Preaching Into Thin Air

On Tuesday night I preached at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia.  This is a gathering of a thousand or so “messengers” who come from Baptist churches across the Commonwealth to do the business of the Association and to enjoy times of worship and fellowship.  It was a huge honor to be asked to preach and I tried to take it seriously.  I worked on the sermon for weeks, wrote out a full manuscript, and rehearsed it until I was fairly sure the words were coming out of me and not just off the page.  I polished my shoes, put on a suit, knotted my tie, and shoved a silk handkerchief into my breast pocket.  I was ready, or at least I thought I was. 

I climbed the steps and walked across the stage to the pulpit, opened my Bible, arranged my notes, and then looked out at the crowd.  But I couldn’t see the crowd.  I could only see the bright lights shining in my eyes.  And that’s when I remembered why I don’t like preaching at events like this.

I started in anyway, preaching the sermon as I had rehearsed it, but I couldn’t tell if the congregation was “getting it” or not.  I couldn’t see their faces.  Every once in a while I would hear a ripple of laughter move across the darkened room and once I heard a loud “Amen!” off to my right, but as I struggled through the sermon I realized how much I usually depend on congregational feedback. 

That raised eyebrow in the third pew lets me know that whatever I just said was a little surprising; those crossed arms off to my right may be a sign that things are getting too personal; that warm smile up in the balcony is a clue that whatever I’m saying is going down well; and that look of confusion to my left is a clue that I might need to say that last line again—slowly.  I “read” those faces, I depend on that feedback, and when I don’t get it the act of communication becomes uncomfortably one-sided.

It’s a good reminder that preaching—at its simplest—is one person sharing good news with others.  There’s an intimacy about it that is hindered by bright lights and a big stage.  Some of the best preaching I’ve done has been one-on-one, or in a group of five or six people, or in a tiny country church.  The worst preaching I’ve ever done—in my opinion—was when I read a sermon off the teleprompter in a television studio in Chicago.  Preaching ceases to be preaching in such circumstances and becomes something else:


I’m glad I had the opportunity to deliver a sermon at the BGAV.  As I said, it was a huge honor.  But I’m looking forward to being back in my regular pulpit this Sunday, talking to people I love about something I love to talk about. 

That’s not performing; that’s preaching.


4 thoughts on “Preaching Into Thin Air

  1. Amen…it feels like that when we sing as well. Bright lights and please no applause after an intense spiritual moment. How do we teach that? We are not performing, we are there to praise the Lord with our song. We are there because we want to be and we have practiced to get it just right for HIM.

    No applause, please.

  2. Jim: Being a CMP (Certified Meeting Professional), I can well understand your frustration in speaking to an almost invisible audience. While employed, I planned my sales meetings. The biggest factor in being succesful is the “What if factor”; knowing what to do when a “what if” surfaces. Planners are versed in knowing what to do. Did anyone involved at the BGAV test the speaker’s rostrum, lighting, squeaking platform, distance between you and the audience, proper functioning of the microphone, for starters? These are just a few of the vital factors that are a part of any meeting’s success .I regret that you could not see those to whom you spoke; however,it is a fact that they most certainly could see YOU!!

  3. Glad you don’t like those spotlights, Jim! YES – you belong at home in Richmond with your FBC family!!!

    As for Marydel’s comment, I agree. I believe that there is a time for “joyful noise” and likewise, a time for “reverence.”

  4. I heard someone say, “It’s not about the performance; it’s about the response”. Sorry you had that experience at the BGAV. Sadly, I have seen that “performance” in church settings during that hour on Sunday mornings, when we should be responding rather than performing. Yet when people go off script, even one line, metaphorical tomatoes are thrown at the actor and the next morning, there is a bad review whispered amongst season ticket buyers “we don’t do it that way; what was she thinking?; that was a hokey move; i don’t like that hymn; ___ fill-in-the-blank”.

    Jim, I am glad you are back in the pulpit, responding to what God has done in your life and where you are not blinded by stage lights, but warmed by the light of Christ.

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