I could tell what he was about to say was going to hurt.
Greg was a faithful member of the field work congregation I served during seminary. He cared deeply for the church’s role in helping to form future pastors. Consequently, he did not hesitate to give constructive feedback to the fledgling preachers who occasioned his church’s pulpit... like yours truly.
I winced as he approached after the service, aware of what awaited me. “Ryan, I can tell you’ve got some really good things to say,” he said with genuine concern in his voice. “Now, if only you could slow down enough for us to hear them.”
Greg’s words stung at the time, but as they have stuck with me in the years since, I cannot help but be grateful. I have been known to get wound-up in my preaching; maybe not so much as the great Walter A. Maier, whose machine gun delivery was clocked at 170 words per minute, but cooking, nevertheless. Greg’s gentle admonition remains with me as a reminder of the power of pauses in preaching.
An absence that is filled with presence
The big hurdle we need to overcome in considering how pauses can be effectively used in our preaching is the notion that a pause is necessarily “dead air,” as though we were radio DJ’s who needed to fill the sound-space at all costs. While there can certainly be an uncomfortable pause when the preacher has lost his train of thought or is searching frantically through his manuscript to find his spot, silence can also carry spiritual significance.
Recall the famous interaction between Elijah and the Lord atop Mount Hermon (1 Kings 19:9-18). The prophet is hungry for a message from God. He has been laboring under a famine of the Word. Stationed at the precipice, he encounters in succession a strong wind, an earthquake, and a fire; yet the Lord is not in any of these. After the fire, however, comes “the sound of a thin silence” (1 Kings 19:12). This seeming absence is freighted with God’s presence.
Used strategically, this can be the case in our preaching as well. “Pauses, rightly handled, are not dead spots,” writes Charles Bartow. “They are like rests in music. They contribute to the progression of thought. They do not halt that progression.” Echoing the musical metaphor, O.C. Edwards, Jr., writes, “The silences before and between the words are as important as the words themselves; the rests are as necessary as the notes. The pauses establish the timing and the rhythm.”
Okay, so pauses are permissible. But how are they also beneficial?
The silences before and between the words are as important as the words themselves; the rests are as necessary as the notes. The pauses establish the timing and the rhythm.-O.C. Edwards
Making the delicate dance more smooth
Preachers are not known for their dancing. Inasmuch as they are professional communicators, however, it is unavoidable that they bust a move. Because every act of communication is a delicate dance between the speaker of a message, the receiver of a message, and the message itself, pauses influence each of these dance partners and help to make their moves smoother.
For the preacher, pauses can serve several vital roles. At the most basic level, they buy you time. Sometimes you simply need a split-second to collect your thoughts or reference your notes before moving on to the next point. Pauses also help to vary your rate and pitch, inflection and rhythm; they keep you dancing in time. Finally, pauses are a chance for you to establish eye contact (if not exactly work on your smolder). This goes a long way in connecting with your hearers.
From the perspective of those folks in the pews, pauses have a number of benefits. Primarily, pauses help people to follow along with what the speaker is saying. This was the crux of Greg’s concern. We preachers need to remind ourselves repeatedly that our hearers are receiving the sermon for the first time in real time. They are not reading it on a page, with the luxury of revisiting the previous point by just scanning up the page. Pauses enable your parishioners to take a slight breath and digest what you are saying before you move ahead.
Pauses also help to maintain, or regain, the listener’s attention. If, as a person in the pew, I have zoned out momentarily, when the preacher hits the pause button (even for a couple of seconds) it snaps me right back into focus. Of course, this can be overdone, but employed at strategic intervals, pauses battle back the rising tide of distraction. Attention in tow, the pause preps me as the hearer to receive what is next.
Finally, the content of the sermon itself may occasionally call for the pregnant pause. When a thought is especially weighty, either emotionally or conceptually, it can help to let it linger for a moment. I find this to be the case after a particularly pointed proclamation of the Law or a particularly poignant proclamation of the Gospel. A pause serves to emphasize the point, like underlining words in midair... or ending your dance with jazz-hands.
A time to keep silence
The Preacher perhaps said it best: “[There is] a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). Strategic silence is a sanctified stall tactic which benefits both the preacher and the pew-sitter. It is not just dead air.
So, these many years later, I am still thankful for Greg’s feedback. You and I do need to slow down in our sermons from time to time. God has some really good things to say to His people through you. Do not be afraid to hit the pause button.
 This is the alternate translation put forth by the ESV of the Hebrew דְּמָמָה דַקָּֽה dᵊmāmâ daqah. The KJV renders it “a still small voice,” while the NASB has “a gentle blowing.”