Homiletics Professor Dr. Jana Childers point out that when one person is listening to another person she receives over 50% of the message through the speaker’s body language and only 7% through words; the rest comes through tone of voice. For those of us who experience hard labor in giving birth to our words and who thus love them like only the mother who brought them into this world can love them, that’s a humbling statistic.
Still, it got me to thinking about what my body language says about my message.
Dr. Childers said that when the preacher is speaking about something that calls for concentrated thought on the part of the congregation, it is good for the preacher to stay behind the lectern. Frankly, I have always preferred to stay behind the furniture. I used to think that was because I liked to have some protection between the congregation and me. Now I know that it’s because I want my listeners to give serious thought to that to which I’ve been giving serious thought. And I really do.
Dr. Childers also pointed out that when the preacher does move around, it is important not just to walk back and forth; that, she said, is “the physical equivalent of a monotone” and it is for the preacher’s benefit. She said that if the preacher is going to move, it should be in a triangular movement; that is, he wants to move toward the congregation and then back. It is about eye contact and personal connection.
Such triangular movement is difficult in our church’s pulpit, which is not very deep (please avoid cheap shots about any obvious parallels with the preacher’s sermons) and which is crowded with pulpit furniture, speakers, and musician’s stands (all good things, mind you). If I want to approach the congregation, I have to walk down several steps because, like many Baptist churches, we don’t really have an altar; we have steps. (Oh, remind me to tell you about the sermon during which I walked around among the worshipers threatening to slap one of them. I had a point. Really.) Ordinarily, though, I don’t walk toward the congregation.
Not long ago, some of my parishioners said that I scared them when I preached. This surprised me, given that my hard-earned reputation is one of mellow, reasoned graciousness. As it turns out, they were not talking about my words or about my delivery; they were talking about a habit I have of sometimes perching on the edge of the platform, the front half of my feet jutting out over the edge, while I am preaching. I wasn’t even aware that I did it (which is not a good thing, since Dr. Childers says that our movement should be purposeful). “I’m afraid you’re going to fall off the platform,” these caring ladies—they were all ladies, no doubt because the men either (a) hadn’t noticed my predicament or (b) didn’t really care if I fell—said to me.
To which I replied, “Well, if I do fall, at least y’all will remember me.” Or something like that.
I was telling Dr. Childers (who has lived and taught in San Francisco for three decades but had no trouble dealing with my accent) about my perching (perching preaching?) habit. I told her that when I started paying attention to it I realized that I do it when I am at what I regard as the dangerous or challenging or critical point in the sermon; it happens at the moment at which I know that I am in danger of going over a cliff over which I truly believe I must go if I am to be a follower of Jesus and over which people must go with me if they are going to be followers of Jesus.
It is usually, frankly, a cliff over which I am afraid I will go alone.
“It would be helpful to reflect on what that says about a preacher’s vulnerability,” Dr. Childers said.
“Indeed it would,” I replied …