Voice lessons: Learning to preach

January 27, 2011
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech.

In my second year teaching at a seminary I was assigned to teach preaching. In the third week, I was offering a less than enthusiastic response to a sermon when the student suddenly broke into tears and ran out. The class glared at me.

That day I learned that homiletics is the most difficult discipline in the seminary curriculum to teach. Anybody can teach Sanskrit or medieval theology. But preaching? When I evaluated a liturgical history student's paper with, "You don't know much about sacramental theology," this was met with barely a shrug. Who cares? But the response to my modest, "I found your last point to be unrelated to the theme of your sermon," was "How dare you say something that heartless to a nice seminarian like me?"

It isn't just that so many Protestants exalt preaching above other pastoral arts. The challenge is preaching itself. Pro­claiming the gospel demands an interplay of highly developed emotional-spiritual-physical-intellectual qualities. Walking naked down Main Street while playing a harmonica is nothing compared to the personal exposure required to talk about God for 20 minutes to a group of people who have been, all week long, avoiding even the barest mention of God.

An additional difficulty is the uniquely auditory nature of the Christian faith. There may be much to be said for quiet, apophatic spirituality. But Paul says that faith "comes from hearing"—through the ear, not the eye. Public, verbal testimony is the fount of all Christian belief and practice. In a culture in which words are cheap, how do we produce even a few people with the guts to witness to so strange and countercultural a gospel, which begins with, "And God said . . ."? Nobody enters the full Christian faith without the aid of a preacher. But who becomes a preacher without a skilled teacher?

These reflections were inspired by my watching the film The King's Speech, which is about King George VI of England, a miserably shy, stammering man who is thrust unwillingly onto the world stage. The movie casts the coming of World War II as a confrontation involving public speaking: Hitler's histrionic elocution is a dramatic contrast to the king's quavering, high-pitched voice. All of England awaits a reassuring royal word. George's wife, Elizabeth, slyly sets up a visit with Lionel Logue, the oddball, self-trained Australian speech therapist. "My job is to help you find your voice," Logue says to the king.

With humor and wisdom Logue goads, cajoles, threatens and berates the king, gradually finding a way to intrude into George's personal life, enticing him to relive the pain of growing up with a blowhard father and a taunting brother. He puts the king through a series of vocal calisthenics; he teaches him to curse and sing in order to overcome his stammering. The portrayal of Logue is one of Hollywood's great depictions of a master teacher, and George represents all of us who must overcome our deficiencies and speak in public.

As Barth said, "Preachers dare." During my brief and unhappy time with the U.S. Army, I was forced to jump from a parachute tower—an attempt to make me stupid enough eventually to plummet out of a plane. At the base of the tower, I attempted to explain to the sergeant my innate fear of heights and why I was unsuited to this sort of activity. He responded by grabbing me by the collar, hitting me in the face, dragging me up the stairs and kicking me over the edge of the tower. When I plopped down safely in a pile of sand I said to myself, "There, that wasn't so bad after all."

That sergeant taught me all I know about homiletical instruction. Fear of public speaking is one of the most widespread phobias. To teach someone how to preach, one must know how to hurt in the right way. King George, head of the  British Empire, was terrified by the prospect of being put in front of a microphone. That's nothing compared to going head to head with the average North American congregation with nothing to aid you but three points and a poem. To say something important to a crowd of listeners, to dare to intrude into other people's souls with words, to tell them the truth that they have been assiduously avoiding—that is not a vocation for the faint of heart. Who would undertake it without external compulsion?

Preaching is so difficult that no one can do it without being summoned. Few of us preachers mount a pulpit on Sun­day morning because we are naturally good at it and enjoy mouthing off before a crowd. We got put there.

Logue helped George to see that a nation desperately needed its king to say the right thing in the right way. We who are preachers speak because we have been enlisted, because no one else can say what must be said, because we are called to serve God through words.

