Preparing a Talk
These are my own thoughts about how to prepare a Christian talk. I had no formal training but was pastor of a local church for 34 years. These are just some reflections mainly from my own experience of speaking in various environments over the years - and listening to other people speak! I certainly don't claim to be an expert or a particularly good speaker!
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1) Subject - What to speak on?
There are different ways you could arrive at a subject:
- Given to you - This removes your decision but may take you out of your comfort zone!
- Part of a series - It's a good idea to find out what the other people teaching in the series are saying.
- Your own subject - Deciding what to speak on can be the hardest part of your preparation and needs careful thought and prayer. You may have favourite subjects or talks which you have given before to other audiences. You may be inspired by your recent personal Bible reading and prayer to step out into a new area which requires more research and preparation.
2) The Aim - Transformation
Start at the end! What change do you intend in the minds, hearts and lives of your listeners through your talk? This is your ultimate goal. All of your planning and preparation should work towards this transformational goal.
There are a variety of transformations you may desire from your talk:
- Informed - Every talk will have information but your aim will be to provide new material which will be helpful to your listeners. Aim for information with transformation!
- Enlightened - You hope that your listeners will understand some issues better. You may be able to provide a big picture connecting parts of the Bible. You may be able to clarify some doctrine. Better understanding of biblical principles can enable better decision making in life. It is essential to frequently explain the gospel and ensure that your listeners understand the grace of God.
- Challenged - It is always good to deliver a challenge - something that your audience will be able to respond to and work on in their daily lives. Your listeners will be at different stages in their walk with God. It is most important to often give opportunity for people to repent and believe in Jesus as their saviour.
There are also many other challenges - for example: be effective witnesses, be good disciples and followers of Jesus, exercise faith, be wise in relationships, forgive those who offend you, live sexually pure lives and avoid pornography, manage your money wisely, make good use of your time, be wise about use of TV and internet, maintain personal prayer, read the Bible regularly, develop your relationship with God, love your neighbours, enemies, family, husband or wife, go on a mission or outreach programme, be generous, care for those in need, be filled with the Holy Spirit, develop spiritual gifts, be a worshipper, be honest, be loving, be a good listener, enjoy life...and so I could go on!
By delivering a variety of challenges in different talks, you can ensure that you are giving a varied diet to your listeners. It's best not to have too many different challenges in one talk or your audience may get overloaded and may not be sure what they are supposed to be responding to!
How you communicate challenge is very important. You need to avoid presenting the Christian life as a set of dos and don'ts. It is also essential to avoid the impression that meeting these challenges will save your listeners or gain God's favour! We live in the grace of God and meeting these challenges will simply enable us to serve God more effectively. Your challenges also need to be achievable!
- Equipped - Your listeners will be delighted if your biblical teaching can equip them to live the Christian life more effectively. You can help them to be more effective witnesses for Jesus, to develop the gifts which God has given them, to be able to deal with temptation, to deal with confrontations and relationships, to study the Bible using helpful resources, to maintain peace and joy in a busy world...etc.
- Emboldened - An important part of our Christian life is to be bold in our witness and in our faith.
- Encouraged - You will always want your listeners to be encouraged and optimistic! You will not want them to feel condemned, or a failure at the end of your talk. Your words need to be positive, reassuring and hopeful.
- Comforted - You never know what is going on in the lives of the people before you. Behind the smiling faces there may be problems, anxiety and depression etc. You may wish to help these people with sensitive words of comfort, good news and peace.
- Inspired - Ideally your listeners will feel that God has been speaking to them during your talk. They may be activated, energised, stirred, excited and motivated by the word of God!
You also need to consider and pray about how you intend to finish your talk to maximise transformation:
- You may simply believe that the spoken word will accomplish this.
- You may wish to pray for everyone together at the end.
- You may suggest that those who are touched by the word to indicate by raising their hand, standing up or coming to the front - and then praying for these together.
- It may be appropriate to invite people to the front for individual counsel, prayer, healing, ministry etc.
- Some churches finish with Question & Answer or with discussion groups.
It is likely that the final decision for these responses will depend on the way the meeting and your talk goes and the preferences of church leaders.
There are, of course, many ways to prepare a talk and these are merely suggestions from my own experience:
- Thinking, Praying, Reading the Bible - During this stage, you can think about the overall talk without much detail. It's a good idea to read the Bible only and use references to compare with other parts of the Bible. I don't write much down at this stage. It is, of course, very important to pray as you think and read.
