10 Things the Lay Speaker (And the Inexperienced Preacher) Does Not Know (But Needs to Learn Fast)

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. And since I’m in a different church almost every Sunday, 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 do that before we run.

However–and this is what prompts this diatribe today–what gets my goat is when the lay speaker or preacher is mature in years and should know better and still makes glaring mistakes.

Here is my list of ten things the beginning (or rusty or occasional) speaker seems not to know, but needs to learn quickly in order to be effective.

1. How to begin a speech, report, lesson, testimony, or sermon.

First, how not to begin:

“When they asked me to give my testimony this morning, my first thought was….”

“I don’t know why they asked me to do this, but….”

“When I told my wife the preacher had asked me to speak today, she said….”

Don’t do that.

No one wants to hear how you came to this event. It’s important to you, but it has absolutely nothing to do with your assignment.

Your audience wants to hear what you have to say. So, cull all that clutter and go straight to the point.

Walk to the podium, smile at the congregation, take a deep breath, and begin: “One of the most important events in my life came on a Thursday some ten years ago….”

2. How to Measure Time.

The uninitiated speaker who has been handed the pulpit and told to take 5 to 10 minutes is lost. He/she has no concept of time. None. They will think they have taken 2 minutes when they actually took 15.

I still remember with some pain a lay speaker who was representing a ministry of considerable importance in our state, and who was assigned 10 minutes for a report to one of our convocations. He walked to the pulpit, told his audience of several hundred that he had been given that amount of time, and made some general remarks which were intended–I would assume–to connect him with the hearers and to relax him. The problem is those remarks took all of his time. Every minute of the ten.

To make matters worse, when he finally launched into his report, he took 10 minutes for the introductory portion. When he had gone 20 minutes, he paused to take a breath and said to us, “In the few minutes I have remaining, I’d like to….”

This happens more often than you might think. Simply stated, a beginning speaker has a hundred things on his mind, a dozen conflicting emotions coursing through his being, and they all block out any awareness of how long he has stood there.

There is no substitute for preparation. (We’ll get to that at the end.)

3. How to pick and choose a few Scriptures.

The novice stands in front of us and makes a point that is biblical and sound. Then, to back it up, he proceeds to read to us every scripture he can find on the subject. And with some subjects, that’s a truckload!

We would like the lay speaker/preacher to know: it’s okay to leave out some of what the Bible has to say on your subject. If you expect people to appreciate the ones you quote and to remember them, one or two on each point will be sufficient.

4. How to tell a story without a thousand irrelevant details.

A good story will have some details, but will not be overstuffed with them. If the speaker takes all day to get to the point, his hearers will have forgotten his point, will be tired of listening, will be ready to move along, and will be more than a little impatient with him.

Anyone who has heard me preach knows I love a good story. Love to hear it, love to tell it. So, when the speaker launches into an illustration, he has me on his side. I want him to do well. However….

Recently, in a meeting I was attending, a beginning preacher–not a kid, but a mature man in his first pastorate–told story after story in his sermon. In so doing, he committed two errors, the kind usually attributable to young preachers.

–First, too many stories can make the sermon as ineffective as none. Try to avoid skyscraper sermons. You know, one story on top of another.

–Second, his last story took fifteen minutes to tell. He and his wife took a long trip with friends and visited two churches in two cities. The contrast between the two churches was the point of his message. As an audience member, I liked the points he was making and found them well-stated. He was not boring at all, and I stayed with him all the way. However, he turned the sermon into a travelogue, and it eventually lost all semblance to a gospel message and became simply a tale of two churches.

The remedy is twofold: practice telling the story to your wife and listen to it played back on a recording. Your wife will tell you to cut out much of the clutter, and your own mind will do so when listening to the playback.

5. When a story is appropriate or wrong; when it is needed or not.

Not all points in a sermon need to be illustrated with a story. Not all stories are appropriate for that message, that point, or that church.

Veteran preachers sometimes err here. I still grimace at the memory of one man of God who told his large convention audience a tale about his daughter, about what a dumb blonde she was, and then at the conclusion, finished by telling us it was just a joke and didn’t happen at all.

