I guess some people are just born with “it.” They possess a seemingly innate capacity and charisma to communicate a message with precision and passion.
There was a time when I thought I had it. I can vividly recall the feeling when I argued a case before a mock jury as a middle-schooler. From the opening “May it please the court” to “I rest my case,” the room was rapt. People told me I had it when I preached the annual youth-week sermon at my church. You know, that week each year when the pastor gives the rookie a shot at the pulpit after having eight months to prepare to preach 1 Timothy 4:12. You’d better have it when you get that assignment.
Those illusions went with me into pastoral ministry. While I knew there was much to learn, I was certain the pulpit would be a place of comfort and stability. But my naïveté led me to some dark places when the painful truth became clear.
I didn’t have it.
I Became a Copycat
So here’s what I did when that began to sink in: I attempted to pattern my pulpit ministry after someone who did have it. I became a caricature of someone whose theology and preaching I deemed effective. I adopted his mannerisms, his cadence, and his themes as my own—parroting them to my hearers under the guise of engaging exposition. But it wasn’t. At least, not to me. No doubt I said many true and helpful things about the Scriptures in those years. I regurgitated theological verbiage that was, and is, transformational. But it wasn’t the Spirit’s voice and the author’s intent through me.
I wonder if Timothy shared in my plight. Perhaps his timidity was linked to proclaiming the Word. We know Paul repeatedly exhorted him to do just that (1 Tim. 4:2). We read this letter and rush to application for modern readers. We, too, should preach the Word. Often lost in the hustle of application is the personal nature of the letter itself. Paul is writing to a young pastor—to an image-bearer whom God appointed to lead the church. “You preach the Word”! Disembodied voices don’t preach. Real people do—people with personalities, stories, fears, and convictions uniquely woven by God into the person who proclaims, “Thus says the Lord.”
I have discovered six ways to foster growth in this season of my ministry—and to help a preacher find his own voice sooner.
1. Spend Time around Honest Mentors
We all need those willing to critique our fledgling attempts at speaking God’s Word to God’s people. Ideally this happens in the context of a healthy church where opportunities abound for regular reps. In the early years, it’s worth doing whatever necessary to cut your preaching teeth in a healthy church for this reason.
Not only do you need preaching experience; you also need those willing to meet with you on Monday and point out the strengths and weaknesses of your sermon. These mentors can journey with you over a number of years to track your growth and affirm the unique voice you bring to the pulpit.
2. Diversify the Voices You Consume
Too much of one voice makes it hard to avoid the copycat trap. We’d be foolish to deny the effect of our heroes’ writing or preaching ministry. Praise God for the shape they’ve given our lives. But when our sermons come out sounding like a microwaved version of Piper or Lloyd-Jones, we have a problem.
We find depth in preaching by feasting on God’s wisdom mediated through a diverse assembly of voices with a variety of perspectives and styles. As we read and listen more broadly, we’ll begin to notice that God can, and does, speak through the uniqueness of each individual, not just one perfect preaching persona. If we talk to others, we’ll find that God uses certain voices to affect different listeners in different ways. This provides needed encouragement to find our own voice.
3. Risk Experimentation
We develop few life patterns without a fair share of failure and frustration. We should expect no less in our preaching. Sadly, we often don’t give ourselves the grace to fail, recover, and change. All creative endeavors require such an unglamorous process for the outcome to resonate as authentic. That’s why we should try various modes of communication in the pulpit, not because we know they work (at least not at first), but because we’re feeling out what sounds right on our lips and what connects best with the hearers.
This might mean humor that falls flat or personal illustrations that seem disingenuous. But we never know until we try, fail, and find our style in the weeks and years ahead.
4. Take Strategic Breaks
Sunday is always coming. This doesn’t allow much margin to adapt our style and find our voice. Even those who only preach one sermon a week find it difficult to break the mold when they’re under the gun to have something ready for the Lord’s Day. That’s why it’s wise to take breaks that allow you time to reflect and get ahead. Also, sitting under someone else’s teaching can provide helpful insight into your own preaching style.
5. Trust God’s Strategic Placement
At its core, the temptation to copy represents a lack of faith in God’s strategic placement of our lives among a group of people, each with their own unique needs. Sure, we could read them a sermon from a great expository preacher, and they could be helped. But they can do that on their own.
Our people need us to embody God’s message for his people in a real time and place, with the precision of a careful shepherd who knows his sheep well enough to speak truth into the intricacies of their daily lives. The more we grow in trust that God has appointed us—and not a more impressive pulpiteer—within our own strategic context, the more readily we’ll find our unique voice.
6. Keep Going
Above all, we must believe that effective preaching requires perseverance. We can easily look with envy at those whom we presume to have the illusive “it,” while minimizing the hundreds or hours they’ve likely spent honing and refining their voice. This shouldn’t suggest that we’ll all be exceptional communicators given enough time. Most, like me, will always hover just above average.
Rather than crushing us, this is a hopeful reality, because God’s résumé is filled with work experience using those of average ability to accomplish the amazing. Our confidence is in him and the power of his Word, not in our performance or ability to copy the gifts of another.
God already has a John Piper, a Conrad Mbewe, an H. B. Charles, a Martyn Lloyd-Jones. For reasons perhaps known only to himself, the Lord has called you to the pulpit to be yourself and forget yourself. Go, find your voice.
Previously in this series:
- How Do I Prepare My Heart to Preach? (Kent Hughes)
- What Should I Preach Next? (Julius Kim)
- How Do I Handle an Unbeliever’s Funeral? (Phil Newton)
- How Do I Preach Expository Sermons from Proverbs? (Dan Doriani)
- Should I Learn Hebrew and Greek or Is Bible Software Enough? (Kevin McFadden)
- How Long Should My Sermons Be? (Hershael York)
- What Do I Say at a Funeral for a Person I Didn’t Know? (Phil Newton)
- How Long Should It Take Me to Prepare a Sermon? (Dave Harvey)
- 8 Lessons Calvin Teaches Us About Preaching (Ray Van Neste)
- How Can Expository Sermons Avoid Being Wooden and Uncreative? (Colin Smith)
- How Should I Respond When I Deliver a Dud? (Hershael York)
- What Role Does the Spirit Play in My Preaching? (Dave Harvey)
- Should I Preach the Longer Ending of Mark? (Danny Akin)
- Should I Pause an Expository Series for Palm Sunday and Easter? (Phil Newton)
- Should I Always Call for Repentance and Faith? (Steven J. Lawson)
- How Should I Preach Ecclesiastes? (Zack Eswine)
- How Can I Help My Congregation Listen to Sermons in a Culture of Distraction (Sebastian Kim)
- How Do I Preach Difficult Doctrines without Splitting the Church? (Hershael York)
- How Not to Preach an Easter Sermon (Steve Tillis)
- How Do I Deal with the Genealogies? (Scott Slayton)