Non-verbal communication for the preacher

So far, my query relating to the place of mind, heart and spine has produced few results. What it has produced, however, is a  plea to develop the idea of ‘listening with the spine’ a little further as it relates to preaching. When I was researching Who Needs Words, it took me into all sorts of places to which the preacher would not customarily go. Amongst these was the world of Action Learning, born out of British industrial relations. It also took me to the insights of neuro-linguistic programming, born of psychological studies in the USA in the 1970s.

Amongst the many insights which NLP has to offer the communicator is a minute analysis of those gestures and micro-gestures which contribute to the message conveyed. These may be entirely involuntary on the part of the speaker, and yet they have a significant impact on the listener. NLP started with observation, and then moved onto praxis. Thus, for instance, it analysed the eye movements of people when communicating different things, as shown below:



With great skill, these things can be ‘reverse engineered’ and not just used as a means to read a message, but a means to convey it. A speaker may wish to mimic these eye movements in order to reinforce the listener’s inclination to make pictures, reflect or recall. The same goes for full body movement. If a standing speaker is looking back they may step back. If they are looking forward they may step forward. If they want to stop and reflect their movements may all be slowed to a minimum. All these things can be consciously inserted by a speaker in order to supplement the words which their speech is conveying. It is worth analysing Barack Obama’s acceptance speech of the Democratic nomination in Denver on August 28th 2008. The young man who had strode energetically to and fro on the campaign trail now stands rooted to the podium – moving only from the waist up. The message conveyed non-verbally is that this is a statesman who can be trusted with such a powerful office.


The question is whether such devices are appropriate for the preacher. If we want to communicate at every level – brain, heart and spine, should we use every means at our disposal? By adding such skills to our armoury – are we fulfilling our calling or straying from it?

The question is a genuine one, as I am undecided. What do you think?

On listening to sermons

Over the years in these pages I have made no secret of the value which I place on story in communication. Far from being a threat to truth, it can be its servant. In the hands of a careful and creative preacher, story can slip under the radar of a listener’s defences, unleashing the full force of God’s word close to the heart where it is needed most.

Because of my great love for storytelling, I always love to read other people’s descriptions of of what it is and how it is done. Last week I came across this description from Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov. After describing the archetypal story of ‘cry wolf’ and saying that story started when there was no real wolf, but only one in the boy’s imagination, he says that:

Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.

You may feel that such a prism is not a place in which preaching should be found – since we seek to convey truth rather than fabrication. That said, a story well told may convey truth with more clarity and penetration than a bald account of it could ever do.

What interests me especially, though, is Nabokov’s description of how such stories are heard:

A wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine

Tell me – do you listen to sermons with your mind, your heart or your spine?

From an open air pulpit

Preaching in the open air is a very different experience. The wind snatches your notes away, the traffic drowns out your voice, and passers by occasionally “contribute” to the sermon.  Words must be measured and carefully chosen, sentences must be short, and ideas must be clear.  Not sure whether I achieved all that as I stood flanked by the traffic lights and the cross today – but here is the result.


Good Friday 2014

Good Friday 2014

The writer of Luke’s Gospel takes just NINE WORDS to change the world:“When he had said this, he breathed his last” (Luke 24 v. 46) With those words, all the hope and promise of a hundred healings and miracles ;all the life and colour flooding in through the open windows of the parables; all seemed to be snuffed out. With those words the song of the angels – sung so loud on the night the child was born that it all but deafened the shepherds…seemed to be silenced forever.When it comes down to it – what is so GOOD about Good Friday anyway?

I have asked that question many times. My Mum was born on April 19th – which happened to be a Good Friday that year. For many years after that her parents would mark Good Friday as her “unbirthday” whenever it fell on a different day.  Did she have an answer to what was so good about it?  She did not. When people see us on a Good Friday processing up the street, awkwardly pushing past the pavement café tables. When they look down from the bus windows as they are doing right now.  When they look later on and see 2…or 3 …or 6 people all staring at the cross like Anthony Gormley’s installation “another place” -who can blame them for asking “why is it good”?

