Category Archives: Delivery

Courage and Preaching Tone

ToneHead2This series of posts has pondered the issue of preaching tone.  I’ve suggested we should understand the tone of a text and consider carefully the tone of the message.  Communication between people is rarely, if ever, purely informational.  Communication from God is never dispassionate.  He cares about people who will listen to our preaching.  So as well as considering the tone of the text, the situation of the listeners, and the tendencies of ourselves as preachers, we also need to pursue God’s heart in respect to the sermon.  What does God want to happen?  What tone would reflect his concern for the situation?

So to finish, let me highlight a danger and then two things to pray . . .

Danger: Considering the tone of a presentation is vitally important, but it does open up the dangerous possibility of inauthenticity.  If I am going to say something important to my wife, I would be foolish to not consider how the tone will come across.  But once I start thinking about tone, there is always the danger of faking something and launching into a performance.  When it comes to preaching, a performance never represents God well because God does not pretend.  God does not fake emotion.  When God speaks, God speaks with pure and authentic passion.  If we pursue “effective preaching” by looking at matters of tone, then we are in danger of inauthenticity unless we are gripped by the conviction that we must represent God not only in what we say, but by our character as we speak.  Though flawed and broken, somehow we get to speak for God.  Ambassadors.  We represent.  This kind of danger demands that we be prayerful about the privilege of preaching.

Prayer Point 1: Discernment.  Pray for God to give you discernment.  To be able to discern the intent of the biblical author and the need of your listeners.  And to be able to discern God’s heart for them, as well as God’s perspective on you.  Instead of asking God to be able to discern the state of your own heart as you approach a preaching engagement, better to ask him to do the searching and trying and weighing and to lead you into a place where you can preach in a way that represents his heart most effectively.

Prayer Point 2: Courage.  It is much safer and easier to preach dispassionately as if preaching were mere presentation of material.  Arms length.  Uninvolved.  But preaching calls on us to love people enough to be real with them.  It calls us to preach as one who represents Christ the Word of God.  Just as Christ was not universally loved by the lost and by the religious, so we might find our hearts trampled as we give ourselves away in preaching ministry.  That takes courage.  Pray for it, because the Lord knows what its like to represent the Father well and to suffer as a result.

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Preaching and the Tone of the Message

ToneHead2So assuming we agree that the tone matters, how are we to arrive at the tone of a message?  Three steps are needed here:

1. Consider the tone of the text.

As we develop sensitivity to the text and the setting of the text, we should be increasingly effective at grasping the tone of the author.  We need to go for a humble confidence rather than a brash confidence in this.  We are looking at lots of factors and weighing them up.

2. Consider the listeners to the message.

Who are you preaching to, and what is the occasion of the sermon?  Sometimes the occasion will influence the tone significantly (i.e. a funeral), sometimes it will be less significant.  It is not enough, though, to figure out the tone of the text and replicate that.  That text needs to be preached with sensitivity to these listeners.

3. Consider yourself as a preacher.

What is your natural or default tone?  Do you have a theological bias?  For instance, do you see everything as duty and expectation?  Do you see everything as gentle and joyful?  Do you turn any passage into a guilt trip?  The better you know yourself, the better you will be at selecting tone on purpose rather than defaulting into a tone that is less than helpful.

When you have evaluated all these factors, then there is still a bit more to consider.  Next time I’ll blog about the dangers and the needs as we think about preaching tone.

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Preaching Tones and Texts

ToneHead2This series is not about “adding tone” to lifeless letters and words.  It is about recognizing the tone of the text, and then being sensitive to the impact of our tone as we preach that text.  Here are a couple of example contrasts:

1. Tone of writer: Galatians and 2 Timothy.  This is perhaps the two extremes in Paul’s writing.  In Galatians Paul is very upset about the false teachers.  He forsakes convention to deliver a stinging astonishment statement in 1:6 instead of the standard thanksgiving opening.  In chapter 3 he is questioning who has cast a spell on the believers who he obviously loves deeply, but is so concerned about.  And by chapter 5 he makes the strongest remark in all of his writings, again about the false teachers.

Compare that with the sensitivity of Paul in his later letter to Timothy, beloved Timothy.  He writes about false teachers there too, but the tone is completely different.  He is concerned, he is deliberate, he is urgent, but he is gentle at the same time.  Paul wanted both letters to get through – one as a wake-up call, the other as an encouragement.

