Many preachers today enjoy significant education, having earned undergraduate and graduate degrees. We read and write often, and our literary training forges in us a literary mindset. Whether consciously or simply by virtue of the academic air we breathe, most of us become adept writers long before we ever enroll in seminary. But then we try to preach, and it does not go well. Defaulting to our literary training, we craft verbal essays, delivering sermons to the ear that are better suited to the demands of the eye.
The eye possesses a luxury the ear does not: The eye can return to the text as often as needed in order to comprehend. The ear, however, owns but one opportunity to catch meaning. If you preach like you write, expect your congregation to miss much of what you want them to catch. The same literary features that produce a written document as clear as a window often produce sermons as opaque as a dense fog. The ear and the eye simply demand different communication techniques.
How, then, can you preach for the ear? Try these tools: Repetition, restatement, pauses, volume, pace, and interrogatives. Each answers these questions: “How does my listener’s ear know that this statement, this point, or this idea matters to me? How does the ear distinguish information that is merely background to the main point from the main point itself?”
Repetition stands as a cardinal sin in writing, but it offers a cardinal virtue in preaching. Because our minds acquire a literary bias through extensive education, repetition will sound strange to you the first time you try it. Stick with it. If the next main point of your sermon is “Jesus is God,” then don’t just say it once and move on. Say it once, and then say it again. Repeat yourself frequently. Repetition is a delight to the ear, for it invites your hearers to assign significance to the statements you repeat. Simply put, say it again.
Restate that which you repeat. Say the same thing in a different way. If your point is “Jesus is God,” then try this: “Jesus is God. He’s not merely a man. Jesus is divine. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is God.” You’ve restated the same truth three different ways and repeated it once. Who among your hearers will not catch this point? Restatement reinforces the power of repetition and states the same truth in different ways.
Pause. A single second pause in a pulpit feels—for a preacher—roughly equivalent to eleven minutes of normal time, but for the congregation, it is just a second. And a second can convey information. Imagine saying, in rapid succession with no pauses between words, “I’m telling you Jesus is God.” But now imagine the difference if you were to say, “I’m telling you, (pause) Jesus is God.” Your pause signals to the congregation that what follows matters to you and should matter to them. A pause is like italics for the ear. Along with repetition and restatement, a well-timed pause can help your listeners to discern what content is most important to you.
Change your volume. Have you ever listened to a preacher whose voice never rose or fell? Not only does that type of speaking put people to sleep, but it also deprives listeners of an essential tool for understanding you. When you’re engaged in conversation, you naturally change your volume when you’re making a point. Often it rises to punctuate your statement, while at other times it falls almost to a whisper. In either case, the people with whom you’re speaking intuitively understand that your change in volume signifies importance. If you say in a monotone, “I’m telling you, Jesus is God,” your hearers might well catch your intent, but if your volume drops to a whisper or rises to a bellow when you say “God,” they will not be able to miss your intent.
Alter. Your. Pace. A preacher who never quickens or slows his speech sounds robotic, and his lack of variation makes it difficult for his hearers to determine the difference between significant and insignificant statements. You may rifle through background information at a swift pace, but when you say, “Jesus is God,” don’t say it like it’s another piece of background information. Slow down. Say, “All these lines of evidence converge to declare that . . . Jesus. Is. God.” Your listeners will intuitively ascribe significance to your words when your change of pace emphasizes an important point.
Use interrogatives. In other words, ask your congregation questions. Say, “Jesus is God. Did you catch that? He’s not just a man. He’s divine. He is the Lord. Do you understand that?” Your questions engage your listeners’ minds, inviting them to cooperate with you in receiving your meaning. But save your questions for content that matters. When you don’t ask your congregation questions on points of background information, it resonates all the more when you do ask them about their understanding of a significant point. In other words, don’t say, “Thessalonica was a port city. Did you hear that? It was a port city I say!” But do say, “Jesus is God. Did you catch that? Jesus is truly God.”
Use these tools independently. Use them together. Mix and match. When you employ repetition, restatement, pauses, volume, pace, and interrogatives in your preaching, you offer your congregation help they desperately need, for the simple truth is they cannot read your notes. Their eyes cannot leisurely peruse the same paragraph again and again to gain understanding. Use ear tools for ear comprehension and your listeners will thank you.
In order to make the fullest effect of these tools, promise me you’ll practice your sermon aloud. Reading through your notes is not the same thing as preaching. Preach your sermon before you preach your sermon. Then preach it again. You will hear how your words sound instead of seeing how they read. You’ll find that what reads well on paper often does not work for the ear. Pretty soon, you’ll begin to develop a listener’s ear for your own sermons.
And don’t give up. Don’t despair. It took a lifetime of education to train you to think like a reader. Learning how to think and how to preach like a hearer will take time, but it is time well spent. After all, faith comes through hearing.
So preach for the ear.