Friday, 12 December 2014

Speaking in Public - Effectively

IT’S HAPPENED ALL THROUGH CHRISTIAN HISTORY – little children tugging at their parents’ sleeves in their desperation to get away from a droning sermon or talk in church; the clock-watching, the fidgeting, the yawning. As a little girl once complained:

‘Mummy, pay the man and let’s go home!’

Or to quote the playwright Dorothy Sayers: His enemies crucified Him. It was left to His disciples to make Him dull.

It need not be like that. In fact it must not be like that – otherwise we had better call a halt and put up our shutters. Nevertheless there are ways of improving, and working at this, the most privileged of all activities in Christian service - that of speaking to others about the eternal truths of the Bible. Off we go….

Kate Booth: ‘The Marechale’, 1858-1955

Ever heard of ‘The Marechale’? Kate Booth was the oldest daughter of General Booth, founder of The Salvation Army. In the mission work that she undertook with her ‘Hallelujah Lasses’ in the dives and brothels of Paris (which is where she gained her military nickname), she became one of the most riveting Christian speakers of all time. Earlier, by the age of sixteen she could quell a crowd of 1,500 spitting, jeering, swearing roughs. Her strength? Noel Palmer, who years later became her son-in-law - and whom I knew when I was a young minister - summed it up: ‘We had never heard anyone who made Jesus so real before. She brought Him right to us. He was there. He was speaking to you. You were touching Him, and His love was enveloping you. His purity and His power seemed to burn through you. It was preaching such as we had never heard in our lives before” (The Heavenly Witch, byCarolyn Scott, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1981).

The power lies in the Bible. We have only to resolve to speak from its pages - and we shall have a rich reservoir for life that is inexhaustible. I grew up on a diet of Bible stories every night. There is power in these 

David and Goliath: from ‘The Great Bible’ of 1539

stories! All these stories - and the whole of the Old and New Testament revelation - steer us towards knowing Christ; this was the passion that lay at the heart of the Marechale’s speaking.

And this has got to be true of us. But how does it happen? Some people, of course, are born speakers; they have a gift of being able to communicate to others – and if it is the Scriptures and the love of Christ that channels this ability, the results are likely to be momentous for the Gospel…. provided they can keep humble. 

But equally effective can be those who are made speakers. Was Moses one such? Through discipline, pain and adversity his earlier reluctance to speak at all developed, over a lifetime, into a God-trained ability that brings shivers to the spine as we read his farewell speech to Israel in Deuteronomy chapter 32. 

Speaking for God – whether we are inspirational individuals and independent of the formalised ministry of the church (like the Marechale); or those with a recognised appointment within organised Christianity – our speaking will stand or fall upon this one question: Is it GOD’S Word that you are impelled and motivated to impart, or only your own thoughts?

That immediately raises a further question. Do you actually believe that the Bible is the trustworthy and inspired Word of God? If you do, this belief will certainly show in your speaking, and in its effectiveness – in bringing people to the feet of Christ.

My next-door neighbour for 22 years at All Souls Church - Dr John Stott, CBE.  His numerous books that have promoted and expounded the message of the Bible, will still be read in 100 years’ time (Photo: Richard Bewes)

 If you entertain doubts about the Bible, equally it will show. Some might indeed possess a gift of oratory and may create an ever-billowing cloud of dust around themselves….but very little will actually happen to change the lives of precious people in any marked degree.

On the other hand, nothing that God has said can possibly be feeble! This is why, from Day One, the authentic Christian speaker treats the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the platform on which every utterance is to be based. Accepting this from the start, here then are three factors – among many – that can be taken into account in the developing of a public speaker:

The climate of our presentation – our earnestness

Every era presents its own challenge, and Athens in that first century AD was no exception. Acts 17:16-20 introduces us to a model for all time as to how we speak into a culture of religious pluralism.

‘But the word of God continued to increase and spread’ (Acts 12:24)

 Paul and his friends were far from apologetic as they entered Athens with its numerous shrines and altars. They took the Athenians head-on – and the first thing that impressed the listeners was the novelty of the Gospel. “May we know what this new teaching is?” asked the city’s philosophers (Acts 17:19). It was coming across (and it must always come across) as fresh and brand new! 