The term servant leadership is a bit passé for clergy, but The King's Speech renders King George as an exemplar of such leadership. You can't pay someone enough to stand up and speak a nation into war, nor can you afford what it truly costs for someone to stand up in front of God's people and expound on John 2. A preacher must be forced into such daring servitude. Therefore a teacher of preaching must help a budding preacher name the theological compulsion under which he or she speaks. In my experience, this is what a developing preacher means by saying, "I'm still attempting to find my own voice." It means: I'm learning to embrace why God called someone like me to say truth like this to people like these.

As king, George was forced to read aloud other people's words as if they were his own. We preachers speak not because we need to get something off our chests but because God wants to say something to God's people. Sometimes I'm invited to "just share what's on your heart." Alas, as an ordained spokesperson for the gospel, I'm not free to engage in such self-indulgence. Left to my own devices, I might say what I'm really thinking—but the church could care less about what I'm thinking. The pressing question: "Is there any word from the Lord?"

The King's Speech reminded me what a high vocation it is to enable others to find their voice in service to a God who uses our weakness to bring God's gospel to speech. I preach today as the recipient of Lionel Logue-like instruction. One spring afternoon at Yale Divinity School I confessed to my teacher, Bill Muehl, that I was self-conscious about my thick southern accent, which everyone in New Haven seemed compelled to note and ridicule. "You can make good money in Texas with that accent," Muehl assured me.

When I told him I had no intention of preaching in Texas, Muehl said, "Pity," and then handed me a stack of reel-to-reel tapes. "Listen to these," was his only instruction, "they are some of the greatest preachers of our time."

I took the tapes back to my dorm room and spent the rest of the day listening to sermons by Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin and Hal­ford Luccock. Immediately I noted that none of these great preachers possessed a great voice—all of them had odd speech quirks and vocal weaknesses. I got the point: as in the Bible, God tends to call the "wrong" people, without a surfeit of gifts, to do God's work.

Fosdick in particular made me laugh, with his high-pitched, nasal twang. But I couldn't stop listening. Fosdick must have had something really important to say, I thought, for why else would a guy who sounded like that be speaking in public? I thought: I may not have the best voice in the world, but it's as good as Harry Emerson Fosdick's! That day I became a preacher.

As Paul says, God demonstrates God's power in our weakness. In speaking up to smooth-talking Hitler, faltering, stammering King George demonstrated a peculiar power. But for any of that to happen, God needed someone to help the king find his voice. This is the difficult and holy vocation of the teaching of preaching.


The King's Speech

Excellent! I think your article applies to those of us working to find our writer's voice, to encourage the people of God. It is hard to speak it, or to put it on paper for all eternity. I really enjoy your writing and really appreciate your perspective!! Thank you!

Thank you

Dr. Willimon,
Thank you for these words. These are good words. You have helped me to name the fears and risks attendant to what God has dragged me to the top of and thrown me off: the pulpit. I will return to this article and bless God for your lisping, stammering tongue (and fingers).



Certainly the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics made a mess of preaching the Good News; on the other hand, the Protestants – the self-appointed chosen ones to proclaim the Good News in the tradition of Calvin, Knox, Chalmers, Wesley brothers etc. - have tried to make a big deal about preaching.
I think it is disappointing when some preachers are rated as among the best ten in English-speaking world etc.! Who cares about English-speaking or Sanskrit-speaking or Gaelic-speaking or Ojibwa-speaking etc. ?

Preaching is a form of Performing

Every time we're on a stage we're giving a performance of some kind. I don't mean this in a negative way at all. Yes, many preachers are accused of being phony or just being salesmen. But the best preachers, sincere or not, actually utilize a lot of stage techniques. This includes how they prepare, how they use the stage, how they use their voice, etc.

There's a really great book out there that combines Biblical principles with modern-day public speaking and communication in general called "Divine Knowledge Transfer."

