Podcast Episode 3 | 15 min
Find Your Preaching Voice
God uses our variety, so find your own voice.
Matt Woodley: This is Matt Woodley, editor of PreachingToday.com on Monday Morning Preacher. I'm here with my guest host, Kevin Miller, one of our featured preachers on PreachingToday.com.
Kevin Miller: Hey, Matt.
MW: So let me start with a story, a personal story. Back in 2001, I started pastoring a mid-sized church on the north shore of Long Island, about 45 miles from New York City.
KM: I remember when you moved there.
MW: Beautiful spot, and everything seemed to be humming along with my ministry. It was a challenging situation. A lot of very intellectual people there, a lot of doctors, lawyers, professors at Stonybrook University, and grad students studying various things. I felt like my preaching was really connecting with people, I got a lot of really good feedback, I thought it was biblically rich, I thought it was sort of intelligent, humorous, and culturally engaging. You know all that good preaching stuff. So about midway through my preaching endeavor out there, about 2005, I started to hear some murmurings about my preaching. It was not so much about my preaching but it was about this other great preacher that everyone seemed to be really listening to, and I won't mention his name, but his name is Tim Keller.
KM: Sounds like you had a wicked case of Keller envy.
MW: Yeah, we're talking about this guy:
Tim Keller: Mordecai was saved only because Haman reversed places with him, but it was involuntary, but Jesus does it voluntarily. There is the ultimate King. There is the King of Glory. Jesus Christ is the King that you can go to because He, at infinite cost to Himself, reversed places with us.
MW: The people at my church discovered Tim Keller. Actually, they fell head over heels in love with this bald-headed, bespeckled intellectual from Manhattan.
KM: Bespeckled or bespectacled?
MW: Bespectacled, I guess you would say. And it was a spectacle indeed, the way they loved this guy. And some people—they weren't like anti-Matt Woodley people—formed this little study group before our worship services where they would listen to a sermon by Tim Keller and discuss it.
KM: So just in case you weren't very good they would still get something?
MW: They would get something really rich and deep that day. So it was all, everywhere I would turn, it was like, Tim Keller said this, Keller, Keller, Keller, yada, yada, yada. So I started listening to Tim Keller and I've got to admit, the guy was good.
KM: Yeah, he's very good.
MW: He was better than me, so it seemed. I thought, I am not fit to untie his preaching sandals. So I had an idea: WWKP, “What would Keller preach,” and then how would he preach it? So outline like Tim Keller, illustrate like Tim Keller, apply like Tim Keller.
KM: How did it go?
MW: Not good. It was bad. I don't know, can you relate to that at all? You ever had any preacher envy?
KM: Oh yeah, I think every preacher has it. I have had my moments of John Ortberg envy. John is naturally funny, he's got this creative mind, this depth of psychological insight into the human soul, and an ability to make the biblical text live that is so engaging. I love all those qualities in John and there have been moments where I have felt the envy.
MW: You mean this guy …
John Ortberg: Speaking the truth in love we will, in all things, grow up into him who is the head, that is Christ. I need people who will speak truth to me because I have a sin problem and I do not know how bad it is, and it's worse than I think.
MW: That was John Ortberg. You're right, Kevin, he's funny, he's biblical, and sometimes you think, That's just not fair that one preacher has all of that. Or maybe you want to sound like her.
Nancy Ortberg: We need to live in truth-telling relationships and not in secret because when the idol is beginning to win, that's when we need community. Don't allow the altar to be built. When the first bricks are being set you need to run to somebody that knows you, that is a Christ-follower, that will help you to flee from it.
MW: That was Nancy Ortberg, a great preacher in her own right. Or maybe you'd like to preach with the passion of this guy.
Francis Chan: That is the ultimate, I'm going no, no, that's not what I read in this book. There is something that no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived, and we live for that and we eagerly await our Savior. So for now, yeah, I am a little intense and I'm going to be intense until I cross that finish line.
KM: Yes, I would love to preach with the passion of Francis Chan.
MW: Or maybe you'd like to preach with the emotional intensity of this preacher.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: The acceptable year of the Lord is that year when every tongue shall confess, when every knee shall bow. And all over the world we will sing it like we did this afternoon. Hallelujah. He is King of Kings, He is Lord of Lords. The kingdom of this world shall become the kingdom of our Lord and His grace. He shall reign forever and ever.
KM: Wait, was that really Martin Luther King, Jr.?
MW: Yes, the doctor himself who has an original sermon on PreachingToday.com. Then again, I wouldn't mind every once in a while sounding like this guy.
James Earl Jones: You are part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor. Take her away.
MW: Wait a minute, that's not a real preacher. That was actually James Earl Jones but sometimes I would love to have that rich voice of James Earl Jones.
KM: Yeah, me too.
MW: Seriously though, I think one of the hardest tasks for any preacher is finding your preaching voice. So Kevin, what does that even mean? Isn't that some kind of selfish, narcissistic quest—I've got to find my voice. What does that mean, to find your preaching voice?
KM: Well, that's a great question. Every preacher is created by God with a unique personality, a unique set of gifts, and a unique set of experiences in their life and ways that God has worked in their life. So to me it's not narcissistic to find and express that, it's actually a sense of humility. There is a Christian virtue of self-acceptance, of being true to whom God has truly made you to be.
