7 Tone Balances

The tone of our preaching is so important.  Yet this is a balancing act.  Seven “tones” to balance in biblical preaching:

1. Serious yet joyful – We handle the most serious of content in the most serious of circumstances.  Yet we have more reason than any to have joy.  It isn’t right for a biblical preacher to come across as flippant and silly, but neither is it right to come across as sombre and melancholic.

2. Textual yet relevant – We preach as inhabitants of two worlds: the world of the inspired text and the world of our listeners.  It is possible for our tone to be too much in one or the other and for our preaching to be undermined as a result.

3. Contemporary yet genuine – We preach as fellow humans in the present situation.  It is incarnational to not come across as a prophet who has been locked in a victorian time capsule.  Yet we need to be genuine in this, no good pretending to be contemporary  in ways we are not, people see through that.

4. Authentic yet appropriate – In a culture that increasingly craves authentic communicators, we must show the real us when we speak.  Listeners don’t connect with plastic preachers.  Yet we must be appropriate in what we share.  Sometimes too much information undoes everything around it.

5. Welcoming yet exclusive – We preach as those who represent the welcoming spreading graciousness of Christ, yet as those who stand with Him in His claim to absolute exclusivity.  We can’t be welcoming in a way that offers hope to those on a hopeless path.

6. Warm yet warning – We preach as ambassadors for Christ.  He wasn’t stone cold like some preachers are, Christ was compelling and warm.  Yet the self-righteous found Christ to be one who warned, rather than warmed them.

7. Winsome yet real – Maybe this has been covered already, but let me reinforce it.  We speak as representatives of a God who seeks to woo the wounded.  Our preaching tone should be winsome and Christlike, but that won’t work if it is mere catchphrases that aren’t supported by a deeply stirred reality.

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When Delivery Grates – Part 2

Yesterday we thought about shifting weight between our standing legs and moving our eyes like we are watching a tennis match.  There are two more aspects of delivery that can really become distracting.  Not if we do them once or twice, but once they become repetitious habits:

3. Simon Says Touch Your Face, And Again

Some preachers get into a semi-rhythmic obsession with some sort of facial touch.  I know it is probably not proper to touch your face at any point, but let’s be realistic, we probably will.  But if it becomes a repeated thing, listeners will get distracted.  I have a year round issue with allergies, so an itchy nose is a regular challenge when preaching.  Others seem to have itchy glasses, or ears that need stretching, or disappearing teeth that need confirmation of still being present, or a rebellious beard that needs to be kept calm.  A movement repeated will mean listeners distracted.

4. Let’s Play Charades!

Whatever you call the game, you’ve probably played it.  Words not allowed, nor noise, just gestures.  And if the guessers don’t guess it, what do we do?  Repeat the gesture.  It’s like shouting the same thing louder through our hands.  It doesn’t tend to work, but if you do it when preaching, it will grate.

Any repeated hand motion will be consciously or subconsciously noticed by at least some of your listeners.  There are so many, and actually, all of them are fine.  But any of them repeated will be an issue.  There’s the spider on a wall mirror, the random point, the extended fist point with pen gesture (sometimes called the fishing rod cast off), the let me hand my words to you gesture, the elbows stuck to your hips T-Rex impression, or the tension in the hands werewolf, or the dead arm, or the Perspex screen around the waist stopping the hands coming above, or below it.  There’s the fig leaf stance, or the unscrewing a light bulb motion, or the wringing out all moisture from the hand, or the . . . we could go on, but you get the point.  It would be possible to get all these into one message and people wouldn’t notice.  But get stuck on one of them for a few repetitions and they will certainly notice, and be distracted.

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When Delivery Grates

Sometimes preachers will do something that grates on the listeners.  It is risky to write this post.  What if someone in your congregation reads it and stops listening to you?  Actually, the truth is that if they’ve noticed your habit, they have probably stopped listening fully already.

Here’s the vital truth to grasp before we get into specifics.  The problems I’m going to touch on today are problems when they become repetitious.  As a communicator you can get away with a lot of things once, but almost anything becomes a problem when it starts repeating. And the good news is that you don’t have to avoid ever doing these things – we all do some of them, maybe all of them now and then.  Just work to reduce or remove the one that you are repeating.

