5 tips on Preaching for audio only – a new oral tradition during the pandemic?

Me on phoneI’ve been reflecting on how my sermons come across on my new ‘dial a sermon’ system that enables you to ring a phone number and listen to my most recent sermon over the phone. Click here to find out how to set up such a system yourself: Creating a ‘dial a sermon’ system for those not online.

I tweeted this earlier today:

There is a great summary of the discussion about how different preaching online is on Ian Paul’s blog here: Preaching online in virtual church. Now I’ve put up a sermon on the dial a sermon system for 3 weeks running I have started thinking about what works and doesn’t when listening to a sermon over the phone (it’s an interesting thing in itself to hear yourself back – the last time one of my sermons was recorded and played back to me was when I was at theological college!)

Paula Gooder responded to me on Twitter with:

Paula then went on to ask me if I would write a blog post on it so here it is!

Here are some things I’ve been pondering about preaching for people who will only hear a recording of your sermon:

1. It needs to be loud and clear.

And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?

-Romans 10:14

I’ve been using free software Audacity to record my sermons in mp3 format (which is needed for the Twilio phone system). There is a feature in Audacity that enables you to amplify the recording (go to ‘Effect’ and then ‘Amplify’ and just click apply and it will amplify the whole recording). I just did that to yesterday’s sermon because it came out ok on my computer but over a landline I was straining a little to hear. There’s no point in offering a phone service if you can’t hear it!

As well as being audible, your speech needs to be a little slower than it would be in a face to face setting. I equate it to the difference between preaching using a good microphone in a building with good acoustics from the lectern and preaching from a pulpit in a cathedral or large parish church. If you’ve ever preached from a pulpit you will know that you have to slow down considerably and wait almost for your last sentence to hang in the air before moving onto the next one (physical gestures don’t work very well in a pulpit either – I learnt that the hard way when I was in training!) So you need to pay attention to sentence structure and clarity and this may well mean you need a script.

2. Using picture language is helpful

‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

  • Matthew 13:44-46

As Paula Gooder pointed out in her tweet, the Gospel writers do this a lot as sign posts to the listener – Mark has boats, Matthew has mountains. I think I did it subconsciously but in my sermon about the Road to Emmaus I used the image of Jesus the Light of the World to describe the idea that Jesus always waits to be invited in (you’ll remember that on the road to Emmaus he makes as if to continue travelling and Cleopas and his companion urge him to stay). Painting a picture with your words is helpful for the listener. If you think about it, Jesus does it all the time: the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who finds buried treasure; the Kingdom of Heaven is like a pearl of great price…

Hunt_Light_of_the_WorldI knew that everyone would be able to picture the Holman Hunt painting in their mind’s eye and also that it would give people a nostalgic feeling. I’ve found that in my sermons, those with a strong image are those that tend to stay with people. I once preached a sermon about Paul’s exhortation to ‘rejoice always’ in Philippians. I used the metaphor of a solar panel. Solar panels, I discovered, can still absorb light on an overcast day: in the same way, we can ‘rejoice always’ (that’s the TL:DR version of the sermon!). A parishioner used to remind me of this sermon regularly, saying that whenever he saw a solar panel he’d remember what I said. That is the power of the good image and is one all preachers should use – but especially in this context of preaching over the phone.

3. Repetition is a good idea

 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

Mark 8:31; (Jesus says this again Mark 9:31 & 10:33-34

This is another good principle of preaching that is particularly relevant here where you do not have any other cues such as physical gestures and eye contact. I’ve found myself returning to the classic ‘three point sermon’ with repeated phrases throughout. You can’t really go on a flight of fancy with this type of preaching – the listener needs to feel comfortable that they know where things are going, otherwise they are going to hang up! (I’ve been joking with my parishioners that the benefit of this system is that if they get bored they can hang up and I’d never know!) So three key takeaway and memorable points or a particularly memorable phrase are helpful for the listener.

4. It needs to be lyrical – like a good song because people will listen more than once

This has quite surprised me but a number of people have told me that they listen on Sunday and then they ring again later in the week, so your sermon needs to bear repeating! Like a good song, it needs a good structure, a catchy tune, a memorable lyric…

5. It needs to be nourishing

With a normal Sunday sermon preached in church, if it was a bit ‘below par’ it doesn’t matter too much, there’s always next week and your sermon was just one part of a whole service that included hymns, prayers and the Eucharist (in my context anyway). At the moment, during the pandemic, these phone sermons are the only bit of church some people are getting each week! That is a scary thought! To use another metaphor, the phone sermon needs to be like a good hearty Sunday lunch (although maybe not something that will send you to sleep!) Beans on toast, while it might be all right in normal circumstances, won’t quite cut it over the phone.

Conclusion

While I’ve been writing this I’ve been realising I need to up my game, I am by no means suggesting I have achieved all of the above so far! Working through these points here at least will give me some things to consider over the next few weeks as I preach over the phone to many of my parishioners – maybe it will make me a better preacher over all. I hope so.

Do you have any further reflections to add?

4 comments

  1. Interesting stuff, Bryony. I have always had a great interest in storytelling and oral culture, (which is probably why I have gone for audio only podcasting, rather than livestreaming or video for our Sunday worship). There are lots of tips from the storytelling world which apply to this and would be worth exploring. As you have said, repetition, structure etc. matter. I think its also important to think about the imaginative world you are inviting your congregation to inhabit with you, which, in my humble opinion, is far greater and more powerful than anything you could provide visually. I have always advised people if I am doing storytelling training with them, to be wary of “props”, pictures etc. The giants in people’s imaginations are always better than the ones we might draw (there’s some reflection to be done about graven images in this!), the deserts more deserty, the castles more castley. Any oral communication that works well will enable people to create their own pictures, like good radio.

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  2. I an just pondering doing this here – a little behind the curve!! have you ever considered adding a hymn or music to a sermon? some regular liturgy – or is it better to keep it to just the sermon?? oh and do you include the reading/s?? thank you

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    • I encourage people to use the Daily Hope line from the C of E if they want hymns. Most people watch Songs of Praise anyway. Keep it simple is my mantra! I say what the Bible reference being preached on is and at the end of the sermon say the Collect and give a blessing.

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