Pointers for young and not so young preachers
David Boyd Long, Belfast, N. Ireland [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Opening the meeting for another speaker
- Remember, your brother is the speaker so do not unduly occupy his time. Avoid long and wordy greetings, they are rarely needed.
- Do not repeat ‘welcomes’ if people come in late. They should not be late.
- In giving out a hymn avoid the oft used but silly words ‘Maybe (or perhaps) we could sing number so-and-so’. Maybe has nothing to do with it. Something like ‘Let us sing number . . .’ is much better.
- It is unnecessary to read the whole hymn since it will be sung anyway. Reading the first verse is usually enough to give people time to find the place.
- Give the number clearly; and it is good practice to repeat it as; ‘One hundred and seventy four – one, seven, four’. Some of your audience will be older and may have left their hearing aids at home.
- Make all announcements clearly and not too rapidly, looking up at your hearers. It is bad manners at any time to speak to anyone while looking at your boots. You are giving a message to individuals so give it to them as though you meant it for them.
- It is a wise thing to read the announcements before you start to give them. This avoids such things as having to say: ‘I’m not sure whether that is this Wednesday or next Wednesday, or maybe that’s the elders’ meeting’. Make sure you’ve got it straight before you start.
The opening prayer
- Remember that you are seeking God’s blessing for the meeting, the SPEAKER, the HEARERS and their RESPONSE to the message. It is not the prayer meeting so it is out of place to pray for the sick, the mourning, the elderly, or ‘journeying mercies’, (a rather worn-out old cliché anyway), for those on holiday, etc. There may be exceptions when some accident or bereavement has been mentioned in the announcements, and even then discretion should be exercised.
- Make your opening and closing prayers reasonably brief; avoid quoting a lot of Scripture passages or verses of hymns in your prayers. Avoid giving an outline of salvation from God’s eternal purpose in sending the Son, His coming to earth, His sinless life, His healing the sick, raising the dead, calming the storm, His agony in the Garden, His standing before wicked rulers, His death, resurrection, and His love for sinners. The preacher will be handling the ministry of the word and ministry is not the material for prayer anyway.
- Above all things do NOT preach in your prayers, much less shout at God as though you were lecturing Him. A sense of reverence in addressing God will forbid this bad habit. Do not punctuate every sentence with interjected terms like ‘heavenly Father’, ‘our loving Father’ and the like. This is just a bad habit and not only unnecessary but also often becomes distracting and meaningless.
- It goes without saying that anyone opening a meeting or taking public part in it should be appropriately dressed. Apart entirely from good taste, and the fact that we are dealing with divine things, people from other congregations where there is a sense of decorum are likely to be offended and alienated. If anyone comes to my door to try to sell something – insurance, investment, books, or whatever, untidily dressed, my instinctive reaction is to close the door. Business manuals are strong on the point that in trying to ‘sell’ something one must avoid creating any sort of sales barrier. In a certain sense we are trying, in public meetings, ‘to sell’ or ‘represent’ Christ and His gospel, and to build barriers just because of the way we choose to dress is counterproductive folly. We are ambassadors of a king; and Paul speaks in this context of, ‘commending ourselves to EVERY MAN’S conscience’, which is a good thing to remember.
Public speaking in general
- KNOW YOUR MATERIAL. Be sure that you have carefully and prayerfully prepared what you are going to speak about or you will flounder. To use the Scripture ‘take no thought what ye shall speak’, Matthew 10. 19, as an excuse for lack of preparation is firstly a misinterpretation of the passage, and secondly an admission of laziness. The verse quoted refers to those who are suddenly seized and dragged before hostile authorities with no chance for preparation. God can and does help in such circumstances but this is not what we are dealing with here.
- NOTES? There is no easy or general answer to this. Some people can handle notes without it becoming obvious or intrusive, but most people can’t. I personally am not good at it. It is, however, a good habit to jot down Scripture references or headings to keep oneself on track and from wandering into side issues and so denying enough time for all we really wanted to say.
- READING OF SCRIPTURE. Reading a long passage or chapter of Scripture can be tedious and distracting. It often allows your hearers to wonder what your subject really is; and WONDERING hearers rapidly become WANDERING hearers. Only read what you need to give the basis of authority for what you feel the Lord would have you say. Catch your audience’s attention, then focus it and hold on to it. Reading a lot of Scripture or referring to a number of Scripture passages is not the best way of doing this. If, for example you wish to speak from the story of Nicodemus and his interview with the Lord, it is wise not to read the whole passage of seventeen verses. It is better to make a ‘text’ of the repeated words ‘Ye must be born again’, verses 3, 5, and 7, make ‘new birth’ your text and subject. Then you can draw attention to the context such as it was night; he was religious but he needed to be born again, he was a teacher but there were things he did not know, he had a deadly poison coursing in his nature, as the people of Israel had when bitten by the serpents, and he was unaware of it. Lastly, he did not know what the only cure was, but of course you do and are only too pleased to tell them that ‘Even so MUST the Son of man be lifted up’. Refer to and read the related verses drawing their attention on as you proceed rather than reading the whole thing before you speak at all.