2. Imposed tone of preacher: Hebrews and Ephesians.  One example of how we can impose a tone that contradicts the material we are preaching can be seen when we think about these two letters.  Hebrews is a sermonic message designed to encourage and warn.  It startles.  It urges.  It paints pictures and explains a small number of specific Old Testament texts in such a way as to urge the believers on.  But preachers can bring in a foreign tone – one of theologically dense intensity that loses the energy of the original letter/sermon.

Or think about Ephesians.  The opening sentence in 1:3-14 is abundant in language choice.  The grace of God seen in the choosing, the giving of the Son, the giving of the Spirit, is lavished on believers.  And what might we do with it?  To be honest, too many of us turn it into a sterile detailed presentation of a theological doctrine triggered by one or two key words in the passage.  I wonder if the Ephesian elders would recognize our presentation of it?

Tone matters.  The tone of the text.  And the tone of the preacher.

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Filed under Christianity, Delivery, Homiletics, New Testament, Preaching, Religion, Specific text, Stage 2 - Passage Study, Stage 5 - Message Purpose

Your Default Preaching Tone

ToneHead2When you preach, you probably have a default tone.  Most of us do.  If we are going to preach the Bible effectively, we need to get to know the tone of the text and the tone that we will default to using.  Only then can we think through effective communication in respect to the tone of the sermon.

So what is your default tone?  Here are a few possibilities to get us started.  You should certainly listen to yourself on a recording, and you would be wise to ask some listeners how they would describe it!

A. Dull Deliverer - This preacher is generally flat in tone.  Not much variation, not much energy, not much life.  This is a hard one to spot in the mirror as we tend to find ourselves more compelling than others do.

B. Energizer Engager - This is the opposite: pure energy and continual variation in tone (albeit mostly enthusiasm).  Massive energy, excessive movement, a tiring experience for most listeners, unless they are so relieved by the contrast it provides to a diet of dull deliverers, then they will be complimentary for a while.

C. Critical Cleric - This preacher is generally judgmental in tone.  Whatever the text, whatever the situation, whatever the opportunity for leadership and encouragement, the message will probably come across as a finger wagging critique of the listeners or the culture.  As with every default, this will get some affirmation. You can critique culture mercilessly in a way that would unhelpfully offend any visitor, but some in the congregation will celebrate you “saying it like it is” or something similar.  Don’t evaluate tone on feedback, but do get feedback to evaluate the tone!

D. Gym General - This preacher is similar to the Critical Cleric, but the emphasis is on pressurizing the listeners.  Instead of just critiquing, there is a continual arm twisting going on.  No amount of application is ever enough, so do more, more, more.  Again, some people are attracted by fleshly ascetic religiosity, so this approach will be affirmed.  That doesn’t make it healthy though.

E. Cheery Chatterer - This preacher looks like he thinks he is in a wedding photo shoot.  Upbeat, smiling incessantly, nice and happy, perhaps even plastic in tone.  It is good to smile and be warm.  It is good to connect with your listeners.  It is good to remember that the God we represent should be evident in our manner and demeanor.  Consequently, let’s be careful not to come across as simply cheery all the time.  God is good, but He is not an unauthentic salesperson.

F. Rushed Reteller - This preacher has more to say than time to say it.  Consequently everything has to go at a clip in order to fit.  Information transfer gives way to information statement and all aspects of effective delivery give way to the one over-riding goal of saying the message.

What would you add to this list of default preaching tones?  There are many more out there.

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Preaching The Tone

ToneHead2I’d like to point our thoughts to the issue of tone in preaching.  Not just our tone, but also the tone of the text.  Let’s start there.

Good Bible Study – Good Bible study methodology has to include awareness of context, both written and historical, as well as content, both details and flow of thought.  In fact, that is a fairly good summary of good inductive Bible study.  Looking at both context and content, we try to make sense of a passage.  If we lose any of those four elements, we won’t understand it properly.

Without historical context/setting, we will import our own culture into the meaning of the text.  Without written context we will pluck passages from the larger flow of thought in their particular book.  Without attention to flow of thought we will be explaining apparently random details and probably using them to springboard to our own systematic theology categories.  Without attention to details we will make errors in grasping the meaning.

