John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, told preachers who had trouble pronouncing certain words to listen to those who pronounced them correctly, then read those words aloud repeatedly until they rolled off the tongue. Our starting points might be more sophisticated (for example, the podcast of a good speaker), but the technique still works. Wesley told those with weak voices to read aloud from a book for thirty minutes a day, building volume by increments, and being careful not to strain. The voice uses muscles that must be built up gradually to the work of preaching. Reading aloud can help also with voice variation and emphasis. It is a way of learning to give the drama intrinsic to certain scripture texts their due.
And then there is the use of a full-length mirror! Wesley the preacher was relentless in his attack on the human pride from which we must be saved and sanctified, but Wesley the teacher of preachers also knew that speakers must become comfortable with their speaking image, just as they must make peace with their speaking voice. Repeating the advice of the Greek orator Demosthenes, Wesley recommends time in front of “a large looking glass.” Most of the work is remedial: “learn to avoid every disagreeable or unhandsome gesture.” Look for and correct defects of posture, such as slouching or holding one’s head too high or low. Note and change the nervous “babbling of hands” or standing fixed and immovable like the trunk of a tree.
But Wesley goes beyond remedial work to recommend posing before a mirror to search for and practice effective gestures as any serious actor might. The pose that corresponds to a moment of personal testimony in the sermon, for example, is the right hand “applied gently to the breast.” The contemporary speaker who stands before a mirror must search for and rehearse the gestures that will bring across the message to persons in this time and place, for example, submission indicated by open hands with palms upward or the “yes!” of the raised right fist.
In the twentieth century, the school of acting known as method acting called into question this practice of rehearsing purposeful gestures and instead directed actors to go into the core of their beings to find the authentic emotions and actions that would arise as they engage their scripts. The seeing that goes on in method acting occurs in the imagination, not in front of a mirror. By the logic of method acting, preachers would engage the sermon manuscript deeply during the time of preparation, and authentic expressions and gestures would follow automatically when they preached.
Perhaps the truth is somewhere between Wesley’s use of a mirror and method acting’s reliance on psychological motivation. Preachers need to find an inner resonance with their message, but preachers also need a certain conscious cultivation of body language for its potential to amplify the message, a discipline learned in front of a mirror or with the aid of a videotape, or, once more, with the help of a friendly observer. Rehearsal for preaching involves both disciplines.
Rehearsing to speak in front of others may resurrect memories of failure, echoes of harsh criticism, and issues of shame and self-worth. How dare you address your peers as one with authority? How can you possibly stand up to the scrutiny of forty adults and teenagers? Rehearsal is a time to stare down the demons of doubt by wrapping yourself in the armor of a call from God, who decided that you, even you with your less-than-splendid natural endowments and accrued credentials, are good enough material to serve as one of God’s own messengers.