- Research - Now it is time to look in detail at your talk. It's always a good idea to consult some Bible Commentaries, Study Bibles, Bible Encyclopaedias, other Bible Versions or internet articles. This will reveal various interpretations and translation details of your Bible passages by scholars. You can also test your own ideas about the passages and ensure that they are faithful to the word of God. You will probably also pick up some new insights which you hadn't noticed before! This is a time to start making notes and beginning to sketch out your talk.
- Structure your talk - The classic and typical Christian talk starts with a story or joke and has 3 main points which have memorable titles, starting with the same letter or rhyming etc. I have not often used this three-point sermon structure since my wife let me know at an early stage that she didn't like a declared number of points - she spent her time waiting for the next one and counting them down! I guess she's not the only one! I simply introduce new sections as the talk goes along! It's much more flexible and you can have as many points as you want depending on the material. Obviously, you need some kind of friendly start to engage your audience and an overall summary of where the talk is going and your objectives. The ending of your talk is very important and needs to home in on your transformational goal.
- Content - Various elements can make up a talk: teaching, preaching, stories, parables, testimony, Bible passages, humour, jokes, illustration, explanation, audio-visual, video clip, PowerPoint, drama, song, music, object lesson, Q&A etc. A change of method can help to keep attention.
- Your Notes - Everybody has their own preferred way of making notes for their talks. Some people find it necessary to write out the complete talk exactly as you are going to say it. Others are happy with just a few brief headings. As you might guess, I make a lot of use of bullet points! The main points are easy to see which means I only need to glance at the notes, but I do have fairly full notes and am careful to include the important points which I want to say in a particular way and the Bible verses. Some people use a PowerPoint type presentation as their notes. It's really good if you can learn your talk and use your notes as little as possible and maintain eye contact with your audience. I used to use paper notes, but these days find a tablet is a very convenient and occasionally I use a phone. Many people feel safer with paper! If it's a critical event like a wedding or a funeral, I do have a paper copy in the pocket just in case!
There are several things to think about when you come to actually deliver your talk:
- Length - Attention span varies with the activity. A gripping movie may keep your attention for over two hours, whereas a boring speaker may engage you for only a few minutes. Some successful speakers are animated and captivating and able to keep an audience for a long time. Of course, attention span depends on the type of audience - a student audience, used to listening to 50 minute lectures, may be able to listen to a speaker for a long time, but others such as youth and children are soon likely to get distracted and start looking around or fiddling with their phones! It is, of course, important to keep an eye on your audience and observe whether they are listening to your talk - if not, you need to take some action!
In the secular world, TED talks have been very successful - there is a limit of 18 minutes whoever you are and whatever your subject! They are long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention. It turns out that this length also works well online. It’s the length of a coffee break. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about the key point they want to communicate. Many politicians speak for less than 20 minutes which is often quoted as the maximum attention span.
Baptists, evangelicals and Pentecostals generally speak for a longer time where the talk is seen as the main spiritual food of the meeting. Other traditions such as Anglicans tend to have shorter sermons with the rest of the meeting taken up with prayers, liturgy, communion, hymns etc. I knew one Anglican vicar who advocated speaking for just 9 minutes!
When I started as a pastor of a church, I started with a typical Sunday preach of around 45 minutes but we eventually reduced this to 30 minutes. We found that this was long enough for a meaningful message and also left time for response when people were still awake and engaged! We did speak longer in midweek Bible Studies. We also usually gave visiting speakers whatever time they needed although often they were happy to go with 30 minutes.
- Voice - I find that the hardest talks to listen to are those which are delivered on a monotone, those which are halting with gaps and those which are full of "ums" and "ers". If you are preaching without a microphone, it may be necessary to shout - but you need to be careful you do not speak at a continuously loud level. Modulation is very important. The great advantage of using microphones is that you don't need to shout, but you can speak in a normal modulated voice using different tones and ways of speaking to emphasise different parts of your talk. Unfortunately, some people use a microphone and still shout!! If your talks are recorded, it's a good idea to listen to them occasionally so that you can improve your delivery. It's also a good idea to try and get some frank feedback from your audience - husbands and wives are often good at caring critical appraisal!!
- Audio-visual etc. - You may wish to enhance your talk with some of the various content elements mentioned above.