Better Bible Study – As good as context and content are, without looking at the author’s intent we will not really grasp the meaning of a passage.  Again, there are at least two broad indicators of intent:

1. Stated intent – if the writer tells us why he is writing and what he is trying to achieve, that is great.

2. Tone of text – this is more subjective, but there will be plenty of clues in the text.  Unless we ponder the tone of the text, I would argue that we are not in a position to claim understanding or to write down the main idea of the passage.

Tone Matters – In any communication tone matters.  Every spouse knows this.  Every child knows this.  Every friend knows this.  And in written communication, tone is not always easy to spot.  How many times have people misunderstood your emails or text (do you even know?)  I can’t imagine that the Bible writers were oblivious to tone in their writing, and they probably gave attention to the tone that they intended to communicate.

Before we can preach a passage effectively, we need to understand it.  Before we can understand it, we need to pay attention to the tone.

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One Step Closer

SteppingForward2Sometimes taking one step forward can make a huge difference.  Instead of remaining at arms length, one step can cross numerous boundaries of personal space and move you into a zone of great importance – this is true in romance, in fighting, in conversation, and in preaching.

Beginning preachers, and some that have preached for years, tend to preach their message at arms length. Some do so by some sort of conviction, others more unawares.  They study and prepare, but it is all about the notes.  From the Bible to the notes to the people.  Arms length. Somehow there is a nervousness about this thing out there called the message.  The preacher is anxious about saying the right words and that anxiety sometimes shows.  Even without showing overtly, it does leave the message somewhat flat, just about the words.

But one step forward can make such a difference.  If the entire process of Bible study, message preparation and delivery can all be brought inside the personal space, the preaching is very different.  Instead of something the preacher is straining to not forget, now the message comes from the heart.  Instead of preaching being truth preached by a personality (often a stilted personality trying to remember the message), now the message can be truth through personality.  Instead of a message being handled at arms length from the Bible text to the listeners, via the notes of the preacher, now the message comes through the preacher with the force of the life transforming power of the Word – clear and unhindered.

I am not really writing about notes.  More about whether the Bible is a curiosity and data source, a professional tool, or a personal treasure from a God who moves intimately into our personal space to wreck our self-absorbed worlds, bring about massive transformation and a deep intimacy.  I am suggesting our message preparation should be a unique experience for each of us, rather than following the checklist of someone else’s model.  I am saying that our delivery should come from the totality of a gripped heart and life in transformation, rather than being a mere transfer of information from notes to listeners.

It’s hard to pin down exactly how one message can be preached at arms length, while another comes through the heart of the preacher.  Yet as a listener it is usually not so hard to tell the difference.

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50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 46-50

Summer50bHere we are, the final five of the big summer fifty.

46. Read some descriptive writing.  If all you ever read is biblical commentary and theological textbooks, it will show in your preaching.  Find someone who can write effectively and spend some time with them.  We need to be able to paint pictures with our words, not just offer precise abstractions.

47. Pray about improving your preaching.  I too easily treat this as a given, so I’ll mention it again.  If you are a preacher, you should be praying.  Apart from me you can do nothing.  So why not pray specifically for God to show you areas to improve and to help make those improvements happen?

48. Nail a landing.  I’m always impressed when a preacher knows where he is going, gets there, and stops effectively the first time around.  Why not make that the goal next time you preach?  Even if you don’t write the whole sermon, at least write out the last couple of paragraphs and then nail it!

49. Schedule a break.  Summer is coming to an end and it is probably all systems go, but why not plan now for a break?  Find a couple of Sundays and book them off.  Make an appointment with a B&B or with a church visit somewhere else and just go sit.  If you always give out, you will not be serving your congregation well.

50. Prioritize a prayer list of preaching concerns.  Just to reinforce the earlier point, maybe it is time to make an actual list of preaching prayer points.  Maybe you track illustrations, maybe you have a preaching schedule.  But why not have a page of specific prayer points related to your preaching – include matters of preparation, of delivery, of growth, of longed for goals, etc.

Thanks for thinking through these.  Have any stood out as new?  Helpful? Relevant to you?

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50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 41-45

Summer50bInto the home stretch, five more thoughts today and then the final five tomorrow:

41. Come out from behind the furniture.  Your whole body communicates, so why hide most of it?  If you have huge pulpit furniture, just come out from behind it.  This isn’t just about being contemporary, Lloyd-Jones removed the curtain at Westminster Chapel for the same reason (although he chose to wear a robe, which slightly defeated the logic).

