Nodding off

There is a famous Australian television commercial which features a man in a nightclub. The punchline of the ad is “I’m so cool, I dance on the inside”. In the weeks and months following, this saying was adopted for all kinds of situations—for example, “I’m so cool, I hug on the inside”.

Why do I mention this? Well, I was listening to a sermon the other day. I was in row #4. As is my habit, when the preacher said something true, I nodded. And since the preacher was hotter than a blacksmith’s bellows, there was a lot of nodding to be done.

After the sermon, I had a conversation with one of my mates. He said, “Hi, Benny! Great sermon, eh? I saw you nodding away up front. I was nodding too …” And before he’d finished the sentence, I cut in and sort of spoke over him, saying, “Yeah, you gotta nod don’t you?” He finished his sentence the same time I did: “ … on the inside”.

It was a little awkward.

It got me thinking about the nonverbal communication we send our teachers, leaders and preachers when we sit before them. Have you ever wondered what your pastor sees as he preaches to you, the congregation? Let me tell you what he sees.

He sees a whole stack of different screen savers. A screen saver is a person’s default facial expression. Let me tell you about some of the common Aussie screen savers (I’d be interested to see whether they’re common in other countries):

  • The ‘Shar Pei’ screen saver: Have you seen this breed of dog? They have a plethora of huge wrinkles all over their faces. They look like they’re permanently angry—permanently grumpy. This is a very common screen saver.
  • The ‘invisible fairy search’ screen saver: These people look everywhere except at the speaker. They’re like Captain Hook looking for Tinker Bell in the old Disney classic Peter Pan. They gaze intently at each of the rafters—at the seat next to them—up the back (turning 180 degrees to do so), and sometimes they partially stand up and look under themselves. What are they looking for?
  • The White Rabbit screen saver: Like the character from Alice in Wonderland, people with this screen saver are always looking at their watch. It is very disconcerting three minutes into the sermon. Sometimes they hold up their wrist and tap their watch. They put it to their ear and shake it as though it has stopped ticking. They then mouth the words “Is my watch right?” to the person next to them, all the time blissfully unaware that the speaker can lip-read just as well as their wife who is sitting next to them.
  • The stunned mullet screen saver: This person resembles a mullet floating on the surface after dynamite fishing. The preacher looking out on the stunned mullet could be excused for the following kind of self-talk: “Is Barry in Pew #8 alive? Is he breathing? How can you go for 17.5 minutes without blinking and stay completely still? Something has got to be wrong. Should I stop and let his family know he’s died? If I do and I’m wrong, he’ll be embarrassed. If I don’t, I’ll be remembered as the heartless pastor who killed his people with his own preaching. Help, Lord! Ahhhhhhhhhh!”
  • The dipping duck screen saver: People with this screen saver are upright at 15% consciousness but then drop their heads at the final moment of unconsciousness, only to startle themselves, wake and start the whole process again.
  • The Eutychus screen saver: Let me remind you of Acts 20:9: “And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer”. Eutychus screen saver people are the ‘dipping ducks’ with the second blessing: sleep does not elude them; they fall into it deeply. Sometimes they snore! That’s the Husqvarna chainsaw screen saver, but we’ll talk about that another time.

I haven’t done any surveys, but I reckon about 5% of Christians give their teachers positive, nonverbal communication during talks, sermons and so on. I reckon it’s 5%, despite age, life-stage, city, demographic and Christian maturity. The exception is the church camp/weekend away: if a speaker has the right tone at the beginning of the weekend, then, by talk #3 or #4 on Sunday, people are relaxed and communicative.

You might be thinking, “That’s not right. I’d have a laugh if my pastor ever cracked a joke!” Would you really? Let’s say 10% of the congregation laugh at Pastor Pete’s joke. That’s 1 in 10. Would you crack jokes again with a strike rate like that?

Let’s encourage our leaders by offering some good, positive, nonverbal communication the next time we hear them share God’s word with us. They work hard, so let’s encourage them. Galatians 6:6 says, “One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches”. This verse isn’t just talking about money; I suspect it’s talking about encouragement as well. Luke 6:31 says, “And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them”. What screen savers would you like to see if you were teaching God’s word to a group of God’s people? I suspect you’d be really encouraged by the odd nod, the smile, the laugh out loud, the inquisitive look, the tear, the giggle, and so on.

As our brother Jesus very helpfully points out, the issue here is an issue of love: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31; cf. Jas 2:8). It is loving to encourage. So let’s be loving. Why don’t we all nod on the outside from now on? Let’s not nod off in every sense of the word.

16 thoughts on “Nodding off

  1. Dear ‘Pastor Pete’

    Remember, screen savers never tell you what programs are actually activated. Beware outward appearances.

    After all, some people can’t think and smile and agreement-nod at the same time!
    And for some sermon-agreement-nodders, by the time we walk out the door the word of Christ can already be choked.