This time last year was working at my desk just before the Good Friday service. Members of the Teddington business community know that I am a prolific tweeter. This weekend will see my tweet number 34,000. On that Good Friday I was chatting on Twitter to a local mum who had just had a bad night with her children and was feeling a little fuzzy. She was so tired that she wished me “Happy Birthday” by mistake instead of Happy Easter. It might have ended there except that she had a column to write for The Times. Inspiration dawned, the copy was filed, and on Easter Monday the column was published. Let me quote to you from it:

“Many people say the meaning has gone out of our religious festivals. And when you find yourself absent-mindedly wishing a “happy birthday” to the friendly local Baptist minister, this would appear to be true. Shame-faced, I quickly apologised and corrected it to Happy Easter….Easter is our ,most human festival. It shows the best and worst of us” People take time out from work, they buy modest, affordable egg-shaped chocolate products and they might even think for half a second about why Easter exists. They might even go near a church and wish the minister a happy birthday. …The best thing about Easter is that it does not make you feel like a hypocrite even if you are not the most committed of Christians. Its about starting over and recognising that we all make mistakes. Its about our endless capacity to make ourselves over and try again, even when it seems that all hope is lost”

Yes, yes and yes! Today, I am glad to stand up and be counted as a Christian. Today I am honoured to stand before this cross, and will be glad to take my place in the vigil later. Today I celebrate that this really is GOOD Friday. Why? Because the cross represents our best…our only hope for a second chance…and a second chance…and a second chance again.. On its rough wooden beams  God takes all our selfishness our meanness and our capacity for self-destruction – and he crosses it out.

I am a very messy writer. At school, my handwriting looked as if a spider had had a nasty accident with an ink pot and then skittered across paper. (It still looks like that today). I  used to get so cross with myself for getting things wrong when my writing wouldn’t keep up with my ideas  that would I scribble & scribble & scribble to try & obliterate the mistakes.  That is the point at which my oh so patient teacher would lean over my shoulder and say : “No, Richard – you just need to put a single neat line through your mistake and  start again”. Today really is Good Friday – because that is what God has done for us – crossing out our mistakes and inviting us to start again.

God bless you, today, on this truly Good Friday.


Maundy Thursday

Every year, Maundy Thursday offers an opportunity for a different style of preaching and worship. On more than one occasion we have held Tenebrae services – gradually extinguishing the lights in the church as the service progresses, and then leaving the church in silence when the service concludes. We have celebrated a ‘messy communion’ -with wine stains and breadcrumbs littering the table cloth. We have used found materials when the church was a building site to make crosses and present them as an offering. Last night – the emphasis was on simplicity.


Almost two centuries ago, three stargazers left their home in Persia for a small corner of Judea. Arriving at the royal place, they discovered it was the wrong place, and allowed the star which had been their companion to urge them on. Reaching a stable, they fell on their knees, all dignity lost, and worshipped the infant king. For years afterwards, in their native land, the story of that night would be told, and told again. Death came, these wise old men were buried and laid to rest, Later their bones would be removed from where they lay and taken from there to Constantinople, to Milan and eventually to Cologne. There they would be encased in a casket of the finest gold, and find their resting place in a cathedral which soared some 157m above them.

Why do we love to complicate things?

In Judea once again, the night would come when Christ would sit at a borrowed table in an upper room, drinking from borrowed cups with his friends. One cup would be lifted and he would talk of it as the ‘cup of the new covenant’, before passing it to his friends. Centuries later, that cup has been reproduced, beautified and adorned beyond all recognition. In cathedral treasure chambers all across Europe we can find it, fashioned from burnished gold and encrusted with jewels as big as boiled sweets.

Why do we love to complicate things?

Some time in the thirteenth century, British monarchs started dispensing warm clothes and other bounty to the poor on Maundy Thursday as a nod to the humble act of Christ in washing his disciples’ feet. By the sixteenth century the number of poor thus blessed was the number of years of the sovereign’s life. By the eighteenth century royalty could no longer bear to be seen touching the poor, and by the nineteenth century money had replaced all the gifts that had gone before. Now a number of worthy people, their number the same as the sovereign’s years, receive two small leather purses on Maundy Thursday. One is red, and contains Maundy money, the other is white and contains ordinary coins.

Why do we love to complicate things?

This was the point during the sermon at which I removed my shoes and socks, and encouraged others to do the same (many did). Standing there barefoot, feeling the prickle of the church carpet under foot – we all looked slightly ridiculous – robbed of some dignity. This tactile experience was a reminder that Christ never saved a poet or scientist; never a lawyer or a teacher; never a Baptist Minister, for that matter. He saved sinners – united by their common and flawed humanity. We shared communion thus (un)shod – passing the elements to each other with simple eye contact and the words “this is for you”.

Altogether it was a profound and simple experience.


Words and deeds

We closed the service with the haunting sounds of “I exalt thee” from the Willow Creek Community. When you start the video below I suggest you close your eyes – since the sound, rather than the images, are what matter here.


Two speeches divided by a common language

Within the past week both the British Prime Minister and the American President have held Easter gatherings at their places of residence. Both Have made allusions to their personal faith, and both have called on people of faith to join them in a bid to improve the society in which they live. Remarks from both addresses are reproduced below. I wonder whether you can identify whose is whose? If politics is indeed ‘the art of the possible’ (Otto von Bismarck) then it has to inspire a transcendence of the actual, don’t you think?

