It was a hot summer night when I took the stage for a youth rally.
Over 350 people were in attendance. The place was pulsating with energy and I knew I had to "bring it."
About 10 minutes into my sermon, I knew it was not going well. If I'm honest, I knew even before I took the stage that it wasn't going to go well. And sure enough, the sermon fell flat, at least from what I could see.
It was one of the toughest speaking experiences of my life. I came home deflated and discouraged.
Was it because I didn't prepare my sermon? No, it was thought-through and polished over many times.
Was I not spiritually ready? No, I prayed, fasted, and trusted Jesus.
Was it because I was 27, one-year removed from seminary, and therefore lacked the ministry experience I needed? I'm not sure.
But over 5 years removed from that night, I think I now have the answer: The sermon didn't go well for the same reason why I think so many sermons don't really take off every Sunday: I didn't step into the right preaching voice.
Most preaching classes and books talk about the usual issues, right? Attention grabbing intros, solid transitions, oral clarity, and so forth?
But no one ever talks about what I believe is just as fundamental to preaching: The Preaching Voice (PV)
What is the preaching voice (pv)?
PV is a niche style and mode of communication, unique to each preacher/speaker in proportion and strength, which facilitates a particular listening experience and effect for the hearer.
PV is like gears on a bike. A bike has various gears and each gear serves a different mode of pedaling, which facilitates a different rider experience. That's PV.
Much like how there are different genres of Biblical literature which evoke various human responses (Ex: Prophetic literature sting whereas the Epistles kill with penetrating logic) , there are many different voices of preaching with every voice causing a distinct effect for the listener.
Here's what I mean:
If you've ever heard Francis Chan or John Piper speak, you probably remember feeling really challenged. You probably sat there thinking, "Man, am I the real deal? Am I really satisfied in God?"
But if you've listened to John MacArthur preach, though you may have felt challenged, more than anything, you probably felt like you learned a ton of insightful information about the passage he preached on. You sat there thinking, "This is crazy. So many golden nuggets everywhere!"
Yet if you've ever heard Tim Keller speak, sure you may have felt challenged, you probably learned a lot, but more than anything, you probably felt like he gently re-wired your brain. You sat there thinking, "Whoa, I feel like how I viewed this topic was torn down and remade."
See, I believe this happens because, yes, God the Holy Spirit ultimately works through the Bible. But I also believe these effects occur because the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God, filtered through a certain human personality, which manifests orally through a unique combination of one's voice (cadence, style, tone, rhythm).
If this concept of "voice" sounds nebulous, stop and think about the everyday for a moment.
Think about a parent, or your wife, or a close friend. If I asked you to imitate one of them, you'd be able to do it in a heartbeat. In fact, you're probably smiling right now just thinking about how they would say certain things. You could hear their pitch, tone, cadence. See, that's a speaking voice. We intuitively comprehend that different people have niche ways of saying things unique to how they're wired.
The PV is how preachers say certain things while they preach which are unique to each personality and wiring. And I would argue that there are a variety of PVes.
So what are some of the different PVes?
Here is a simplistic and non-comprehensive breakdown of a few PVes.
You don't even have to like or even agree with the ministry philosophies of the preachers I've listed as examples. But if you've ever heard these preachers before, we can agree regarding the particular effect(s) they each have on their listeners.
Think about Rick Warren for a moment. He's actually pretty knowledgeable and insightful. But you wouldn't really think that from the way he speaks. Why is that? Because his voice is conversational. His dominant speaking voice in my opionion is "The Friend." Now he's also a great narrator ("The Story-Teller"), good comforter ("The Shepherd"), and a pretty strong conceptual explainer ("The Scribe)." This is why whenever I hear Rick Warren, I tend to think, "I feel understood and cared for, but I learned and felt the lesson."
Or consider Ravi Zacharias. As a world renown apologist who spends most of his time explaining rigorous concepts, we would think his sole voice would be "The Scribe." But I would argue his "Story-Telling" voice is just as strong, if not greater. He's an amazing narrator who can emotionally shift even the most intense Q & A times to make it compelling, personal, and winsome.
If you've never heard Louie Giglio preach live, you should. Honestly, he's not the greatest story-teller, explainer, or deconstructionist, but that man can inspire ("The King"). This is why he leads Passion Conferences where tens of thousands of college students fill up arenas every year. He's over 50 years old and ministers better to Millennials than anyone else I can think of. Now, I have never listened to him and thought, "Wow, I learned so much Bible" but I have often thought, "I would do anything he tells me to do right now."
This is why Tim Keller blows our minds. He deconstructs his hearers ("The Counselor"). You walk into the room and sit on the therapy chair thinking you get the gospel, but he'll soon draw out your thoughts, and re-arrange them to show you that you don't really get the gospel. And then he'll give you the gospel and we leave thinking, "How did I not see that?" Others "spit fire" but he "spits scapel with anesthesia."
This is why we feel so challenged by Francis Chan. It's not just because he lives out his faith so boldly. It's because he shares his experiences and convictions as an exhorter ("The Prophet"). If I told you to imitate Francis Chan, you would probably put both hands above your head and start saying, "Are you kidding me? If Jesus did that for me, how could I not live for him!?" Could you imagine if he preached in an entirely different voice? It would still be challenging, but it wouldn't enunciate his points as sharply.
Here's the point: Every single preacher has a few dominant preaching voices, which makes them unique.
You and I will likely never have the preaching ministry of any of the men listed above. But just like how they walk into their dominant PVes, maybe it's incumbent on us to do the same.
