Walk the Dog: Preaching with Confidence

Walking the dog: how to preach with confidence
Photo by Silvana Carlos on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

After decades of teaching preaching, I’ve learned that one of the biggest challenges is convincing new preachers to preach with confidence. I’m still a little shocked by what—out of all the things we cover in the course’s six major lectures—my students remember. I am certainly more bemused by what they remember than surprised by what they don’t.

After all, nothing could be more predictable than preachers forgetting their professor’s favorite hermeneutical methods. A working knowledge of sermon form, it turns out, is also a perishable commodity. Even my best tips on sermon development, practices that increase creativity, and habits that lead to authentic performance have been known to fade pretty quickly from my students’ conscious memory. It was true for me as a young preacher, and I see it now as a teacher. As far as conceptual learning goes, the best an “Intro to Preaching” prof can hope for is that a few essentials get translated and absorbed into the kind of knowledge preachers carry in their bones.

But why is it, I can’t help wondering, that when asked about what they learned in their preaching course so many of my students say the same thing? And why do they attribute it to me, even though I have never once uttered the words without crediting one of my own teachers?  Why is it that what they remember is one of the few jokey things I say:

Everyone preaches a dog from time to time. The thing is … to walk the dog proudly. 

How to preach with confidence

It’s a fun thing to say and I certainly enjoy the chuckle it gets every year. So—yes—I go on saying it. But I worry a bit that we may all be tempted to take it too seriously. That we may let ourselves be a little too reassured. That the tension that is essential to the creative process will go slack. What I want for my students, for myself and for all preachers is that we create and preach sermons from the sweet spot. The spot where we feel both very confident and very challenged. Where the Holy Spirit delights in. This is the spot creativity theorists call the state of flow.

And that’s why I go on talking about dog walking. Because no sermon is helped by a timid delivery. When it comes down to those moments in the pulpit, the sermon depends so much on the body, its liveliness, its warmth, its freedom. Sermon delivery has 55% to do with what the face and body are communicating and 38% to do with the preacher’s tone of voice. In short, the effect of our sermon is deeply connected to our ability to preach with confidence.

Too much confidence?

It is possible, of course, for a preacher to be too confident and for his or her body to betray that. But 99% of the students I’ve taught—and most mainline preachers I’ve known—live in such dread of looking like one of those hammy preachers, we stay well back behind the line. Way back. Most preachers I know need to be encouraged to walk proudly.

I can think of three good reasons we need to go on encouraging each other to do that:

  1. The body is a powerhouse. It’s a power source.

It has depths for feeding and fueling sermons that most of us will never exhaust. Neglecting the use of the body in preaching is not only poor stewardship, it is a death wish. Last year a team of researchers from three major universities confirmed the effectiveness of the Wonder Woman Pose (aka the Superman Pose or power posing). It’s an idea that has been around for awhile. Now it has been shown that just two minutes of adopting the hands-on-hips, chest up pose influences the mind of the performer (preacher, surgeon, golf pro, etc), pours energy through the system, lifts confidence. Many a sermon has been raised to a different level—energized into being a whole different sermon—by way the preacher walked it.

  1. Our memories are more trustworthy than we think.

Preachers often restrain themselves in the pulpit, limiting expression, movement, face access and eye contact because we are anxious about what we will forget. But studies and experience show that the pieces of the sermon that drop away when we are not over-relying on our manuscripts are often the very ones that should drop away. I had heard old preachers opine on this subject and read the studies but I have to admit I didn’t believe it until it happened to me.
It was several years ago now. I omitted an entire section and one of my cutest lines in what I thought of at the time as a “high stakes” sermon.  When I realized what I’d done I was beside myself. Then I watched the video. It was a stronger, cleaner sermon. Many a sermon has been improved by letting fly and trusting the process, and I’ve learned from the Spirit how best to preach with confidence.

  1. The Holy Spirit has Her own ideas.

We are not the final arbiter of how effective our sermons are, how well we did, how winsomely we performed. Every preacher who has shaken hands at the church door knows just how creative the Holy Spirit can be, to what astonishing uses the Spirit can put our sermons. Many a sermon has been transformed in its hearing by the unspeakably gracious Spirit who loves us and our congregations and who walks with us. And our dogs.