I saw an interview with Mel Gibson talking about producing the Passion of the Christ. He said the scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion were so intense that he knew he had to “hold the viewer’s hand through the movie.” This is why the movie goes from scenes of intensity to scenes of relief. One scene might be Jesus being flogged and beaten followed by another scene that shows him with his mother back in time building a chair.
Gibson could have written the movie where it begins intense, remains intense for the entire film and ends with great intensity. The problem with that approach is that viewers can only take so much. There has to be a balance of intensity and relief.
This same principle applies to preaching. I once preached a sermon on how to change. The sermon was intense because it dealt with the fallen human condition. I talked about addiction, abuse, pain, hang-ups, hurts and everything in between. The general feel of the sermon was intense. It was heavy. When I finished preaching the first of two services that day I could not shake the feeling that the sermon needed some relief. It was too heavy. It was overwhelming in a way that wasn’t productive.
I know what some of you are thinking… Wait! Heaviness is good. Intensity is good. People need their toes stepped on! That’s just the Holy Spirit working on them! I don’t deny that some intensity is needed. I don’t deny that God can use the heaviness to move people. And I understand the power of his Word to cut through hard hearts and break down barriers. But we are communicating with human beings who need to process the intensity.
If your preaching is nothing but intense, then eventually all your words begin to sound the same. If every single word is vitally important, then no words are important. You get the most out of your intensity when it is balanced with relief.
In his book, Preaching: The Art of Narrative Exposition, Calvin Miller speaks to this concept:
“Eugene Lowry in discussing his famous narrative “loop” speaks of preachers intentionally letting up on the tension, and creating a moment of relief in the tension. Dramatic and passionate preaching may establish a tight bond between preacher and listener but it doesn’t do much for the humanity and relationship that ought to characterize the best conversational style. Only when passion and relief are interchanged and juxtaposed does the sermon achieve its best rapport with the listeners. All scream and no cream is not good preaching. Nor is a namby-pamby, droning conversational style. The sermon, like life, must come at us in a variety of modes.” -Calvin Miller, Preaching p. 113
Like most things, balance is the key.
Raising your voice when you preach is fine, but not fine all the time. If a preacher yells every word eventually there is diminishing returns. Just like IF I WERE TO WRITE IN ALL CAPS. IT’S EXHAUSTING TO READ THIS BECAUSE I’M YELLING AT YOU! Eventually, you decide that because EVERY word must be important, then effectively no words are important.
So raise your voice, lower your voice. Increase the pace, slow the pace. Pause dramatically, and keep talking. Use humor, be intense. Just be sure to vary your approach. In my new book, Preaching Killer Sermons: How to Create and Deliver Messages that Captivate and Inspire, I discuss the varying ways we can connect with the mind, will and emotions of our listeners. Check it out here.
Effective preaching takes into account the complexity of human emotion. It also takes into account the fact that your people come in and out of paying attention to you. Save your moments of intensity for when you really need to drive your point home. Give your people relief, and they will respond better to your moments of intensity.
Great preachers have a balance of intensity and relief.
What have you seen preachers do to balance the intensity? What things do you do to have both intensity and relief?