Today’s climate in the West is rather similar to that in Athens. Go to Times Square in New York, or to Leicester Square in London….and it’s Athens all over again, with every oddball group or sect jostling for attention. The wheel has nearly gone full circle. Forget the jaded talk of ‘a post-Christian society.’ We are rapidly entering a much more exciting era – that is, a new pre-Christian society in which Christian terminology and Bible stories are unknown to our contemporaries. Our hearers, then, are unlikely to be carrying too much ‘baggage’ from earlier church experience – and that can be to our advantage; we are starting with a clean slate, and pluralism today encourages us at least to set out our stall!

But then in Acts 17 Paul and his companions were all too aware of the necessity of the Gospel. Paul didn’t arrive in Athens as sightseer, or to take photographs of the Parthenon. He was in earnest – and he was ‘greatly distressed’ at the evident idolatry on every side (v.16). His sermon at the Areopagus culminated with the strong challenge of impending world judgment (v.31).  This was more than imparting information!  If we, too, are going to speak for God, we shall be engaging in the art of persuasion – in the knowledge that our listeners need – more than anything else in the world - the good news of God in Jesus Christ.  

Further, we learn from Acts 17 something of the nerve of the Gospel.

There was going to be no banter, no trite drivel and not too many jokes! Paul stated his aim from the start: “What you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (v.23). And this in a highly pluralistic society.  When, at the close, the Athenians said patronisingly that they would hear Paul again one day, we read, ‘At that, Paul left the Council’ (v.33).  He was in charge, not they. His nerve never failed him.

Naturally there has to be a humility in the bearing of any speaker for God.

Power and confidence, certainly, but also grace. We read of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, that he was ‘full of God’s grace and power’ (Acts 6:8) – a remarkable combination. 

But think of another ingredient in the making of a public speaker for God:

The essentials of our presentation – our discipline 

The fact is, we are going to be giving hundreds of talks – so we may as well work hard and get focused on the task ahead:
‘They read from the Book of the Law of God, making itclear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read’ (Nehemiah 8:8)
‘Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth’
(2 Timothy 2;15 KJV)
It never gets easier, but an early habit can be established – of living with the Bible every day. If you can afford a Bible to carry on your person, or in your briefcase or handbag, it will become a part of your persona. Who else would model such a habit? No one, apart from Bible lovers!

And Bible study itself; many of the prominent preachers in the world today have as their main regret their earlier neglect of Bible study. 

John Bunyan used his 12 years in prison studying and writing for God
(The stained glass window at the Bunyan Meeting house, Bedford)

There isn’t much time! we haven’t long before our style and approach becomes set – perhaps for life. Work is also needed on issues such as:
  • The difference between lecturing and speaking,
  • The difference between acting and projecting,
  • The difference between amusing and arresting,
  • The difference between extemporising and scripting.

The knowledge that Christ is going to speak through our feeble efforts is enough to galvanise us in this matter – and also over such issues as the 

Here you see me doing my bit at Billy Graham’s Amsterdam Congress.
Two tips: make friends with the microphone and make  friends with the spotlights! (photo Russ Busby of BGEA)

anatomy and shape of a talk, its clarity, its memorableness, its immediacy, its glow and its power to transform. Speaking that glows doesn’t just happen; it is the product of meditation on the Scriptures, prayer, love, pain and suffering. But come now to a third ingredient….

The ‘added value’ of our presentation – our imagination 

The Australian evangelist John Chapman put it in a seminar: “Is ‘normal’ good enough?” The answer is obvious; every talk must be a winner! Speaking for Christ is more than getting a decent outline and throwing in a few stories and jokes. It involves our whole approach to language, to life and to people. Think of Paul, there at Mars Hill in Acts 17. Think of Billy Graham in Times Square – when, instead of referring to heathen altars, as Paul did, he took the surrounding cinema hoardings to make his points! Above all, think of Jesus by the Sea of Galilee, and let these ‘added-value’ elements come to us from life, from our own reading and observation, and - as far as possible – from first hand. And store them.

Work on the voice – your unique trade-mark. Strengthen your breathing and projection. Watch those irritating mannerisms. Avoid the ponderous Latin words; go straight for Anglo-Saxon ‘Internationalese’.

Iron out those time-worn clichés.  Consult your trusted critics!

Is it all a bit terrifying? It needs to be. At the same time, speaking as an ambassador of God’s kingdom is the greatest of all privileges.   (END)

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