My preaching professor in seminary challenged us to use pauses wisely in sermons—but doing that is not easy. I’ve learned over the years, though, that my professor was right: pauses can be an effective tool in preaching.
Why Pauses Matter
- They slow down your rate of speech. As a young preacher, I forced myself to use pauses for this reason. I spoke so quickly it’s amazing anyone kept up with me.
- They catch the attention of listeners who had not been listening. That is, the unexpected silence of a pause can jar an unfocused listener enough that he or she listens again. At least for a few moments.
- They almost force the listener to consider what you just said. The emphatic nature of a well-placed pause can drive home a point just spoken. The listeners must then quickly decide what they will do with the teaching.
- They give listeners (and the speaker, actually) a brief break when the topic is a heavy one. Even just a few seconds of silence say, “Take a breath. Digest these thoughts, and prepare for the next.”
- They push the speaker to work on eye contact. A good pause loses its effect if the preacher avoids eye contact with the congregation during the pause. Looking listeners in the eye, though, pushes them to hear and apply the Word personally.
Why Pauses Are Hard to Do
- We’ve not often seen pauses used well. We have few role models, so we struggle with taking this step at all. How long should a pause be? When should I pause in this sermon?
- We’re afraid of coming across as, “Wow, I just lost my place in my notes or forgot what I was going to say.” The potential of perceived embarrassment hangs over us when we pause mid-sermon.
- We’re preachers—and preachers make our living talking. In fact, we’re called to proclaim. Somehow, pausing feels like “not proclaiming” the gospel we know is so important.
- We’re uncomfortable with silence. Silence in a service designed around singing, praying, and preaching seems quite odd. In fact, we often don’t even pray silently in the church without music playing in the background!
- We’re sometimes “up against the clock.” Right or wrong, we plan services of a certain length, especially if we have more than one service on a Sunday morning. Our sermons already feel rushed sometimes, and pauses only exacerbate the problem.
So what do we do? Here’s a simple starting point: at least occasionally, plan a pause into your sermon, and don’t be afraid to tell your congregation a pause is coming. If they know you’re intentionally pausing, they’ll understand better what’s happening—and you won’t have to forewarn them in the long run. Here are a couple examples:
- “I am going to make a challenging statement based on the Word, and then I’m going to pause briefly to let the thought sink in. It will seem awkward for all of us, but we need to respond to the Word in our mind and heart.”
- “I won’t ask you to answer this question publicly, but I do want you to answer it for yourself. So, think about your response when I pause after asking this question.”
Preachers, what are your thoughts?
Absolutely true. For all of the reasons you said, pauses are good things–especially to emphasize key points. I intentionally use pauses in my preaching, but I have to constantly remind myself, “Slow down. Slow down. Slow down. No need to hurry.”