Preacher Tone: Let’s Not!

Might you hazard a guess at what I have in mind by this expression: “preacher tone”?

If you reckoned on something like contrived showiness, an overly-stilted formality, an exaggerated intonation, all delivered in some strange rhythm and pattern, then you’re right on target.

I’m unsure of the history of this phenomenon, but I’m quite sure that the sooner we preachers get over it, the better. Where have we gotten this peculiar idea that our preaching voice should be, must be, something quite other than and decidedly odder than our everyday voice? Has tradition bequeathed this to us? Has the cult of personality in American religion helped establish it? Is there some element of idolatrous worship involved in sustaining its artificial life? These are painful but pivotal questions.

Charles Spurgeon, in his agelessly applicable Lectures to My Students, crisply laid out some principles that should govern the preacher’s voice, the first three of which speak to the matter at hand.1

  1. Do not think too much about your voice.
  2. Do not think too little of your voice.
  3. Take care not to fall into the habitual and common affectations of the present day.

The first principle should be hammered onto the door of every pastor’s study. Do not think too much about your voice. This is the vital reminder that we are not the focus of this work. We are not the voice our people need to hear. It’s not our oratory but God’s oracle that the church and the world must be given. Spurgeon writes: “[R]ecollect the sweetest voice is nothing without something to say … Such a man [i.e., with only a ‘surpassingly excellent voice’] may shine in the choir, but he is useless in the pulpit.”2 So, don’t be overly concerned, much less obsessed, in an affected and excessive way with your voice, either by its merits or its defects. In preaching the Word, your voice is a “secondary matter.”3

The second principle, however, lends balance to the first. Do not think too little of your voice, either. While we’re not to make much of ourselves in preaching, we should always be careful to make much of the precious gospel of God’s grace in Christ Jesus. And while a great deal more than a good voice is needed, a poor voice—monotonous, mumbling, misused, mismatched to its glorious calling—will inevitably mar the ministry of the Word preached. On that business of monotony—flat pitch or tone, lack of variety, and tedious routine—Spurgeon’s biting assessment was this: “It might be, by accident, a little louder or softer, according to the length of the sentence, but its tone was still the same, a dreary waste of sound, a howling wilderness of speech in which there was no possible relief, no variety, no music, nothing but horrible sameness.”4 So, without making the message about your voice, make your voice all about serving fully the message of the gospel. “Brethren,” Spurgeon exhorted, “in the name of everything that is sacred, ring the whole chime in your steeple, and do not dun [plague; pester] your people with the ding-dong of one poor cracked bell.”5

The third principle then takes the first two and sharpens them into a fine instrument of proclamation. Take care not to fall into the habitual and common affectations of the present day. Or, we might say, be careful about that “preacher tone.” (1) Preaching is not about your voice, but (2) your voice should never be an impediment to preaching. And so, (3) the worst thing you can do in trying to strike the right balance is to buy into this “preacher tone” bill of goods and thus fall into the follies of both errors warned against in the first and second principles.

Avoid, then, any pretentious and artificial displays of oratory, and every wooden or mimicked gesture of expression. Be the person God, in his wisdom and purpose, has fashioned you to be! Spurgeon quotes Abbé Mullois with approval, who remarks: “A man who has not a natural and true delivery, should not be allowed to occupy the pulpit … The instant you abandon the natural and the true, you forego the right to be believed, as well as the right of being listened to.”6

Hear! Hear!

When it comes to “preacher tone,” brothers, let’s not! And may the voice of the Spirit of Jesus in the Word of the Lord be heard and heeded through our preaching. Amen!

  1. C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 110–126.
  2. Ibid., 110.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 111.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 111–112.
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