42. Gesture bigger to look natural.  Unless you are preaching to one person across a table, you need to gesture bigger than normal if you want to look normal.  Make sure your gestures and movements are big enough for the room you are in, and then make sure they still look natural and not stiff or forced.  Simple.

43. Discover your stiff preaching zone.  Speaking of stiffness in preaching, what aspect of delivery freezes when you stand in front of a crowd?  It is a typical and subconscious response to public speech.  Find it and deal with it.  It could be your voice getting in a certain pitch range, or a fixed volume, or a specific gesture repeated endlessly, or the direction your eyes look, etc. 

44. Left to right and back to front.  Make sure your gestures make sense from the perspective of your listeners.  Left is right and right is left.  Past is right and future is left.  A bit of practice and your gestures will start to make way more sense to those listening with their eyes.

45. Practice storytelling at home.  Whether you are preaching narrative or giving an illustration, you will need to tell stories.  Some are natural at this, some are awkward in the extreme.  Practice at home.  Children are always ready to listen to a story (it doesn’t have to be biblical for practice time – what happened today while you were out?  Be descriptive, engaging, suspenseful, etc.)

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50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 31-35

Summer50bHere are another five suggestions to consider . . . September is almost here!

31. Add a Bible tip or two.  When you preach, don’t just explain the text and make its relevance clear, take the opportunity to equip your listeners to handle the Bible for themselves.  Don’t turn your message into a lecture, but reinforce the importance of understanding a text in context, the need to make sense of it “back then” before applying it to today, etc.

32. Express expectation and encouragement.  It is easy to turn application of the Bible into pressure and burden.  Mix in a bit of negativity and the hoped for life impact is quickly undermined.  Take the temperature of your application and conclusion – see if it can be increased.  Encourage and expect . . . perhaps it will help.

33. Learn the local lingo.  It is possible to speak a generic form of English and get by in England, America, Australia, South Africa, etc.  It is also possible to learn the local dialect and fit in so much better.  Maybe the same is true in the Bible.  Instead of just speaking Biblish, why not speak the Johannine dialect when preaching John, or Lukan when preaching Luke?

34. Simplify the message.  When we plan messages on paper we can easily make them more complicated than necessary.  Try making the structure and shape of the message as simple as possible.  This is not about dumbing it down, it is about helping listeners be able to follow, no matter how deep or weighty the content might be.

35. Map the message.  In fact, instead of outlining the message as you would an essay for college, try mapping it as you would a journey.  Where will we go first, and then, then after that?  I often end up with a sermon map on the whiteboard, rather than an outline.  Some people like to tie the landmarks to physical landmarks in the church space.  Somehow the sense of movement and progression becomes stronger with this approach.

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50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 26-30

Summer50bFive more suggestions that may or may not be helpful as you ponder moving your preaching to the next level:

26. Go on an illustration hunt for a week.  Take a week when you are not preaching, carry a notebook and try to fill it with material for messages.  It could be traditional anecdotes, quotes, etc., but also look for normal life observations that people will resonate with . . . an illustration does not need to sound like it comes from an anthology of illustrations (please).

27. Evaluate a masterful communicator.  Pick someone you think is a great communicator and watch them as if they are preaching in your classroom.  What are they doing well?  Why does it work?  What can you learn?  Perhaps take a traditional and a contemporary communicator, maybe even one from another culture . . . watch and learn.

28. Preach through a prayerful rehearsal.  If you think it is unspiritual to run through a message out loud, perhaps the time has come.  Pray, and go for it.  Some things will only become evident when you hear them with your own ears!  If you can preach where you will preach, all the better!

29. Pray for the people in their places.  You know where certain people sit.  Pray for them and the effect of the forthcoming ministry on their hearts and lives. It will help them, and it will help your preaching to invest in them in this way.  Bless the church is a bit more vague than any prayer you will find in the Bible! Take a deep gulp of Colossians 1:9ff and then pray for people in your church.

30. Preach a grain instead of a slice.  We can get very stuck in the pattern of preaching a chunk of text.  Consider preaching a grain instead – that is, a theme as it develops through a book or section.  You could even do this beyond the borders of a book and give a biblical theology of something.  Don’t over reach, but variation can be so healthy for listeners as well as preachers!

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