The non-verbal aspect of preaching


I'll confess that I really miss preaching every week. My sermon preparation time was a major impetus for studying Scripture, reading, theological reflection, and prayer. This simply doesn't compare with charge conferences, inspiring as they may be!

But even more than that, I miss the act of preaching. My belief is that preaching is embodied in a particular person, and the more effectively we learn how to communicate the message of the gospel, the more lives will be touched and transformed. The content of the sermon is only one aspect of the mystery of preaching. If we spend as much time and care with the delivery of the sermon as we do with the preparation of the content, our preaching will be much more compelling.
I spent nearly 18 years as an associate pastor, mostly listening to other preachers. And now I listen to preachers as a part of my general superintendency. (Maybe it took 18 years for me to learn how to listen.)  As a result, I have come to believe that the non-verbal aspect of preaching can best be summarized by three words: poise, presence, and passion.
Poise, also known as stage presence, describes the confidence, energy, graciousness, humility, dignity, self-assurance and authenticity that we radiate to the congregation. Poise is one of the pastoral graces I most admire in clergy. Poise describes what people see in us before they ever hear from us. Even if we are not feeling calm inside, we learn how to project a non-anxious presence to our listeners.
Pastoral leaders who are poised stand out from others because they are self-integrated and point beyond themselves to God. They are intuitively aware of all that is going on around them, yet they do not seek to be the center of attention and react to all situations with calmness and grace.
Presence refers to the way in which we communicate when preaching.  Preaching is not simply teaching a lesson to a class. Preaching involves transformation of hearts and minds and invites a response every Sunday. That transformation and response comes from engagement with the text as well as the physical presence of the preacher.
Every week we should prepare our sermon by deciding how we will be present to the congregation:
  • What will our posture be?
  • Will we literally lead from the heart?
  • How will we make eye contact with the congregation?
  • Where will we stand?
  • How and where should we move during the sermon?
  • How will our voice inflection and facial expressions change at critical places in the sermon?
  • How will we dress?
  • Will we wear a robe?
  • How will we make the best use of gesture?
Finally, just as people pick up on our poise and presence, they can also detect our passion in preaching. As I go from church to church, and hear different preachers, what I look for most in a sermon is passion. It's the "So what?" factor. 
When I leave a worship service, I want to be moved, touched, challenged, and inspired to be God's instrument of grace, hope, and healing. The attitude, enthusiasm and passion of the preacher is the key factor in that inspiration.
If we rethink the art of preaching to include poise, presence, and passion, how might we change our preparation? Here are some questions to ask (and answer):
  • Is my sermon delivery congruent with who I am?
  • Do I need to experiment with different styles of preaching in order to better communicate poise, presence, and passion?
  • Do I need a coach or trusted colleague who can help me become more effective in my preaching? (I wonder if we ever trust our covenant groups to give us this kind of feedback and coaching?)
  • Should I re-think my pre-preaching routines in order to best prepare myself?
  • Do I use solitude, breathing practices, set prayers, and quiet?
Preachers are not actors. Unlike acting, establishing a rapport with the congregation is critical if engagement and transformation are to take place. Yet, we have much to learn from the world of theater.
If two preachers deliver the exact same sermon, the one with the most poise, presence, and passion will most likely connect more deeply with the congregation. Phillips Brooks classic understanding of preaching was "truth through personality."
Can we handle the truth?
(Rev. Terry Harter is superintendent of the Sangamon River District. Reprinted with permission from the district’s November e-newsletter).