I was on internship, attending a conference on evangelism, the first time I heard someone say, “Over ninety percent of effective spoken communication lies in non-verbal body language, attitude, passion, eye contact, etc.
Less than ten percent of the effectiveness of our communication is about the content of what we say.” It is not all about “what” we say, but also about “how” we say it.
As a Lutheran-pastor-to-be, trained to go over the “words” with a fine-toothed comb with little or no attention to style, I was shocked. Maybe I would have felt better if it was more like fifty-fifty or something, but it was obvious I needed to refocus my thinking to become an effective preacher one day.
Like it or not, for many people attending worship, and for just about all who visit a congregation for the first time, the quality of the preaching they will hear matters a great deal to them. Shoddy, ill-prepared, scattered preaching that does not clearly communicate the Gospel in ways that reach through ears into hearts just will not be effective today.
So how can we improve our preaching? Here are six ideas:
1. Become coachable.
If we do not want to improve in some area of our life, or add new skills in our ministries, we won’t. We can all become better, more effective, more engaging, and more helpful preachers, but we will not get there unless we are willing to learn.
I asked my bishop, Mike Rinehart, for his ideas and he was crystal clear — “Read, read, read, read and pray, pray, pray, pray.” If we are not open to new, interesting, and fresh ideas, our preaching will get dull and repetitious. And if we are not cultivating a vibrant personal spiritual life, we will not have anything to share.
Decide to work hard on improving.
2. Listen to great preaching.
As preachers, we have all probably read plenty of books on preaching. What would do us a world of good would be to intentionally do what we seldom get an opportunity to do — listen to as much great preaching as we can. Many congregations now make pastors’ sermons available on the Internet through their websites, podcasts, etc. Spend a couple of hours with Google and you will certainly find some models that you can learn from.
You can also do continuing education around preaching. Luther Seminary offers a Doctor of Ministry in Biblical Preaching. Check it out: www.luthersem.edu/bp.
3. Regularly video-tape yourself preaching and watch it.
I was tempted just to say regularly “tape” your sermons because I am still such a “content-thinker,” but the real key is to video-tape your sermon. Do this regularly, at least monthly, if you really want to improve. Do not just listen to the content, but pay attention as well to the distracting little ticks you do that you do not realize you are doing. Sometimes people learn that their attempt to be “casual” or “real” or “authentic” by wandering around the chancel or the floor is simply distracting rather than helpful.
We might learn we say “ummm” too much or we do not modulate our voice very well. “Loud” is not the only way to be passionate in preaching. Watching yourself preach is painful, but it is also extremely helpful. Perhaps nothing is more helpful.
Pay attention as well to what you really appreciate about your own preaching. We are, after all, our own worst critics.
4. Ask your lay people for help — or — Offer to help your pastor improve his/her preaching.
We have all heard people complain about (or forgive) their pastor’s preaching. The truth is no one can please everybody. Few pastors can preach with enough varying styles to connect with all who might hear them preach. But complaints do not help — only asking for and offering help will help.
One way to get that done is to ask for a small group of people in your congregation to join you in improving your preaching. Meet with them, walk through the upcoming texts, ask for specific help doing research, seeking illustrations and stories. Test drive your ideas with your small group. Survey your congregation. Pastors sometimes meet in such groups with other pastors, but that is only marginally effective as pastors seldom get to actually hear a colleague preach.
5. Use online resources well.
I have read the suggestion that busy pastors need to let go of the expectation that they write their own sermons when so many resources are available now on the internet. That troubles me at many levels. Personally, I find it impossible to imagine preaching someone else’s sermon with any sense of passion or integrity. On the other hand, other written sermons can spark new ideas, new directions, great stories, and, by the time a pastor with integrity is through editing and changing and making it their own, it would ultimately become their sermon. To each his/her own on this one.
There are also an abundance of other online resources that we might find help with too:
• This website, WorkingPreacher is full of great help.
• For many years, I subscribed to a tape series that allowed me to hear great preaching and workshops as I drove around Houston in my truck. Go to www.preachingtoday.com
• www.textweek.com is another place to find help with content, with video clips and graphics
• Google just about anything and you will find a helpful path.
6. Join Toastmasters
“Toastmasters” has helped several members of my congregations over the years to improve their ability to speak in public to help them move forward in business. Go to www.toastmasters.org and find a club near you. If you really want help to improve your preaching, this might be a good use of continuing education money.
At the end of the day, there is not much we can control as pastors, but we do have a great deal of influence. Little that we do to influence the mission of a congregation or help the people we serve is more effective than our preaching. We only get a little time each week to wield that influence. Let’s do it as well as we can.