The student critique was loud and clear, “Professor, you spend too much time on presentation and not enough time on content.” My response is threefold. First, in seminary, the bulk of the curriculum guides students in the proper interpretation and understanding of the content of Scripture. The Master of Divinity requires the completion of 135 quarter hours. Of these, the seminary devotes nine quarter hours to preaching, less than seven percent of the course load. However, it is in the teaching and preaching of the Word that the rubber meets the road. This perspective does not downplay Bible studies, discipleship arrangements, and personal counseling. However, the preaching of the Word is the most prominent and visible activity that publicly interfaces with our communities.
Second, a significant portion of my homiletics text discusses the exegesis of various genres of Scripture. In other words, the proper understanding of the content of Scripture passages is a major thrust of my Sermon Preparation Procedure. Preaching and teaching is the delivery of content. Delivery and content of necessity go together; you cannot separate them.
Third, how people receive the content of your sermons and Bible lessons is also bound up in your delivery or presentation. It is not entirely the responsibility of the audience to engage with you as the speaker to grasp your content. A burden rests upon you as the speaker. You may present the same material in an energetic, winsome, and compelling way or a dull monotone with gestures and facial expressions communicating apathy and indifference. Listeners will receive the first presentation more readily.
On the presentation side of things, we usually discuss the tone of voice and body language. Body language includes gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact. We can boil down these items into three areas: content, use of voice, and non-verbals. If you want to communicate surprise, you say the word “surprise” with lively punch and rising tone. You add a facial expression having an open smile, wide eyes, lifted brows. These three components act together in instant impactful communication.
When you tell a story to children, you not only communicate content. You use your voice to mimic the characters. Your tone of voice indicates anger or joy. It also portrays praise or distrust. You use hand gestures to show the children should stop at a crosswalk or beckon them to cross the street as a part of the story. Your facial expressions enter in as you bend over to savor a pretend bowl of beef stew or get a waft of the bottom of a putrid trash barrel. Failure to combine content with voice and non-verbal expression evokes howls of complaint from the children, “Come on, tell us the story!”
But how do your tone of voice and body language contribute to understanding? They do so indirectly by communicating feelings or attitudes. In communication, how people feel about a message has much to do with what they grasp and understand. In his Silent Messages (1971), Albert Mehrabian kicks off a debate on these issues. After studies and experiments, Mehrabian says, “Generalizing, we can say that a person’s non-verbal behavior has more bearing than his words on communicating feelings or attitudes to others” (p. 44). Note the emphasis on emotions and attitudes. Words matter, but feelings also matter.
Good content supported by appropriate use of voice and accompanied by suitable body language is an invitation to listen. This combination elicits good feelings. When people feel good about what they are hearing, they engage with the message. Two-way communication takes place. The people indicate their attentiveness with their facial expressions, eye contact, and body language, often leaning forward toward the speaker. Their attention tamps down extraneous noise. “Palpable” or “pliable” moments occur. “Often you can sense that people are coming under conviction. One sign is usually the lack of fidgeting, foot shuffling, and throat clearing. The audience gets more silent and still” (Keller, 2006, p. 22). There is a connection between preacher and people, and a sense of contact and touch. God is dealing with the souls of men and women and children. Words matter, but feelings also matter.
Gospel arrows are messages from the heart to the heart. The heart is the “center and source of the whole inner life, w. its thinking, feeling, and volition, in the case of the natural man as well as the redeemed man” (A Greek-English lexicon of the new testament, 1963). Words matter, but feelings also matter—fashion gospel arrows with this truth in mind.
Copyright © 2020
A Greek-English lexicon of the new testament. (1963). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Mehrabian, A. (1971). Silent Messages. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.