This is the eleventh in a series of articles on sermon preparation for pastors and bivocational pastors with busy schedules. To see the earlier articles, click the links below:
Principle #1: Bible Literacy
Principle #2: Know What You Believe
Principle #3: Know Your Audience—Exegeting Your People
Principle #4: Know Who You Trust—Trusted Sources
Principle #5: Know Your Text—You and the Scripture
Principle #6: Know What You Want People to Do—Application Points
Principle #7: Know the Right Story to Bring the Truth Home—Relevant Stories
Principle #8: Know How to Start Well with Good Introductions
Principle #9 – Conclusions
I will never forget my first coaching I received in the area of delivery. My recently acquainted friend from college invited me to visit his grandparents in rural Missouri. He said their preacher planned to have him preach in the Sunday evening service and that he would probably let me preach too. As we prepared for our back to back sermons, my friend offered one piece of advice. “Tom, whatever you do make sure to yell.” My friend, who had never heard me preach, radically changed my delivery forever. No, I don’t just yell all the time (I grew out of that faze), but before my friend I never gave a moment of thought to how my message sounded to others.
Now, a close second in importance to being biblical in the content of the message is how you share the message. Listen to what Stephen Rummage says about delivery. He states, “The truth is, no matter how careful you were in your exegesis and interpretation and no matter how skillfully you put together your message, your sermon will be evaluated on the basis of how you deliver it.” Communication researcher Judee Burgoon developed a theory called “nonverbal expectancy theory.” In essence, it states that people have presuppositions on how people should communicate. If your delivery falls below their expectations, you lose credibility because you have violated their expectations. That’s what my friend in college was trying to tell me. The people in rural Missouri will not listen if you do not yell. So, I yelled.
To all those introverted exegetes out there, I hear your objections and calls of unfairness, but speaking as an introvert I cannot ignore what scholars and experience teaches: a good delivery always helps in the communication of biblical truth, and a bad delivery hinders the communication of biblical truth. I know people should listen to the arguments, points, illustrations, and applications; and allow the truth to impact their soul, but reality is passion, emotion, and intensity warm hearers to the truth.
What style, how much passion, and how to display appropriate emotion depend on the text, the occasion, and the audience. Preaching on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus will sound different than preaching on a parable. Preaching on a psalm of repentance will differ from a psalm of praise. Each sermon may contain passionate moments, but some will be more text-driven than others.
The occasion for the message can also heavily influence the style and the display of passion. Sometimes the occasion restricts your normal delivery. Every Sunday morning I preach without notes and move quite freely around the platform. At a funeral, I stand still behind a podium and limit both my vocal range and mannerisms. Easter Sunday will be different than tithing commitment Sunday. Paying attention to the occasion will help in meeting the audience’s expectation.
Part of understanding the audience is surmising their delivery expectation. This doesn’t mean you turn into an entertainer, but you should be prepared to stretch yourself a little bit for the sake of communication. An effective communicator immediately accesses each speaking opportunity for potential hindrances and helps for his message. One of those is discovering the preaching atmosphere of the congregation. If you can discern that before you speak, you can deliver the message in a way that communicates more effectively for the particular audience.
When you are the pastor preaching to the same congregation week after week, I suggest what Rummage calls “finding your best voice.” Bryan Chapell states, “Natural delivery now rules the day. The preachers most respected are those most able to sound like themselves when they are deeply interested in a subject.” This requires establishing a normal, conversational tone that can rise in moments of passion and lower in moments of intensity. Beware of how you establish your preaching style when you begin your pastorate. Congregations will begin making assumptions (sometimes good, often times bad) when you deviate too much from it.
The only way to evaluate how you preach is to hear (and preferably watch) yourself preach. I have a habit of slowing my delivery down and turning a well-delivered sermon into a somewhat interesting lecture. Maybe you have a tendency to yell at unnatural times in the sermon. The only way to know is to listen. If you record your sermons, you can catch all sorts of nonverbal hindrances to communication. Your gestures, eye-contact, movement, and mannerisms that you unknowingly do are caught and can be corrected when you watch yourself. A good measuring stick is to ask, “If I were sitting listening to myself, would I turn myself off “ or “Would that movement, manner, or the way I hold my Bible distract me?” If so, work hard to change it.
Rex was a rough and tough born-again truck driver who was part of the Naval Combat Demolition Units during WWII (early Navy seal). Every Sunday Rex gave immediate grades on my preaching and as you might imagine he didn’t sweet coat his remarks. I came to find out that in order to get a good grade from Rex I had to accomplish two things in my sermons: at some point yell and go after the heathen that didn’t bother to come to church that day. Sometimes I let Rex down because my sermons usually focused on the people who did come to church on any given day; and other times I didn’t show enough passion in my delivery. I still focus my sermons on those who attend worship, but if I want to do what I can to make sure they hear God’s Word, then I better make sure my delivery shows the passion of one trying to persuade people to “escape the wrath to come.”
 Stephen Rummage, Daniel L. Akin, and Bill Curtis, Engaging Exposition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2011), 249.
 Judee K. Burgoon and Beth A. Le Poire, “Nonverbal Cues and Interpersonal Judgments: Participant and Observer Perceptions of Intimacy, Dominance, Composures, and Formality,” Communication Monographs 66 (1999): 105-24.
 Akin, Curtis, and Rummage, 270.
 Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 329.