When I first started out in ministry, my preaching was way too fast. It wasn’t just the elderly who were complaining, but also the middle-aged and the young. The elders kept on at me about it but to no avail. I was having difficulty keeping my speaking speed in check. Part of the problem was I had too much material. I had to keep up a fast pace just to get through it all! Then one of the deacons, an Air NZ pilot, had an idea. He cut out a square piece of cardboard and wrote on it in big black letters “SLOW DOWN”. Then he held it up above his head while I was preaching whenever I went into overdrive.
It worked. Wonderfully.
That was 20 years ago and my preaching has improved remarkably. Yet I have found, even over the past 4-5 years, that my preaching speed has dropped a few notches further still. It wasn’t intentional (as it was in my early years), it just happened. And it has had a remarkable effect. The congregation is more attentive, I am able to give greater “weight” to the important things I say, and people leave thinking harder about the sermon.
Then I came across this post by Nicholas McDonald. Whether you are a young “budding” preacher or an old hand, this is worth a read:
Recently, I’ve been working on slowing my preaching down. I’m not a particularly fast speaker, but I often don’t leave intentional spaces and pauses. Normally, this is because I’m nervous. I’m afraid they won’t get the joke, or they’ll think my mind blanked out. But really, space in preaching – slowing down – is a gift. Here are 7 reasons why:
1. It gives people space to worship. I think we white-folk could use a little more audience responsiveness in our preaching….Amen? Anyone? Someone was recently sharing with me their experience of having a child with a learning disability, and noted that churches with more interaction helped them to engage. But for adults, space to respond is an opportunity to worship. In order for that atmosphere to come about, the preacher has to have the courage to stop, and expect it.
2. It gives space to laugh. If I’m nervous about a punch-line, I rush it. It doesn’t give people time to get the joke, and it doesn’t leave room to laugh. Listen to good comedians – their communication has a pretty sporadic rhythm: Punchline. Laugh. Punch-punch-punch-line. Laugh. The point is, a comedian knows when to stop, and get a reaction. Preachers aren’t comedians, but if the preacher is trying to poke a little fun at people, he’ll have to have the courage to allow them to react…even if it’s dead silence.
3. It helps congregants stay on track. It takes us a lot of brain power to focus in on a spoken message in our distracted culture, but one way to make it easy for people is…make it easy. Slow DOWN. That might mean cutting out 5 minutes of content, so you can slow down and say more at a pace folks can follow. Remember – we preachers have the curse of knowledge. We clearly see the connection from one thought to another, but most people need us to pause so they can make the connection themselves.
4. It creates a conversational feel. Sometimes when I get carried away in preaching, I speed up. But when I listen to myself, at times it feels more like a rant than a loving conversation. When we slow down, it feels more personal – people aren’t coming to hear a “state of the nation” on Sunday morning. They’re coming to hear a good friend, coming alongside, guiding them through scripture.
5. It gives people confidence in the preacher. Although it feels uncomfortable to us, pauses actually give off the impression that a preacher is confident. It’s a verbal movement that says, “Okay, listen close – I need to word this just right.”
6. It helps the preacher gather his thoughts. I know I’m preaching too quickly when I find my sentences moving faster than my brain – that’s also a bit dangerous. I never know what’s going to come out of my mouth that way. Times during the sermon, I need to remind myself that it’s okay to slow it down. It makes me feel less pressure to piece together an elaborate string of eloquence, and gives me time to be thoughtful with my words.
7. It gives the preacher space to pray. I know this sounds crazy, but I’ll never forget hearing John Piper talk about the experience of praying for his congregation as he preached. It totally made sense to me. I’m the type of person who needs a lot of things on my mind to focus on any one thing – so as I preach, I’m often thinking about other things. The best way I’ve found to deal with the “wandering guy” is to pray. Leaving space in my preaching allows the “second guy” to be the Holy Spirit. Think it’s impossible? Try it.