On Bad Habits and Nervous Ticks in the Pulpit

Recently I began uploading my sermons to the beautifully designed Sermon Audio website (sermonaudio.com). Since I am the audio/video guy at my church, I pull double-duty as both sermon giver and sermon audio editor. So I get to listen to myself preach every week, which isn’t always fun and exciting. Sometimes it’s embarrassing – but it’s always helpful. Here’s a few lessons I’ve re-learned about preaching by listening to my own sermons:
1. One of the easiest ways to improve a sermon is to tell your audience early-on how the outline is laid out. Tell them how many points you have (no need to inform them of all the subpoints – that lends itself to more of an academic atmosphere). And when you announce your points, give them the titles of the heading. Avoid saying “I have three points” or, “I have three things.” Say instead, “My sermon today will track along three lines of thought,” or something like “the story will be divided into four scenes,” and then give the title of those headings. Try to use different ways of describing your main point, and avoid using those words “points” and “things.” Be creative, but not ridiculous.
It’s easier for folks to follow if they know where they are going and how long the journey will be – not necessarily in time but in substance. I usually do this, but I noticed when I don’t it makes the sermon less enjoyable (endurable?).
2. Avoid nervous ticks and over-used words and phrases. Some preachers have an irritating habit of smacking their tongue against their teeth after a pause. It sounds like tsk. It drives me nuts. When I started listening to my own sermons, I was horrified to hear myself do it. I made a mental note to try to avoid this subconscious habit as much as possible (and I made sure to edit it out of the sermon audio whenever I can).
I also noticed that I tended to repeat certain words and phrases too often. We preachers can fall into the trap of over-using ummm, like, and uhhhh. Other frequent offenders are inserting words like amenat the end of every sentence and posing it as a question, e.g., saying, “open your Bibles, amen? To the book of Revelation, amen? Chapter 2, amen?
3. Less humor is good. Some church cultures are dead-set against any humor in a sermon. I think that may be going too far, but too much levity (or attempts at it) can degrade a sermons effectiveness and even stretch the length more than necessary. I noticed that some of my off-hand comments weren’t as funny as I thought they were when I said them. I made a mental note: maybe don’t give in to the urge to crack jokes every time it hits you behind the pulpit. Purposeless comedic interludes take up valuable time, and worse, too many unfunny attempts at humor are embarrassing.
These are just a few reminders – nothing earth-shatteringly new – about sermon improvement. Of course, I’m not saying that these foibles, left unaddressed, will impair one’s ministry. Neither am I exalting eloquence above the need for the power of the Holy Spirit – I’m not even arguing for eloquence (whatever that means to you). I’m simply encouraging pastors to be mindful of the people that listen to them every week, and maybe make it a little easier for them to sit and listen in faith without having to grit their teeth and bite their tongue because our irritating idiosyncrasies go on unchecked.
If we’re going to spend our lives speaking publicly, we ought to make an effort to improve our abilities to do so. As preachers living in a world of modern technology, we have a tool at our disposal that preachers of the past did not: recorded audio. Listen to your own preaching, preacher. And take notes on how to improve.
For further reading, I suggest Spurgeon’s Lecture to My Students wherein he addresses these very issues with more thought and skill than I did in this brief post.
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