07 August 2023

Christians and the fear of public speaking.

Every Christian is meant to preach the gospel. (And use words.) We gotta tell others about Jesus; we gotta encourage our fellow Christians to have healthy relationships with him.

But not every Christian can handle getting up in front of a large audience on a weekly basis, to give talks.

Poll after poll shows the number one fear of many Americans is public speaking. They’re more afraid of public speaking than death. They’re more afraid of it than high-voltage electricity, than a bear attack, than swinging on a rope off the side of a cliff, than snakes crawling up your plumbing while you’re on the toilet. It’s the last thing they ever wanna do.

I don’t share that fear. At all. Yeah I’ve had nerves on opening nights of school plays, but that was about blowing my lines, not standing in front of a crowd. Audiences are fun. But that’s me, and other people can’t comprehend how I can be so casual about public speaking; why hasn’t my fight-or-flight instinct kicked in? Theirs is going off like a fire alarm.

My advice to them used to be, “Oh, just get over it.” I didn’t realize why they found public speaking so terrifying; I’ve done it a bunch, and there’s nothing to fear! Yeah, it wasn’t sympathetic of me at all. But that’s because I didn’t share their fear, and didn’t get it. Sometimes I still don’t get it, unwittingly drag people into a public-speaking situation with me, and only notice their deer-in-the-headlights facial expression at the last second: “Oh nuts; I just freaked ’em out.” If you’re one of those people, sorry! I wasn’t trying to induce a panic attack, honest.

I still think people need to get over it, but I realize it’s gonna take them some time and effort. You gotta get used to the idea. You gotta make small efforts with small crowds and work your way up to bigger crowds. You gotta get confident with your material. You gotta realize audiences, most of the time, are rooting for you—they want you to do well! They’re usually on your side. Especially when there are loved ones in the crowd.

And yes, the Holy Spirit can help. He can make you bold when he really needs you to be. But I find he provides a lot more opportunities to people who are already bold. A lot more.

“But I’m gonna barf!”

I used to do plays in high school and college. I’m not a great actor; I can learn lines (and learn everybody’s lines while I’m at it; I have a good memory) but I think I frustrate directors who want to get better performances out of me. Thankfully for them, I never planned to do it as a vocation. Just for fun, as a fan of live theater.

But I’ve seen fellow actors whose nerves were just destroying them before every performance. Oh, they overcame their fears and did just fine, but they were a wreck beforehand—and kind of a wreck afterwards. Pretty sure the weed and alcohol didn’t help them as much as they imagined.

And I’ve seen ’em get physically sick. Known of more than one pastor who, before they get up to preach before their congregation, they go throw up.

Problem is, they do this every Sunday morning. Every week. For years.

It’s called anxiety nausea. It happens to lots of people. But the fact these guys never overcame it, is a rather obvious sign there’s a more serious problem. But these pastors actually think their anxiety nausea is spiritual warfare. The devil’s trying to tempt them to stop preaching by making ’em pukey. Well they’ll show Satan! They’ll go barf, then go preach. They’re not gonna let their nerves the devil stop them.

Yeah okay, calm down little victorious Christian dude. That’s not spiritual warfare—you’re not resisting temptation. You have a mental health disorder. If you’re puking every single week, every time you take the stage, you’re not winning. Our bodies aren’t meant to throw up that often, and doing so has long-term health problems; some of ’em serious. You need to talk to a psychiatrist. There are meds for that!

For most other people, meds aren’t necessary. Anxiety nausea happens when they’re out of practice, or when something else has them nervous—it’s a really important speech, like a dissertation or a million-dollar commercial pitch, and the real fear is of failure. Practice helps quell the nausea.

And practice helps get rid of nerves. If you’re anxious about public speaking, it’s only because you gotta practice public speaking. Put yourself out there! Start with small audiences and really short presentations. Do the bible-reading portion of your church service, or introduce somebody else. Build up your resistance to fear by doing the very thing that scares you… and learn from experience that it’s really nothing to fear.

But if you’ve tried, and tried, and tried, and every attempt makes you queasy: Yeah, go talk with a doctor. Something else is going on in your psyche, and don’t just assume it’s Satan slapping you around.

Fear doesn’t come from God.

2 Timothy 1.5-7 NCV
5 I remember your true faith. That faith first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice, and I know you now have that same faith. 6 This is why I remind you to keep using the gift God gave you when I laid my hands on you. Now let it grow, as a small flame grows into a fire. 7 God did not give us a spirit that makes us afraid but a spirit of power and love and self-control.

Too many Christians presume their fears are a sign from God that maybe they shouldn’t do certain things.

Like public speaking. Like missions trips. Like starting a ministry, starting a small group, sharing Jesus with a coworker, sharing Jesus with their own kids.

Fortunately I learned, back in my own childhood, that fear isn’t a sign of God’s disapproval; just the opposite. God’s leaps of faith are scary! But they’re necessary. In part because the fear is an irrational fear; we’re not afraid for any good reason other than our flesh doesn’t wanna. We should face and defeat these fears simply to become better human beings. And the other part is it grows our trust in God—and once we trust him in small things, he’ll show us much bigger things.

Our fears of public speaking absolutely get in the way, because we have good news to share! Jesus has saved us from sin and death. God wants a living relationship with us. God’s kingdom has come near. There’s peace and freedom and forgiveness and acceptance, available to everybody. (And if any church says otherwise, don’t go to that church!) It’s the kind of good news that needs to be shouted from rooftops… except people are afraid of speaking, even on the ground floor.

So let’s tackle this fear, shall we?