The Fear of Public Speaking

Heritage Presbyterian Church

April 25, 2021
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Scripture reading: Acts 4: 5-12 (Peter and John appear before the council)

Let’s begin today with a definition:

The word “phobia” describes an irrational fear of something.

Because the word irrational is used in the definition, we understand that this is a fear that makes no sense to most people.

If you have a fear of flying but you have never survived a plane crash or been in a plane that had major engine difficulties, then your fear of flying is most likely irrational.  It is a phobia.

If you get in an elevator and on the way up, the elevator stops and more people get on packing the elevator, and you begin to have trouble breathing and can’t wait to get off, then this is most likely irrational.  It’s just a crowded elevator.  It’s a phobia.

The number one most common phobia is the title of today’s sermon; public speaking is the most common phobia.  Does anyone know the second most common phobia?  It is the fear of death (which I am not certain is irrational).  According to the comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, this means at a funeral, most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.

Seriously, let’s return our focus to public speaking.  I have great respect for anyone who can speak in front of groups, especially large groups…especially church groups.  In our church, it is always a little unsettling to ask members of our family of faith to get up and either read something or do something in front of this congregation – and they either refuse or accept very VERY reluctantly.  Because I don’t have the phobia of public speaking, I used to struggle to understand this, but I no longer do.  I now appreciate more the individual members of our choir who are willing to sing solos for us and for the small cadre of liturgists and elders who are willing to read and pray for us each Sunday.

So let us get to the business at hand, and that’s the message for today.  Let us focus on the main speaker in today’s Scripture reading, namely the Apostle Peter.  He is such an interesting character in the New Testament.  This common fisherman originally named Simon would go on to become an early leader of the Apostles and of the Christian church.  This rash, loud, profane commoner from the backwater provide of Galilee would become the man for the early church.  

Yet I propose that Peter, like many of us, may have had a fear of public speaking – at least before the Holy Spirit arrived.

Note when Peter actually said anything in the four Gospels:

  • When he was first called by Jesus, he fell on his knees and said, “Get away from me for I am a sinful man.”
  • When Jesus asked the Apostles who the people thought Jesus was, Peter FINALLY said, “You are the Christ”…but only after nobody else said anything.  (Even then, I have never thought Peter declared this…I think he said it like a school child who is uncertain of the answer.)
  • When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain with Moses and Elijah, Peter rambled because he was so freaked out by what he saw; also, remember that Peter was only speaking in front of Jesus, James, and John…not exactly public speaking…
  • When Peter was discomforted by Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles, he spoke out of that discomfort; not exactly public speaking.
  • And finally, when Peter denied knowing Jesus – and he did it three times – he was just trying to save his own skin.

None of those instances really counts as public speaking.

Yet, in today’s Scripture reading from the Book of Acts, Peter not only spoke in public, he did it in front of a group of religious leaders who would have appeared pretty intimidating to most of us.  They were the same group that had condemned Jesus and then arranged for his execution.  Peter and John should have been wetting their robes with fear.

Instead…Peter was triumphant, blunt, bold, and extremely powerful in his words, not only to the people, but also to that group of leaders.  In that scene, if you pay attention to the details, the leaders could do nothing to stop Peter or John.

And they knew it!

So, any examination of Peter’s possible fear of public speaking might have held water up to the Day of Pentecost.  Certainly, after that day and for the rest of his life, Peter didn’t seem to fear or avoid any opportunity to speak boldly and without any fear or hesitation about the Lord that he loved and served.

In fact, what happened instead was that the religious leaders began to fear Peter’s public speaking because it directly challenged and accused them of not following the Lord they claimed to serve. That is a completely different fear of public speaking; it is not for the individual who is speaking…it is for the listeners who fear what that individual might say.

But doesn’t the same thing hold true today?

Yes, we have many who fear public speaking, but in that definition, we understand it to be the phobia that individuals feel when they are asked to get up and speak.  It is irrational, but we understand it.

The other fear of public speaking – the fear of what will actually be said – is another fear that is perhaps more legitimate.

If you have ever come to our church and been afraid of what might be said there, then you have experienced this same fear.  In my ten years serving as your pastor and preaching to you over 500 different sermons, I have been blessed with what is known as a “free pulpit.”  This means I get to preach whatever I want to preach; I have tried hard not to take advantage of that blessing.  I don’t ever want to make you mad during a sermon, but my goal is to always make you think.  Sometimes that might mean I make you uncomfortable.  I make no apologies for that, but angering you is never my goal.

Yet virtually all preachers of the Word will tell you that a sermon often goes places it is not originally intended to go.  That may sound like a big cop-out, but it is the truth.  I have heard sermons myself that I am afraid of; I have also heard public speakers that cause me to fear what they are saying – or what they are going to say.  And, of course, at times I have agonized fearfully over my own sermons when I wonder how they will be received. 

The fear of public speaking involves more than just a personal phobia of getting up in front of others.

Still…look at Peter!  Out of all the various characters in the New Testament, Simon Peter is my hero (not counting the Lord, of course!)  He became a lot more than a fisherman from Galilee; 

  • he became more than just the most fearful of the Twelve; 
  • he became more than the bumbling, impulsive man who couldn’t seem to get out of his own way as he tried to follow his Lord.
  • he became more than just the only Apostle who actually denied knowing Jesus at all.

Peter became a hero to those who were hungry to hear more about the saving power of Jesus Christ.  Peter also became an example of how anyone – anyone at all – can become more than they would normally be when faith in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit pushes aside normal thoughts and actions.

So what is your fear, Christians?

Are you afraid of looking foolish in front of others if you dare to speak that same name that Peter invoked so boldly?

Are you afraid of getting carried away and getting into something you don’t necessarily control?

Are you afraid of hearing a troubling message – and digging in with your own personal agendas instead of addressing exactly why that message troubles you so much?

Are you afraid of individuals who speak a version of the truth that you know is accurate, but it will force you to change if you accept it wholly and completely?

Are you afraid of speaking up when you hear a false message that you just know in your heart is, not only false, but also potentially dangerous or misguided?  And are you afraid no one else will speak up, so that false message will continue to be heard?  (This is a pretty tough one.)

Are you afraid, not necessarily of words of change, but rather what those changes might do to your own comfort level?  And what those words of change might force you to face?  

In the final analysis, it would seem that the fear of public speaking might be something many of us actually have – depending on which way you interpret that phrase “fear of public speaking.”  

Yet, we MUST face that fear with courage!  We are called to be followers of Jesus Christ, not necessarily comfortable church people.  If we truly believe, how can we be otherwise?

Let us not allow the fear of public speaking hold our thoughts and words captive.  Let the Holy Spirit be our constant and faithful guide.  After all…it worked for Peter…didn’t it?