What if I told you that unless you and I identify and embrace our dominant PVes, maybe we'll continue to be confused and frustrated by our preaching?
Understanding the PV concept and identifying our own domiant PVes will inform some of our key ministry questions.
"How is God going to use my preaching ministry?"
While the proportion of our influence remains a mystery, maybe our dominant PVes give us a clue as to how God could potentially use our preaching.
For example, some of us are great comforters (Shepherd). We help our congregations feel like things will be okay when we preach. That is a powerful ability, one that will be appreciated by one's own church and others alike through many seasons, storms, and trials.
Others are strong Storytellers. Our church people perk up and glean a ton everytime we tell a story in connection with a point. God has wired us so that we help people "feel the lesson" and people will, Sunday in and Sunday out, without finding it difficult to invite their friends.
God has given each of us a set of strong PVes which will facilitate a particular effect for our people. I personally think most preachers have about 2-3 dominant PVes. But these dominant PVes will flavor and color our preaching ministry with a certain spice and hue.
"Which events should I speak at?"
It depends on your dominant PVes.
Some of us want to speak on "the big stage," but maybe our dominant PVes better facilitate a more intimate group. Others love the hyped events, but maybe we're not best suited for those types of events. Some of us need to speak at more revivalistic events, whereas others would do far better in seminar-type teaching environments.
See, I think this is where I messed up at that youth rally. The voices that fit that event were a combination of Story-teller and Revivalist. But the voices I used for that sermon were a few of my personal dominant ones - Scribe and Prophet, meaning my sermon was impersonal (conceptual) rather than felt (via stories) and people were exhorted (which induces reflection) rather than evangelized (which induces a response to an invitation). I literally used the opposite voices necessary for that specific context.
If I could have a do-over, I would either lean into different voices or recommend a different speaker with voices that better fit the event.
"Who should I invite to speak at my event?"
This was a question someone recently asked me. I asked him a question in response, "What's your goal for this event?"
I asked that because I felt like that was the more important prior question since different PVes facilitate different listener experiences. In other words, I felt like I couldn't properly answer his question without hearing his desired outcomes. Otherwise, I may have recommended someone who may have been a good communicator, but not necessarily the best fit for what that group was moving towards.
So someone may be popular at the moment, but not necessarily the best fit for your event. Another person may be a lot less known, but a far better fit for your event.
"Who should be my next hire?"
It depends on many things, but in relation to PV, if your next hire is going to be on your teaching team, it may be helpful to identify the dominant PVes of your current teaching team.
In this way, you can diversify the PVes of your church's pulpit ministry.
If everyone on your team is dominant Prophet, you may want to see if your next hire has any Shepherd, Friend, or Storyteller PVes. Otherwise, your church people will be constantly challenged but emotionally exhausted.
"How should I preach this text?"
What if faithfully preaching a text was more than just honoring the logic of the text but the emotion of the text as well?
For example, if you're preaching Galatians 1:6-10 ("I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him...."), you're gonna need to lean into your Prophet Voice as much as possible, even if that's your weakest PV. Yes, you can tell stories and be a friend, but there has to be an urgency.
But if you're preaching Psalm 23, that's going to require some of your best Shepherd Voice. You cannot go angry with that passage.
The preacher obviously cannot be mono-voice when preaching a sermon. He'll have to shift gears, but he'll have to create as much symmetry with the emotion of the text and the PVes he utilizes.
And if you ultimately think a certain passage better fits another PV on your teaching team, then maybe you should hand it off to someone else. Everyone wins.
"So how do I identify my dominant PVes?"
When it comes to preaching we need to have feedback loops, or we won't allow ourselves to have an accurate view of our own preaching. It can be too sensitive of a topic for some pastors.
Begin by asking your spouse or those on your teaching team.
Ask them, "Hey, when do you think I'm at my best when I preach?"
Ask people in your congregation.
Here's how: If someone says, "Hey great sermon today!" Follow up with, "Thanks! What resonated with you? (my go-to favorite)." They'll usually point out a certain part or point of your sermon. Ask yourself, "Which PV did I shift into during that part?" Go through that process for a few months and you'll be able to detect patterns in people's responses since what resonates, resonates for a reason.
But deep down inside, I think many of us already have our suspicions as to what our dominant PVes may be. The deeper issue may be that we don't like our dominant PVes.
If you're anything like me, you probably listen to Tim Keller and think, "Man, I can't do that." Or you see a revivalist and wish, "I want to be more like that." We want the PV effectiveness of others.
But what becomes sad is that in our desire to be another voice, we hurt our own preaching effectiveness as we neglect our own voices. We end up stuck at the very deadend we were trying to avoid.
For example, I've seen too many pastors try to be Tim Keller. And though deconstructing may be a mid-level strength voice, it's not a primary for many of us, and so we end up sounding like Tim Keller just got out of a root canal operation: Dazed and confused.
What's sadder is that our congregations won't be getting the best from us week to week. We end up giving our people a diluted version of some other person rather than the Spirit through the Word embodied in the unique instrument of God who is present with those people every week.
And ultimately, we're telling God that we don't like the way He's made us.
Dear preacher, let's put preaching in its proper place: Preaching is what we do, it's not who we are.
Identifying our PV is an issue of strength and weakness, and not of personal identity.
PV is about how we can best serve others, not ourselves.
And the beauty of it all is that our congregations already love us for our own voices. After a long week, they want to hear God's Word preached through their pastor's unique PVes.
And we have the privilege of standing before God's people, opening up God's Word, and proclaiming it with a set of unique voices which were God-given.