Advice for Actors . . . and Preachers

By Al Serhal

Years ago I saw an old interview with legendary actor James Cagney. He was asked his best advice for aspiring young actors. His answer really stuck with me. He said, “Learn your lines . . . plant your feet . . . look the other
actor in the eye . . . say the words . . . mean them.”

Cagney’s advice for actors is actually good advice for preachers, too!

12_Serhal_JNLearn your lines.

Know your message! Read through it and preach it aloud several times before actually bringing it to the pulpit on Sunday. Some have found it beneficial to preach through their sermon from the stage to an empty auditorium on Friday or Saturday. Billy Graham was known to preach to the trees in the woods in preparation for his sermon.

Practicing your sermon out loud helps you clarify your central theme (your message!). It allows you to hear what you are saying, enables you to clarify your proofs (points), and feel the flow and drama of your message. Sometimes words and thoughts seem organized on paper but do not not carry over to the preaching event.

Practicing your sermon allows you to cut wasted words and time, trimming the fat from the message to optimize your time. It also frees you from your notes or manuscript. You will be amazed at how much more comfortable you will be in the pulpit (and with your notes) once you have verbally run through it two or even three times.

Plant your feet.

Literally do this! Make a deliberate effort to feel the bottoms of your feet on the stage floor. You might be surprised at the difference it will make. Fidgeting and rocking back and forth on the stage is a distracting habit. Take a deep breath and firmly plant your feet!

Look the audience in the eye.

This does not come naturally for many of us. We find it less intimidating to just gaze and glaze over the heads of the congregation. However, make the effort to look them in the eye! To deny people the eyes of their preacher is to deny them the heart of their preacher.

In Between Two Worlds, John Stott instructed, “Look at your people face to face, eyeball to eyeball. Always talk to people. Never merely spray the building with words.”1

Say the Words.

Enunciate! Articulate! Project! Speak from the diaphragm! Projecting your voice requires considerable effort and energy. When executed correctly, your voice will sound natural yet powerful. Remember, “Peter stood up . . . raised his voice and addressed the crowd” (Acts 2:14). Say the words!

Mean the Words.

The two things your listeners are looking for are conviction and intensity. We all want to hear a speaker who believes what he says and says it with intensity. As Paul said, “Our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).

A sermon should move from the book to the head, through the heart, and then should be proclaimed to a congregation. In this age of downloadable Internet sermons, it is easy to bypass the heart. We speak the oracles of God (1 Peter 4:11), but they must be in OUR words! Mean the words! As Warren Wiersbe put it, “The faithful preacher will milk a great many cows, but he will make his own butter.”2

In his lectures on preaching, G. Campbell Morgan said, “The three essentials of a sermon are truth, clarity and passion.” Campbell went on to tell the story of the great English actor William Macready. A preacher once asked Macready how he could draw such crowds by presenting fiction, while the preacher was preaching the truth and not getting any crowd at all. “Quite simple,” replied the actor. “I can tell you the difference between us. I present my fiction as though it were truth; you present your truth as though it were fiction.”

If one truly believes what he does is of the utmost importance, then it is worthy of our best efforts, which includes preparation. Should we not give as much effort to the task of preaching as an actor on stage?


1John Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 252.

2Warren Wiersbe and David Wiersbe, The Elements of Preaching (Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 1986), 48.

Al Serhal serves as executive director with Hippo Valley Christian Mission in Zimbabwe. HVCM has 27 mission schools that more than 17,000 children attend.

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