Finding Your Own VoiceSeptember 18, 2007
We draw near to the conclusion of Sinclair Ferguson’s Preacher’s Decalogue. Part one and part two of this series can be found in its original setting at the Reformation 21 website. Today, the seventh and eighth commands: “using the plain style” and “finding your own voice.”
(Photo courtesty of Elmer Duncan)
7. Use “the plain style”. This is a familiar enough expression in the history of preaching. It is associated particularly with the contrast between the literary eloquence of the High Anglican preaching tradition and the new “plain style” of the Puritans in the 16th and 17th centuries. William Perkins’s The Arte of Prophesying served as the first textbook in this school.
But this seventh commandment is not insisting per se that we should all preach like the Puritans. Indeed acquaintance with the Puritans themselves would underline for us that they did not all preach as if they had been cloned from William Perkins! But they did have one thing in common: plain speech which they believed Paul commended and should be a leading characteristic of all preaching. (2 Cor 6:7, cf. 2 Cor 4:2).
There are many ways this principle applies. Do not make eloquence the thing for which you are best known as a preacher; make sure you get the point of the passage you are preaching, and that you make it clear and express its power. True evangelical eloquence will take care of itself. Despite Charles Hodge’s reservations, Archibald Alexander was in general right in urging students to pay attention to the power of biblical ideas, and the words used in preaching will take care of themselves.
The “masters” of clear style can teach us here. Paradoxically, in this context, two of them were themselves Anglicans.
C. S. Lewis’s counsel on writing applies equally to preaching: Use language that makes clear what you really mean; prefer plain words that are direct to long words that are vague. Avoid abstract words when you can use concrete. Don’t use adjectives to tell us how you want us to feel—make us feel that by what you say! Don’t use words that are too big for their subject. Don’t use “infinitely” when you mean “very”, otherwise you will have no word left when you really do mean infinite!
In a similar vein, here is J.C. Ryle’s counsel: Have a clear knowledge of what you want to say. Use simple words. Employ a simple sentence structure. Preach as though you had asthma! Be direct. Make sure you illustrate what you are talking about.
Of course, there are exceptions to these principles. But why would I think I am one? A brilliant surgeon may be able to perform his operation with poor instruments; so can the Holy Spirit. But since in preaching we are nurses in the operating room—our basic responsibility is to have clean, sharp, sterile scalpels for the Spirit to do his surgery.
8. Find your own voice. “Voice” here is used in the sense of personal style—“know yourself” if one can Christianize the wisdom of the philosophers.
That being said, finding a voice—in the literal sense—is also important. The good preacher who uses his voice badly is a rara avis indeed. Clearly affectation should be banned; nor are we actors whose voices are molded to the part that is to be played. But our creation as the image of God, creatures who speak—and speak his praises and his word—really requires us to do all we can with the natural resources the Lord has given us.
But it is “voice” in the metaphorical sense that is really in view here—our approach to preaching that makes it authentically “our” preaching and not a slavish imitation of someone else. Yes, we may—must—learn from others, positively and negatively. Further, it is always important when others preach to listen to them with both ears open: one for personal nourishment through the ministry of the word, but the other to try to detect the principles that make this preaching helpful to people.
We ought not to become clones. Some men never grow as preachers because the “preaching suit” they have borrowed does not actually fit them, or their gifts. Instead of becoming the outstanding expository, or redemptive historical, or God-centered, or whatever their hero may be, we may tie ourselves in knots and endanger our own unique giftedness by trying to use someone else’s paradigm, style or personality as a mold into which to squeeze ourselves. We become less than our true selves in Christ. The marriage of our personality with another’s preaching style can be a recipe for being dull and lifeless. So it is worth taking the time in an ongoing way to try to assess who and what we really are as preachers in terms of strengths and weaknesses.