1. Weight Shifting and Continual Motion

Some preachers get into a rhythmic weight shifting between feet, rocking back and forth in a hypnotic pattern that may send listeners to sleep . . . or it may drive them mad and make them want to scream, “stop moving!”  Either way, they’re not listening properly.  Maybe you don’t just shift back and forth between feet, but you move, you prowl, you prance, you never stand still.  You’re like a caged and agitated lion threatening to escape, and your listeners, once they notice this, will become like people who long to escape (or mentally already have).  Watch out for repetitious weight shifting and foot motion.  Standing like a statue isn’t a good idea, but nor is moving like a perpetual motion toy.

2. Tennis Match Eye Motion

Some preachers get into a rhythmic tennis gaze that shifts back and forth between two focal points.  Maybe like a very famous US politician, you’ll pull off the four-second double teleprompter motion so that many find it natural.  Or probably you’ll have listeners wondering what is so fascinating about the clock in that corner and the top of the door over to their left.  There is a third point of reference that moves this out of the tennis analogy, and that is the return to the notes, but the problem remains.  The best way to avoid giving the impression that you are swapping between two focal points over the heads of the listeners is to stop swapping between two focal points over the heads of the listeners.  Don’t pretend to make eye contact.  Make eye contact.  And if you have more than two listeners, they may never get the tennis sensation again!

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Delivery Matters

Don’t judge a book by its cover.  But you do.  The best publishers know that, and so they tend to make the covers of their books look attractive.  Every now and then I come across a book that I know is pure gold in content, but just shake my head at the choice of cover.  Even the same book released in two countries with different covers can cause consternation, but that is another issue.

While we might strongly assert that only the content matters, the truth is that packaging, and cover, and typeface, and font size all do matter when it comes to books.  How much more does delivery matter when people are communicating direct?

Again, some will argue in most spiritual terms that the only thing that matters is content.  This simply is not true.  Great content poorly delivered is wasted content (because it will not be heard content).  While packaging must never cover for thin content, we must not hide great content in shoddy packaging.  This is simply poor stewardship.

More than stewardship, it is a downright contradiction of God’s approach.  God isn’t in the business of sending abstract content in inaccessible documents via courier.  God communicated vividly, powerfully, effectively and personally.  His ultimate revelation of Himself was Himself in the person of His Son.  Yet His Son came to us in the form of us.  The incarnation was, in part, an issue of message delivery.  He spoke the language of the people, he connected with the people, he didn’t allow his message to be obscured by poor delivery.

So let’s not be super-spiritual in an attempt to avoid the fact that how we deliver messages matters.  When people communicate to people, the people hearing the communication are always and constantly processing much more than just the bare content itself.

There is the tone of voice, the manner of the person, the facial expressions, the physical movement, the body language, the energy conveyed and the perceived interpersonal connection between speaker and listener.  Over the next couple of days we’ll ponder some of these aspects of delivery to prompt us in our preaching.  After all, delivery matters.

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I Mean, Just, Really

It’s been a while since I mentioned verbal pauses, so why not?  A verbal pause is a space filler.  It isn’t a productive and healthy pause – that requires space and silence.  It is a filler.  It keeps anyone from hearing the silence that scares some public speakers and threatens some domineering monological conversationalists (i.e. the type that don’t want to give you the chance to participate, lest they have to be quiet).  In preaching the verbal pause is typically prompted by nervousness or habit.  It can be controlled, or even eliminated.

The Noise Verbal Pause. This may feel less common, but equally it may be that we are tuning out the disfluencies more.  Gaps are filled with an elongated letter, sometimes determined by the national origin or local accent of the speaker.  Most speakers have moved beyond the child-like “ummmm” but may still deploy the odd “uhhhhhh” or extended “eyyyyy.”

The Out of Context Word Verbal Pause. The big one in recent years has been the “like” used in place of emphasis, introduction of quoted speech, description of emotional reaction, etc.  Some people string together “and” after “and.”  “So” can easily become a bridge word overcoming all full stops in spoken English.  “I mean” can punctuate many a spoken paragraph.  And you don’t have to choose a common one, you may have a unique one that is just you (ask someone honest and you’ll soon find out which word has a disproportionate usage in your vocabulary).

The Under-Vocab’ed Over-Emphasis Verbal Pause. This is where no adjective quite manages to describe and emphasise what is about to be said enough, so the speaker (or pray-er) resorts to repeating with emphasis such bland words as “Just” and “Really” and sometimes, again in prayer, “just really” or even sometimes “just really just” . . . focus and intensity.  Oh, and verbal pausing in a certain respect.

The Connecting With Listener Annoyingly Verbal Pause. In full this might look like a “you know what I mean?” but often will get shortened to a “y’know” punctuating the presentation of propositional statements.  Other variations include “you with me?” or “got it?” or “does that make sense?”

