Ten Pointers for the Inexperienced Preacher or Layperson


“When they asked me to talk to you today, my first thought was, ‘Who me? I don’t know anything about that….”

Bo-ring!  The worst possible beginning to a public speech or inspirational message.

Can we talk about this?  You are a layperson who has been invited to address the congregation on some matter.  Maybe to fill the pulpit in the pastor’s absence.  Or to bring a short talk on a scripture.  And you’re nervous.

I’ve seen a hundred in your situation do this. Some well and some not so well.

Sometimes at the end, I want to applaud the speaker. “Good job. Well done.”

At other times, I’m burdened.  “Oh, friend. You can do better than this!”

I know everyone has to start somewhere.  No beginner comes to the speaking craft full-grown. We crawl before we walk.

However, what gets my goat is when the lay speaker or preacher is mature in years and should know better and still does a terrible job of addressing the congregation.  So, let’s see if we can help him/her today.

Here is my list of ten things the beginning speaker needs to learn quickly in order to be effective.  And four suggestions at the end. 

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 may be important to you, but it has absolutely nothing to do with your assignment.

–Your audience wants to hear what you have to say. So, cut the clutter and go straight to the point.

Walk to the podium, smile at the congregation, take a deep breath, try to relax, 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 inexperienced 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.

A layman, representing a ministry of considerable importance in our state, had been asked to bring a report to our meeting. He walked to the pulpit, told the audience of several hundred he had been assigned ten minutes, 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.

Then, when he finally started into his report, he took ten minutes for the introductory portion. After a full twenty minutes, he paused to take a breath and said, “In the few minutes I have remaining, I’d like to….”

There is no substitute for thorough preparation in front of a clock.

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!

The lay speaker/preacher needs to know that 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 burdened with them. If the speaker takes all day to make his 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.

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, he needs to learn to do it well.

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

–First, too many stories can make the sermon as ineffective as none. Try to avoid skyscraper sermons (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.

To prevent this, the speaker should practice telling the story to a spouse and/or listen to it played back on a recording. A husband/wife will tell you to cut out much of the clutter, and your own mind will do the same 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 audience a long tale about his brainless daughter, about what a dumb blonde she was.  Finally, he concluded by saying it was just a joke and didn’t happen at all.

Most of us sat there wondering the same thing: What in the world 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: Preacher, ask your wife. The Lord gives us spouses who are different from us for good reason. Ask her, then 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 agrees with her.

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

I sat in an audience where a representative of a children’s ministry delivered a report. He told us he had worked for that agency for years and was now retired. He shared 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.  They were distracting.

The man was speaking about something he had given his life to. So, why would 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.

The uninitiated layperson who stands to speak usually has no idea how to end his message effectively. I suspect he has had too many dull preachers as his role model, men who said “Finally, brethren” twelve times before closing 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.  This would require the speaker to be humble enough to ask for it and strong enough to benefit from it.

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

They said of Winston Churchill that he spent half his life planning his impromptu speeches.

For preachers and lay speakers, those spontaneous 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. Every preacher will have his stories of the times he has erred in this way.

If there is a special significance to this day, this occasion, or this place, find something to say about it in advance. While supplying the pulpit for a pastor friend, I began: “In the sixteen years Pastor Jim has served this church, he has had me for three revivals. This 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 this one was special.

Frank Pollard, celebrated pastor and personal friend of years past, often 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–for me at least–is: “Have nothing in your dress or appearance that will detract from your effectiveness.”

On a cross-country trip, I noticed one class of men all wearing neckties: the airline pilots. They looked sharp and professional.  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 the right appearance inspire the congregation to have more confidence in my message? It may. It’s certainly worth some thought.

10. Learn not to sabotage your own message.

Imagine a speaker announcing his subject, then saying, “I don’t know anything about it.”  I’ve heard preachers speak out on a Scripture, then say, “Now, I am not a theologian.”  We want to argue: “Yes, you are! You’re speaking about God, and representing Him. You may not be a trained professional, but you should know what you are talking about.  Otherwise, sit down.”

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

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

  1. Pray, pray, pray.  

The Father who cares for you deeply wants you to do well at this, believe me. So, ask Him what to say and how to do it.  Not just at the start of your preparation, but pray at each point, all way through.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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 your audience into friends for life.

A pastor friend 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, I’m guessing 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. I hope it does. Feel free to pass it along to a friend.


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