This is Part 2 in a series on Preaching and Standup Comedy. Click here to read Part 1.
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I have heard a lot of boring sermons in my life. When I was a kid in church, the thirty-minute sermon was the most boring portion of my entire week. I thought sermons were actually supposed to be boring because that was their key defining characteristic.
The church my family attended did not have a children’s ministry that operated during the services. Unless you were a baby in the nursery, you went to church with your parents. Most of us who attend younger churches in suburban areas in America will raise an entire generation of children who have never fallen asleep in a pew before lunch on a Sunday morning. As I grew older, my friends and I discovered new ways to keep ourselves awake during the sermon. We had games we would play while the preacher talked. These games varied from the always-relevant tic-tac-toe to the more obscure and denomination-specific “Find-the-Hymn-in-Three-Page-Turns-or-Less.” The rules of this game were fairly self-explanatory. One of us would pick a song in the hymnal (if you are unfamiliar with this word, a “hymnal” is a book full of songs that people sing in church), and the other player would randomly open the hymnal three times. If the specific song was found on one of the three random page turns, that player would earn a point. If the hymn was not found during the three page turns, no points were awarded.
When my friends were not at church and I was left to suffer alone, I simply used offering envelopes to draw poorly-imagined doodles of stick figures wearing suits and ties. I was probably single-handedly responsible for our church needing to order extra boxes of offering envelopes every year. So you see, dull sermons can indirectly cost your church money.
When a sermon is boring, the people in the room stay fairly quiet about it. They may tell others about it later, but they won’t belligerently walk out or heckle.
Standup comedians do not have this luxury. A comedian has to fight for every second of their audience’s attention. If a comedian bogs down and starts to bore the audience, the crowd will abandon him.
In my experience, most pastors (especially senior pastors) are treated pretty delicately. People feel a certain amount of endearment toward their pastors, and they will forgive a bad sermon if they still feel like the pastor is their friend. It’s a lot like when a parent goes to a child’s piano recital. The kid could be a musical prodigy or the kid could be the worst piano player in the whole neighborhood. Either way, the parent will attend the piano recital and listen to every poorly-played note because the parent loves the child.
For lots of pastors, this is how the sermon is received; people keep coming back to church and sitting politely through boring sermon after boring sermon simply because they already have an affinity for their pastor as a human being (which is not a bad thing).
No comedian in the world has this kind of relationship with his or her audience. In the documentary Comedian, Jerry Seinfeld talks about how he will take the stage at a comedy club and people will get really excited to see him. However, even Jerry Seinfeld—one of the most famous and beloved comedians in the world—acknowledges that he has about three minutes (five if the crowd is especially kind) before the people begin to get impatient. After a few minutes of standing onstage with a microphone—regardless of how famous the comedian happens to be—he still has to make people laugh.
Any preacher or public speaker can choose not to be boring, but he or she must genuinely want to interest their listeners. It isn’t enough to say, “Okay, I’ll be interesting this time. I know those last three hundred sermons were pretty dull, but this is going to be the one. I can feel it.” We have to make conscious choices about how we will deliver our content.
Here are a few suggestions.
1. Use Normal Language
One of the easiest ways to bore people is to load a sermon with insider jargon. In the world of Christian culture this kind of language is often referred to as “Christianese,” and it’s terrible. There are lots of insider buzz words that church kids and seminary students will know, but they have mostly lost their intrigue because they have been beaten into the ground. I know all of these words, and whenever I hear them in sermons, my mind naturally starts to drift. I feel like these words are signaling my brain and saying, “You can stop listening. This preacher is going to be running through clichés for a while.”
The preachers I love are the ones who are able to find new ways to articulate very old ideas. They recognize that not everyone in the room has the same religious or educational background, and they are trying to engage the topic in a new way.
As a disclaimer, I have noticed that there is a flip-side to this problem. Some preachers become so obsessed with trying to seem relevant that they overload their language with phrases they think will make them more appealing to younger generations, but it mostly comes across as desperate. There is an episode of The Simpsons in which Ned Flanders is leading a Bible study in his home and (improbably) teen thug Jimbo Jones is in attendance. At a certain point, Jimbo gets bored and starts to leave, but Flanders shouts, “Mouse pad! Double click! Skye! Skype! These words basically hypnotize Jimbo and convince him to sit back down. Apparently, the writers of The Simpsons have noticed that pastors are starting to pander out of desperation. Similarly, I recently drove past a church sign that said, “New Series: What Would Jesus Tweet?”
So yes, use normal language, but it needs to be language that is normal to you, too. If you are trying to hijack someone else’s cultural vernacular in order to feel relevant, it may not be as effective as you think it is.
So just be natural. Tell stories. Be funny. Use words you would use if you were simply having breakfast with someone. This isn’t “dumbing it down”; it’s being a human being and a communicator.
If a speaker seems bored, the people listening will feel bored.
Of course, this isn’t just about speaking in monotone or seeming disinterested in the subject matter. We need to care about how our words are affecting the people in the room.
I once heard someone say that good preaching is the difference between having to say something and having something to say. If I wake up on Sunday morning and think to myself, “Ugh. The service starts in two hours, and I have to say something,” it probably won’t be very good. However, if I wake up on Monday morning and think, “I cannot wait until Sunday, because I have something to say!” that energy will fuel the entire process and infuse a sense of life into the sermon itself. It is a terrible thing to be listening to a sermon and realize that the preacher is every bit as bored as I am.
3. Try to Establish Intimacy with the Room
I once listened to a youth pastor deliver a message to middle school students (Grades six through eight), and it was not good.
First of all, this guy seemed to think that the best way to communicate with middle school students was to talk really, really, loudly. His tone of voice never changed at all. He kept the same “I’M-SHOUTING-SO-YOU-SHOULD-LISTEN-TO-ME!” tone of voice throughout the entire thirty-minute message. Not only that, but he violated the first suggestion on this list by using as much “Christian culture” language as possible. He talked about being “sanctified,” “God’s sovereignty,” and “showing reverence before the almighty throne of God.” It was one of the most wholly dissonant sermons I have ever heard. On one hand, his tone of voice was (literally) screaming, “Please pay attention to me! I’m relevant! Listen to how loud I can talk!” However, his actual words were communicating an entirely different message, which was, “I have no interest in anyone here understanding a single word I am saying.” The final result was a roomful of bored teenagers.
The best preachers I know are great at establishing intimacy with the other people in the room. I’ve heard several comedians talk about this dynamic. They talk about how a good crowd in a good room can make you feel like you’re all experiencing something together. It is not merely a person standing on a platform and talking as if he or she is totally unaware that there are people in the room—it is establishing an awareness of one another, speaker and listener. It isn’t a lecture; it’s a conversation. The youth pastor in the story above didn’t seem to understand that, and I get the feeling that if the room had been completely empty it wouldn’t have changed a thing about his delivery.
This goes back to being aware of our listeners and our surroundings. If you think of your listeners as participants in a conversation, they will think that way, too.
The art of the spoken word—preaching, teaching, comedy, or any other kind of speaking—can be a powerful medium. If you are a public communicator, may you seek to engage people and to constantly seek to elevate your craft.