The preacher’s physical action in preaching
NOTE: As we take up this subject, we will once again confront one of the central axioms of this entire course in Pastoral Theology. The axiom is that there is no conflict between nature and grace. Or, stated another way, what God has given to us in general and special revelation are perfectly compatible revelations of His mind and will for us. Or to state it yet another way, there is to be no conflict between what we are as men, and what we are as preachers
1. The legitimacy and function of physical action in preaching.
a. Some scriptural testimony
Acts 26:1; with 1 Cor. 14:24- 25
Rev. 4:4; and Rev. 4:9-10
b. Any unprejudiced observer of this common human behavior validates that there is an intimate relationship between physical action and the state of the mind and soul by the person who expresses that action.
Robert L. Dabney, Sacred Rhetoric
, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), pp. 322-324.
c. Hence, as physical action is a vital part of effective, natural, oral communication among all but the blind, we should expect that the all wise God who has given supremacy of importance to the oral communication of His Word, would incorporate -and not negate- this basic fact.
d. If truth and clarity should characterize our words, so naturalness, forcefulness, and interest should characterize our physical action in preaching. He who would ignore this aspect of preaching sets up a dangerous theological structure – one in which he establishes a conflict between nature and grace. He who would ignore this aspect of preaching will generally do so to the impairment of his optimum usefulness.
2. The diversity and variety of legitimate physical action in preaching.
a. Any treatment of this subject which seeks to impose detailed and specific rules which would result in iron-clad guidelines is doomed to fail at the outset.
b. Variable factors relative to cultural habits and tastes render some categories quite inappropriate in differing cultural settings.
c. Furthermore, the differences of the essential personality, physical stature, native energy and essential natural temperament in each individual preacher within a given cultural framework, must be given full liberty of expression.
3. Some guiding principles concerning physical action in preaching.
1) Perhaps no principle is more crucial in this area of discussion than the simple directive: Forget yourself- Be yourself. Behind this simple advice is that the ideal we ought to seek is one in which the man of God is so totally absorbed in delivering his message, that no conscious thought is ever given to any physical action whatsoever. With a mind and heart impregnated with the truth, and passionately desirous of doing his hearers good, he can then simply allow all those internal passions of his mind and heart to cut whatever channels they naturally cut in his preaching.
Robert L. Dabney, Sacred Rhetoric
, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), pp. 323-324.
2) The second principle is: Never premeditate any physical action or consciously force such action while preaching. It is a bad theology of preaching that allows or encourages any man to write in the margin of his notes, “Raise right hand here.” Dabney writes as a sound theologian and a sagacious observer of the realities of human nature when he says:
Robert L. Dabney, Sacred Rhetoric
, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), pp. 326-327.
3) The third general principle is: Make your primary goal that of ridding yourself of all distracting physical actions. God has so made us that we cannot help but feel the impression of men’s physical actions as they engage us in oral communication. But once again, the real activity of Satan and of our own indwelling sin will cause us to be distracted from the message by the odd or distracting physical actions of the preacher. If we are driven by the passion to pursue optimum edification, then surely we will work on any distracting mannerisms and seek to rid ourselves of them.
a. Some of the most common distracting physical actions are: hands in pockets, fidgeting, tightening the shoulders, and other such mannerisms
b. Then, there are what we might call “incongruent actions”, such as pleading with people to come to Christ with the fists clenched!
c. Some men indulge in what might be called grotesque or excessively strained actions.
4) The fourth and final general guideline is: Make it your second major goal to rid yourself of inhibitions and reservations which would rob you of having an optimum measure of the forcefulness of physical action in your preaching.
b. Specific guidelines for the more naturally animated
1) Some of us by temperament are more intense, volatile, and explosive in our personalities – hence, we are more naturally expressive in conversation and general verbal exchanges.
2) For us, there are peculiar liabilities and dangers which warrants specific admonitions.
a. Remember, that your primary function is that of a herald of the truth and a proclaimer of the Gospel, not that of a pantomime artist. The Bible has many exhortations concerning the “lifting up of the voice.” It has little to say about other physical actions. See Ezk. 6:11
b. Remember the principle of restraint and self-control as applied to the emotions. Listeners should always have a sense that we are in control — that there is more thought, more voice, and more action in us than we are actually giving them at any point in our sermon, except those rare peaks of highly intensified passion, when everything is let out at full bore for a brief time.
3) Don’t get carried away or involved in any physical action which militates against your being distinctly heard.
In a situation where audibility is dependent on a desk microphone, you must keep yourself closer to the mic if you are to secure optimum edification.
For some of us who do not like to be “chained to the pulpit,” this situation is uncomfortable. However, optimum edification may demand the self-denial of sticking close to the pulpit.
4) Don’t get carried away into indecorous or ludicrous physical activity
Although one of the general principles couched somewhat on this matter, a special warning is in order to those who are more naturally animated.
How can I ever forget the preacher friend of mine who actually dislocated his shoulder when vigorously demonstrating what it meant to “hack and hew” at our remaining sins!
c. Specific guidelines for the less naturally animated.
1) Become convinced of the necessity for cultivating some physical activity.
Face the fact that few men have such richness of thought or natural endowments of vocal expression to hold the concentrated attention of a congregation if they are totally passive as to physical action. God has blessed his church with such men throughout the centuries. However, according to Romans 12:3, we are to make a sober assessment of ourselves, and not put ourselves in that category of unusually gifted men.
While it is rarely wise to attempt any conscious cultivation of physical action while in the act of preaching, it is possible to engage in this cultivation when outside of our pulpit labors.
2) Undertake specific steps to cultivate natural physical action in speaking. I suggest the following:
a) Pray for the more complete liberation of your entire redeemed humanity.
2 Cor. 3:17
b) Consciously yield your entire redeemed humanity to the Lord as His vehicle to convey His truth.
ILL. Achille’s prayer
John C. Ryle, Christian Leaders of the 18th Century, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), p. 274.
c) Pray for more felt earnestness in preaching.
As with the use of the voice, so it is with respect to physical action in preaching. The primary regulator of both voice and hands is the earnest heart.
ILL. A distraught mother thinking her child is in a burning house.
Joshua H. McIlvaine, Elocution: The Sources and Elements of Its Power, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895), pp. 88-89.
d) Work at developing animation in congenial, non-ministerial situations
Become an abandoned little child when interacting with little children. Almost all the old writers point to children as the great models of the profoundly natural relationship between the mind, the heart, the tongue and physical gestures.
d. Concluding practical guidelines for the attainment of physical action which serves the ends of preaching.
1) Whenever possible seek to arrange the physical surroundings to allow full liberty for action and animation.
2) Actively seek the judicious evaluation of discerning people in your congregation in the future.
3) Expose yourself to different models.
If you are a preacher at heart, you will unconsciously pick up some of the mannerisms of the preachers you listen to and see. Without consciously imitating them, you will almost automatically be programmed to do so. There is nothing sinful in this reality. Children pick up the mannerisms of their parents. However, recognizing that this is a perfectly natural phenomenon, it is best to expose ourselves to different models, lest people seeing us think that we are consciously imitating our “favorite preacher.”
ILL. My own experience with Dr. Dick DeWitt
Also, if you find yourself at any point consciously seeking to imitate other preachers, such as in the volume of your voice, or excessive physical action, immediately put a check upon yourself, asking God that you will not slavishly imitate others.