- Quotations - You may wish to quote Bible verses or passages or texts from other authors. It's best to make these as short as possible but sufficient to make your point. Projecting the texts enables people to read them after you have quoted them.
- Vocabulary - Some people use a lot of popular current Christian jargon and buzz words and phrases. The danger is that people may think that it is very spiritual to use this "Christianese". It also makes your talk predictable. It's a good idea to use more normal words and phrases in your talk as far as possible.
- Mobility - In a large venue, you may be expected to stand on a stage behind a lectern with a fixed microphone. These days, it is more common to have a portable handheld or hands-free microphone! This enables you to be more mobile and to move around the stage or nearer to your audience which is usually preferable in smaller venues. With a hands-free microphone, you can use your hands to express yourself more fully and to hold your notes or tablet.
5) Types of Talk
There are several types of Christian talk - here are some:
- Topical - You may need to research the whole Bible on some topics. Examples: The meaning of Grace, The life of David, Marriage, The Gospel, Worship etc.
- Bible passage(s) - This is a favourite method for some Bible expositors - explaining the Bible in detail and in context.
- Special event - Weddings, funerals, communion, baptisms, outreach events, dedications, Christmas, Easter etc.
- Testimony or experience - This may be appropriate at an outreach event or youth event etc.
- Motivational - These kinds of talk are popular in modern churches but they can be lightweight in Bible content.
Speakers can wield considerable power over their listeners. This is why it is so important to be careful with what we say and to ensure that we are truly biblical and not heretical!
Jam 3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.
1 Tim 1:5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.
I've given talks in many of the settings below. Although each of these needs a different approach, the principles in this article can be applied in different ways.
- Church - Sunday Meetings, Midweek Meetings, Teaching, Preaching, Sermons, Evangelistic Events etc.
- Outside - Open Air Preaching etc.
- Events - Conferences, Bible Camps etc.
- Men - Men's Days Away, Weekends, Breakfasts etc.
- Women - Women's Days Away, Weekends, Breakfasts etc.
- Children - Sunday Groups, Holiday Clubs, Schools etc.
- Youth - Sunday Groups, Midweek Groups, Holidays, Outreach Events etc.
- Young Adults - Talks, Discussions
- Leaders - Church Leaders, Seminars, Conferences etc.
- Pastoral - Dedications, Baptisms, Weddings, Funerals etc.
- Mission - Translated Talks etc.
- Teaching - Bible Colleges, Bible Studies etc.
- Courses - Alpha, New Christian, Marriage Preparation, Bible Survey, Evangelism, Leadership Training, Church Membership etc.
- Translation - In some countries your talk will be translated into another language as you speak. This means that the talk takes twice as long to deliver! You also need to get used to speaking in complete sentences which can be fully translated.
8) Emphasis and Church Leadership
Leaders of churches have different gifts which are summarised in Eph 4:11. The context you are operating in may be influenced by these types of leaders. You also will have your own gifts which will influence your own emphasis and the way you finish and apply your talk.
- Teacher Leadership - The emphasis is on knowing the Bible and maintaing sound doctrine. Lives are changed as the people are educated and understand their faith and the way they should live. The church is like a school or college!
- Pastoral Leadership - The emphasis is on caring for people and helping them through their problems by biblical principles, counselling and prayer. The community of the church is very important and contributes to everybody's quality of life. The church is like a spiritual hospital!
- Evangelist Leadership - The emphasis is on preaching the gospel and bringing people to salvation through faith in Jesus. Christians are constantly challenged in discipleship and equipped to be effective witnesses. The church is like an army to reach the world for Jesus!
- Prophet Leadership - The emphasis is on our relationship with God in prayer and worship. People are helped through their difficulties by power encounters with God through the operation of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual gifts are important. The church is a powerhouse!
- Apostle Leadership - The emphasis is on mission and the church worldwide. The church is outward looking, connected and global.
Many leaders exhibit more than one of these but it is important for church leaders to be aware of their gifts, their strengths and limitations! The best churches have a variety of leaders with different gift combinations.
9) A Challenge
As a church leadership, we were challenged by Paul's words to the Ephesians Elders in Acts 20:27 and decided to declare the whole counsel of God to our church! We started teaching the Bible in our Sunday meetings in January 2000 and alternated between the Old and New Testaments. We finished around April 2013! It was very stimulating for our teaching team and certainly provoked us to preach on new areas of the Bible and doctrine. We tried to make the teaching as practical as possible - claiming to be simple but profound!