Learning to Be Yourself as a Preacher: From One Still Trying to Do Just That
When Phillips Brooks famously defined preaching as “the communication of truth through personality,” I do believe he was talking about your own personality and not someone else’s.
It has taken me awhile, but I finally feel like I have learned to be myself in the pulpit. Now, whether this means my sermons are better or worse, I can’t say. But being myself means my preaching is more genuine, more comfortable, and more sustainable. I know I have a lot to learn as a preacher, and I hope that ten years from now I’ll still get those awkward but true compliments—“your preaching has really improved over the years.” But I feel like I’m finally preaching the truth through my own personality.
Like most young preachers, and not a few old ones, I’ve struggled to find my “voice” as a preacher. When I was in college, I started devouring the Reformers and Puritans. Everything I read seemed to be either hundreds of years old or was translated hundreds of years ago.
As a result, my writing (I wasn’t doing much preaching at the time) sounded like I was aiming for the “just translated from Latin” award. My sentences were often elephantine. The grammar was antiquated, and there were simply too many words. A very fine professor who affirmed me in many ways challenged me to write for my own century, not for the century of my heroes.
It was painful advice at the time. I wasn’t quite sure I trusted him. After all, wasn’t it a mark of piety to use words like “behoove,” “calumny,” and “obfuscate”? Well, it wasn’t. I need to be myself and not put on puritan-sounding airs. (Incidentally, my cousin and classmate during college had a wonderful T-shirt at the time that read “Eschew Obfuscation.” And he was the one with a girlfriend during all four years! Go figure.)
In seminary, I began to notice that many of my classmates sounded a lot like their homiletics professors. I still find this to be truth. It doesn’t matter where you go, preaching profs seem to crank out clones. Some of the blame may rest with instructors who place too much emphasis on their way of preaching—usually a way that works great for the teacher but doesn’t fit all the students. But some of the blame rests on the students too. We are desperate to latch on to some model so we end up copying wholesale what we see in those we respect, especially in those teaching us preaching. At Gordon-Conwell, I saw lots of mini-Haddon Robinsons. This doesn’t mean all those students will turn out to be bad preachers, but they must realize there is only one Haddon Robinson. And they’re not it!
As much as I was blessed by Robinson’s sermons, I was more tempted to imitate other preachers. I’m sure that for the first years of my ministry I sounded at times like a (very) poor man’s version of John Piper. I was listening to so much Piper that I’m sure my prayers, my themes, and even the way I said “Joy!” was Piperesque.
Don’t get me wrong, I make no bones about learning from Piper and being influence by him. I’d trade my sermons for his any day. But he’d probably be the first to say, “Preach the same gospel I preach. But you don’t have preach just like me.” It’s taken me several years, but I think I’m finally OK with not being John Piper. I just don’t think I have the same personality, let alone the same gifts.
Along the way there have been other famous preachers I’ve wanted to emulate. I wish I could walk through a text and use humor like Alistair Begg (with the accent too, of course). I wish I were as creative in my thinking and as culturally attuned as Tim Keller. I’d love to be as funny and humble as C.J. Mahaney. I’ve wondered at times what it would be like to do in-your-face as well as Driscoll, or be as smart as Carson (I tried saying “Eye-Ziah,” but no one was fooled). Hey, I’ve even thought how cool it would be to communicate as cooly as Rob Bell.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with several different methods of delivery. I’ve preached without notes, with a half page of notes, and with a full manuscript because some preacher I love preaches each of those ways. But what works best for me and my style, at least at this point in my ministry, is to preach from a full set of notes that alternates between manuscripting and chicken scratch. Homiletics professors might hate me for saying this, but sometimes you just have to figure out what works for you. I’m sure there are certain principles that define all good preaching, but there’s also a whole lot “I’m not sure why, but this works for me.”
Since 2002, the year I was ordained, I estimate that I’ve preached almost 500 times (we have an evening service). And I think it took about 450 sermons to find my voice. This isn’t to say all those sermons were bad or untrue to myself. It’s not like I faked a Scottish accent or told stories about growing up in Greenville, South Carolina. But it’s taken me this long to realize the wisdom of Paul’s confession, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”
One of the hardest things for any preacher to learn, especially young preachers, is to simply be yourself. Don’t put on someone else’s passion or humor or learning. And don’t take off your own personality because one of your heroes doesn’t share it exactly. Go ahead and learn from the best. But your congregation needs to hear you on Sunday, not an impression of the preacher you wish you were. Let your person constantly be refined by the Spirit of God, and let the truth of God’s word shine through your own personality. Preach as a dying man to dying men. And don’t forget to be your own man.