- A COMMON MISTAKE, especially for beginners, is to take up too much material, have too many references and too many points. Understand-ably, in most cases, this is done from fear of running out of something to say. All too often it clutters up the central theme and the message becomes entangled in the mass of material. If you should run out of something to say it is far better to STOP than to ramble on, filling up time, yet seeing your hearers yawning or consulting their watches. The answer is so simple: DO NOT HAVE SO MANY POINTS. There is always the danger of becoming impaled on one of them, or impaling someone else!
- SPEAK CLEARLY AND DISTINCTLY, but ABOVE ALL DO NOT SHOUT! Some seem to think that shouting is an indication of earnestness and concern, when it is really neither, but simply a bad habit. In any other context shouting would be seen as bad manners or the tactics of a political mob, or fans at a football match. You would not have dared, I hope, to shout at your parents, your teacher, or your employer. Any doctor who shouted at his patients would soon lose them, and a nurse who shouted at her charges would soon be without a job. A salesman who shouted at me would make no sales as far as I was concerned. Most people are uncomfortable with yelling preachers, and not a few come away with a headache, neither of which is conducive to profit.
A fellow-preacher asked a preacher friend of mine in the United States if he ever found himself on the platform and God not helping him. He admitted that he had indeed had this experience. Then came the question, ‘What do you do in such a circumstance?’ His grinning answer was, ‘I suppose I shout louder.’ Speak clearly and loudly enough to make yourself heard by all, but consider the different sizes of buildings too. A good habit is to throw or aim your remarks to those in the back rows, then all will hear and people who sit in back rows will be made useful for something! This habit will also help you to LIFT the TONE of your speech without necessarily lifting the volume to a yell. While on the subject of voice do try to avoid the popular sort of preacher’s singsong style in which the first part of the sentence is at a high pitch and the last word drops. As in: ‘God is speaking to you’. ‘He longs to save your poor soul tonight’. We also do this in reading hymns and the last words are lost to the hearers. Beware of dropping off the volume of your voice when you speak softly as this frustrates those with poor hearing. How would you feel if you only heard half a message? Churchill never shouted in his speeches, nor was there a singsong rhythm to his words, but he held his hearers spellbound.
- AVOID WORN-OUT, HACKNEYED TERMS THAT HAVE LONG SINCE LOST THEIR MEANING AND WOULD NOT BE USED IN OTHER SITUATIONS. The examples abound, here are just a few:
- Our brother who is in our midst = with us.
- The gospel will be preached across earth’s broad acres = around the world.
- Lay down the puny arms of rebellion = surrender.
- Never dying soul; sin-sick soul, precious soul = Soul.
- Cradled in the gospel; Rocked to sleep with the songs of Zion = since childhood.
- Christ wended His weary way to the cross = through a life of toil and weariness, Christ went on to the cross.
- Close in with God’s offer of mercy = Accept God’s offer.
- He died on yon centre cross = on the cross is enough, and ‘centre’ is of a circle; middle here is correct, but either is unnecessary and simply a carry-over from hundreds of others.
- How God saved my poor soul = How I was saved; converted; led to Christ.
- Presence thyself with us = there is no verb ‘to presence’ and the whole sentence is antiquated nonsense, ‘be with us’ or ‘may we be conscious of thy presence’ is what you mean. The list is endless!
With most of these there is nothing essentially wrong. It is just that they have been parroted for generations and simply would never be used in any other situation. Express yourself, freshly, clearly, strongly and avoid the use of antiquated ‘Gospel Hall oratory’.
