I discovered early on as a preacher that I mimicked other preachers. And not in a good way. Not morally wrong, you understand. I wasn’t impersonating them to steal their money from their online bank. Just, not good.
I heard a talk at a camp, that really struck me, and when I was asked to give a talk a few months later, I repeated large parts of it verbatim. Good, in that I had listened, and learnt. Bad, in that it was Andrew’s voice, not mine.
Ditto, from a conferences few years later. This time, with an added Aussie accent.
Over the years I’ve relayed other people’s thought and echoed their voices countless times – and if you’ve been a rookie preacher I bet you have too. It’s how we learn what to say, how to communicate. We learn how words work.
But there comes a time when we have to discover our own voice, and I remember when I discovered mine.
I’d been asked to write a book for a series, which stood in the shadow of John Stott. Now, I have huge admiration for Stott, whose books have marked me like non-one else’s. Perhaps no-one’s ministry has marked me more than his.
But, there’s that voice. Clear, compelling, logical, concise, thrusting, unmissable.
And wonderfully imitable. Find someone who was a member of All Souls when Stott was in his prime, and they will have a story, or a parody, told in ‘the voice’.
Now, I don’t speak in ‘the voice’. Stott was upper class, public school and Oxbridge – I’m none of those things. I can put it on, for a joke, but it’s not me.
Although I discovered, painfully, that I did still hear its echo when I preached.
For this reason – Stott wrote like he spoke, and he spoke like he wrote. His sermons, talks and lectures could be turned into books, and often were. And his manuscripts could be read aloud before they were published. And they were too. I heard much of I Believe in Preaching before it hit the press, and so did thousands of others around the world. It was a great efficiency and blessing.
But not when I tried to do it.
That book I was writing proved it to me. I’d written a chapter, and had been asked to give the bible expositions at a small conference. Well, I thought, let’s be efficient here. Uncle John would simply reprise the same material; that’s the way to do it! So I packed the chapter in my briefcase, and set off.
It just died. The stuff that worked on the page didn’t work in the room. My sentences were complicated, there was no daylight and – yuk.
So, like Iron Man, I headed back to the lab to try to sort out the problem with the superpower.
The problem was that it was Uncle John’s superpower, not mine
And the problem was that it was Uncle John’s superpower, not mine. For years I’d tried to do what he had done, and I had hundreds of sermon manuscripts to prove it. What had I been doing to people?
For him, the writing and the speaking were one ministry; for me, I had to learn they are two. I cannot speak like I write, and I don’t write like I speak. My speaking voice is messier, looser. If I write like that, it looks like I don’t know the rules of grammar. But if I speak like I write, I sound like I’m reading out an essay. Which I am.
Now, you may not be a writer – that’s good. But you are probably a speaker, a preacher. You need to learn not to speak like a writer.
What I did was brutally simple – I threw away my script, and often even my notes. I forced myself away from ‘the voice’. I had a ‘plot’ for the talk, and it was carefully worked out, but my process for creating it involved paper, pencils, and lots of pacing round the room.
The writing, by contrast, had me planting my bum in the chair, fingers on keyboard, and typing, typing, typing…
And so they become two tasks, not one.
Here’s my top tip for preachers – stop thinking you’re going to be published.
So here’s my top tip for preachers – stop thinking you’re going to be published. That sermon may go out on YouTube, but it’ll never be seen between covers. So free yourself! Stay legal, clean, honest and faithful, but free yourself from the keyboard.
And my second tip – if one day you are published, your writing will be the better for it.
How have you learnt to find your own voice? Or who do you copy? Pile in!