Eye contact is the preacher’s Holy Grail. Especially if you listen to people who are anti full text. I’m not so sure. Eye contact is good, especially for new people, but I think the longer I’m sitting under faithful preaching the less I care if the preacher is meeting my gaze regularly. Eye contact is how we accommodate fussy listeners. It’s pandering. I’d say almost 30% of the feedback I’ve received for preaching is on delivery, and that’s evenly split between pacing (which is very important) and eye contact (which is not).
Non verbal communication theoretically accounts for 80% or more of our spoken communication, this is (if I remember correctly) mostly to do with tone, followed by movement and expression (what you lose from communication from in person dialogue to a phone call is less than what you lose from a phone call to reading text). Eye contact is a small part of the picture – but it is by no means the most important part. It’s fools gold.
In journalism we’re taught that eye contact is intimidating. And anybody who has ever spent a conversation talking to someone who stares intently into their eyes knows that it can be both creepy and off putting. Newsreaders are trained to blink, while journalists will almost always ask the subject they interview to not look down the barrel of the camera.
In public speaking (and particularly rhetoric) making direct eye contact is a sign of confidence in one’s self, and one’s message. I think we’ve taken this model of communication and applied it to the pulpit. If someone looks down we assume they’re not confident, as a preacher my confidence is in the Bible and my preparation, not in my ability to deliver something dynamic and persuasive.
When I’m listening to a sermon the only time I really want to make eye contact with a preacher is if they’re a first timer and I want to give them a reassuring nod, or if they’ve nailed me with an application and I want to look nonchalant. Otherwise I’ll be staring down at my Bible or blankly into space, or writing notes. Good listeners aren’t really looking at the preacher (in my experience).
In the best sermons I’ve heard I’ve hardly looked up at all – I’ve been so busy trying to write down all the bits and pieces I want to take home. The most entertaining sermons I’ve heard have been from people with no notes and lots of eye contact – but I can’t say I remember a whole lot of what they said.
I reckon eye contact is the bastion of people with either mediocre content or limited preparation. Everything is more listenable with eye contact – but not necessarily better. And I think we should be putting more effort into getting people to write the way they talk so they speak naturally and at an understandable pace.
From now on if somebody tells me I didn’t look up enough I’m going to tell them they weren’t looking down enough. I want people I’m preaching to to be following along in the passage and taking notes. Not staring me down pretending that I haven’t just mentioned their favourite sin.
Why do we think eye contact is important? Its place in the preaching armoury seems assumed rather than demonstrated.