The elocution movement of the nineteenth century had rigid rules for delivery. It taught that there was but one way to stand, gesture, and sound. A public speaker who did not know the rules failed miserably. Today’s standard is natural delivery – the successful speaker sounds like himself when addressing a subject in which he is deeply interested. Remembering Phillips Brooks definition of preacher – God’s truth presented through personality – and applying it to delivery, the congregation expects the sermon to contain truth expressed through the preacher’s personality in a manner that reflects the gravity of the message.
This means that the first, if not the only, rule of preaching style is for the preacher to be himself. Imitation of the style of other preachers, even great preachers, may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is also the surest formula for failure. Learning from the past is admirable; leaning on the past is inappropriate.
But what is natural delivery? Natural delivery, sometimes called conversational style, does not mean that the sermon is delivered as if the preacher were in one-on-one conversation. Even in casual conversation, the speaker’s fervor increases in relation to the number of persons addressed and the intensity that the speaker brings to the subject. Since the sermon relates to the eternal, sincerity and intensity should not be a problem.
How is conversational style achieved? Listen! Listen to others. Listen to yourself. When you speak one-on-one, you use gestures but you don’t think about them. They happen naturally. When you speak one-on-one, your voice rises and falls naturally with the topic and the emphasis that the topic justifies. You don’t think, “I should get louder here and softer there.” It just happens. The same should be true of preaching. Proper gestures and use of the voice should “just happen” as naturally as they do in one-on-one conversation.
If conversational style is as easy as talking over a kitchen table or a back yard fence, why is it so difficult to achieve in the pulpit? Could the answer be “intimidation”? After all, the hearers are watching the preacher’s every move and listening to his every word. Doesn’t this call for something different? Even if it doesn’t call for something different, it often produces something different. The hearers’ fixed attention affects the preacher as a snake’s hypnotic stare paralyzes its prey – it robs him of his ability to act naturally. Thus, the greatest challenge to effective pulpit communication is for the preacher maintain a style that is natural to him instead of developing atypical characteristics.
Since even the most experienced preacher can experience some intimidation when he faces a congregation, what hope is there for the rest? How can a preacher in a pressure cooker be natural? Proper sermon preparation reduces intimidation because it eliminates any worry about what the preacher is trying to accomplish and how he plans to accomplish it. Understanding guidelines for natural delivery helps because it eliminates worry about how best to change one’s style and frees the preacher to be himself. Before examining specific guidelines, however, one warning must be given. The message is best communicated when the delivery is transparent. Ostentatious delivery (whether of voice, gesture, or vocabulary) and monotone delivery are opposite ends of the same spectrum. Both draw attention to themselves. When style predominates in the hearer’s perception, the message gets lost. If anything is remembered, it will be the messenger. The preacher’s goal must always be to get out of the way of the message. The true messenger always stands behind the cross.
You Must Hear the Gospel
You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17)
You Must Believe
You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)
You Must Repent
You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)
You Must Confess
You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)
You Must Be Baptized
Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!
You Must Be Faithful Unto Death
Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)