Preaching Articles

Good musicians care a lot about their instruments. Neophyte students in middle school orchestras may not think much about the tone, craftsmanship or resonance of their equipment, but virtuoso performers do. The most magnificent refrain cannot be all that its composer intended when played on an inferior or out-of-tune instrument.

Preaching is not so different. A listless, monotonous voice can suck the life out of the most profound biblical truths. Astonishingly, few preachers give any consideration to their most important and necessary instrument. They invest in computers, acquire books and employ many other tools for study and preparation, but ignore or neglect the voice, the one tool required for the delivery of every sermon.

Contemporary professors and authors contribute to this vocational negligence. Very few books on preaching say anything about its use and care. The richest, most versatile instrument that exists, the human voice can produce a near-infinite matrix of volume, pitch, color, resonance, pace, tone, emphasis and accent. Even so, few preachers use more than 20 to 40 percent of its range of possibilities.

As if that weren't bad enough, many would justify their inattention to its capabilities by suggesting theological reasons for their disregard, as though developing an effective voice might somehow detract from the work of the Spirit.

Charles Spurgeon had no such reluctance. He thought a mastery of the voice essential for anyone who dares to answer God's call to preach. His critique of the voices of his students could be humorously brutal. In a rollicking, often hilarious article, "Hints on the Voice for Young Preachers" in the July 1875 The Sword and the Trowel, the Prince of Preachers berates his young charges for being knowledgeable of the Word and ignorant of the voice.

Along with practical advice about neutralizing strong accents, varying pitch and volume and practicing elocution, Spurgeon encouraged them, "Endeavor to educate your voice. Grudge no pains or labor in achieving this. … However prodigious may be the gifts of nature to her elect, they can only be developed and brought to their extreme perfection by labor and study."

The protection of the voice is as important as the projection of the voice. The preacher who does not care for his vocal chords can find himself subject to painful and debilitating nodules that form as a result of years of throaty or strained speech. Similar to calluses, they grow harder and larger the longer the friction repeatedly occurs. Spurgeon also warned about this danger: "One of the surest ways to kill yourself is to speak from the throat instead of the mouth. This misuse of nature will be terribly avenged by her; escape the penalty by avoiding the offense." If your throat hurts after normal teaching or preaching on a Sunday, you may be abusing your voice.

Every preacher should take three steps for effective vocal habit. First, be conscious of your voice. Watch a video or listen to an audio recording of yourself and notice your pitch, volume, tones and pace when you preach. Is there a sameness and uniformity to your speech that lulls others to sleep?

Second, consciously push yourself to extend the boundaries of those parameters the next time you preach. Get a little louder and a little softer; go higher and lower. Speed up and slow down. Take advantage of that rich matrix available in your instrument.

Finally, a few sessions with a vocal coach or speech pathologist might make the years spent in Bible study more effective. Learning to use the full range of the voice to proclaim the full range of the gospel is powerful. Effective study should be crowned with effective proclamation.

Hershael W. York is the Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Preaching and Associate Dean in the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He also serves as Senior Pastor of the Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, KY, and co-wrote Preaching with Bold Assurance (Broadman and Holman, 2003) with communications expert Bert Decker, chairman and founder of Decker Communications. In addition to his writing, teaching, and pastoring ministries, he usually ventures deep in the Amazon at least once a year to fish for men and the elusive peacock bass.

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Clay Gentry

commented on Sep 14, 2013

Thank you for the good words friend. After three hours of teaching on Sundaymorning, along with talking to everyone my voice is usully weak but nothing a nap won't cure. Seariously, I do encorporate various levels of pitch, tone and volume. However, this drives some of my older members crazy. Once when I was preaching along rather forefully and loudly, I then lowered my volume to make a heart-felt plea. Suddenly, one of the "hard of hearing" sisters leaned over to her husband and loudly said, "DID MY HEARING AID STOP WORKING BECAUSE I CAN'T HEAR ANYTHING HIS IS SAYING!" Needless to say the momemt was lost and we all had a good laugh about it later. So much for trying to break free from a the monotone of loud.

Jim Ressegieu

commented on Sep 14, 2013

Two degrees in communication before going to seminary 30 years after a vocation in the corporate world, I also wonder why seminaries spend so much time driving the facts of scripture into the student's heads and so little time focusing on the delivery mechanism of the Word. Even in homiletics classes we spent more time exegeting the text and making sure the outline was correct than correcting standing posture (important for breath control), projection (yelling or whispering are not methods of projection) and eye contact with the audience. Good article and one all preachers should work to improve.

Joseph Thomas

commented on Sep 14, 2013

Point well taken that the preacher needs to use his vocal instrument well. Having said that, I hope we realize that the power of the preacher and his delivery is actually centered IN the Word and the Spirit. Jonathan Edwards would have failed miserably: he read from a manuscript held closely to his eyes and read in a monotone.

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