“Let everyone be quick to hear….” (James 1:19)
Patricia Clarkson is an award-winning Hollywood actress and a well-loved native of our New Orleans. Her mother Jackie is a longtime political leader in the city. In Friday’s “The Advocate,” Patricia was reminiscing about when she first became aware she could act.
“I’ve had this distinctive voice since I was 5,” she said. “I remember the first play I did, in 8th grade, I brought the house down. I don’t think it was because I was good. It was because I was the only person who could be heard in the auditorium! Deep voices are on my father’s side of the family. My grandmother had a beautiful deep voice.”
The only person who could be heard!
In my first pastorate following seminary–Emmanuel Baptist Church in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenville–we had a hearing problem. The auditorium seated perhaps 300 and on a typical Sunday about half that many would scatter across the pews. Never blessed with a strong voice, I had trouble projecting so that everyone could hear well. Six or eight months into this ministry, I found that the church owned a rather crude sound system consisting of two speakers, a microphone, a lot of wires, and a control box which could be hid under the pulpit.
Knowing absolutely nothing about the complexities of sound systems, I nevertheless pulled out those speakers and ran the wires toward the back of the church. I sat the speakers in the window, angled toward the rear. The single microphone, I sat on the pulpit. And turned it on.
And that’s how it happened that I changed the culture of our church.
That contraption would be laughable today. But this was early 1968.
Immediately, the people in the rear of the auditorium could hear.
Once the people could hear, they began to respond.
“Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17).
As a college student, I participated in the speakers tournament Southern Baptists sponsored each year. The first year, my competition in our church was Leigh Anne McGrady and Brenda Mitchell, and they bested me. The next year, I won in the church, then for the western section of Birmingham, then for the county, and finally lost at the district level.
Something interesting happened on that Sunday afternoon when a dozen of us competed before judges at Glen Iris Baptist Church. The speaker before me–and I remember his name because we became good friends and later were seminary classmates–was in the middle of his presentation when a train went by the church, drowning him out. The rumbling noise filled the auditorium. He should have stopped and waited, of course, or a judge should have halted the proceedings and given him a chance to try again, perhaps after the other speakers.
No one did anything, however, and he kept right on with his speech.
Then it was my turn. The train was still banging down the tracks.
I remained in my seat.
There was no way I was going to compete with a train.
Finally, when the noise faded into the distance, I walked to the front and purposefully, intentionally, knowing full well what I was doing, spoke out loudly and clearly and confidently.
The contrast won the day. The fact that I could be heard so distinctly made an impression on the judges.
The very next night–this was a Tuesday in April of 1961–God called me into the ministry.
Pastor, your people need to hear you clearly; otherwise, you might as well take the day off.
1) Work on your own speech patterns.
–Tape your sermons and listen to them. Listen critically. Ask someone from outside your membership to listen and make suggestions.
–Ask friends in the congregation who can be counted on for the unvarnished truth to say if you are being heard, and whether they have suggestions to make the sound more effective.
–If necessary, get someone to help you with enunciation and projection.
–Find a speech (or voice) teacher who will teach you how to breathe properly.
2) Have a professional audio engineer study the sound within your auditorium and make recommendations.
To be sure, you can spend a fortune and still not get it right. (I have pastored churches that did both–spent fortunes and still not figured it out.) But unless the worship space is oddly shaped, this should be difficult.
3) If the group is small, do not be afraid to ask everyone to move together (or closer to the front). It will help you, help them, and encourage closer fellowship.
There are effective ways and also very poor ways to encourage the audience to stand up and move, of course. We will save this for another discussion. Suffice it to say here that a minister should find the most effective and gracious way to assist the congregation in achieving this. My own approach is to simply say, “Could I ask you folks to do me a favor? We’re scattered out all over this building. Would you mind moving up to the front?” And I would have alerted a couple of deacons or ushers to assist everyone.
I suspect churches are more prone to spend money on decor and furnishings than on something intangible like acoustics. But few things they do will have a more immediate or more lasting effect than doing whatever it takes to make sure that everyone can hear and hear well.
After all, “How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?” (Romans 10:14).