One part of preaching that cannot be taught is the development of voice. This can be seen in one of the famous definitions of preaching- truth wrapped up in personality. Good preachers state the truth succinctly and clearly. Great preachers do the same with a great voice. When I say voice I’m not talking about the physical voice, like the voice you hear during a movie trailer. I’m talking about the conglomeration of how the preacher puts the words of truth together.
A preacher’s voice includes the following:
• Style: This is word choice, sentence length, and the vernacular used in speaking.
• Characterization: How the preacher’s character is expressed- is it vivid? Muted? A combination of the two? Do they come across as someone you can trust, or unreliable, or satirical?
• Narrative Distance: As the preacher exegetes the Biblical passage are we 100 feet away, so close we are in the character’s heads, or a little of each?
• Narrative Presence: Hand-in-hand with above- how much is the preacher himself felt in the sermon or the Biblical passage?
You can teach this stuff in seminary, but it takes years to identify and produce. Combined with the Holy Spirit, the preacher’s voice is the bindle of all these components coming together in a mystical way through prayer, preparation, and presentation.
The great preachers of any age had a unique and special bindle. Beth Moore, Bob Russell, Mark Driscoll, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, and many others all have developed a unique bindle that impacts people and their lives. It’s the unique fabric of words, prose, presence, and prayer they use to carry forward the Gospel.
Preachers know that it takes years to develop their voice. Generally speaking, a young preacher will go through a period where they will seek and mimic many other preacher voices as they develop their own. Most preachers do not get a handle on their unique voice until they are in their forties. Many times when a person in the congregation doesn’t think a minister is all that good is not because that minister has poor content, or that it’s organized in a horrible, it’s because they fail to connect with the audience because they haven’t figured out their voice.
Voice is what keeps people’s attention. A preacher with a great voice leaps off the stage and into the audience. He connects with them directly in the moment. The voice happens when the preacher starts getting “real.” He’s just not telling a Bible story anymore. You hear the “critical voice” in his message and you can imagine how other people are thinking the same thing. It comes from a place of discomfort and self-doubt. An effective preacher can get extremely current even though he’s using a 2000 year old ancient text.
It’s hard to define and develop one’s voice- but you know it when you see it.
What can a preacher do to develop their voice?
• Ask yourself: Am I in the Scripture enough? Ask yourself, “Are my concerns and sadness and excitements palpable in this message?” If not, why not? If you are going to preach the Word to people they better know you have a stake in this scripture too.
• Then ask yourself: Am I staying out of my own way and letting God have his way? This can sound confusing. Welcome to preaching! Think about the dreaded message that’s more about the preacher’s insights and not the insights God wants him to preach.
• Know the characters in the scripture like you would know yourself. Every scripture was written by someone and written to someone. Often, in preaching, we focus so much on the doctrine that we forget the human element inherent in the scripture. Ask, “Do I what it feels like to write this scripture? Do I understand the emotions of the people receiving the message?” Even better, “Is there some part of me that knows that feeling even though I’d rather not admit it?
• Work on your prose. Part of voice is to speak like you talk. Your talk doesn’t have to be flat out conversational, but it should feel like a conversation between you and the person in the pew. You should be having a conversation with your audience, not a lecture.
• The prose you use should be true to your character. You can only preach and exegete like you think. One of the weaknesses of a young preacher is they often preach like someone they admire. This leads to a hollow presentation of the Gospel. It doesn’t ring true because the prose isn’t you. It’s someone else. People want to hear your message (or the message God has given you), not someone else’s.
• Make sure there is a point to your message: Having a point is very different from making a point. You need to ask, “What does your talk add up to and why should your audience consider it?” You can put it this way also, “Why am I excited about this message?” If you can’t find a solid point to your message, then why are you preaching it?
• Be truthful. This is the heart of the voice. The best way for your voice to stand out is to question the assumptions people make about life and then insert how the word of God challenges or bolsters that assumption. You have to get the audience to risk their ideas, their assumptions, and their frame of reference, to bring them to the edge of their seat, so you can bring God’s word into their reality.
Here is a phrase writers use that I think applies to the preacher’s voice: The more truthful you are, the more specific your message gets. The more specific your message gets; the more universal it is.
Conversely: The more calculating you are; the more universal your message seems. The more universal it seems; the less universal it actually is.
We have enough bland, faceless, corporate, self-help sermons out there. Never let your message be one of them. Voice, faked, is a spectacle, and loses its value faster than a Paris Hilton movie. Real voice, is gold, and never loses its value.