People told me a lot of things when I was first learning to preach and I’m grateful for all of it. But they could never tell me everything. Here is the first 6 things I wish I’d been told. This post is 6 more things I wish I’d been told.
People love suspense
Cliffhangers are really important. People love them. People love tension. People love a problem to be overcome. Now a sermon is different to a movie or a TV show. But there are ways to include an appropriate level of suspense in a sermon. If you can set up a problem that the biblical passage will solve you create a degree of suspense. If you can show an apparent contradiction in the text that needs to be resolves you will create suspense. If you can tell a story that unfolds over the sermon and illustrates the points along the way you will create a degree of suspense. If you can point out a question that the listeners may be thinking but that occurred to you that comes out of the text you will create suspense until the answer comes. There are lots of ways to do it, and not all of them are brilliant. But people love suspense.
You can trick people’s learning styles
People are always talking about different learning styles, and if experts say they’re real then I believe them. I’m not an expert. But preaching is necessarily a auditory monologue. There are little things you can do – walk around, use visual aids etc. – to help engage other learning styles, but at the end of the day the thing you’re doing is essentially talking. But in the way you talk you can trick people’s learning styles. You can use tactile images and speech. You can use visual images and speech. For example, when it’s time to read the verse or phrase of scripture before you explain it you can introduce it in a variety of ways:
“Let’s hear what Jesus says here.”
“Let’s see what Jesus has to say here.”
“Let’s try to get a grip on what Jesus is saying here.”
“Let’s try and understand what Jesus says in this verse.”
“Let’s jump in to what Jesus says here.”
They all communicate the same thing but they all feel very different.
Don’t try and say everything
Often the criticism you get after a sermon is that you didn’t say or make a comment about something that the person thought of while you were speaking. This criticism is irrelevant.
Yes, it’s true, you didn’t actually say everything that could be said. You only have a finite amount of time to make your points and show people what they need to do and inspire them to do it. Not everything that could be said is worth being said. So don’t worry about trying. Just say the key things that need to be said.
You will always have learnt more in your preparation than you have time to say. Leave some of it for next time. You don’t need to say everything. Just make sure that what you DO say is true.
Being balanced is boring and impossible
If you can’t say everything then there’s a good chance that what you say won’t be balanced. And that’s okay. Balance is boring. Symmetry is boring. Tension is interesting. Asymmetry is interesting. And if you’re preaching it’s preferable.
Just preach what the text says. If the text is unbalanced then let the sermon be unbalanced. If the text sounds arminian then so be it. If the text sounds calvinist then so be it. If the text sounds negative then so be it. If the text sounds positive so be it. Preach the text. The danger of seeking balance is that you end up just preaching your system, your theological grid, which you know is flawed and imperfect.
Balance is overrated. Not only is it boring and dangerous, but it’s also impossible. You’ll never be perfectly balanced. You want people to engage and react to what you’re saying. Be imbalanced.
Saying nothing is really important
A friend of mine once said to me, “The best bit of your sermon was when you weren’t saying anything.” I’m pretty sure it was a compliment. I always took it that way. Pauses give people a chance to absorb what you’ve just said. The sermon’s not a book. If there just was a really profound thing you said they can’t go back and re-read it. They can’t stop and look up at the wall and ponder the implications and then start back again. Because they’re not in control of the pace of the words, the words keeping coming. Pausing gives people a chance to let what you’ve said land on them and sink in. It helps people feel that what you just said was very important.
It sounds slower in your head
People naturally speak faster when they’re at the front. Very few people slow down when they’re in front of a crowd. Some do, but most don’t. But it usually sounds fine inside your head. Maybe a touch fast but not overly.
But when it sounds a “touch fast” inside your head it sounds abnormally fast to everyone else. And when it sounds “fine” in your head it usually sounds a touch fast to everyone else. And when it sounds “slow” inside your head it sounds fine to everyone else. And when it sounds like molasses in your head it sounds slightly slow to everyone else.
But it will always sound slower inside your head than it really is.