As I've begun to discover my own preaching voice, I've had to realize there are certain types of illustrations that I can't do very well, so I am going to do them very rarely if at all. So for example, because I've been in business for a long time I can do business world illustrations very well and pull them off and they come with a sense of credibility and power, but I cannot do military illustrations. I know a lot of preachers use those to great effect. But maybe because I have not served in the military, they seem clumsy when I try them. So part of learning my own voice is learning what range of illustrations work for me and which ones are not likely to work.
MW: That's a great example and you can take that principle and apply it to other facets of your preaching. Focusing on what feels authentic to me as a preacher; not just illustrations but maybe the way you apply the text. Maybe your emotional intensity, maybe the way you use humor. All those different facets. I love that principle about what really fits my unique thumbprint, my DNA.
KM: I think what's beautiful is when you express that, I think God is most glorified. What's interesting is that in order to find your own voice, you actually need to sort of try on the voices of others. It's almost like you're going to a clothes store and you're trying on a suitcoat and you try another one. Finally, you find the one that kind of fits and you think, You know what, I'm just going to go to the tailor. Or maybe you find one and you make it yourself. But the point is it's in the trying-on that you discover who you really are.
MW: So you listen to a lot of preachers who are very good at the craft, God is really using them, and they have a unique style and you learn from them, which is great. I think it's even better to read a sermon if you can get ahold of a manuscript, which we have many on PreachingToday.com. But get ahold of a manuscript, and obviously you're not going to plagiarize it, you're not going to rip it off and use it as is, but you're going to learn from that preacher and how that preacher constructs the sermon, uses illustrations, crafts the transitions, creates the outline, etc.
KM: When I was in my 20's, really wanting to grow my preaching skills, I listened to a lot of messages by Bill Hybels and one of the things I loved about Bill's preaching is he is a take-no-prisoners preacher. He has such a sense of urgency and intensity to his preaching. Then I had the chance to actually interview him for some Christianity Today projects and I discovered this man drinks jet fuel; he is temperamentally intense. What I finally realized is I am not Bill Hybels. I am not as intense as that and yet I can learn from Bill. So what I learned is that in his introductions he spends quite a bit of time establishing why you need to listen to this message and driving up the level of urgency. So even though I don't have the personality of Bill Hybels, I can learn from Bill Hybels how to increase urgency in my messages.
MW: Yeah, that's great. You also mentioned to me this theory that you have about the kind of preachers we tend to envy, and what that says about us. And maybe even how God can turn that around and use that for his good and his glory. So tell us a little bit about that.
KM: Well, I have a theory—maybe I’ll call it the “Tuning Fork Principle”—that whatever is true in me kind of resonates when it gets around someone else who has a similar temperament, gift, passion, or call. So if you are called by God to have a more prophetic edge in your preaching, you are going to be especially envious of or drawn to preachers who have a similar prophetic edge, but maybe do it better than you currently do. So I think one thing we can do when we are feeling those moments of preacher envy is stop and think, What is true about the types of preachers that I envy? Because I think that's saying something true about my particular call. It's in some ways similar to or comparable to their type of call.
MW: That makes a lot of sense because the ministry context I had out on Long Island and the kind of preacher I really aspire to be totally meshed with Tim Keller's ministry and how he approaches preaching and a lot of things he says about preaching and the goal of preaching, so I can totally relate to that.
KM: So Matt, what happened in your situation out there on Long Island as you were feeling this sense of preacher envy? Did you go down to the church basement and ban all playing of Keller's sermons or what?
MW: I tried. I seriously tried. Then these little heretical groups would spin off and keep listening to him.
KM: No, seriously, what did you do?
MW: For about a year I followed WWKP, what would Keller preach and how would Keller preach kind of routine. I've got to say it got to the point where this wasn't some sort of innocent little fantasy like I want to be more like Tim Keller, and it really began to grip me and it began to grip my soul. I remember at one point in particular, a really profound moment, I wasn’t really crying out to the Lord about this or anything, I didn't really even know I was in the grip of envy, but in one of my normal times with the Lord I felt the Spirit of God touch me really profoundly and say, "You are in the grip of envy, you need to repent of the sin of envy." It was a really helpful conviction, but it was really strong and really stern. Then I got this word from the Lord, which I can't say I get it every time I'm with the Lord, but it was a really clear word and this was the word: I already have a Tim Keller. I need a Matt Woodley. Where is my Matt Woodley? The Spirit of God began to set me free from envy and I've got to say I became a much better preacher as Matt Woodley than Matt Woodley trying to be Tim Keller.
KM: Wow. Well, I am so glad that you responded to the Lord's conviction that day because I love listening to Matt Woodley as Matt Woodley.
MW: Thanks, and I love listening to Kevin Miller because we already have John Ortberg on the site so we need a Kevin Miller. So preachers, here's our advice. One of the things I've seen working with PreachingToday.com and working with preachers all over the world is that it is amazing to me how creative God is in using different styles of preaching, different personalities, different ways of doing it. It's remarkable how God can use that variety. One of the things I like to tell preachers: You are the best preacher for your church at this particular point in time, because you love your people, you know your people, and your people love you and know you, and God wants to use you as you. It's kind of like a David in the Old Testament when he was trying on Saul's armor. It didn't fit, it was clunky. So God wants to use you as you. So find your preaching voice and move in the power of the Spirit in the way God has made you.
Matt Woodley serves as the Editor for PreachingToday.com and the Pastor of Compassion Ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. He is also the author of God With Us: The Gospel of Matthew (IVP).