Why Public Speaking Skills Make a Difference for the Gospel

She pulled my husband aside and said, “We want him to let more missionaries speak during the service, so don’t screw this up!” The woman didn’t bother whispering despite the referenced person being well within earshot. As a former medical missionary and long-time supporter of ours, she was unashamed and undeterred in her mission to put missionaries in the pulpit when they visited the church during furlough. 

We were scheduled to speak during the Sunday morning service and had been given the full sermon time to share about our ministry in Kenya – a rarity under the current pastor. Despite the church’s long history of faithfully supporting missions and enthusiastically listening to missionaries speak when they came through, this particular pastor wasn’t keen on giving missionaries the spotlight.

His rationale? After decades of pastoring, he’d heard far too many terrible missionary presentations, which vastly outnumbered the compelling ones.

The church – as missions-minded as they come – had been trying to convince him that missionaries should get the pulpit and the full sermon time, as they used to when previous pastors had been in charge, but he routinely pushed back, saying they could have a Q&A afterward and take all the time they needed when the service was done.

The pastor wasn’t opposed to missionaries sharing about their ministries around the world. He was opposed to giving them a microphone and too much time on the stage.

The woman’s comment to my husband was a charge to prove that missionaries can speak in churches and not make everyone in the congregation regret giving them the pulpit.

Despite my own zeal for the opposite measure – giving missionaries the chance to speak when the most people are apt to hear them, i.e. during the Sunday morning service – I can’t say I blame anyone for viewing such an occasion as high-risk.

Public speaking isn’t exactly the kind of job skill listed on most missionaries’ resumes. We tend to do well with people in less-formal settings, doing things like Bible studies, community health development projects, discipleship, and children’s ministries. We equip ourselves with skills like translating, evangelism, mentorship, organizational leadership, and, in the case of my husband, medical work.

All of this means that most missionaries aren’t gifted in public speaking. Most of the population doesn’t have the gift either, and many people in Western cultures even fear it. Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, is very real. Even missionaries who do have a God-given skill in the art of rhetoric probably didn’t become a missionary because they thought, “I’m good at public speaking! I guess I should become a missionary!”

In reality, the vast majority of missionaries felt called to missions first and only later resigned themselves to the public speaking part of the job. And it is a part of the job, not only because supporting churches have a right (and hopefully a genuine interest) in hearing about the ministry they’re financially and prayerfully supporting, but because it’s biblical.

The apostle Paul left on his first missionary journey after the church in Syrian Antioch commissioned him and Barnabas and sent them off. After traveling around Asia Minor, preaching the Gospel and ministering to the churches, Paul and Barnabas “sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:26-27, NIV).

I have no doubt that Paul and Barnabas shared a myriad of stories. They talked about intense struggles they faced along the way (including a stoning so severe that Paul was left for dead), but I imagine they focused mostly on sharing stories of people who heard the Good News of Jesus.

Paul and Barnabas knew the importance of testifying to what God was doing around the world. They knew it was vital to report back to those who had sent them, not only for accountability and responsibility’s sake, but for the encouragement of God’s people. They all – we all – need reminders that God is on the move, all around the world, all the time.

The question then becomes: When we as missionaries have the opportunity to return to our sending churches and report “all that God had done,” how do we speak without botching it? Paul and Barnabas were in the minority – they were gifted speakers and were even in the preacher category. Speaking was not a resigned part of the job for them. It was the job.

In fact, in Iconium they “spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1b). Returning to Antioch and speaking to the believers about what had happened was just one more time they spoke in front of a group of people.

But what about the majority of missionaries, the non-preachers, the I-would-gladly-do-anything-but-speak folks? How do missionaries speak without making pastors and congregants cringe as they sit in the pews? It’s a question we need to take seriously because, of all the responsibilities in our care, testifying to what God is doing around the world is of utmost importance.

We’ve probably all heard stories of bad missionary presentations – when a missionary was boring or long-winded at best – and hoped we wouldn’t be the next person to further cement the impression that missionaries are terrible public speakers.

The only way to combat this is to actually improve in this area, to train ourselves to be presenters and speakers whether we’re only given a few minutes on stage to introduce ourselves or are actually allowed to speak at length. We want our opportunities to talk about what God is doing around the world to be memorable – for all the right reasons.

I have often joked that the tagline of missions should be: “If you’re here, you’re the right person for the job.” Missionaries spend countless time and energy learning skills they never imagined needing, yet we do it for the sake of ministry. We learn to fundraise, learn languages, write grants, oversee renovation projects, plan events, homeschool, and so on. Public speaking is no different. It’s a part of the job, and it’s something we should train ourselves to do no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel.

Whatever it takes – reading books, watching YouTube videos and TED Talks, practicing in front of a mirror or a trusted friend – we should care about improving our public speaking skills. The goal is not to become the next Paul and Barnabas. The goal is to be welcomed to share “all that God had done” when visiting a sending church because we can be trusted to testify well to the work of God around the world.

Before that Sunday morning when my husband and I were graciously given the full sermon time to speak, we prepared by discussing not only what we wanted to say, but how we wanted to say it. We discussed transitions, tones of voice, pacing of speech, and movements on stage. We were eager to share stories of how God is moving in Kenya, but also hopeful that the presentation of those stories would have an impact.

Later, the pastor who was so reluctant to give us the pulpit expressed that in nearly 50 years of ministry he’d never heard a more effective missionary presentation.

Thank God we didn’t screw it up.

More to the point, thank God that He is truly at work all around the world, including in the hearts and minds of missionaries who find themselves in a position of speaking publicly about Him.

Photo by Irina L on Pixabay

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Krista Horn

Krista has roots in the Midwest but moved to Kenya in 2016 with her doctor husband and three boys ages 3 and under. After exchanging life in the far north for life on the equator, they have lived and served at a mission hospital ever since. While her husband stays busy teaching and training on the wards, Krista stays busy with all the details of motherhood on the mission field. When she’s not homeschooling, cooking from scratch, or helping her boys look for chameleons, she loves to curl up with a book and eat chocolate from her secret stash. She is known for packing chocolate chips before anything else goes into the suitcase. Krista blogs at Stories in Mission.

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