Good musicians care a lot about their instruments. Neophyte students in middle-school orchestras may not think much about the tone, craftsmanship or resonance of their equipment, but virtuoso performers do. The most magnificent refrain cannot be all that its composer intended when played on an inferior or out-of-tune instrument.
Preaching is not so different. A listless, monotonous voice can suck the life out of the most profound biblical truths. Astonishingly, few preachers give any consideration to their most important and necessary instrument. They invest in computers, acquire books, and employ many other tools for study and preparation, but ignore or neglect the voice, the one tool required for the delivery of every sermon.
Contemporary professors and authors contribute to this vocational negligence. Very few books on preaching say anything about its use and care. The richest, most versatile instrument that exists, the human voice, can produce a near-infinite matrix of volume, pitch, color, resonance, pace, tone, emphasis and accent. Even so, few preachers use more than 20 to 40 percent of its range of possibilities.
As if that weren’t bad enough, many would justify their inattention to its capabilities by suggesting theological reasons for their disregard, as though developing an effective voice might somehow detract from the work of the Spirit.
Charles Spurgeon had no such reluctance. He thought a mastery of the voice essential for anyone who dares to answer God’s call to preach. His critique of the voices of his students could be humorously brutal. In a rollicking, often hilarious, article, “Hints on the Voice for Young Preachers,” in the July 1875 Sword and Trowel, the Prince of Preachers berates his young charges for being knowledgeable of the Word and ignorant of the voice.
Along with practical advice about neutralizing strong accents, varying pitch and volume, and practicing elocution, Spurgeon encouraged them, “Endeavor to educate your voice. Grudge no pains or labor in achieving this. … However prodigious may be the gifts of nature to her elect, they can only be developed and brought to their extreme perfection by labor and study.”
The protection of the voice is as important as the projection of the voice. The preacher who does not care for his vocal chords can find himself subject to painful and debilitating nodules that form as a result of years of throaty or strained speech. Similar to calluses, they grow harder and larger the longer the friction repeatedly occurs. Spurgeon also warned about this danger: “One of the surest ways to kill yourself is to speak from the throat instead of the mouth. This misuse of nature will be terribly avenged by her; escape the penalty by avoiding the offense.” If your throat hurts after normal teaching or preaching on a Sunday, you may be abusing your voice.
Every preacher should take three steps for effective vocal habit. First, be conscious of your voice. Watch a video or listen to an audio recording of yourself and notice your pitch, volume, tones and pace when you preach. Is there a sameness and uniformity to your speech that lulls others to sleep?
Second, consciously push yourself to extend the boundaries of those parameters the next time you preach. Get a little louder and a little softer; go higher and lower. Speed up and slow down. Take advantage of that rich matrix available in your instrument.
Finally, a few sessions with a vocal coach or speech pathologist might make the years spent in Bible study more effective. Learning to use the full range of the voice to proclaim the full range of the gospel is powerful. Effective study should be crowned with effective proclamation.