I know this post is focused on the way we say things, but let me preface it by stressing that what you say matters, too. You could have the most reverent and respectful tone possible, but it won’t help you too much if you’re praying out loud with the youth group and you ask God to “be with Susan who has an owie on her knee. Lord, you are the Great Boo-Boo Fixer-Upper, so please send Your healing power to her Hello Kitty Band-Aid so she may return to her normal fun-fun doodle-dum self.” Regardless of your tone, you’re fighting a real uphill battle to keep everyone focused on talking to God at that time. Speaking with a good tone is certainly important, but if you’re busy spewing forth nonsense, heresy, or mispronouncing a bunch of simple words, the tone isn’t going to make a miracle of a difference. You can spray Febreeze all over a pile of trash so that it smells good, but that still doesn’t mean that I want to eat it.
Make no mistake about it, the content of what you say matters. But I don’t think that is news to any of us. We know that we need to say the right things. In fact, in regards to teaching the faith, it is expected that the words you’re saying are correct. This is why we train church workers in years of education in theology so that what they say is right. You can get brought up on charges, removed from your position or interrogated as part of the Spanish Inquisition (which no one expects) for speaking false doctrine.
Knowing what to say is great, but I think we tend to stop there. We think that once you know what to say, just go ahead and say it, and if you’re saying the right words, then you’re doing your job. But there’s more to it than that. Let me build my case with this example: a youth worker has a great devotion that he read online that he wants to share with the youth. So he prints it out, and reads it to the ten youth that are there. But he does so in a very monotone, boring voice that has no inflection, he doesn’t take normal pauses in his sentences and makes no eye contact whatsoever. If you ask the ten youth how the devotion was, I think five of them would say they were tuned out for the whole time, but would have great questions about the things they were thinking about while they were supposed to be listening. Three of them would show you the doodle they drew while not paying attention. One would text you “boring” because he has forgotten how to actually talk with someone using spoken words instead of typed. The final youth would spout off one thing that she learned from the devotion, because she apparently has the gift of laser-like focus. The content of the devotion was excellent, but almost all the youth missed those great words because of how it was presented. This obviously isn’t a scientific poll, but I hope the example resounds with what you see in your everyday lives. How we say things can actually distract someone from what we say.How we say something is as important as what we say. Click To Tweet
The other part of this is that not only can the way we say things result in people not actually hearing the words we say, our tone can also change the way people interpret the words we say. When I was in college, one of the group projects I had to work on was about nonverbal communication. In the research for that project, I came across a consistent theme based on numerous studies. If the tone and the message do not match, more often than not, it is the tone that wins out. For example, if someone says “that sounds great”, but their tone is sarcastic, most people will interpret the tone over just the face-value of the words.
I think the application of this for the Church is absolutely vital. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is without a doubt the greatest news that any of us can ever hear. God did for me what I could never do for myself so that I can be with Him forever. What great news! I am forgiven! These words demand an excited tone and delivery, and yet too often our desire to be reverent stops that. When we take “reverence” to mean quiet, slow, unexpressive and unexcited then we are hurting our message. I have heard the beautiful words of absolution read too many times just like it was a reading of the stock prices or some other boring, ordinary event instead of the wonderful proclamation of God’s love for us. This is so conditioned in us, that I have heard numerous pastors, youth workers and lay leaders actually apologize for getting too excited in a sermon, Bible study or message. What a shame that is when we think we aren’t allowed to joyously celebrate what God has done for us. When we do this, our words convey the amazing grace of God, but our tone conveys “this is no big deal, doesn’t impact your life too much and isn’t worth celebrating.” Whether we like it or not, we are wired for the tone to tend to supersede the message instead of enhancing it, and Satan will take that and run with it in an attempt to draw us away from God.
Before we get too down, we need to remember that God’s Word is still powerful and effective in spite of the ways that we get in the way. Yet imagine if our tone and delivery wasn’t fighting the message, but instead it was enhancing it. Instead of hearing that we are forgiven and wondering “is this actually a big deal,” people would be thinking “they’re excited about it, maybe I should be too.” It’s a passion for the Word and for sharing God’s love with young people that led you to work with them in the first place. Don’t be afraid to let that passion show in your words and actions. Get excited when you talk about the amazing promises of God. Don’t be afraid to cheer or say “Amen!” when a youth gives a great answer or shares their faith. When announcing what’s upcoming in Bible study or worship, get pumped up about what you’re going to learn and what God gives us in the divine service. Maybe instead of walking back from communion all somber, we should have smiles on, shake someone’s hand, and be jubilant about receiving the very body and blood of Christ, forgiveness of sins and strengthening of faith. Perhaps after a Baptism, where we witness the miracle that God does as He adopts us as His own, we need to have more of a party celebrating God’s goodness than just a polite clap to welcome the new member of God’s family. Instead of just memorizing from the catechism, maybe youth need to also learn how to express their faith in their own words and learn how to celebrate God’s gifts in their own lives. This excitement is contagious, and the best part about it is that isn’t not just excitement for excitement’s sake. The emotion and the joy is centered in and a response to the Word of God. That’s what we want.
So continue to prepare and study for Bible class, devotions, and messages to make sure that what you’re saying is accurately interpreting God’s Word. But also take some time to practice how you’re going to say it, and don’t be afraid to let that Gospel excitement show, just like the lame beggar who Peter healed in Acts, “And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3:8).