What in the world, I wondered, did he mean by doing such a foolish thing? Had he taken leave of his senses? What damage did he inflict on his daughter? And was he aware that no one heard a thing he said for the next five minutes for thinking about that truly bizarre joke?

The shorthand remedy for this is: Ask your wife. The Lord gives us spouses who see things differently from us for good reason. Ask her and respect her answer. If you disagree with what she says, take it to heart, then take it to the Lord and ask Him.

I’m betting the Lord is on her side.

6. When to carry notes with you into the pulpit.

Recently, I sat in an audience where a representative of the children’s ministry in that state Baptist convention was delivering a report to the congregation. According to his own testimony, he had worked for that agency for years and was now retired. He told a couple of stories and made a pretty fair plea for support. But….

What I could not understand was the cards he carried into the pulpit with him. He glanced at them from time to time, and shuffled them as he got further into the message.

The man was speaking about something he had given his life to. So, why in sam hill did he need notes?

It’s as though you asked me to get up and tell about my grandchildren, and I had to rely on cue cards. Bizarre.

7. When to shut up.

Plainly put, the uninitiated layperson who stands to speak usually has no idea how to end his message effectively. I suspect it’s because he has had too many dull preachers as his role model, men who said “Finally, brethren” a dozen times before they closed it down.

I’m in the audience, I hear the layman (or beginning preacher) speaking, and I think, “Right there! That was a great line. End it there, and you will have us walking out of here in your corner.”

But he doesn’t. He almost always drones on and on. In most cases, he just fizzles out, sometimes apologizing for his ineffectiveness or lack of preparation.

This speaker needed a friend, someone who would listen to him and offer sound feedback.

8. That the off-the-cuff and ad-lib remarks need forethought, too.

Someone once said of Winston Churchill–for my money, the greatest public speaker in modern history–that he spent half his life planning his ad-libs.

For preachers and lay speakers, those impromptu remarks usually come when we walk to the pulpit, look at our audience, and begin to speak. We have our message, it’s well-planned, and we’re ready for it. However, we feel we need to make a few casual remarks about “How good it is to be here in Greenwood” or “Wasn’t that a wonderful song? Thank you so much, Sister Cherry!”

In many cases, those casual remarks can come out all wrong, can be embarrassing, can be distracting.

Pray about them in advance. I do. If there is a special significance to this day, this occasion, or this place, I’ll prayerfully figure out what I want to say about it in advance. Recently, while supplying the pulpit for a pastor friend, I began: “In the 16 years Pastor Jim has led this church, he has had me for three revivals. That means you have heard everything I have to say…three times!” They laughed, and I launched into the introduction of this sermon, as to why it was something very special.

Frank Pollard, celebrated pastor and personal friend of years past, sometimes began his message by acknowledging the introduction: “The Lord needs to forgive my brother for that wonderful introduction–and forgive me for enjoying it so much!” His words brought laughter and connected him with his audience, and he was off, into his message.

9. That your personal appearance matters.

Give some thought to your appearance. The primary rule–at least for me–is: “Have nothing in your dress or appearance that will detract from your message.”

For ladies, that means to dress conservatively (watch those earrings!) and tastefully. We have all seen young women presenting a solo in church when their dress was cut too low at the top or too high at the bottom. Too tight, too loud, too busy, too gaudy, are also no-nos.

Men will want to dress in a way so as to reflect well on their assignment. Whether he wears a suit or a dress shirt and tie may depend on the culture within that church. It’s better to err on the side of over-dressing than be guilty of looking slovenly while on the King’s business. Guys, get a haircut, shave, and look your best.

Recently, I was in conversation with a mature pastor who has taken to leaving off the necktie. “I don’t want to create a barrier between me and my congregation,” he said, “or the casual visitor.”

I understand. However….

A necktie won’t create such a barrier. It does not wield that kind of power. It’s a little thing.

This week I spent a few hours in two airports and noticed one class of men all wearing neckties: the pilots. They looked sharp and professional, and frankly, I appreciate that. I do not want the captain of a 737 wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt. I’m not sure why, but dead certain I don’t.

