When I was in high school, I took private voice lessons. I will never forget my first lesson: I had to stand in front of a mirror and look at myself. I thought, “what does this have to do with singing?” It was the most uncomfortable experience. This was a lesson in posture, in how the muscles in our mouth and throat, and even through our body, affect the sound we produce as singers. I had to align myself in the mirror. The mirror revealed truth (it always does). Even worse for me was when we recorded the lesson and I was asked to listen to the tape when I got home.
You see, I thought that the sound I produced was a combination of Frank Sinatra, Barry White, Nathan Lane, and all of the other great voices that I wanted to emulate. I was afraid of my own voice and thought that in order to be good, I had to sound like someone else. When I listened, it wasn’t my voice. I was able to hear the sound I produced rather than what I thought I sounded like. That kind of reminds me of some lessons in preaching.
Work on it.
When was the last time you listened to yourself – or worse, watched yourself – preach? Humble yourself, and listen and watch. Don’t live into the lie that you are God’s gift to preachers. I know I’m not; I have to keep working on it every week. Guess what? It’s hard, soul-wrenching work. When you watch, you may discover that you wipe your nose too much, you sway, or you have a nervous habit. Of course, preaching is more than just excellent oration; the Holy Spirit is involved. But let’s be honest: you can still work on ways to eliminate distractions to let the Spirit speak.
Listen to others.
Listening to good preachers should inspire us to sharpen our skills (and not just borrow material). Reflect upon not only the material and presentation, but also on who you are as a preacher. I remember sitting in an ecumenical service where another pastor preached. I thought to myself, “what is he talking about?” There was no focus. I don’t mean to be offensive to that person; in fact, it was more convicting for me. It invited me to reflect. I discovered I never want to be a preacher who, when I finish, walks away unaware that the people don’t have a clue what I was talking about. I realized how much I want to honor the precious gift of people’s time each week. When you listen to others, let it inspire you to be the best version of you. To do this you must find your voice.
Find your voice.
Much like my singing analogy, there is nothing more frustrating than listening to someone who is clearly trying to be somebody else. Just go to an elementary school talent show: the fourth-grade version of Christina Aguilera is enough to make you go crazy. Be comfortable with who you are. If you are not funny, don’t try to be. Let your passion and your authentic experiences shape your words. Remember that it is not all about you in your message, but people don’t want to hear about this random guy or that girl as an illustration. Your listeners want to know that you have wrestled with your subject and have overcome it, or are still wrestling with it. Your sermon must be authentic.
More and more, I see people going online and printing off stories they found from a keyword search. That’s lazy. Don’t do that. I like Mother Theresa, Winston Churchill, C.S. Lewis, Henri Nouwen, and Abraham Lincoln – but it seems many preachers follow a recipe for what a sermon should be that includes a sprinkle of quotes from these people. Quotes have their place, but even more powerful is your memorable phrase that drives what you are presenting over and over again in your message.
I still consider myself a “young preacher,” and I know that I am not “there” yet. But I do know that if you are not passionate about preaching, then you should find someone else to do it. I would do it for free. Unfortunately, in ministry, we want people to be great at all things. I know a lot of senior leaders who are great at pastoral care, visitation, Bible studies, and the like, but not great at communicating or preaching. Their churches are often struggling.
Until we reach a place where the senior leader isn’t expected to do everything in the church, you will have to work on your preaching. So either delegate this weakness, which can mean swallowing a huge dose of pride, or work on it, listen to others, and find your voice.