech should be varied, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, based on the message you are sharing.
4. Pause. Intentional use of silence is important as part of effective oral interpretation. When would it be particularly helpful to pause? Allow some intentional silence after you have asked a question. Pause when you want your hearers to consider something you have said, especially the main preaching idea. Some pauses are brief, others are long, depending on the time needed for reflection. As with other aspects of effective oral interpretation, the key word to remember is variety.
Congruent nonverbal communication. Effective oral interpretation is vitally important, but in addition to the 7 percent of words and the 38 percent of how you say those words, you need to consider your nonverbal communication. What are some aspects of nonverbal communication you should remember when preparing to deliver a powerful biblical sermon?
1. Eye contact. Connect with your audience through intentional eye contact. Do not scan the group as if you are looking for a lost child, and do not stare at one person until she starts wriggling in her seat. Look at individuals long enough to make a connection. Preaching without notes gives you a great advantage when seeking to establish meaningful eye contact. If you are reading a manuscript, your eye contact with your hearers is seriously impaired. When speaking to a larger group, choose key people in various parts of the auditorium, making sure you do not neglect any sector. Effective eye contact sends the message to each of your listeners that this sermon is especially for her or him.
2. Facial expressions. People most naturally look at your face when you are speaking in public. If your face is frozen in one shape, your nonverbal communication becomes hindered. Let your facial expressions reflect the content of your words. When you say, “Jesus loves you,” there should be a different expression on your face than when you say, “The wages of sin is death.” Be natural, be congruent, and remember the key word for effective delivery—variety.
3. Gestures. Congruent gestures are vitally important for effective delivery. Some preachers have a natural repertoire of gestures, but many use neutral gestures without careful thought about the impact upon the listeners. Have you ever seen a preacher who always points at you or pounds a fist on the pulpit? Those gestures might be very effective when describing an angry or defiant attitude, but constantly repeated gestures become meaningless.
Post-sermon feedback is a helpful tool when evaluating the effectiveness of your gestures. On one occasion, I invited my audience to reach out to Jesus, and raised my hand to illustrate that connection. After the service, my son came to me with some valuable feedback: “Dad, when you raised your hand, your palm was facing the audience and it looked like you were pushing Jesus away. Turn your hand a little.” What great feedback! I tried the minor gesture adjustment in the second service and it was much more effective. Such is the value of post-sermon feedback regarding your nonverbal communication.
Here is a simple framework for the positioning of congruent gestures, involving a horizontal and a vertical plane. [Editor's note: See the PDF for the graphic on pg. 7]
A gesture located in the center of the horizontal plane is direct and personal. If you are making an appeal, “Jesus is inviting you to follow Him,” your gesture should be in the center of the horizontal plane, like two outstretched hands right in front of you. Gestures on the periphery of the horizontal plane are indirect and general. For example, you might say, “There are troubles all around the world,” pointing to the outer edges of the horizontal plane. Don’t place your gesture in the center of the horizontal plane—that’s too direct. Stretching out your hands to one or both sides of the horizontal plane reinforces your comment as indirect and general.
When positioning gestures, the vertical plane can be divided into three segments: upper third, middle third, and lower third. What type of gesture should be located in the upper third of the vertical plane? High and lofty ideas, like God, heaven, holiness, and salvation. When you say, “God is thinking about you right now” you might begin by looking up or pointing your hand toward the upper third of the vertical plane. The middle third of the vertical plane is reserved for gestures dealing with everyday life. This is where we live. That’s why the gesture accompanying the comment “Jesus is inviting you to follow Him” is not only in the center of the horizontal plane but it is also in the center of the vertical plane. Your hands are right in front of you at waist level. The lower third of the vertical plane is reserved for gestures related to base ideas like death, sin, failure, and Satan. When you say, “Jesus wants to save you, but Satan wants to destroy you,” your gestures will move from the upper third to the lower third.
Developing a vocabulary of effective gestures will take time and intentionality, but the increased impact on your hearers will be quickly noticed. Effective delivery is never a means of drawing attention to yourself but rather increasing the impact of your biblical message on the hearts of your hearers.
4. Visual aids. A variety of visual aids can also be helpful to reinforce content. Those visual aids, like PowerPoint slides, video clips, banners, or objects, should be clearly visible and memorable. The Bible is an important visual aid for a powerful biblical preacher. It might seem more high-tech to read the Scripture passage off your smartphone, but the symbol is lost. Your smartphone is also used to check your email and shop online. Keep your Bible with you as a compelling symbol of a God who has spoken and continues to speak.
Putting the pieces together
If it seems rather overwhelming to put all these pieces together in order to maximize your effectiveness as a powerful biblical preacher, start with a single element. Work on one aspect of congruent oral interpretation: variety of pitch, variety of volume, variety of rate of speech, or effective use of pause. You might also choose to work on one aspect of congruent nonverbal communication: effective eye contact, congruent facial expressions, gestures, or effective use of visual aids. Over time, you will move from awkward implementation to natural integration. Learn from others who are mastering the art of effective delivery. Watch video recordings of your own presentations and solicit feedback from colleagues and members of your congregation. Learning to deliver effectively powerful biblical sermons will take time and energy, but the results will be well worth the effort.3
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1 Albert Mehrabian, Silent Messages (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1971), 43.
2 “Words per Minute,” Wikipedia, last modified August 2, 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Words_per_minute.
3 For some additional insights on effective delivery, consider The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 589–618.