Local News: Jackson's First Presbyterian Church will be hosting its annual Missions Conference February 24 to March 3. This year's speaker include John & Kathy Lesondak of Slovakia, Tom & Jan Courtney of Scotland, Marion Baldwin of Greece, Stan & Donna Armes of South Africa, Scott & Katie Moore of Mobile, AL, Johnathan Keenan, the RUF minister at the University of Memphis, and Rex Baker of Jackson's Gateway Rescue Mission. For more information about this truly international event, click here.
In 1972 Albert Mehrabian published a controversial study on interpersonal communication. Specifically, he touched on what he considered the most important elements of communication. We will look at his study and then address how it relates to preaching.
1. Breakdown of Mehrabian’s study
According to Mehrabian, in any given communication, 55% of the message is nonverbal, 38% is vocal tone, and 7% is the actual combination of words. His findings have been disputed in some circles, but even his critics would agree that if nothing else Mehrabian helped shed light on some crucial information.
If nonverbal communication is any where near as important as Mehrabian suggested, public speakers must at all times be aware of what they are communicating nonverbally. If their words are saying one thing, yet their body language is saying another, they lose credibility. Given the fact that communication is so much more than simply words spoken or written, obviously the overall best way to “get” a message is to do so face-to-face, eye-to-eye. Certain things are lost when communicating via phone, texting, or e-mail. You can’t see the speaker’s body language, what he or she looks like while talking. An example of how this phenomena works out in real life is the 1960 presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Radio audiences were polled and said Nixon had won; television audiences were polled and said Kennedy had won. Kennedy’s appearance made him look like the winner.
How important is tone of voice? Studies have shown that the brain is wired to process a speaker’s tone of voice before processing the words he or she is saying. In other words, if someone is speaking softly and kindly to you, your brain is first going to register the calm tone before going on to process the actual words.
2. Being mindful of tone in sermons
Is there any religious significance to any of this data? This examiner frequently listens to preachers on Christian radio, specifically Moody Radio South (WMBU 89.1 FM: Forest, Jackson, Meridian). There are some ministers and radio talk show hosts who come across very disarming and unassuming in print, and yet when they are heard, their tone of voice is shrill, smug, and sometimes downright offensive. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some who come across as cocky in print, and yet to hear them speak, their voices sound gentle and down to earth. There’s no point in naming names, and surely some of this is subjective. A tone that comes across to this examiner as smug and condescending might not effect every listener the same way. What’s the point?
We need to be mindful of our tone. It's a mistake to think that a hyper-confrontational tone of voice is needed when presenting the gospel, whether in a “sermon” or in an informal setting. It's reported that Jonathan Edwards read his famous "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in a monotone voice. As Rev. Lane Townsend, formerly of Toomsuba Presbyterian Church, said, "The power of the Holy Spirit is not measured by the volume of the voice."
Is it always wrong to shout while preaching? No, volume alone is not the most essential factor; it's possible to raise one's voice and yet still communicate love, just as it's possible to communicate contempt in a "conversational" tone of voice.
The culture thinks it’s arrogant to state that Jesus is the only Savior and that all other religions, in lacking Jesus as Savior, are lacking something fundamental. Could one of the reasons why people shirk at this assertion as if it were inherently arrogant be that they have so often heard ministers state the gospel in an arrogant tone? When preachers sound mad as they exhort listeners to believe in Christ, is it any wonder that many in the congregation are rubbed the wrong way?
Preachers seldom tell their listeners "I'm better than you", but if that's what the tone of voice or body language communicates, the message is still getting through. When reminding listeners that Christ is the only Savior, and without him there is no eternal hope, the tone shouldn't be one of triumphalism, as if Christians anticipate the judgment of unbelievers with happiness. The tone should be one of empathy, one that says, "I'm just as in need of a Savior as you are; there is nothing in me on any level that is in any way superior to you." As Dr. Adrian Rogers, the late pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, said, evangelism is simply one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.
We're all fallen creatures and there's no such thing as an utterly perfect presentation of the gospel, absolutely void of any trace of skewed motives or subtle conceit. God can use even the very shrill methods of come churches or ministries to bring people to Christ. God is not limited by our limitations and blind spots. Preachers aren't to rely on their own eloquence, anyway, but rather on the Holy Spirit, as Paul explained in 1 Corinthians.
All that being said, we ought to think about Mehrabian’s study when we engage the culture around us. Is our tone one of smugness, one that implies that Christ's elect are, in fact, the elite? When we speak of hell or damnation, do we so with a tone of deep and unmistakable sadness, or do we sound in any way vengeful? When we confront brothers and sisters in sin, do we have a tone that sounds like we're enjoying rebuking them, or do we approach them with tears, mindful of how vulnerable we are to falling ourselves?
May God help us not only to communicate the truth, but to do so in love. Love without truth leads to a gospel void of any substantive content; truth without love leads to legalism and dead orthodoxy. May God spare us from both.