Suggestions for the young pastor: Your pulpit speech

Most young people mumble.

I’ll be sketching children and young adults and try to engage them in conversation or learn their names and have to ask someone what they said.

And the problem is not my hearing either!

When you come across the exception–a person who looks up, looks you in the eye, and speaks up clearly and confidently–you know you have a winner here.

Some of the best advice we can give to anyone, young or old, is to learn to stand up straight, look into the eyes of the person we are addressing, and speak up clearly. Enunciate.

How much more necessary it is for those whose very lives involve speaking to get this right!

Young minister, give some serious attention not only to what you say from the pulpit but also to how you say it.

Two-thirds of a lifetime ago, when I was in seminary, we had a Professor of Pulpit Speech. If any SBC seminary has such a critter on staff these days, I’d like to know it. Dr. Wilbur Swartz occupied that chair in the 1960s and 1970s at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and had earned the right to be heard. When he read Scripture in chapel, you sat up and took notice. Something inside you came alive and said, “Whoa! I didn’t know it was like that.” He raised the bar a light-year beyond the lazy comfort level where you had placed it.

By pulpit speech, we are suggesting that you give attention to:

1) Your pronunciation of words.

Now, you happen to belong to a profession that specializes in difficult words! The Old Testament and certain chapters in the New Testament are loaded with such challenges.

You can do this and do it well.  But not without some effort.

First, read your scripture text numerous times out loud before reading it to your congregation. Let your tongue get used to forming those words, particularly the unfamiliar or foreign-sounding ones.

Second, if you have trouble with words–everyone does!–ask for help. “Hey, Bob,” you say to a neighboring pastor, “how exactly do you pronounce mesothelioma?” (You will recognize that as an asbestos-related illness about which law firms run an unending barrage of television ads in their relentless search for clients. I recall the first time I saw the word on a billboard and wondered how in the sam hill one would go about pronouncing it.)

Once you have heard how to pronounce a word, say it again and again, a hundred times or more, until you no longer pause when you come to that word. Television anchors do this. They are not born with an innate knowledge of how to pronounce all words. They have to ask someone and then practice until saying the word becomes second nature.

2) Your English usage. That is, the rules of grammar.

You actually covered this in the ninth grade when you were thinking of other things. So, a little remedial education may be in order.

Recently when I said pastors should learn to speak correctly, a bi-vocational pastor challenged me. He said, “I hold down a full-time job and pastor at night and on weekends. I do not have time to take courses on subjects I should have mastered in high school.”

I have no arguement with that. I admire so much these men (and the occasional woman) who struggle to provide for their families and then shepherd congregations after hours in what would be considered free time by everyone else. But what I suggested to him I now pass along to you….

There are things you can do to improve your English that do not require a lot of time. First, pay attention to what you say and how you say it. Second, if you have an English teacher (or someone similarly capable) in your church, ask him or her to give you the occasional pointer on how to improve, but without inundating you with too many suggestions. Third, listen to your messages on recordings from time to time.

All of these things will help and none are burdensome.

3) Your public reading of Scripture.

We mentioned this above, but it’s worth repeating.

There is no substitute for reading your text aloud many times before leading your congregation in that scripture.  Read it slowly, and also try reading it quickly.  Try emphasizing the key words, and try dramatizing the conversational lines. Enlist your spouse or children to listen critically. Then decide prayerfully (and privately) how you will read this text on Sunday.

Pray for wisdom and work for skill.

G. Campbell Morgan used to say he never taught a book of the Bible until he had read it at least–I think this is right–forty times. The least you and I can do is read our text a half-dozen times in advance of reading it to the church.

That Holy Word is far more important than anything you will be saying about it in your sermon.

Some pastors ask the congregation to stand as they read the text “in honor of the Word.” I have no problem with this, but find it a little strange. After all, you’ll be reading scriptures throughout your sermon, but presumably the congregation will not be bobbing up and down everytime  you come to a verse.

Nothing honors the Word like thorough preparation and a faithful reading of the scripture to the people.

4) Your spirit, attitude, the way you connect with your congregation while you’re at the pulpit.

At a wedding rehearsal, a Catholic priest and I were discussing our respective roles in the next day’s ceremony.  When the bride asked the priest to read a particular text, some verses not in the ministerial book he was using, someone suggested he photocopy the scripture and insert it into the book. He said, “I never photocopy the scripture. It’s far too holy for that. I will type it and insert that into my Bible.” (I’m still not sure what I think of that, but found it fascinating. Many a minister treats the Holy Bible all too casually and even carelessly.)

I’m not against a well-placed “ain’t” or even a tiny bit of slang when the sermon calls for it. But God has called us to be holy people, called us with a holy calling, and sent us to do a holy thing.

Let us be sufficiently honored by His graciousness to work at doing it well, with class, and excellence.  Nothing less than excellence is worthy of our wonderful Lord.

5) Work on your accent if you have one.

I’ve heard of courses that teach young women from Brooklyn, let’s say, how to shed their Yankee accents. In the business world, we’re told, those strong language patterns seem to outsiders as harsh and rude. So, they are taught to soften their speech, and eliminate certain tell-tale characteristics.

If the New York speech seems harsh to the rest of the world, the lazy Southern speech comes across as ignorant and uneducated to outsiders. Argue with it if we like, but that’s how it is.

Someone from a western state who was visiting New Orleans this week asked why I don’t sound like a southerner. This happens so rarely–any mention at all of my speech–that it caught me by surprise. I explained that while I’m a native of Alabama, we lived for four years in my childhood in the coal fields of West Virginia where everyone–and I do mean everyone!–spoke with heavy Yankee brogues. Then, when I was 11, we were back in Alabama and I had to lose that accent or face ridicule on the playground. Finally, I’ve lived in the New Orleans area a third of my life. All together, my “accent” is either non-existent or a such a hodge-podge no one can identify it.  However, nothing affected my speech pattern like serving three churches that aired their worship services on live television. Watch a replay of your sermon and you will notice your own speech defects in a New York minute. It can be a humbling experience!

I sometimes go into ethnic churches where the adults are all from some other country, but their children were all born in the USA.  It’s a little strange going from visiting with the adults where the accents are difficult and pronunciation awkward into a room filled with their teenagers. Without exception, those kids are typical American youth. They speak without accents, use the same vernacular, and could fit right in with any other church youthgroup anywhere.  (This can be uncomfortable to parents who wish their children would retain the old country’s language and ways, but it’s life.)

We’re communicators, pastor. And we have the greatest message in the world to share.

Let’s work at getting it right, getting ourselves out of the way, and getting it across to those who hear.

The end result–eternal life for all who hear and believe–is well worth the investment of a little time, a little more effort, and a lot of prayer.



2 thoughts on “Suggestions for the young pastor: Your pulpit speech

  1. Worked with a pastor once in a church which had a television ministry and he suggested I pick up a high school grammar book to brush up on proper subject/verb agreements in speaking. I did because he was a mentor to me and never regretted a second of it. Speaking came naturally for me but the grammar end needed and still does from time to time if not careful, some tweaking. Old habits die hard sometimes but they will in time if one works hard enough.

  2. Good article, but I have a minor disagreement with the part about accents. Certainly you should tone down your accent if it hinders effective communication, but there’s a difference between toning it down and losing it altogether. Your accent is part of who you are. Take the great Vance Havner, for instance. He had a North Carolina twang, but that only enhanced his down home wit. I’m a southerner myself, and if I tried to talk like someone from the North, I would come across as stilted and inauthentic. I’d rather have people see me as genuine.

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