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The Preacher’s Pulpit Demeanor

PreacherThis thought from John Piper regarding his father caught my attention today:

“My father was one of the most intense people I’ve ever known when he was in the pulpit and perhaps the happiest person I’ve ever known when he was at the dinner table. I’ve never thought those things were in conflict, and they always struck me as describing the way one ought to be.” (from this article)

Interesting. It got me thinking about the preacher’s pulpit demeanor and reminded me of two sermons I preached for my Pulpit Speech class as a junior at BJU. The first was graded and critiqued by Dr. Sam Horn. His comments? “What are you mad about, Chris? Quit yelling. Talk to us. Walk around. Be more casual. Wear something besides a dark suit and white shirt. Explain, don’t pontificate.” (That’s a rough rendering of his words—I don’t think he used the word ‘pontificate,’ but you get the idea, and so did I.)

The next time I preached, I intentionally tried to take this advice. Indeed, I was Sam Horn—friendly, conversational, casual, perhaps even a bit comical. Success! The only problem was that my teacher and critic was now Dr. Stephen Hankins. Uh-oh. His comments? “You’re preaching, man, not chatting with us! Find some dignity somewhere and proclaim the Word!” (Or something like that. It wasn’t a happy review.)

I actually learned two invaluable lessons through those reviews. First, most of us think people should preach (or write, or sing, or cook, or dress, or decorate, or chew) the way we do. It’s human nature, and I’m the worst about that (as a friend reminded me just this morning). Second, I can’t be Sam Horn or Stephen Hankins, and their back-to-back whacks saved me from ever trying to again, which is a relief to all three of us! God made me the way I am, and He called me to preach anyway, so I’m going to be myself when I’m doing it. The funny thing is, “being me” includes elements that both men were looking for. (And for the record, I appreciate the classroom and pulpit ministries of both men.) If I know myself at all—alarms are sounding in my mind even as I type: “Mayday! Mayday! Danger! Danger! Stop typing!”—I’m fairly casual in the pulpit. I’ll walk around, put my hand in my pocket, use phrases like “think of it this way” or “does that make sense?”, use the names of people in the congregation as though I’m speaking directly to them, and very occasionally throw in a dose of humor. So Sam might be happy, and Steve might not. On the other hand, I’m also pretty intense. I’ll use big, sweeping gestures, my volume and pitch will rise (too much, so that I lose my voice), and I’ll often get quite emotional. So Steve might be happy, and Sam might not.

More likely, neither Sam nor Steve would be happy, and both would wish I had left them out of the discussion altogether, lest they be blamed for me. (Aside: Were I to teach homiletics, my first requirement of all my students would be that they never mention that I taught them. Unless they’re uniquely gifted, of course, and I one day in the distant future request in writing that they tell people I trained them.) Sorry, men. Had you given me A’s I would have considered omitting your names.

At any rate, as I said before, Piper’s comment has me thinking about how similar one’s pulpit personality and dinner table personality should be. Should one (to use Piper’s words) be intense in the pulpit and happy at home? Or should one be intense and happy in the pulpit and at home?I think…well, it’s complicated.

On the one hand, it’s disturbing to me when someone is exceedingly different in the pulpit than in normal conversations. In fact, it drives me nuts. I can’t stand a sanctimonious air, a “shall we pray” voice, or anything else that makes pulpit communication seem at all put on. I find myself saying, “Buddy, I know you well, and you don’t talk like that. Put off your ‘preacher voice’ and communicate with us. Be yourself. Be real.” I honestly believe that too much disparity between conversing and preaching can hinder the message and make the principles being presented seem theoretical.

On the other hand, I do understand that preaching requires more intensity and sobriety than normal conversation. It is, after all, a heralding—a proclaiming—of the Truth.

My guess is that certain elements of one’s personality will be (or should be) highlighted in pulpit ministry while others are toned down or muted altogether. What do you think? Perhaps I’m over-analyzing? (Duh.) But even if I am, is it a personal thing? Is it a biblical thing? Does it matter? Or does it boil down to this: that I should just be like you? :)


7 Responses

  1. Chris,

    I think you’re absolutely right. I think you want your personality to come through. (You want to sound authentic–like who you are.) But you don’t want to be primarily dependent on your personality for the transmission of the message.