Verbal pauses are distracting in spoken communication. They often make you sound less intelligent or clear. They typically will muddle the message you’re trying to convey. Verbal pauses are really noise, not communication. As speakers committed to handling a very important message well, we must seek to reduce them and be as effective as possible.

Authentic Communicators

Apologies for no posts over the last three days.  I was expecing to have internet access where I was, but didn’t.

I was leading a session on preaching with a great group of folks yesterday.  We were considering what listeners value in a communicator.  Honesty.  Real-ness.  Vulnerability.  Eye-contact.  Authenticity.  I wonder if a previous generation might have listed different things?  Good word choice.  Presence.  Style.  Power.  Attractive voice.  Something else?

Perhaps authenticity has always been important, but it seems to be especially so today.  People don’t want to hear well-prepared but trafficked truth.  People don’t appreciate a presentation at arms length from Bible to listener, but by-passing the heart and life of the preacher.  As has always been the case, good preachers are transformed by the text before offering the text to others.

All this does not mean that speakers shouldn’t present well, clearly, effectively, even powerfully.  It does mean that every element of delivery has to be genuine, natural and authentic.  And that’s one of the challenges of delivery . . . it is not natural to stand in front of a group of people and speak naturally.  Hence the need to work on delivery to help it become more natural.  As I tend to say in the delivery workshops I sometimes run – the goal is not to perform, the goal is to let the natural you come through!

Don’t Disregard Distractions

Don’t ignore the power of distractions.  I’m not referring to the things that distract you, but the things you do that distract your listeners.  Don’t just shrug and say, “that’s just me.”  It’s not.  If you know about a distraction and don’t do something about it, then really you are saying, “that’s just me being too lazy or proud to address the issue.”  If you don’t know about your distracting mannerisms and habits, perhaps it’s time to ask someone who will be honest with you?  What might they point out?

Distracting Gestures – These tend to be the first thing people will mention because their power to distract is so great.  Basically any gesture you use too frequently will distract.  Especially any gesture you use rhythmically.

Distracting Gaze – It is distracting to listen to a speaker who won’t look at you, but instead seems to be looking over your head, or at some apparition only he can see on the wall over by the clock.  Eye contact matters to people, whether they know it or not.

Distracting Words or Non-Words – Hmmm, you know, like, I mean, just really, uhhhh, and what not.  Non-words, filler words, mispronounced words and repeatedly tacked on words are all distractions.  Find out what you use and graciously assassinate it.

Distracting Attire – Do most people really appreciate that loud shirt you were given on the ministry trip to wherever-land, or only the one or two ebullient people who react with joy to anything that breaks the monotony of normal life?  Equally, do the right clothes fit wrong, or the patterns create hallucinations for people watching your image projected on the screen (most of us don’t have this problem).

Your goal in communicating is to communicate.  It makes no sense to tolerate distractions.  Funnily enough, distracted listeners are, well, distracted.  Find out if you are causing distraction in any way, the don’t disregard what you discover.

Limit, No Limit

When it comes to preaching there are fewer rules than people might think.  Some like to impose significant amounts of structure on the preaching event, but in reality there are few limits involved.  There may be some limits imposed by the culture and heritage of a church – congregational traditions – and it is wise to think carefully before smashing through those expectations in an attempt to be creative.  However, these limits vary from place to place and it is possible, once trust is established, to carefully adjust such expectations.

However, putting aside the idiosyncracies of specific congregations (and the key change monitors who might take it on themselves to preserve order!), the whole issue of limits seems to come down to two principles:

1. To have integrity as a biblical preacher, I must be constrained by the true meaning of the passage I am preaching. This is the one limit that must be in place.  We commit to preaching the true meaning of the text.  To the best of our ability we must strive to understand what was intended in the preaching text.  We cannot preach on anything from anywhere in the Bible.  Sometimes the pursuit of being “interesting” and “relevant” undermines the exegetical integrity of our ministry.  We need this limit firmly in place.

2. To be effective as a biblical preacher, I have freedom in the formation of the sermon and its delivery during preaching. What shape should a sermon take?  What style of delivery should be used?  Matters of form are matters of freedom for the preacher.  Different texts, different circumstances, different occasions, even different listeners, can all prompt different sermon shape and delivery style.  At this level our goal is effectiveness in communication.  We do not need unnecessary limits in place to hinder our effectiveness.

Sadly too many preachers settle into a predictable pattern where there is freedom – in form and delivery.  And too many choose freedom where there is a limit – in the meaning of the text.  Let’s be sure to get our limit and our no limits the right way around!