BODILY ACTION IN PREACHING

Where does one begin when he attempts to discuss this vitally important matter? “How important is it, anyway?” you may ask. More important than some of you who give no attention to it may think. “Well, why do you say that? How can you know it is important?” Because—and this is fundamental—bodily action either assists in the communication of God’s message, or it hinders; there is no third ground.

How may it hinder? A lively, important biblical theme (for instance) ground through the grid of a lifeless body, can quickly lose its sense of urgency and importance. If the preacher is unwilling to allow God’s truth to affect him as it ought, he will always communicate something different from that which was intended in the passage from which he is preaching. That is the crucial point. I am not interested in oratory for the sake of oratory. The oratorical movement of a generation or two ago was way off base. Preachers, caught up in it, became more concerned about sermons than about preaching (there is a significant difference). Oratorical tricks and skills were intended to enhance the sermon, which was viewed as a work of art. All such thinking is as unbiblical as studying the Bible for its literary beauty alone.

No, the reason I am concerned about bodily action is not because I wish to exalt either the preacher or his sermon; my concern in this matter is to exalt Jesus Christ! My purpose is partly negative, therefore: lack of attention to proper bodily action will distort God’s Word. It is also positive: good bodily action will assist in faithfully proclaiming God’s truth. Let us examine, briefly, some ways in which this is so.

I

To begin with, let me lay down the fundamental guideline concerning all bodily action in preaching:

Bodily action, at every point, must grow out of and be entirely appropriate to the content of the Bible that one is proclaiming. Keep this rule in mind. Develop your bodily action from it, and you will not go very far wrong.

Some persons preach every subject in the same way. There is, for example, the perennial grinner or smiler. Somewhere, at some time, someone (perhaps his mom or dad) told him that if he continually smiled when preaching, he would have a pleasing and pleasant appearance in the pulpit. Now, there are times to smile, of course; perhaps many of us should smile much more than we do. But the fellow I have in mind has so cultivated the habit of smiling (or grinning), that even when he is preaching about hell, suffering, affliction, pain—or any one of a score of other such subjects—he continues to smile throughout. That smile, connected to any such subject, appears to listeners to be more of a sadistic leer than “pleasing and pleasant.” And not only does it turn off listeners, but it grossly distorts the underlying emotional tones of warning, grief, concern, or compassion that pervade the passages from which he is preaching. What he does is almost like removing a pickle from the liquid in the jar, washing it completely free of brine and spices, then pouring Karo syrup over it in profusion. The two do not mix well.

The illustration about the smile is, of course, exaggerated, and probably exceptional (but it does exist—I have known a number of smilers and grinners). The opposite extreme—the sourpuss preacher who always either scowls, whines, cries, or looks grave and somber—may be an even more frequent offender. Naturally, there are times to be stern in preaching (when the text is), and there are times to be solemn (ditto to the previous parentheses), but there also are times not to be. How can the good news of the gospel be proclaimed properly by a face that declares to all who behold that the world probably will end in doom in fifteen minutes? How can God’s love be preached effectively, without great loss, by one who whines about it? How can the zeal and enthusiasm that burst from any number of preaching portions of the Scriptures be rightly conveyed by one who douses everything he says by his funereal manner? No, bodily action is not unimportant, because what a preacher does may speak so loudly that his congregation cannot hear what God says.

Don’t think that the emotional overtones and undertones are not important. (These are conveyed equally by the voice and by bodily action.) Doubtless, a number of persons have been turned away from the truth by the pompous-sounding tones and stiff-as-a-board actions of many a preacher. This ministerial tone (or tune, or drone, as it is variously called) doubtless arises from an attempt to add a note of authority and solemnity to preaching. Because those who develop it tend to blanket all their speech with it (even announcing the young people’s hot dog roast with solemn, sonorous, authoritative dignity), they make the ministry a mockery and drive those very same young people out of the church.

Stiff-as-a-board bodies and expressionless faces won’t solve the problem, either. One cannot dodge the issue by trying to remain neutral or unaffected. God’s truth cannot be proclaimed with objectivity or without commitment. Involved commitment almost always shows through, as it should. Read the Scriptures—pathos, joy, concern, grief—all these tones and more protrude. The biblical writers didn’t hide their feelings when writing; they did not write like a bloodless Ph.D. thesis. Their involvement is felt throughout. Can you imagine them preaching with any less involvement, then? Preaching is generally much more animated and less subdued than writing.

II

“What, then, can be done?” you ask. You may have bad habits of bodily expression that distort God’s message; I may have been speaking directly to you. But it is not enough to leave you there. Something must be done to effect a change. Let me suggest how that change may be brought about.

I. Isolate the problem and in writing spell it out in detail. Together with your wife and/or trusted persons view and listen to your preaching with the idea of discovering precisely what bodily factors distract (by calling attention to themselves rather than to the message) and distort (by cramming a message into a mold which it doesn’t fit). Spell these out on paper. For example:

  1. “Don’t use hands enough, even when subject manner is animated!”
  2. “Gestures are wooden, awkward; not smooth.”
  3. “Gestures are ill-timed; come late.”
  4. “Gestures are artificial.”
  5. “Gesture only with hands; don’t use head, whole body.”
  6. “Smile too little.”
  7. “Look stiff; no movement.”
  8. “Move too much—movement distracting—swaying.”
  9. “No eye contact.”
  10. “Never point at congregation” (ask yourself, do you ever say ‘you’?).

II. Determine what you ought to be doing instead. With help from others, books (see my Pulpit Speech), write out the first step in your Personal Improvement Program; e.g.:

  1. “Must learn to use hands to describe (‘it was this tall’), indicate (‘over there’), emphasize (‘Never!’).”
  2. “Must synchronize gestures with speech.”

III. Determine how to make improvements. Write out the rest of your P.I.P.

  1. Every day (regularity is important), Monday through Saturday (not when preaching) I will work on using my hands in three ways.
  2. At lunch (tack it to something that occurs regularly) I will tell a story, describe something, etc., that calls for the use of animated gestures, and when doing so, I’ll practice.
  3. Monday through Friday, when I come home, I’ll describe to my wife, with gestures, something that happened that day.
  4. Every night, I’ll tell my children a bedtime story with grossly exaggerated gestures. Here, especially, I’ll try out new ones, along with noises, facial expressions, etc. They’ll love it; hopefully I’ll improve.
  5. I will allow the results of these exercises to bleed over into my preaching.

I can guarantee you, if you are willing to do so regularly, within six weeks you (and others) will notice a marked difference. If you don’t believe me (and if there is no other problem, from fear of embarrassment, for instance), try it, and see.—J.E.A.

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