We all know the importance of making eye contact when you are preaching. That is Public Speaking 101. Reasons given range from how it improves understanding, to in what ways it facilitates connection, and even simply it is more engaging. All true. But the other day I realized another pair of reasons why it is important to preach with your head up, and in an unexpected place.
I was out mountain biking. Now, I would like to give you the impression I am a Mountain Biker: That I wear stretchy pants, have a $5,000 bike, and subsist solely on granola and twigs. The reality is I usually go three or four times each summer with a borrowed bike and basketball shorts (the shorts are my own). I always enjoy mountain biking when I am doing it and I usually tell myself I should really do this more often. To this point the impulse has not relocated into intention territory, unlike for Rick.
Rick is a 50-something mountain biking boss who could probably eat not just twigs but whole branches. He often leads a group from the nearby family camp on rides. I like to tag along just to try and keep up with Rick and see how adeptly he leads a group of novice wimps like yours truly. He always does so with patient aplomb. When you are following Rick, as he effortlessly navigates single tracks, bounding over roots and ducking by branches, you know he is a guide you can trust.
A couple of weeks back I went out for a ride by myself. It was a beautiful northern Michigan day, and the summer sunshine shimmered through the forest canopy. The woods were alive with color and critter activity. You could not turn your head without seeing a site worthy of a picture or painting. It was the sort of scenery which makes a man happy to be alive, if only I could have taken it all in.
I could not because, mountain biking noob that I am, my eyes hardly ever rose from the three feet in front of me as I rode. I was vigilant for roots that would upend me or chipmunks who might cross my path. I was worried about stray branches and loose limbs that could loosen my own. In short, I hardly enjoyed it because I was traveling with my head down. I simply did not know the way well enough to do otherwise.
And I thought, “Golly, I wish I knew the way as well as Rick.” He knows the trails around here so well that he could ride them with his eyes closed. More to the point: Because he is such a capable guide and seasoned biker, who knows the way in his very bones, he rides with his head up. Not only is it more enjoyable for him, but it inspires more confidence in his followers.
Engaging with your hearers, reading their non-verbal feedback, feeding off their responses, all of this is part of what gets you into that coveted “flow” state.
And this is when, preaching nerd that I am, my mind went to the pulpit. For one thing, just as in mountain biking, preaching with your head up is just plain more fun. Engaging with your hearers, reading their non-verbal feedback, feeding off their responses, all of this is part of what gets you into that coveted “flow” state. This makes preaching itself a rewarding and enjoyable activity, in addition to being the God-ordained means to announce good news to His people!
That points up the second connection to mountain biking. You could tell simply by how Rick carried himself and commanded the trail, here was a guy who knew the way. Likewise, in the pulpit a preacher who is making eye contact, preaching by heart, speaking “to” you and not merely “at” you, you feel like you can trust this guide.
Conversely, if you see a pastor preaching with his head down, reading his notes like he is looking for roots, what does it suggest to you? Right or wrong, it comes off as though this guy does not know the way. He is a noob, or worse, a fake.
As pastors and preachers, we are to be “examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). Like it or not, the hearers are looking at us and asking, “Do I want to follow this guy as he follows Jesus? Is he a trustworthy guide? Does he know the way?” Preaching is, of course, not the only place they observe you, and even more significant than your sermon delivery is your manner of life; you must practice what you preach.
But you also want to preach how you practice. You want your delivery to match your devotion, your communication to correspond to your competence. So, like a seasoned traveler, aim to proclaim with your head up. Own your material. Demonstrate your command of the Scriptures. It is more fun for you and inspires more confidence in your leadership among the people. You do not even have to wear stretchy pants.