    Funny thing to me is, I would’ve thought Hankins and Horn would’ve been the opposite. It’s been 4ish years since I heard Hankins, but I hear Horn all the time and I think of him as quite a bit more intense. Go figure.

  2. As one who (literally) sat in classes with you, I needed the reminder as much as anyone. Thanks for the encouragement and the call to sobriety in all areas of life – as well as appropriate decorum.

  3. Hi Chris

    Well, I had Minnick. He and Hankins were the tag team duo in those days and I ended up with Minnick both semesters. I found the class to be very profitable torture.

    Here is what I think about your topic though, after almost a quarter century of preaching [man do those words make me feel old!]

    There are guys who sound like they are phonies in the pulpit. Maybe they are. I think a sincere earnest preacher should be himself in the pulpit, but that is hardly the same as the dinner table, or almost anywhere else for that matter. John Stott wrote a book on preaching called “Between Two Worlds”. Probably the title was the best part of the whole book, but it does capture what is going on in the pulpit.

    In the pulpit you should be opening up that intense wrestling with God and His Word that you experience in the study. That may come across angry, it may come across loud, it may come across soft, it may come across sweet [but not too sweet!!], but it should come across in the same way the Lord has dealt with you.

    I find the Word to be intensely dramatic. I hope that I convey some of that to our people.

    Back to Pulpit Speech, one of the best comments I ever got was from a friend of mine (we all had to comment on each other’s messages – did you have to do that?) He said to me, “Don, just cut loose and yell a little.” I’ve never forgotten that one. Some would say I do it too much.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  4. Chris,

    Although I have taught for thirty-five years, I am NOT a preacher. But your comments are well taken. They remind me of something Bob Jones, Jr., used to say in chapel. He would urge the young preachers in the student body to avoid taking on the mannerisms of famous pastors and evangelists, because they usually would end up imitating something that was very distracting. I always thought that was good advice from someone who was a pretty fair pulpiteer in his own right.

    David McGuire
    Pillsbury Baptist Bible College
    Owatonna, Minnesota

  5. We did critique each other, Don. I’m sure the class was good for me, but I was usually much more concerned about what I could say than what the passage said. I’m generally underwhelmed by my level of maturity during my time at BJ, and my experience in Pulpit Speech is no different. My fault, not theirs.

    I do agree with you that your demeanor in the pulpit should really be driven by the passage and its content, whether grave, joyous, etc.

    One more gripe: I can generally tell when preachers are very “aware” of themselves. Some will get a smirk (like, “wait until they hear this illustration, or “I’ve got them eating out of my hand!”), be generally self-conscious, or even just be nervous. It’s a delight to see someone—especially someone relatively young—completely forget about himself because he is overwhelmed with the necessity of communicating the message of the text. That’s when a preacher is doing his job: when he’s not trying to be sober or funny or friendly—when he is the furthest thing from his mind and he’s consumed with the importance of the message.

  6. Being entirely consumed… that’s it. I think it was one of those freshman speech rules, too.

    I found it nerve-wracking to be preaching (or speaking) in a class for a grade. It was a good experience, but the situation made me think of myself too much.

    Nowadays, I find that some times I am more successful than others in letting the message be the main thing. I think it is a sign of not spending enough time on the passage, or becoming too academic with it. It is hard to hit it right every time.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  7. Ben,

    I’ve heard Hankins be very personable in the pulpit via illustrations, humor, tender emotions, etc., and I’ve heard Horn let ‘er rip. It would be simplistic of me to say that their counsel to me represents their particular styles of preaching. I’m sure they just called it like they saw it.

    Then, of course, their was Dr. Wisdom, who kindly made us all think we were the next Spurgeon.

    My friend Todd Nye tells me about a skit some guys did with a bunch of preacher boys when he was there. One guy acted like Minnick, and he dismantled a guy’s sermon with a scalpel. The next guy acted like Hankins, and his tool of choice was a chainsaw. The guy acting like Wisdom? I think he taped or band-aided it all back together. :)

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