Whether its providing services for children at risk of exclusion, whether it’s teaching prisoners to read, whether it’s dealing with breakdown, whether it’s provision of food banks, there are some extraordinary organisations run by faith groups and Christians in our country and I want to see the possibilities for that to expand.

So this morning, my main message is just to say thank you to all of you, because you don’t remain on the sidelines. I want to thank you for your ministries, for your good works, for the marching you do for justice and dignity and inclusion, for the ministries that all of you attend to and have helped organize throughout your communities each and every day to feed the hungry and house the homeless and educate children who so desperately need an education.

 I hope we can do more to raise the profile of the persecution of Christians around the world. It is the case today that our religion is now the most persecuted religion around the world.

And we’re joined by several faith leaders who are doing outstanding work in this area mentoring and helping young men in tough neighbourhoods.  We’re also joined by some of these young men who are working hard and trying to be good students and good sons and good citizens.  And I want to say to each of those young men here, we’re proud of you, and we expect a lot of you.

This third thing I wanted to say, which I suppose is a little bit more controversial, but I was reflecting on this meeting tonight and what to share with you and I have a thought – which is not a new thought, but I think it is a true thought –which is when I think of the challenges which our churches face in our country and when I think about the challenges political institutions face in our countries – in our country, I see a lot of similarities.

We’re all made in His image, all worthy of his love and dignity.  And we see what happens around the world when this kind of religious-based or tinged violence can rear its ugly head. It’s got no place in our society.

And when I look at churches I see that the – you’re trying to do exactly the same thing, to fire up your congregations with a sense that actually, if we pull together, we can change the world, we can make it a better place. That to me is what a lot of the – what the Christian message is about, and that’s why it gives me such pleasure and is a huge privilege to have you all here.

We are drawn to His timeless teachings, challenged to be worthy of His sacrifice, to emulate as best we can His eternal example to love one another just as He loves us.  And of course, we’re always reminded each and every day that we fall short of that example.  And none of us are free from sin, but we look to His life and strive, knowing that “if we love one another, God lives in us, and His love is perfected in us.”   

What we both need more of is evangelism. More belief that we can get out there and actually change people’s lives and make a difference and improve both the spiritual, physical and moral state of our country, and we should be unashamed and clear about wanting to do that. And I’m sure there are people here of all political persuasions and no political persuasions, and I’m certainly not asking you to agree with everything the government does, but I hope you can see – hopefully more than moments, but real moments of evangelism, enthusiasm and wanting to make our world a better place.

He reminds us that all of us, no matter what our station, have an obligation to live righteously, and that we all have an obligation to live humbly.  Because that’s, in fact, the example that we profess to follow.


A project for Palm Sunday

A couple of weeks ago our senior teenage group listened to a poem ‘When Jesus came to Birmingham’. Following on from that, we asked them where they thought Jesus might go if he came to Teddington. We then took the small wooden figure of Jesus which you see below, and photographed him in all those places. The list was not edited at all, and the photographic tour led to some interesting conversations:

  • With the manager of the charity shop.
  • With staff at Tearfund, who saw the photo on Twitter and wished they had been aware of his visit.
  • With the barista at Starbucks, who wondered whether I wanted him in the photo?
  • With the secretary of the newly rebuilt secondary school, who took me on a tour of the £35million facility to find the best place for our small wooden figure.

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

Another interesting result was a conversation on Twitter which led me to the work of Si Smith and his ‘stations of the resurrection’ You can see one of his arresting images below, and order his astonishing collection here. In an interview with him last week he said: making the characters contemporary forced me to look at them more empathetically too -so it’s not a story about ‘them’, it’s a story about ‘us’.


Emmaus Road…[CLICK for full size image]

Palm Sunday should always be a story about us, don’t you think?

An idea

I have just come from leading a Friday lunchtime prayer meeting. It lasts for about 45 minutes, and is attended by a group of people who often pray together. How to keep it fresh? Sometimes it is good to have topics which ‘open up’ the praying by capturing the imagination – which is what I did today. Using the four cards pictured below we prayed about.

  • Hearts – the people and things we love
  • Spades - those areas of church and working  life where we dig in
  • Clubs – clubs, groups and societies inside and outside the church where we play a part
  • Diamonds – the cutting edge where the church meets the world.

These simple topics released a steady flow of prayer. Feel free to steal and adapt…


Dear PM

Happy Easter to you too

Dear Sir. I am not, actually, the Prime Minister. You see, the girl who described me that way was very little at the time and she did not understand. I am not the Prime Minister, nor am I a Minister of state. I am, in fact, the minister of one relatively small church within a much wider global movement. As minister I am not completing the work Jesus began – since that makes it sound as if he left the job half done. On a good day, I like to think I can facilitate His work. On a bad day, I think He graciously works around me.

