By Craig Thompson
My favorite definition of preaching is from Phillips Brooks. Preaching, according to Brooks, is “truth through personality.” That’s it. Simple, and yet, profound.
Preaching is nothing more than the truth of God’s Word mediated through the personality of the preacher. But it’s also nothing less than that.
When you stand up to deliver God’s Word to your congregation, you better be sure you have something to say. But you also better make sure you say it in your own voice.
The Medium is the Message
“The medium is the message,” is a concept coined in the 1970s by Marshall McLuhan and later expounded upon in the 1980s by Neil Postman. The idea is that the medium through which any message is communicated is inextricably tied to the message.
The importance of the medium through which a message is delivered is never more important than in preaching. Your lifestyle and your delivery of the sermon affect the willingness and ability of others to listen.
Further, the authenticity of your message will be judged based on the perceived authenticity of your delivery. The congregation wants to know if you actually believe what you’re saying.
They’ll judge your level of belief based on what they know of you outside of the pulpit and of what they can perceive of your personality within the pulpit.
With this in mind, you’ll struggle to show yourself authentic until you learn to preach with your own voice.
Your Own Voice
A common struggle for young preachers is to find their own voice or style. As a young preacher, I wasn’t sure what kind of preacher I wanted to be.
There were many preachers I looked up to—some I even idolized in those young days. I wondered at times how I could ever preach as they did.
I wanted to preach with the passion of John Piper, the studiousness of John MacArthur, the rhythm and style of E.V. Hill, the power of Voddie Baucham, and the results of Billy Graham.
In those early days, I listened to Vance Havner tapes (yes, cassette tapes) on repeat and poured over Johnny Hunt’s sermons. I read books and attended seminars and conferences—all of this with sometimes disastrous results.
When I began to preach in my teen years, all I knew to do was to model my sermons after those I’d heard from my pastor. Later, as I began to study, grow, and branch out to other places, I walked away from mimicking him and instead started to mimic others.
Because I have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, I never stuck with a single role model for an extended period of time. I’d be moved by a sermon and decide to preach like that. Then, I’d pick up a new book or a new CD and determine, “No, I need to preach like this.”
You’re Not Spurgeon, Graham, Rogers, etc.
The problem? I’m not Johnny Hunt, Vance Havner, or Don Wilton. And I’m certainly not E.V. Hill.
Many of my sermons failed to connect. It wasn’t always because my exegesis was bad (though sometimes it was). It was because I was preaching with someone else’s voice.
The Word of God was present in my sermons, but it wasn’t being mediated through my personality. It was being filtered through several different personalities and then spit out of my mouth.
Rather than act as a preacher, I’d become something of an impersonator. My sermons didn’t have power because they weren’t authentic; they weren’t believable.
I needed to find my own preaching voice. My people needed me to preach the Word of God in a way that fit my personality and that would be believable to them.
I wear boots and drive a truck; so should my sermons.
In other words, I wear boots and drive a truck, and so in many ways, my sermons need to wear boots and drive a truck.
I’ve had to learn it’s OK I’m not Chuck Swindoll. God set me apart and called me from my mother’s womb. He knit me together. He knows me and has a plan for my preaching.
I don’t always understand it. When I listen to my sermons, my voice has a distinct redneck twang. But it’s the voice God gave me and it’s the voice He intends me to use to proclaim His Word.
For me to be effective and authentic as a preacher, I have to proclaim God’s Word with power and passion. But I have to do it as Craig Thompson. My sermons have to wear boots and drive a truck.
Find Your Voice.
You have to find your voice also. You’re not called to be Craig Thompson (you should rejoice in that). If God has called and gifted you to preach, then He expects you to preach in your voice.
Legend has that Jonathan Edwards may have been soft-spoken and may have read directly from his sermon manuscripts. However, the passion of his preaching fueled the Great Awakening.
Edwards’ style would be lambasted in a homiletics class today. But it was his voice, and God used that voice mightily.
At the same time, God was using another voice. George Whitefield’s voice wasn’t quiet. He spoke to tens of thousands of people with passion and fervor.
Thousands were saved under his preaching. He and Jonathan Edwards fueled the Great Awakening by preaching with their own voices.
So you might wonder, how do you find your voice?
1. Be consumed with Christ.
The preacher who sees lives changed is one whose voice is molded and shaped by the gospel. It was Whitefield who said, “We can preach the gospel of Christ no further than we have experienced the power of it in our own hearts.”
Be consumed with Christ to ensure your preaching voice is filled with the gospel.
2. Pray for God to give you comfort in the pulpit and wisdom as you try to find your style.
Often, we imitate others because we’re uncomfortable with our own abilities and unwilling to fully trust in Christ’s call. Pray for comfort but also recognize that if God has called you, He’ll also equip you.
Pray for comfort and trust in God’s provision. As the old saying goes, God doesn’t call the equipped; He equips the called.
3. Be well prepared.
If you want to be comfortable in your own skin behind the pulpit, you must walk into the pulpit confident in what you’re going to say. I’m not suggesting you don’t lean on the Holy Spirit. I’m saying you should do the hard work of sermon prep before you stand in front of a congregation.
As you prepare your sermon and wrestle with the syntax and rhythm, you’ll soon discover you’re formulating your voice in your study. Much of your preaching voice is found seated behind your study desk rather than standing behind the pulpit.
4. Practice your sermon.
If you’re a new preacher, preach your message in front of a mirror (I’ve never been able to do this, but maybe you can) or record yourself and play it back.
If you have access to the place where you’ll be preaching, stand behind the pulpit and practice before an empty sanctuary. I still enjoy practicing reading Scripture out loud before an empty room.
Recite your sermon in the car or, if you’re married, to your spouse. My spouse has no problem telling me if I don’t sound like myself. Your voice will begin to emerge as you practice.
5. Just preach.
You can practice all day long, but you’ve got to be able to preach when the lights come on. When it’s all said and done, you’ll have to find your preaching voice behind the pulpit in front of congregations.
The more you preach, the more comfortable you’ll get with your preaching voice.
No one wants to hear you stand up and give a Billy Graham impression. You’re not Billy Graham. But you can preach God’s Word.
God has called you and gifted you. He’s set you apart for this sacred task. You don’t have to be anyone else; just be you. Trust He knew what He was doing when He gave you this task and go preach His Word with your voice.
CRAIG THOMPSON (@craig_thompson) is the husband of Angela, father of four, and senior pastor of Malvern Hill Baptist Church in Camden, South Carolina.