Does a necktie inspire the members of my church to have more confidence in my professionalism? I don’t know. But it might. It’s certainly worth some thought.

10. Not to sabotage your own message.

By now in writing this article, I had used up all the points hastily scribbled in the middle of last night when the burden for this message was weighing on my mind, robbing me of sleep. So, I ran this by my pastor, Mike Miller, and asked for his input. “I’d like ten points instead of nine,” I said. He was ready for me.

“What I hate to see any speaker do when he approaches the pulpit,” Mike said, “is to undermine his message by beginning, ‘Now, I don’t know anything about this subject.’ Or, ‘I’m not a theologian.'”

“If you don’t know anything about it,” he added, “why are you up there? Why am I being asked to waste my time listening to you?”

Good point. In fact, it’s a great point.

If asked to speak about something I know zero about, I should do one of two things: decline, or accept the invitation and set out to learning the subject. In either case, then, I would not be telling the audience “I know nothing about this.” However….

In the last two seminary classes I have taught–on Worship Leadership and Interpersonal Relationship Skills–I began the opening session by saying: “The seminary did not ask me to teach this because I know a lot about it. They asked me because I have a great burden for it.” I hope I was not undermining my effectiveness.

So, what’s the beginning speaker/preacher to do? I’m glad you asked.

1. Practice, practice, practice.

While driving or walking, go over what you plan to say. Get it so clear in your mind that you will be able to go straight into the message, stay on point, clear out the clutter, and end effectively.

2. Ask your wife or another close friend.

You can benefit from having someone who loves you listen closely to what you plan to say and give you their honest appraisal. If your insecurities do not allow you to receive honest feedback, you should decline the opportunity to speak because your assignment is an accident waiting to happen.

As we said above, no matter what your friend or your spouse says, take it seriously. If you question it, talk to the Lord about it. Also, enlist another friend to listen and give you feedback without telling them about the earlier advice you received.

3. Try rearranging your message.

Unless you are delivering that talk in the next 24 hours, you have time to try different ways of approaching the subject. Try telling a story up front, try going straight to your text, try the confessional approach. Try telling your illustration in different ways. Go for brevity and see if that works.

See if you can deliver this talk and come in several minutes under the time limit assigned to you. Do this and you will make several friends for life.

Pastor Mike told me of the time he gave a man five minutes to deliver a talk in church. “We practiced it,” he said, “and it still didn’t work.”

“He stood at the pulpit and talked for 37 minutes!”

“Afterward, he had no clue. He actually asked me, ‘How did I do timewise?’ I said, ‘You took 37 minutes, my friend. You probably noticed that I didn’t preach today.'”

Mike added, “I was a young pastor then. And didn’t know how to handle it.”

I said, “Now, you would interrupt and cut him off.”

“No,” he said. “I interview them. It allows me to keep control of the time element.”

Good point. As with most lessons in the Lord’s work, we learn them through failure and difficulty.

It’s a good thing to encourage laymen to speak publicly. But they should never have the pulpit turned over to them without guidance and assistance.

This is my attempt to help. Feel free to pass it along to your favorite beginning speakers/preachers.

6 thoughts on “10 Things the Lay Speaker (And the Inexperienced Preacher) Does Not Know (But Needs to Learn Fast)

  1. Well said as usual. Us not-so-inexperienced speakers could stand to refresh our presentations by this advice from time to time. I especially liked point 10, as I’ve had a couple of times where someone needed help getting to the end (“missed several opportunities to quit”) lately. Thanks!

  2. Joe, thanks for the reminders. I’m speaking to the Pascagoula High Football Team this afternoon. I’m going to see if I can apply all ten points. If I do, can you guarantee they will win?

  3. A very interesting and instructive article for all of us who use the pulpit frequently and for those who are making the “first steps” into it. Thank you, brother Joe McKeever. We need more about this to improve our message delivery!

  4. A very interesting and instructive article for all of us who use the pulpit frequently and for those who are making the “first steps” into it. Thank you, brother Joe McKeever. We need more about this to improve our message delivery!

  5. This is a great article!! I love to fill in for my pastor when needed and speak to local retirement & nurseing homes.This gives me great insight into what is important. Thanks.

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