As that kind of minister within a multi-faith country, I expect neither prejudice nor privilege when it comes to Christianity. Like my Baptist forebears I support the rights of any man or woman to hold their beliefs be they “Hereticks, Jews, Turcks or whatsoever” [sic] If you are going to intervene on behalf of persecuted Christians, I hope it will also be for those who are persecuted whatever their belief might be.

You say you would like us to join with you in “evangelism”. I’m not so sure about that. You see, when that word was first coined it was news of a battle won. As politicians do, the imperial wordsmiths took it over and spun it into a technical term for the announcement of a new Emperor’s birth. Christians naughtily subverted it as news of a battle yet to be won and the arrival of a king who would knock Caesar into obscurity. Having once wrested that word from the hands of politicians I am not quite ready to give it back just yet.

And then there is the invitation to “think of me if you like as a sort of giant Dyno-Rod in Whitehall”. I wonder quite what you mean by that? Does it mean you turn up at some unearthly hour in a van painted such a bright orange that it disturbs the neighbourhood? Does it mean that you are prepared to roll your sleeves up and clean out the mess which no-one else wants to touch? Are you sure that is an image you want to leave in our imaginations this Easter? I only ask, because next time I am explaining what the actual Prime Minister is, it might be useful to know.

Happy Easter.


The words of a hero

Sixty nine years ago two guards came to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s hut in the Flossenburg prison camp to fetch him for his final journey to the gallows. Turning to a fellow prisoner he said ‘this is the end, but for me the beginning, of life’. After that he proceeded with quiet dignity to the gallows. A fellow prisoner, Dr Fischer-Hullstrung, gave this description:

Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.

I have often wondered why Bonhoeffer has had such an enormous influence on my theological thought. Today, on the anniversary of his death, I have been trying to identify some of the reasons:

  • I studied him as part of my first degree when my I was first learning to think theologically.
  • His conscious decision to leave Union Theological Seminary and return to Nazi Germany to share the fate of his own people showed such moral and intellectual college.
  • He was a truly liberal thinker, making room in the spaces of his thought for many insights.
  • He was a truly dialectical theologian – demonstrating an ability to hold then and now, Bible and world, here and hereafter in tension.
  • Standing in a tradition of formal and drily intellectual ministerial formation he was prepared to emphasize the need for the communal and devotional life of trainee pastors.
  • Raised in a setting of old German privilege, his outspoken opposition to the Aryan clause showed a triumph of mercy and grace over self-interest.
  • Raised in a Lutheran theological climate, the decision to resist the authority of State was enormous, but having taken it he was prepared to support it by action as well as words if necessary.
  • His essay ‘After 10 years’ abides as a clarion call for reasoned theological judgement. See more of it here.

When I get to heaven, I should very much like to meet him – but I’ve a feeling the queue might be quite long!


Measuring impact

Back in 2000, I was completing a Master’s Degree in Preaching and tackling my dissertation on ‘the preacher as translator’. Having invested a lot of time prior to that in the study of translation science, the topic held a fascination for me. I knew all about the translator’s ‘Holy Grail’ of equivalent meaning, and the fact that most times she or he must settle for something less in either formal equivalence (mirroring every word) or dynamic equivalence (mirroring the impact of original text).

Twenty-odd thousand words later, my conclusions were twofold. Firstly, the preacher should not be so seized by the image of translation that the Biblical text loses its ‘teeth’ in an effort to fit in with the world of those who hear the sermon. It is, and always will be, a word from ‘another place’ which lands in the world of the listener. Secondly, I concluded that the most effective measure of any sermon was not how it sounds or how much it is enjoyed, but how much difference it makes. A translator whose job is to translate road signs, for instance, knows that they are doing a good job when all the cars turn the right way!

Yesterday I downloaded a communications report from YouGov and found that second conclusion unexpectedly endorsed. The report says that ’43 % of survey respondents indicated that increasing stakeholder engagement was their most important objective for communications planning’. More significantly, it states that ‘communicators are defining success by the actions their audience takes upon receiving a message’.  Preachers – take note!

Years ago, the TV show ‘Opportunity Knocks’ used to measure the success of an act by the decibel level recorded in the auditorium on the ‘clapometer’ pictured below. Nobody ever felt it was any kind of scientific measure. In these days of integrated media where votes can be cast by phone, text, red button or likes it looks nothing more than a quaint relic.

Here’s a question, though. If you are communicating for a living today – how will you measure the success of your communication?

« Older entries