In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have no professionally paid clergy to give weekly sermons. As such, members of local congregations are asked to speak.
Here are 10 suggestions to keep in mind when preparing and delivering a sacrament meeting talk from personal experience. Ideally, these suggestions will help increase the quality of our talks and add to the spirituality of the Sabbath day meeting. There are five don’ts and five dos.
1. Don’t give excuses
There’s no need to start out apologizing or saying, “I’m not prepared,” or “I don’t like to speak in public,” or “I didn’t start writing my talk until late last night.” The Lord revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith, “If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear.” (D&C 38:30.) Even so, butterflies are normal. Public speaking isn’t easy, but it’s better not to give excuses.
2. Don’t announce the topic
With rare exception, those who give talks in general conference don’t announce what they’re going to talk about, they just start teaching. Theirs is a good example to follow. Saying, “I have been asked to talk about (such and such),” or “I’m going to talk about (such and such)” isn’t necessary. Just begin.
3. Don’t tell jokes
While there is a time and place for appropriate humor, even in sacrament meeting, some people may force jokes because laughter can be calming. The problem is doing so can draw away from the spirit of the meeting. Furthermore, sometimes jokes come in the form of stories that can take up valuable time that could be used for edifying and uplifting members of the congregation.
4. Don’t announce when you were asked to give a talk
We’ve heard it numerous times: “Bishop called me on Wednesday evening and asked me to speak.” Sometimes this is followed by anxieties and personal debate over public speaking. Sure, it would be great if the bishopric could give us a two- or three-week notice, but that’s not always possible. Announcing when or how you were asked to speak in church is really quite irrelevant. Just talk.
5. Don’t always give scriptural references
Sometimes those who quote scripture give the exact book, chapter and verse before or after quoting it. While this may be helpful in Sunday School, it’s not necessary during a sacrament meeting talk. (As a side note, Sacrament meeting speakers should not invite others to turn to a particular scripture.) Instead of citing the exact chapter and book, it’s OK to just quote the scripture or give a background. For example, consider saying, “Alma told his son Helaman to ‘Counsel with the Lord in all thy doings, and he will direct thee for good.’” You don’t necessarily have to give the reference or say, “Alma 37:37.”
6. Use the Scriptures
There is no better reference library than the holy Scriptures. The canonized writings of prophets and apostles give each of us ample words, topics, quotes and stories to choose from. As we “liken all scriptures unto us” (1 Nephi 19:23) we can make the scriptures come alive. When teaching from the Book of Mormon, we can also fulfill the vision of President Ezra Taft Benson who said, “I have a vision of… pulpits aflame with the spirit of Book of Mormon messages.”
Develop a love for the scriptures and study from them every day. Doing so will help bless your life immeasurably. Besides, I once heard a church leader say, “You can’t draw water from an empty bucket.” We need knowledge in order to teach, and knowledge is gained through regular scripture study and prayer.
7. Stick to sound gospel doctrine
Church is not an appropriate place for speculation regarding gospel topics, and particularly not from the pulpit. Stick to the basics. In just about every field of discipline I can think of, experts are masters in the basics. Likewise, master teachers can teach basic principles of the gospel in powerful and succinct ways. Unsavory quotations or questionable topics ought to be avoided. With the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, you can never go wrong if you stick to the words and teachings of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency.
Preparation allows us to teach by the Spirit. Preparing often gives us a lot of material. It allows us to have notes and fresh thoughts in mind and to deliver them as the Lord would have us give them. Whether we write down and read every word, or stand and speak as we feel impressed and prompted, preparation is the key.
Because we may prepare a lot of material, it is important to be flexible with our time. Often, being flexible means not reading every word verbatim. We should not only be sure to leave enough time for other speakers, but we should also have enough material to speak longer if we need to, especially if we’ve been assigned to speak last.
9. Talk about the Savior
Jesus Christ is the center of the restored gospel. It is the Savior whom we represent when we speak. It is his church. He is the reason we gather together to worship so it is appropriate and important to speak of him and to teach what he taught. If we strive to allow others to feel the light of his gospel and his teachings, we are definitely on the right track.
10. Teach by the Spirit
The following is written of the sons of Mosiah: “They had given themselves to much prayer, and fasting; therefore they had the spirit … and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God.” (Alma 17:3). We are commanded to teach by the spirit (e.g., D&C 50:14). If we don’t receive the spirit of the Holy Ghost — if we do not teach by the Spirit, but teach by some other spirit, we cannot — and shall not — teach (D&C 42:12). That is the Lord’s way. Teaching by the Spirit is the most important thing we can do.
Teaching by the Spirit means we must prepare ourselves, which includes striving wholeheartedly to live a virtuous life. We each must rely upon the atonement of Jesus Christ. As we humble ourselves and prayerfully study and prepare, the Lord will allow us to be instruments in his hands to say what he would have us say. Then, through the influence of the Holy Ghost, we can speak with the tongues of angels (see, e.g., 2 Nephi 31:13; 32:2-3).
Jeffrey Denning is a war veteran, former Federal Air Marshal, and father of six. He lives near Salt Lake City and enjoys public speaking. His new book Warrior SOS details the experiences of several veterans in their own words. www.Jeffrey-Denning.com