    I guess the ultimate encouragement for a preacher is if the people are doers of the word the rest of the week.

    Perhaps you should allow more opportunity for verbal feedback during, after sermons, during the week Eg ask questions and get responses, ask for feedback at some points. Don’t fear debate and comment on the scriptures. Helpful discussion about the scriptures is often very stifled in churches. More discussion and preachers would get feedback in a big way.

    Cheers Di

    (yes I am nodding….but what am I really thinking? I am thinking I need to work out other ways to encourage my teachers)

    Oh by the way, should we do a non-verbal ‘no’ when the teacher is wrong?

  2. Hi Ben

    Very funny, but very true. Love the watch tapper!!

    Looking forward to giving a few more nods and smiles in the future!


  3. re: Imaginary Fairy: so that’s what they are looking for!

    When I was at uni we did this experiment where were would only give the lecturer positive reponses when he stood in a certain corner of the floor.  The rest of the time we looked down or concerned.  By the end of the hour we had him well and truly blocked in the back of that corner!  But then we were studying Psych (and he was a Psych lecturer!)

  4. But Benny, if I’m not laughing it’s because you’re jokes aren’t funny!

    Nah not really. Sorry to shocked blog readers, Ben is a dear friend and a good preacher to boot.

    Thanks Ben, your descriptions cheered me up after a sad day yesterday, although Di’s point is well taken too. My encouragement from a preacher comes over the long-term, as I see apparently bored hearers living lives of persevering godliness. Mind you, the occasional laugh or nod at the right time does help me feel that the preaching is getting through.

  5. I like – pretty funny.

    Do you ever see the positive screen savers:

    Dashboard Dog – who nods so frequently it seems their head is on a spring

    Deer in headlights: trying so hard to stay awake and concentrate on the awesome preaching but is fighting sleep deprivation.

    Cheshire Cat: Smiling so much you can’t tell if the person next to them is cracking jokes the whole time or you are actually funny.

  6. Ben, you must have read the article in Briefing #331:

    “Preaching involves two-way communication. Preachers respond to their
    audience’s response. So give the preacher
    immediate feedback through eye contact,
    laughing at his jokes, nodding in agreement, etc. It will spur the preacher on. Nothing is more off-putting and deflating than a disinterested audience.”

    Lots of other tips in the article too about how to be a good sermon listener. (The odd tip or two for preachers as well.) Modesty forbids me from saying how good the article is.

  7. Ben—It’s worth saying that some preachers who are, on a given week, sitting in congregations need to hear this word. Preachers themselves need to be good listeners during sermons they don’t deliver.

  8. Awesome, another passage I thought is pretty good is 1 Tim 5:17. Elders, especially those who teach and preach, are worthy of double honour.

    I guess the good congregational feedback should come from a genuine respect for the men entrusted with God’s word.

  9. Another tip for good and active sermon listening skills is from something that I find very useful:
    Taking notes (they do give sermon outlines for a reason you know!)

    I find that if I take notes during the sermon (necessity during Phillip Jensen’s sermons!) I am much more likely to remember the sermon post-church, and if I have a point that I want to discuss with the preacher, I can just look down at my notes instead of relying on my faulty student memory!
    And I have to admit to being a sermon-nodder :o) I know that when I’m doing a presentation at uni I like being able to see that my audience is understanding/agreeing with what I am saying! And how much more important for the Word of God!

  10. At college when we studied preaching, which was called Practicum, we had two lecturers:
    Dr David Hammer
    and David Hammer, junior.

    Dr Hammer reminded us of the verse “Be not afraid of their faces” [Jeremiah 1:8; KJV] He told us that some people may only look bored.

    One thing I find even more disconcerting than people looking bored is when not a single person says one word about what you have said afterwards.

    I’m honestly not looking for praise, but a bit of feedback is helpful. Sometimes the only feedback you get comes from the soundguy.

  11. David to obtain helpful feedback may I suggest two ideas.
    Ask people for their comments, as you move around, after the meeting.You will be surprised at the reactions and feedback if they believe you will find it helpful.

    Have a small group who will honestly and wisely provide feedback ,on a regular basis with you.

  12. I’m not wanting feedback on my performance, or handy hints on how to preach better, Warren.

    I’m interested to hear that people are thinking about the passage or topic that was preached on.

  13. David, both are possibilities and both helpful.It will depend on the questions you ask in the conversations.

  14. I agree with Bec…
    I like to take notes during the sermon because otherwise my brain doesn’t concentrate well (no matter how engaging or well delivered the sermon).
    I don’t usually go back over them, they are more to help me absorb the sermon as it is given.
    My learning method may result in the preacher thinking I am not listening to them because my head is down alot so I make a point of looking up at them and nodding or smiling when I can.

    I sit in one of the first few rows anyway so hopefully they can see that I am notetaking and not inspecting my shoelaces.

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