What laypeople need to know about speaking in church

By laypeople, we mean non-preachers.

Speaking in church refers to addressing large groups of the Lord’s people.

Many non-preacher types are outstanding on their feet in front of large groups. Schoolteachers come to mind. They are experienced and at ease. But the typical church member, even one who teaches a Sunday School class, may feel out of his element when asked to deliver a talk in front of the congregation.

Marlene said to me, “I’m sorry I took the entire service, Pastor. But the Lord was leading me.” Translation: She was unprepared, really got into her talk and couldn’t control it.  As a young pastor, I was inviting church members to share testimonies in the morning worship service, something along the lines of 5-7 minutes.  (Later, I learned to interview the individual and keep hold of the microphone the entire time!)

Once Marlene got going, she could not find a convenient stopping place. She kept on for a full 40 minutes. (I could have pointed out a half-dozen great places to stop!)

Now personally, I would not blame my failure to prepare for a speech on the Lord.

I see it happen all the time.  It can be almost embarrassing.

A man is given five minutes to present something in a formal program. He gets up and speaks and speaks. Fifteen minutes into the speech he says, “They told me I had five minutes. So, in the time I have left….”

He was serious.  The man had no clue that he was running over.

Meanwhile, his wife was trying to control herself on the second row.  But she would have liked to crawl under the pew.

Here then is my list of Things non-clergy should know before they rise to speak in church….

One. Standing in front of the congregation makes one lose all sense of time.  I know it’s true because preachers deal with it all the time.

Two. Prepare. A speaker needs to give advance thought to two important things: what to say and what not to say. The second is as important as the first.  By rehearsing our message, we identify the side streets that beckon us to stray from the subject and are able to decide in advance that we will not go there and say that.  But the unrehearsed speaker blindly takes those side streets and wanders far afield from his/her subject.  This is why an unprepared speech takes twice as long to deliver as one that has been rehearsed.

Three. Rehearse.  Once we’ve planned the presentation, we need to practice it. Several times. In front of a mirror, while taking a walk, alone in the car.

Four.  Ask. Once the plan has been made and has been rehearsed several times, the spouse should be invited to listen in.  “Honey, would you let me practice my talk?” Before beginning, the speaker says, “Please don’t interrupt me in the middle of my talk, but I’d love for you to write down thoughts and suggestions and tell me at the end.”

Five. Pay attention. Do whatever your spouse says.  Iron-clad rule.  Do not argue.  If your spouse says, “That story doesn’t work,” then take it out.   If they say something is unclear, it is. (This is really difficult since everything inside you wants to defend the good stuff you’ve written here.  Learn to stifle that. It’s your worst enemy.)

Six. Be sharp. Cut out all the preliminary talk.  We have all heard someone begin a talk with, “When they asked me to do this, I began to think about what I might say….”   Such an opening is just verbal clutter, and should be treated like all other garbage and trash: taken out and thrown away.  Start right in on your message.

Seven. No jokes unless you are skilled at telling one.  If you are going to tell a joke (or humorous story) in your presentation, try it out on several people.  If even one is slow to get the point, omit it. Jokes can be great when done well, but no beginner is going to do this well, mark my word. It takes time and practice, and frankly, a few failures.  (Ask any humorist to tell you of the stories that bombed, or even back-fired.)

Eight. Brief is great. Your allotted time is going to  be a lot quicker than you would ever have thought.  And if you take even less than the allotted time, everyone will appreciate you that much more!

Nine.  Nervousness is normal. Knocking knees or nervous hands do not indicate that you should not be doing this.  Even the most experienced speakers are often beset by anxieties before their moment arrives.  (Most suggest you “channel” the nervousness, although I’ve never quite figured out what that means.)

Ten. Speak up. Speak slowly and clearly.  Do not mumble. If you’re using the microphone, get with the audio person ahead of time. Ask for suggestions. Believe me, they have them!

Eleven. Focus. Here is a little secret I learned by accident in my very first sermon.  Sitting on the platform about to approach the pulpit to preach, I was almost overcome by nerves.  But, when I began to focus on the people’s need to hear what I had to share, the nerves disappeared.

Twelve. Use proper grammar. That’s one reason planning is important, so you will get your message across effectively.

Thirteen.  Never apologize.  (In this context, that is.)  We’ve all heard speakers walk up to the microphone and begin with, “Now, I’m not a public speaker…as you can probably tell…” (waiting for a laugh that doesn’t come.)  Don’t beat yourself up unnecessarily before your audience.

Just do it.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, you have terrific assurances that “He will never leave thee nor forsake thee” (Hebrews 13:5-6), that you “can do all things through Christ who strengthens” you (Philippians 4:13), and “He has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).

Fourteen.  Afterwards, no autopsies.  Stifle the urge to go back and analyze your every mistake.  Do not ask people how you did.  Do not erect a standard of perfection for your talk. (If we pastors did that, we’d never get up to preach.)

Make it fun.  Enjoy it.  You can do this.  Accept future opportunities to give talks, and I promise that if you will keep following these pointers, you’ll soon get good at it and have a ball.

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