What’s with All the Preaching Gestures?
We had to address this at some point, and today is the day that we talk about preaching gestures. Behind the pulpit you hop, twist, point, and chop. I think for every Greek preposition there’s at least one trademark Piper gesture. Have you always used gestures? Where’d they come from? And what role do gestures play in your preaching?
Precedent for Blood-Earnest Stillness
You know, I think I better preface anything I say about my gestures by pointing out that my hero, Jonathan Edwards, in the two or three contemporaneous descriptions of his preaching, was known for being amazingly still. Edwards scarcely gestured, and at one point in his ministry he would just put his elbow on a cushion, hold his notes in his right hand, and read them.
Same thing with Thomas Chalmers, who had such a great effect in Scotland. One of the Princetonians went to Scotland and listened to Chalmers, and when he came back they said, “What is the key to Chalmers’ effectiveness in preaching?” And he replied, “His blood-earnestness.” In other words, Chalmers read his manuscripts, and if you read your manuscripts, you don’t have a lot of freedom to move around or do very much.
Make the Soul Visible
It is possible to leap and wave and holler and entertain and say nothing and be nothing more than a useless entertainer. I don’t want to do that, and therefore gestures in my mind are not of the essence of the demonstration of the Spirit and power. That is just not how they function, because you know that because people can listen to plain audio of messages and be changed, have their lives changed. They can’t see you at all when that is happening.
I have never studied gesture. I have never planned gesture. I don’t think about gesture while I am preaching.
So with regard to me, I have almost nothing to say about this, because I don't think about it. I have never planned a gesture. I never stand in front of a mirror and try to figure out, “Now, what would be an effective move here?” I just never, ever do that. And when I am preaching, to the degree that I am aware of it, I am in trouble, because then it is artificial. Then it feels really phony to me. “Oh, the best move next, what is it?” If I am watching myself preach like that, I am lost. Self-consciousness is the curse of the preacher.
It is horrible to think about yourself in preaching. What am I going to say next? How am I going to move next? To be outside yourself watching yourself preach — it is just a curse. Whatever I do in the pulpit just comes naturally, and I have never studied gesture. I have never planned gesture. I don't think about gesture while I am preaching.
Hazel, one of our older saints at Bethlehem, took my arm one time, like older people sometimes do, and she drew me in close and said, “Pastor John, I just love to watch you preach. I understand you because of your hands.” That is what she said, “I understand you because of your hands.”
Gestures are just another part of communication. It is the soul becoming visible and not just hearable.
Now that was a compliment to me, because the way I think about it, my body is doing two things. It is simultaneously trying to clarify and simplify — I am even doing it right now in this interview, believe it or not. I am sitting here and nobody else is in this room. My left hand is moving as I’m trying to clarify what I’m saying, and it is just part of the energy, right? It is part of the expressiveness. It is the soul becoming visible and not just hearable. And that is what you want. You want the significance of what you are saying to be seen and felt.
And I suppose it is largely a personality thing as to how much expressiveness you give with your voice and how much expressiveness you give with your body. But for me, it is just who I am and what I do, and it is just a part of a language.
Pastor John, I don't think we have video of you preaching around 1980, in the early days. Do you suspect you would have had the same gestures 30 years ago, or were you more reserved?
I think I am less reserved now and probably more expressive, but maybe you’d have to ask people who’ve seen me over that whole length of time. My guess is that as any of us become relaxed with the people we are with, as you have more family, as you begin to feel more for your people, and you are just more at ease with your manuscript or your notes, you loosen up and you become more who you are. And so I would say I haven’t become more I hope artificially emotive, but rather I have just become more me because I am less intimidated by the situation.