the shape of leadership

Watch Your Mouth

Three questions to consider when preaching

Shannon Polk on April 21, 2023

Your mouth will either be your friend or your foe.”

That’s what my science teacher, Mrs. Lewis, wrote in my eighth-grade yearbook. She taught me life lessons that went beyond beakers and Bunsen burners.

I had a knack for cracking jokes that made the classroom erupt with laughter. Even Mrs. Lewis laughed out loud at times. But on occasion, my jesting went too far, crossed lines, and hurt someone’s feelings. Mrs. Lewis challenged me to think more carefully about how I used my gift of gab.

Now I recognize the wisdom of my teacher’s guidance. James 3:9–10 says, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”

Words are powerful. They can bless or harm, build up or tear down. James understood this, and so did Mrs. Lewis. Yet preachers sometimes lose sight of that reality.

As communicators, preachers know how to turn a phrase. We deliver sermons that inform, persuade, encourage, and inspire. We might even pull off a good joke or two. If we aren’t careful, however, we can inadvertently use our words in ways that hinder the gospel. This is a serious spiritual and ethical concern.

With that in mind, there are three important questions to consider when determining what to include in a sermon — and what to leave out.


1. Is It Helpful?

Humor is a valuable tool for preachers. A well-placed joke can help lower the temperature of the room, especially during an otherwise heavy message.

However, I’ve been in the pews when the punchline revolved around a stereotype about wives. I knew I was supposed to laugh, but I wanted to get up and leave. Such moments alienate listeners, detracting from the sermon rather than adding to it.

It is important to ask whether a joke or illustration enriches the message. Will it drive home a point and keep the congregation’s focus on Christ? Or will it draw undue attention to the speaker and leave some people feeling uncomfortable?

James 3:5 compares the tongue to a small fire that set a forest ablaze. We can use our voices to radiate the light of the gospel. Or we can go for the easy laugh and risk scorching listeners with flames of offense.

Many attendees have been dealing with painful situations and thoughtless remarks all week — at work, at school, and perhaps even at home. We should endeavor to make church the safest place in the community.


2. Is It the Right Time?

As Ecclesiastes 3:7 says, there is “a time to be silent and a time to speak.” I experienced this truth as I grieved the deaths of my parents. There were times when I preferred silence over clumsy expressions of sympathy.

We can use our voices to radiate the light of the gospel. Or we can
go for the easy laugh and risk scorching listeners with flames
of offense.

Even when the words are right, timing matters. We would do well to remember this as preachers. During sermon preparation and delivery, we should ask ourselves, Is what I am about to say appropriate at this time?

There is a distinct difference between intention and impact. Truth telling might be the objective, but the wrong timing can turn well-intentioned remarks into hand grenades.

For example, divisions often deepen during an election season. You may want to wade into a political debate you saw on social media, but remaining sensitive to the Holy Spirit is vital. If it’s something you need to address, ask God to give you discernment concerning what to say and when to say it.

James 1:19 says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” I’ve heard preachers say, “I’m right, and that’s all that matters.” No, that’s not all that matters. We are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). If we fail to reflect God’s heart, we are missing the mark.

The apostle Paul said, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Corinthians 9:19). Preaching is about winning souls and making disciples. Keep those goals at the center of every message, choosing your words and timing accordingly.

Proverbs 15:23 says, “A person finds joy in giving an apt reply — and how good is a timely word.” Delivering the right words at the right time through preaching — and seeing God change hearts and lives — really is a joyous experience.


3. Am I the One to Say It?

Preachers wield a significant amount of influence, for better or worse. Congregants look to us for guidance — even when it comes to matters in which we have no expertise. Thus, we must carefully weigh our words and recognize our limitations.

James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” We are accountable to God for how we preach and teach. Before speaking on a topic, we should be certain we are not out of our depth.

Perhaps a guest evangelist or a member of the pastoral staff would be better suited to give a particular message. My church’s lead pastor has at times enlisted me to preach on race relations or women’s issues. Being a Black woman makes it easier for me to speak on these topics without creating offense.

Having a diverse staff gives pastors more options for addressing a range of issues well. It’s OK to defer to another staff member at times. You want people to receive the message, so make sure the right person presents it — even if it’s not you.

We should also ask ourselves whether we are healthy enough in a given area to present a message on it. I have heard preachers speak on issues like marriage, grief, or church hurts in ways that made it obvious they were still in recovery.

No one wants to sit through a sermon in which a wounded preacher bleeds all over the congregation. Seek God for healing and restoration before you tackle certain topics. The right words from the right person will yield more fruit than a truthful saying from the wrong messenger.

Mrs. Lewis lived down the street from my grandparents, both of whom were church leaders. My science teacher, likely suspecting ministry was in my future as well, took the time to ensure I understood the weight of my words.

I haven’t always been as circumspect with my words as I would like. However, I try to remember some thoughts are better left unspoken — or saved for another time. And when something needs to be said, I don’t always have to be the one to say it.


This article appears in the Spring 2023 issue of Influence magazine.

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