Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Preacher be scared.

with acknowledgement to Churchill Centre and Museum
At over four million words, Churchill’s collected speeches run to eight volumes. His was a ministry of words comparable to any lifelong preacher. Indeed between the years 1900 and 1955 his usual average was a speech a week – a score similar to many regular preachers. That he was such a seasoned practitioner and that so many of his phrases remain familiar, might suggest that public speaking came easily to him. In fact that was far from the case. As Sam Leith points out in his brilliant recent book, You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama (Profile Books), Churchill was often nervous to the point of nausea before addressing an audience and was completely incapable of speaking off the cuff.

Churchill’s evident mastery of public speaking was entirely down to sustained preparation and pre-event practice. Amongst the techniques he used were: reading the speeches of the ‘greats’ and committing them to memory; the composition of extremely detailed scripts for himself which included stage directions; rehearsal of speeches in front of a mirror (and in the bath!); writing speeches whilst listening to music that evoked the emotion to which he was aiming; and the reworking of phrases from the past to carefully suit the needs of the present. Each of those tactics could profitably be used by every preacher. To my mind the preacher’s golden rule is ‘prepare as if all depends on you; deliver as if all depends on God,’ and Churchill’s example reinforces that conviction.
Similarly, I think his nervousness also has something to say to preachers. I understand his anxiety had its origins in his speech defects – he both stammered and had a lisp. Although training enabled him to successfully contend with these disadvantages, the anxiety they had prompted never left him.
Preachers are always called to give voice to things that are beyond their vocal capabilities. We all do well to recall frequently that our speech is defective in terms of the holiness and graciousness of God. There is a nervousness about giving voice to ‘Godly speech’ that should never leave a preacher. That doesn’t mean embarrassed hesitance in what we say and how we say it; but it does mean an abiding consciousness that we are called to a task for which are not naturally talented. Fear that this task may be beyond our capabilities keeps us striving to work at our skills and the execution of them. That in turn gives an ‘edge’ to what we say and guards against complacency.
A kindly and experienced lay preacher took me aside many years ago when I was still new to preaching and said, ‘From where I sit I can see you’re very nervous every time you preach; you’ve no need to be, your preaching is fine.’ I appreciated his encouragement and thanked him for it warmly, but I had to say that I couldn’t ever imagine not being nervous about preaching. Almost forty years later I still can’t imagine ever not being nervous.
It behoves a preacher to be scared. A nervousness that is conscious of words as ‘words of eternal life’ is a witness against the verbiage of contemporary discourse. Nervousness keeps the preacher striving to name the purposes of God in ways that challenge and inspire.