- AVOID PERSONAL MANNERISMS. There are mannerisms that on the platform serve no purpose except to take the attention of your hearers from what you are saying; e.g, violent walking back and forth on the platform; crouching down from the knees to peer over the pulpit as though you were the bogeyman going to jump out at them. I heard of a little boy in Portugal who, after staring for a while at an excited preacher pacing up and down, thumping the pulpit, and waving his arms, whispered to his mother: ‘What will we do if he gets out?’ Other such quirks might be cited, such as: continually pushing your glasses up on your nose or putting them on and taking them off time and again. Some button and unbutton their jacket as though they are looking for a fight. It does not help to pick up your Bible and slap it down again on the desk. Remember that with ‘hearing loops’ the thumpiing or banging of the rostrom will be heard by those using then as violent noise. Putting your hands in your pockets or running your hand through or over your hair (these last two were my own favourites until my wife needled me out of the first and is now working on the second) also distracts. A young man in Canada, well over six feet tall, rocked back and forth as he spoke, like the pendulum of a clock. I knew a man of an older generation who constantly fiddled with his watch chain. Hawthorn Baillie frequently grasped his lapels and with his two forefingers and pushed his stiff shirt collar down. At a conference meeting in N. Ireland I once sat beside the platform while one speaker, bellowing at the top of his voice, raised himself on his toes and then at the moment of emphasis thumped down on his heels. The platform was hollow and the boards were bare so the bang was great. I remember the noise, but I’ve forgotten every word he said!
- GESTURES CAN BE IMPORTANT, so watch them carefully. Try not to wave your arms as though you are trying to swat a fly. Pointing the finger can be overdone. At a recent conference I watched a brother give excellent material but he hardly once brought down his right hand toward the desk, his side or anywhere else. The whole message through his arm was pointing, chopping up and down, or waving back and forth. Another seemed to be drawing circles with his open right hand and arm as though he were sweeping everything out of his way. You will think of many more; just be careful – constant whirling, jabbing, waving, chopping can be distracting, and at times even comical. While warning against shouting and pounding it must be remembered that preaching or ministering to believers is, or should be, far removed from giving a lecture on mathematics or good farm methods. There should be some warmth, some heart, some passion. To stand up and simply state facts is not enough. We want to bring not only understanding, but also conviction and response. Avoid silly histrionics. Try to imagine how our Lord sounded and even looked when He said, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’
We are ambassadors for Christ, we are heralds of the King, we are expositors of the divine revelation, we are preachers of glad tidings, and this last should guard us from spending most of our time preaching judgement and the Lake of Fire. ‘We preach Christ crucified’ and though warning is necessary it should not be made the whole message.
- ILLUSTRATIONS AND STORIES. Here we are on tricky, even dangerous, ground. While a suitable and brief illustrative anecdote can be very telling and drive a point home, some fall into the error of having more stories than substance. We need to be very wise since we are handling sacred things. We may bring people to tears of emotion without moving them to the spiritual conviction of the grief of repentance. Sadly a funny story can dispel serious thought or even concern. Our Lord Himself used illustrations: birds of the air, farmers sowing seed, women at the mill, a man beaten up by robbers, etc., but such were always brief, pointed, and appropriate, and always to focus attention and drive home truth. They were never used to entertain or display cleverness. On the other hand we should avoid pompous sobriety as though we were at a funeral. We are proclaiming ‘the gospel of the glory of God’ and ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ’. Surely there should be the emotion of warmth, joy, and serene happiness. The gospel is ‘the good news of the grace of God’, and in ministry to believers we are to ‘minister the truth in love’ and always aim at edifying (up-building) the body as ‘we . . . speak the truth in love’. Some of the most effective lasting ministry by early brethren, though it contained corrective teaching and even rebuke did its work through exposition of the word and exaltation of Christ. I refer to men like Mackintosh, Kelly, Jukes, Bellett, Lincoln, Moule and the like, while nearer to our own times were Hogg, Vine, St. John, J. B. Watson, Ritchie, E. W. Rogers, Wm. Rodgers, Wm. Gilmore, Hawthorn Bailie, to name but a few. If you’ve never heard of some of them, then better start spending some money on good study books that will be a great help to you.
In Nehemiah chapter 8 at the time of the returned remnant from Babylon, ‘to build the house of God’, Ezra, the teacher, the prototype of all Bible teachers, had a simple plan for his teaching.
‘HE READ IN THE BOOK . . . OF GOD DISTINCTLY’ – that is the public reading.
‘HE GAVE THE SENSE’ – that is the exposition of the words.
‘HE CAUSED THE PEOPLE TO UNDERSTAND – that is the application calling for response. Read the whole passage and copy this great teacher. He got results.
As we read this pointed and ‘straight at you’ article, many of us will feel a tingle in the hair at the back of our necks. The Lord’s words spoken on another occasion are very apt, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him cast a stone’. There isn’t one of us that doesn’t need at some time or another a mirror that shows us as we are and not how we think we are. May we have the courage to think hard as we gaze into the mirror of this article and seek grace to address things we need to.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is in his nineties and resides at Faith House in Belfast. He was commended to the Lord's work in Angola in 1933 where he served for 30 years, preaching and translating the Scriptures. He wrote a number of important books and was very valued preacher.