What Tone Should Preachers Aim At?
Phillips Brooks who died in 1893—and who along with Jesus, Paul, John Stott, Dick Lucas, and other preachers never married—most famously said that preaching is “truth through personality.”
This personality factor raises the question of preaching tone. What should a preacher aim at in the tone of his preaching?
By “tone” I mean the feel that it has. The spirit it emits. The emotional quality. The affectional tenor. The mood.
Personalities Are Like Faces
Every personality has a more or less characteristic tone. That is part of what personality is. Some personalities play a small repertoire of emotional instruments, while others play a larger repertoire. Nevertheless, whether a personality plays a two-piece band or a symphony of emotional tones, there is a typical tone. A kind of default tone for each personality.
This has a huge effect on peaching. And there is no escaping it. Preachers have personalities, like they have faces. They can smile, and they can frown. But they have one face. It was given to them.
The question I have for preachers is: What tone should you aim at in preaching? This is an urgent question because, if you don’t answer it, your listeners will answer it for you.
The Tone of the Text
Over my 31 years in the pulpit, I have received a fairly steady stream of affirmation and criticism related to the tone of my preaching. The very same sermon can elicit opposite pleas. “More of that, pastor!” “No, we already get too much of that.”
This is totally understandable. Listeners have personalities too. Which means they have default tonal desires. They have preferences. They know what makes them feel loved. Or encouraged. Or hopeful. Or challenged. And some people feel challenged by the very tone that makes another feel angered or discouraged.
So I ask again: What tone should you aim at in preaching?
My answer is: Pursue the tone of the text. But let it be informed, not muted, by the tonal balance of Jesus and the apostles and by the gospel of grace.
Ten explanatory comments:
- Texts have meaning, and texts have tone. Consider the tonal difference between, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden . . .” and “Woe to you, blind guides . . .You blind fools!” The preacher should embody, not mute, these tones.
- Nevertheless, just as the meanings of texts are enlarged and completed and given a new twist by larger biblical themes, and by the gospel of grace, so also the tones of texts are enlarged and completed and given a new twist by these realities. A totally dark jigsaw-puzzle piece may, in the big picture, be a part of the pupil of a bright and shining eye.
- The grace of God in the gospel turns everything into hope for those who believe. “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that . . . we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things” (Romans 8:32). Therefore, all the various tones of texts (let them resound!) resolve into the infinitely varied tones of hope, for those who believe in Jesus.
- If there is a danger of not hearing the tone of gospel hope, emerging from the thunder and lightening of Scripture, there is also a danger of being so fixed on what we think hope sounds like, that we mute the emotional symphony of a thousand texts. Don’t do it. Let the tone grip you. Let it carry you. Embody the tone of the text and the gospel dénouement.
- But it’s not just the gospel of grace that should inform how we embody the tone of texts. We are all prone to insert our own personalities at this point and assume that our hopeful tone is the hopeful tone. We think our tender is the tender. Our warmth is the warmth.
This is why I said our capturing of the tone of the text should be informed by the tonal balance of Jesus and the apostles. We may simply be wrong about the way we think tenderness and hope and warmth and courage and firmness sound. We do well to marinate our tone-producing hearts in the overall tonal balance of Jesus and the apostles.
- Tonal variation is determined in part by the nature and needs of the audience. We may well shout at the drowning man that there is a life preserver behind him. But we would not shout at a man on the edge of a precipice, lest we startle him into losing his balance. Jesus’ tone was different toward the proud Pharisee and the broken sinner.
- But audiences are usually mixed with one person susceptible to one tone and one susceptible to another. This is one reason why being in the pulpit week in and week out for years is a good thing. The biblical symphony of tones can be played more fully over time. The tone one week may hurt. The next it may help.
- There is a call on preachers to think of cultural impact and not just personal impact. In some ways our culture may be losing the ability to feel some biblical tones that are crucial in feeling the greatness of God and the glory of the gospel. The gospel brings together transcendent, terrible, horrific, ghastly, tender, sweet, quiet, intimate, personal realities, that for many may seem utterly inimical. Our calling is to seek ways of saying and embodying these clashing tones in a way that they sound like the compelling music.
- In the end, when a preacher expresses a fitting tone, it is the work of God; and when a listener receives his tone as proper and compelling, it is another work of God.
- So we pray. O Lord, come and shape our hearts and minds with the truth and the tone of every text. Let every text have its true tone in preaching. Shape the tone by the gospel climax. Shape it by the tonal balance of Jesus and the apostles. But don’t let it be muted. Let the symphony of your fullness be felt.
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