Preaching vs. performing

Having spent time in front of folks for various reasons, I understand and agree with what you are saying...in part. I believe that some of the best preachers do indeed "command" the stage/pulpit when they speak/preach, and have an ability of presence that would serve them well even if they were calling out numbers at bingo.

However, that alone is no test of a good preacher as many with no spirit in them can hold a crowd enthralled; and there are many many preachers who do an excellent job of preaching the word without moving a muscle - John MacArthur refers to himself as a "talking head", J. Vernon McGee may have had presence (I don't know), but even though he has been dead for decades, his recorded voice on the radio can keep me listening for hours at a time.

It's too easy to stereotype ourselves and others, and easier still to think we can come up with a 'formula' that guarantees success - and in preaching, success is only of God, and only by God.


I wonder what the voice of John the Baptist sounded like? How about Paul's voice? The voices of Peter, James and John? Mary's voice? Jesus' voice? and so on. Come to think of it, the sound/pitch of their voice is not really that important, is it - not as much as what those voices proclaimed. The same, I would think, holds true for the (I don't like the sound of my voice) preacher today.

The Potter & the Clay

Viva Vox Dei

Great stuff!

As for precedent, there's always Moses.

"to tell them the truth that

"to tell them the truth that they have been assiduously avoiding all week—"

though likely not anymore than the preacher him/herself. Remember, the congregation isn't being paid to sit in the pews.

So much preaching sounds as if the preacher hasn't advanced theologically since the last class at seminary or spiritually since confirmation class.

Preachers can't preach beyond where they've been.

Thank God for Bill Muehl,

Thank God for Bill Muehl, whom I had the privilege of knowing, and thank God for Will Willimon who continues to teach as Bill did, with wit and deep insight.


Being retired for over 4 years I have had the chance now to hear many preachers and sermons. My observation is that many have been well thought out and theologically sound and some nice stories, but they have lacked passion in the way they preach. I am not convinced that they believe what they say and it is important that I consider what they say. There is no life or spirit in preaching today. I am sorry to say it almost puts me to sleep.

Giving Voice to the Word

I was recently reminded that the way we speak the words of others in the Scripture is crucial to the way those words, and their meanings, are heard by the people in the pews. So when we read of Jesus getting angry at the moneychangers in the temple, we use our voices differently than when Jesus is talking to one of his disciples, or to the man born blind. Too often the words are just read out in a narrative stream with no thought to inflection or drama.

But when we pay attention to them, they soar!


After worship about a week ago, one of the older members came up to me and thanked me for delivering such a "wonderful sermon." She also said, "I could just listen to you for hours." "You could", I said? When i watched "The King's Speech" I said to myself, that's me! It took my Logue in the form of the Holy Spirit to get me out of the way of myself and now as a Pastor of a small UCC church in Wisconsin I deliver the word's God has given me to preach, weekly. Thank you for your affirming words Dr. Willimon!


That is true. I know for me that there were some Sundays I had to admit to myself only the Holy Spirit could do anything with that sermon I just preached, because obviously I hadn't. Interestingly, almost every time I felt that way; some dear soul would walk out and say "you spoke to me today." But there were other Sundays, I have to admit, that I thought I had preached an excellent sermon, and no one said anything. It is by the grace of God we are called to preach and we all must be mindful of that and not become full of ourselves. It is a humbling experience.

From the one who is looking for passion in preaching today.

Fred Craddock would agree!

Fred, with his high-pitched voice, and odd delivery, is one of the most effective preachers of the 20th century. God bless the "wrong people with the surfeit of gifts" who preach God's word with creativity and integrity!

Thank you for your article.

Thank you for your article. It is a great encouragement to this young man who has felt and is feeling the Lord's call to preach. Often I feel like I'm not good enough, but then I remember that God's power is made perfect in our weaknesses. Praise God for taking such wretched sinners as us and bestowing His loving favour upon us in Christ.

Thank you.

That is both lovely and true. Thank you for writing it, and for responding to your summons to the pulpit.