Is Your Preaching Tone Deaf?
As a husband and father I have learned this lesson the hard way: My tone really matters. It’s not enough to say the right words. I have to be very aware of how I say things. Several years ago, my wife was sharing a heavy burden with me. After listening for a bit, I quickly began to give her advice on what she should do. However, she looked at me, disheartened. “What’s wrong?” I asked. She replied, “Who are you right now? My husband or my counselor?” That was the first clue that I was missing something.
I quickly discovered that while my solutions may have been right, they weren’t helpful. Why? Because of my tone. The way I was talking actually undermined my message. As right as I might have been, my tone was getting in the way.
Does this same reality—the importance of tone—pertain to our preaching? Is it possible that how we say something in preaching and teaching is as important to a sermon as it is to marriage, parenting, or any other communication? I would suggest that one’s tone in preaching is far more important than we realize. Philip Brooks (1835-1893) famously said that preaching is truth through personality. I would add that preaching is also truth through tone.
A FEW SUGGESTIONS
Let me offer a few suggestions as you think about not just what to say but how to say it.
Read the Bible with tone-awareness.
The first step is simply to read the Scriptures with an awareness of its tone. The Bible is more than just a collection of propositional statements. It is truth with tone. And there are many different tones: comfort (2 Cor 1), bluntness (Jam 4:4), lament (Ps 13:1-2), wonder (Rev 4), sarcasm (2 Cor 11:19), instruction (Rom 12), joy (Ex 15), questioning (Ps 22:1), struggle (Lam 3), wisdom (Prov 1), and rest (Psalm 23) to name a few. The beauty of the Bible is found, in part, through its variety of tone.
Exegete the tone of the text.
For those of us committed to thoughtful exegesis (which is hopefully everyone), we would do well to also carefully examine the way the author communicates his message. Understanding the tone should never replace careful examination of what the Bible is saying, but a failure to understand how something is said will greatly hinder the communication of the entire message. Put yourself in the seat of the hearers. How would this message be received? What would they hear? This is where reading the Bible out loud is very helpful. It can help us hear something that’s missing when the words are only read and studied.
For instance, the tenderness of Psalm 23 is very different than the tension of lament in Psalm 13. The celebratory tone of the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 is worlds apart from the somber delivery of the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20. Divine sovereignty is personal in John 6 while in Romans 9-11 it is heady and intricate. Genre and tone are vital to the message and application of each text.
Put yourself in the seat of the hearers. How would this message be received? What would they hear? This is where reading the Bible out loud is very helpful. It can help us hear something that’s missing when the words are only read and studied.
Know your pre-disposed tone, and work to balance it.
Since tone is very contextually driven, it’s important to consider your “normal” tone. Some teachers and preachers are more intense than others. Some communicators are rather academic while others feel very personable. Knowing this about yourself will help you find balance with the right tone. Intense preachers need to be sure they provide comfort and grace. Academically oriented communicators need to be more personable. Conversational teachers need to be more declarative. Knowing yourself will both allow you to use the right tone and find a tonal balance in your preaching and teaching. A preacher who always uses sarcasm or bluntness can be off-putting or even feel inappropriate. And a preacher who is always comforting or encouraging when the text is more forceful will seem less authoritative. Therefore, prayerfully find ways to balance the tone of your text with the tone you more naturally convey.
Know your congregation.
Understanding the history and the challenges of your congregation is vital to finding the proper tone. A church that has been wounded by arrogant leaders will need, for a season, a pastor who preaches truth with much grace. A church that tends toward spiritual pride will need a blunt or direct word in order to break through their hypocritical tendencies. Other churches need to hear the struggle and lament in the tone of the sermon because it gives voice to their painful experiences. A wise pastor will know his text, his tone, and his congregation so that he may faithfully apply the Word of God to them in a way that is heard and received.
Use tone to get inside the text.
Using the right tone requires a great deal of wisdom. But if used well, it invites people into a further understanding of the passage and opens up new applications. Preaching with the appropriate tone helps people feel the weight of what is being said. It makes the passage come alive in new ways. It can open their heart to truths that may have been missed without the right tone. By using the right tone, you will help people hear the truth of God’s Word. Truth through tone is a powerful way for both the pastor and the congregation to walk together into what is being said in the Bible, and a proper tone allows a person to not just know what’s in a particular passage, but to feel it.
The right tone opens a door and adds flesh and form to a message. The right tone can make truth vivid and deeply felt. On the other hand, using the wrong tone can needlessly offend people, obscure meaning, and hinder the application from the text. What’s more, consistently using the same tone regardless of the passage will, over time, flatten the Bible to your congregation, which will clog their ears and inevitably cause some kind of spiritual deficiency.
As it turns out, preaching and teaching are not any different from other forms of communication that require careful attention to tone. How we preach and how we declare the truth of God’s Word matters. Therefore, effective preaching is not tone deaf. Rather, it’s the truth of the Word coupled with a right tone.