I was going to Italy to be the featured speaker for a pastors-and-wives retreat. Those attending are all English-speaking serving churches across Europe as well as a few other countries. I was excited.
My host, head of the International Baptist Convention, pointed out a few things to keep in mind.
While everyone at the retreat will speak English, they are not all Americans. Therefore, I must be careful not to use idioms and references that only those from the USA (or even worse, the Deep South) will understand.
So, I started thinking over some of my choice stories. I have tales of growing up in rural Alabama, of small church preachers and narrow-minded Baptists and Southern ways. I could see I was going to have to revisit all my messages and stories and illustrations. Once we begin in Italy, there would still need to be some fine-tuning and tweaking.
When a preacher ignores the cultural divide between himself and his audience, he could mess up royally.
Good title, right?
Now a confession. I was never afraid to stand in front of a group and speak. In fact, quite the opposite.
In our little West Virginia schoolhouse, teacher Margaret Meadows would invite her fourth-graders to share a story they had read recently. I recall Violet Garten (love that name!) was so good at it. But when she called on me–I’m the kid frantically waving my hand–and I walked to the front of the class, I broke the rules.
I did not tell a story I had read somewhere.
I’ve thought about that conversation ever since.
A friend whom I know only from our internet exchanges wanted to know if in all the articles on my website, there was anything on a text he was researching.
I responded that I could not recall dealing with those verses, but suggested where he might find help. Then, I said, “Are you preaching on that text?”
I had no idea whether he was a pastor or not.
It turned out he was a layman and had been asked to bring a message that Wednesday night to his church. The Lord had laid on his heart a text, and he was trying to find out all he could on it. Good for him.
Then he said something which has lingered with me ever since: I want to give the people truths from this passage which they will remember the rest of their lives.
Wow. Big assignment he has given himself.
After the death of comic genius Robin Williams, someone was reminiscing about the time he preceded Bob Hope on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.
For some reason, Bob Hope was late arriving at the studio that night. So, instead of Robin Williams following him, which had been the plan, Williams went on stage first and did his hilarious knock-em-dead routine. People were beside themselves with laughter.
The great Bob Hope arrived and had to follow that.
Robin Williams said, “I don’t think he was angry, but he was not pleased.”
As Bob Hope walked out onto the stage and settled into the chair, Johnny Carson said, “Robin Williams. Isn’t he funny?” Hope said, “Yeah. He’s wild. But you know, Johnny, it’s great to be back here with you.”
Let’s talk about me. I smile. Even the great Bob Hope could not handle that.
No right-thinking person would voluntarily follow Robin Williams on the program.
Let no man despise thy youth (or thy inexperience–Joe). (I Timothy 4:12)
As one who has a great deal of respect for godly laymen and laywomen, I’m always glad when one rises in church to deliver a sermon or a testimony or a report. As a retiree and guest preacher, I get to see a good bit of this. And sometimes….
Sometimes I want to applaud them. “Good job. Well done.” (In fact, I often say it to them following the service.)
But at other times, I want to shake them. “Pay attention to what you are doing! You can do better than this!”
I say this fully aware that we all had to start out somewhere, sometime, someway, and no beginner came to the speaking craft full-grown. We crawl before we walk and walk before we run.
However, sometimes the lay speaker or preacher is mature in years and should know better and still will act like a novice.
Watch this. This is how it’s done.
Some years back, Robert Mueller was giving a commencement address at the College of William and Mary. This former director of the FBI in the first Bush administration is the epitome of dignity and class. He is anything but a comic or comedian. That day, speaking on “Fidelity, Bravery, and Integrity,” which he called the motto of the Bureau, he demonstrated a great way to use humor in a serious talk.
“In one of my first positions with the Department of Justice, more than thirty years ago, I found myself head of the Criminal Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston. I soon realized that lawyers would come into my office for one of two reasons: either to ‘see and be seen’ on the one hand, or to obtain a decision on some aspect of their work, on the other hand. I quickly fell into the habit of asking one question whenever someone walked in the door, and that question was ‘What is the issue?’
“One evening I came home to my wife, who had had a long day teaching and then coping with our two young daughters. She began to describe her day to me. After just a few minutes, I interrupted, and rather peremptorily asked, ‘What is the issue?’
This has happened to me more than once. I’m sitting in some huge meeting with hundreds of the Lord’s people representing churches across our state or country. A large number of preachers are in the audience. The speaker is sounding forth on some subject of importance to us all.
Suddenly, the speaker comes out with a statement that gets a hearty “amen,” something that sounds profound and undergirds the point he is making. He goes on in the message and everyone in the room but one person stays with him. Me, I’m stuck at that statement. Where did he get that, I wonder. Is it true? How can we know?
The speaker says something that stops us in our tracks.
Ever happen to you?
If “Facebook,” that wonderful and exasperating social networking machine, has taught us anything, it’s to distrust percentages and question quotations.
This is about what laypeople need to know about speaking in “big church.” You’ll understand that by big church, I mean you’re addressing a large group in the sanctuary. And laypeople means non-preachers.
Many non-clergy are outstanding (pun intended) on their feet in front of large groups. Schoolteachers and other educators come to mind. But the typical church member, even one who teaches a Sunday School class, is out of his,her element when suddenly thrust in front of the whole church.
They walk onto the platform (let’s not call it a “stage”) and stand at the pulpit, then look around. Wow. Things sure look different up here, they think. They open their mouth and begin to speak.
Anything can happen.
Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! I cannot speak, for I am a youth.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, I am a youth. For you shall go to all to whom I send you, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of their faces, for I am with you to deliver you,’ says the Lord. (Jeremiah 1:6-8)
Short answer: Work at it.
Longer answer: Read, listen, attend, ask, study, change, improve.
I used to have a professional speaker in my church. When I asked her for advice, she declined. I was disappointed. I would loved to have had some helpful pointers from her. (Many years later, we are still in contact and to my pleasant surprise, she remembers only how effective I was. I’m thankful for her poor memory!)
I bought a magazine at Barnes & Noble the other day. OnPoint costs like a hardbound but is a slick quarterly from the Harvard Business Review. The entire Summer 2019 issue is devoted to “How to Become a Fearless Speaker.”
I paid $20 bucks for it.
If I get one or two great ideas, it’ll be an excellent investment.
And that’s another point worth remembering, pastor: Always be open to improving your technique.