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.
Marlene said, “I’m sorry I took the entire service, Pastor. But the Lord was leading me.” Translation: She really got into the testimony we had asked her to give, and couldn’t control it. As a young pastor, I had invited church members to share testimonies in the morning worship service, something along the lines of 5-7 minutes. (Later, I learned to keep hold of the microphone and interview, rather than turn the service over to them.)
Since Marlene had not prepared adequately, once she got going, she did not know how to avoid the side trails and could not find a convenient stopping place. She talked for a full 40 minutes. When she finally finished–her young pastor did not have the courage to walk up and cut her off–there was nothing to do but end the service.
No one should blame their failure to prepare on the Lord.
I see it happen all the time. It’s almost embarrassing.
A man is given five minutes to make a presentation in a formal program. He gets up and speaks and speaks. Fifteen minutes later, he says, “They told me I had five minutes to do this. So, in the time I have left….”
His wife is trying to keep control on the second row. But she is so embarrassed for him she’d like 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 plan carefully and fully two important things: what to say and what not to say. The second is as important as the first.
Three. Rehearse. Once the speaker has planned the presentation, he/she needs to practice it. Several times. In front of a mirror, while taking a walk, in the car. (Do not fall prey to the idea that preparation limits the Spirit. The Holy Spirit can work just as easily on Thursday as Sunday, in the car as well as in the pulpit.)
Four. Ask. Once the plan has been made and has been rehearsed several times, the speaker should ask his/her spouse to be their audience. “Honey, would you let me practice my talk?” They should then add, “Please don’t interrupt me, but write down any thoughts or 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 it doesn’t. 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 people begin with, “When they asked me to do this, I began to think about what I might say….” This is just verbal clutter, and should be treated like all other garbage and trash: thrown out.
Seven. No jokes unless you know what you’re doing. If you are going to tell a joke (or humorous story) in your presentation, try it out on several people ahead of time. 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 times when he/she told stories that bombed, or even back-fired.)
Eight. Brief is great. Your allotted time is going to go a lot quicker than you would ever have thought.
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 him/her 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 sitting before me and their need to hear what I had to share, the nerves disappeared.
Twelve. Use good grammar. That’s why planning is important, so you will know how to get your message across most effectively. In time, you may learn how to use ain’t or another slang word effectively, but the novice does not have this skill. Not yet.
Thirteen. Do not sell yourself short. 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…” (They pause and wait for a laugh that doesn’t come.) Don’t beat yourself up unnecessarily before your audience.
Fourteen. Know this: The audience wants you to do well even more than you do. That’s an iron-clad rule. They are on your side.
Fifteen. So, just do it. Never turn down an invitation to do some public speaking, unless it’s a forum not to your liking or a subject outside your area of knowledge.
As a new pastor in the New Orleans area, I turned down an invitation to be a last-minute fill-in for a television program dealing with the pros and cons of homosexuality. The last thing I needed was to be labeled as anti-gay, either by my church or those opposed to church. So, I sent my regrets.
If you fear public speaking, you have lots of company. But you will take a giant step of personal growth each time you accept the challenge. Fear can be a monstrous master. Give it an inch and it’ll take a foot. According to a friend who did a biography on Cartoonist Charles Schulz, he was afraid to fly. However, once a year, Schulz took a short flight somewhere. “The nature of fear is such,” he said, “that if I give in to it, soon I’d be afraid to leave my room.”
Fear hath torment, said the Apostle (I John 4:18). I expect most of us know that.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we have terrific assurances that “He will never leave thee nor forsake thee” (Hebrews 13:5-6), that we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens” us (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).
Go for it. You can do this.
Oh, and there’s one more thing. Let’s make this…
Sixteen. Afterwards, no autopsies. Stifle the urge to go back and analyze your every mistake. Do not ask people how you did. Do not put the standard of perfection on your talk. (If we pastors did that, we’d never get up to preach.)
Quick testimony. Today is Monday. Yesterday, I listened to a friend preach on livestream and was struck by how well he did. Immediately afterwards, I watched the service in which my recorded sermon was broadcast, and was disgusted with how poorly I did. Later in the day, a preacher friend texted to tell me how successful my message had been. So, even though I will work hard to make next Sunday’s message better, I am reminded that I am not the best judge of my own preaching.
You’d think that having done this for nearly sixty years, I’d be over this little tendency to critically grade my own preaching. Apparently, it never goes away.
Maybe the best advice of all is this: Make it fun. Enjoy it. You can do this.