In part one, we discussed the need for finding your voice in preaching. We found that the journey consists of two warnings, one principle and three stages. Here are the three stages and our final warning when trying to find our voices.

 

Stage One: The Mimic

When my son began to speak, he never used his own words. As he started the journey of finding his voice, he repeated the words of others down to his inflection. Forming vowel after consonant shaped more than intelligible words; it formed his ability to communicate.

For preachers, this stage is all about the presentation of our words. It focuses on our presence and the variety of our voice.

Young preachers need to copy. Many don’t understand this and feel bad for preaching like their favorite preachers. Now, don’t hear me saying plagiarize. Please don’t do that. But in stage one, young preachers should not be afraid to watch videos of preachers and try to mimic what they see, especially if the preacher they watch is strong in areas they are weak.

For example, if you are not animated while communicating, then you should watch someone who is animated. Or if you are a constant blast of energy and noise, then you should listen to a preacher who is a master in varied and hushed tones. By learning through mimicry, we become more balanced in our communication and find our voice.

Early on in my preaching, I preached messages that sounded a lot like John Piper. I don’t sound like John Piper now, but I needed to go through that stage. Beyond a little residual embarrassment (because I am obviously nor will I ever be John Piper), I’m left with a more rounded communication style because Piper’s big presence helped form my presence.

This also has implications for the cultural context of a sermon. If you find yourself in a racially-diverse, urban context and you’ve only preached in rural, homogenous contexts, then you better listen to some effective urban preachers. Gleaning from those who connect with a specific culture can aid you in connecting with a culture other than your own.

What to do during this phase:

  • Receive feedback on your presentation from your pastors or someone who is gifted in teaching.
  • Watch and listen to yourself to diagnose your areas of “horrible sameness.”
  • Watch and listen to preachers who are diverse in their communication and/or are strong in the areas you’re weak.
  • Do your best with every preaching opportunity and trust the Lord with the results.

 

Stage Two: The Student

I’ll never forget the day my son crafted a sentence of his own formation. It seemed to come out of nowhere. After months of copying, he finally created. It was thrilling to hear.

For preachers, this stage is all about the preparation of our words. It focuses on the particulars of our voice.

Every child must move from mimicry to actually learning how language works. In the same way, a preacher must educate himself in order to learn the formation of a sermon. In stage two, preachers should listen to sermons less and instead read sermons more.

Why?

First, because the temptation to mimic is too strong. Once we know our strengths and weaknesses as communicators and learn from the greats (stage one), we must stand on our own oratory feet.

Second, reading a sermon forces us to focus on the construction of the written word. We concentrate on the placement and prominence of certain words. We swim in the sea of words crafted to comfort and correct. We pick up the cadence of short sentences mingled with longer ones. And before we know it, we find ourselves imagining how we would present those words in our own voice.

The student phase schools us in the art of constructing a great sermon. As John Piper says, “Artistic, surprising provocative, or aesthetically pleasing language choices may keep people awake and focused… may bring an adversarial mind into greater sympathy with the speaker… may have an awakening effect on a person’s mind and heart… [may] increase impact by making what is said memorable… [and] makes it possible that the beauty of eloquence can join with the beauty of truth and increase the power of your words.”[1]

What to do during this phase:

  • Read sermons (and other books) with pencil in hand. Highlight, circle, underline and make annotations in the margin noticing the author’s language choices.
  • Read phrases that impacted you out loud to hear how you voice those words.
  • Write sermons as an exercise to grow in intentionally crafting your words.
  • Do your best with every preaching opportunity and trust the Lord with the results.

 

Stage Three: The Learner

Hopefully, we all graduate from school, but we never stop learning language. We all grow, evolve and change year after year. Everyday is a journey of self-discovery, and by God’s grace becoming our true selves in Christ (2 Cor 3:18).

For the preacher, this stage is all about the power of our words. It focuses on the prominence of our presence.

I’ve heard it said that preachers hit their stride and find their voice in their preaching after a decade of preaching. While I have no scientific evidence to back that up, I think the point is clear—finding your voice is a long journey; so, be patient.

A learner is a disciple, and we are lifetime learners. As disciples leading the way in preaching, we learn more about preaching and ourselves every year. By God’s grace, our preaching will become more impactful the older we get.

Practically, this means we should work hard to preach the best sermon we can as a thirty-year-old while recognizing that our sermon won’t be as good as when we’re fifty. And that’s okay! We can do our best, trust the Lord and celebrate the gifts God has given us now. We can trust God to grow us over a lifetime to be men who are set ablaze with passion in the pulpit because He has deeply changed us by the message we share.

Freedom comes when we embrace the truth that God has called us specifically to our church and community. We don’t have to be or sound like famous-preacher-fill-in-the-blank because God has specifically called us with our personality, story, interests and voice. We are the best preacher for our church because God has called us to that church and that church to us.

So, reflect God’s image by being the you-in-Christ that God created you to be. Illustrate with your interests, talk like you normally talk and be yourself—to do so is an act of trust in God and His assignment for you.

What to do during this phase:

  • In humility, keep preaching.
  • In humility, keep growing in the art of preaching.
  • In humility, keep learning who you are in Jesus.
  • In humility, do your best and trust the Lord with the results.

 

A Final Warning

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones leaves us with a final warning:

[Professionalism] is the greatest of all dangers in the ministry. It is something preachers have to fight as long as they live. Professionalism is, to me, hateful anywhere, everywhere. I abominated it as much when I was practicing medicine as I do now. There is a type of medical practitioner who is more professional than able. He has all the airs and graces, and knows all ‘the things to do’ and ‘the things to say’, but is often a bad doctor. The greater the doctor the less evidence there will be of this mere professionalism. The same thing is infinitely more true in the realm of the Christian ministry.

Let me explain more explicitly what I mean. Nothing worse can happen to a preacher than that he should reach a stage in which his main reason for preaching on Sunday morning is that he has been announced to do so. That means that preaching to him has just become his job. He has lost contact with what originally moved him and urged him; it is now a matter of routine. If such a man really asked himself honestly as he walked up the pulpit steps: ‘Why am I doing this?’ he would have to give as his answer, ‘I have been announced to do this, therefore I must do it.’ That is a confession of professionalism.[2]

Or to put it in the words of another famous preacher:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:1-2

Brothers, let us do the heavy lifting of finding our voice, but let’s develop our craft for the sake of love—love for Jesus and love for those we serve through the preaching of the Word.

If you feel called to preach, give it your all and rest in the fact that the Spirit of God has spoken through a donkey, could speak through rocks and will even speak through you (Num. 22:21-39; Lk. 19:40; 2 Cor. 12:9; Mt. 10:19-20).


[1] John Piper, The Power of Words and the Wonder of God, pgs. 77-80.

[2] Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, pgs.252-253.