Your Sermon, Your Body Language – An Excerpt from Preaching God’s Word, Second Edition
You have a great sermon prepared, and the hard part is done. It would be great if all you had to do was to stand up and speak the words for maximum effectiveness. But it takes more than just words to deliver the message.
In today’s excerpt taken from Preaching God’s Word, Second Edition, authors Terry Carter, J. Scott Duvall, and J. Daniel Hays remind us that spoken language is only a fraction of the way you effectively communicate your sermon.
Experts tell us that a major part of sermon delivery is body language. Roy DeBrand suggests that the “visual in preaching is vitally important to communication.” By visual, DeBrand means things related to your body, such as clothing, posture, gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact. The visual has the potential to enhance or harm your message. Haddon Robinson reminds us that mannerisms unnoticed in normal conversation can “become distressingly obvious in public speaking”:
Mannerisms and repetitious behavior peculiar to you may go unnoticed
by your friends and be tolerated by your associates, but in the pulpit, they
scream for attention and divert your listeners from what you are saying. In
the pulpit, therefore, the movement of the body must be disciplined to be
Pay attention to your physical mannerisms in the pulpit. Listeners are annoyed by the physical habits of some preachers (rattling keys in their pocket, focusing their eyes above the audience, scratching their nose, or worse). While annoying habits hurt sermon communication, body movements such as appropriate gestures, good eye contact, or animation assist communication. Your goal is to eliminate any annoying or distracting habits and improve helpful practices.
Hands and Feet
DeBrand defines a gesture as “any movement of the head, body, or limbs to emphasize something we are saying.” Some people use gestures quite naturally as they speak. They are alive with movement, even when reporting what they just bought at Walmart. Others hardly exhibit any expression or movement when speaking. Which of the two would you rather see in the pulpit? The more active preacher gets our vote. Audiences are accustomed to that kind of action from television and movies. Gestures relate to movement of the hands and arms, but also the legs, torso, and head.
We agree with Robinson that the sermon content should prompt appropriate body movement. Body movement should correspond to the message and its meaning. If, for example, you use an illustration in which a batter hits a home run, you may want to assume a batter’s stance and take a swing. The words and the movement are congruent. When preaching about David slaying Goliath, swing your hand as if you were about to hurl a stone with a sling. Be sure to keep movement natural, matching what is being said. If you speak about the top of the mountain, raise your hand high to evoke great height. When speaking about the valley, go low with your hand to evoke great depth. Support your message by gestures.
Those who move a great deal may need to work on keeping the movement connected to the content and occasionally tone it down. Those who never move must work on becoming more animated in order to enhance communication. You could speak in front of a mirror or ask a friend to give you honest feedback as you seek to improve your gestures.
Your Face Talks
In normal conversation with friends, many students have little problem smiling when something is humorous or frowning when the subject is repulsive, but when delivering their sermons, they keep a stone face throughout. Facial expression is perhaps the most important of all the body language. Albert Mehravian has provided a formula for the effective nature of various components of speaking and communication. Seven percent of the message comes through the words, 38 percent through the voice, and 55 percent through facial expressions. Your face communicates anger, joy, disgust, irritation, excitement, sadness, discomfort, pain, ecstasy, contentment, love, hate, stress, relaxation, and many other human emotions and attitudes.
Watch some actors closely. They know the power of facial expression. The goal in preaching is for facial expressions to be congruent with the spoken message, just as with gestures. To preach on love while your face expresses disgust or irritation or anger confuses your audience. Unfortunately, your face often speaks louder than your words; a contradictory facial expression will cause your listeners to miss the spoken message.
Occasionally we encounter students who preach with stern, harsh looks regardless of the topic of the sermon. Perhaps that stern facial expression is a result of nervousness or an attempt to imitate other preachers. But when they watch the replay of their sermon, they see the mixed message. In any case, a good mirror and some practice time works wonders. Also, ask a trusted friend to evaluate you regularly.
Look at Me When You Talk
When you talk with someone who refuses to look at you, doesn’t it drive you crazy? Lack of eye contact causes distrust and disconnection in the communication process. DeBrand argues that eye contact is the most natural and important visual tool in sermon delivery. Proper eye contact says you care about your audience and have something important to say to them.
Be sure to look at the entire audience. Preach to everyone, and let your eye confirm your message. My wife reminds me regularly that my eyes tend to focus on certain segments of the audience, to the neglect of others. Some speakers are more one-sided in vision. Students who are either right-eyed or left-eyed struggle to keep from automatically setting their eyes in only one direction. When listeners feel neglected, their attention is diverted and their interest wanes. Work hard to consciously look at the entire audience, including people in the balcony (if there is one). There is no excuse for neglecting anyone in the audience. In addition, look straight at your audience—not over them, at the ceiling, at their feet, or anywhere else. Look into their eyes. You may think audiences don’t notice when you look above their heads at some imaginary point, but they do. In fact, every listener needs to feel you are personally speaking to them.You are preaching to people, and they need to experience that connection through direct eye contact.
Finally, find people across the congregation who exude energy, and focus on them during the sermon. Some listeners are attentive and truly engaged. Others are sleeping, talking, or just not interested. Look at everyone, but focus on those scattered around the room who seem captured by your sermon. You will draw energy from these listeners, and that in turn will energize your sermon. But don’t stare at or give too much attention to one person in the audience. That could break your train of thought, send the wrong message to others in the room, and make that one person feel uncomfortable, believing the entire sermon is directed at him or her.