On the Voice

Today’s episode is about the preacher’s voice. Let’s dive in with Spurgeon’s 3 Lessons on Using Your Voice properly and 7 tips on caring for the voice.

I. When it comes to preaching, don’t use an affected voice. Spurgeon said that “scarcely one man in a dozen in the pulpit talks like a man.” By this Spurgeon did not mean that most preachers spoke effeminately (although that is an increasing problem). Spurgeon said, “Give us all the vulgarities of the wildest back-woods’ itinerant rather than the perfumed prettiness of effeminate gentility.”

What Spurgeon did mean was that most preachers preached with a put-on style of speaking and not a natural one. He then quotes Mullois who complained that the sermons of his day were preached with “a factitious and artificial language, and a false tone.”

This problem persists still today, though the styles of it certainly differ from denomination to denomination. The more formalistic preachers tend to affect their voices to seem as if they were looking down their noses at you. They think it sounds dignified, but it sounds pretentious to most.

As a Baptist, the more popular affectations are the ones where the preacher sounds like he’s angry about everything – every word of every sermon is delivered with yelling, screaming, and shouting. This problem seems more prominent in the camp meeting culture than anywhere else.

Spurgeon is not arguing against raising your voice – after all, he preached every week to a crowd approaching several thousand without the aid of voice amplification. I doubt many screaming preachers today could last for ten minutes without the help of a microphone.

The lesson here is that when we preach, we should use our natural voices, which carry the farthest, sound the best, and do not strain the voice box. A lot of preachers have sidelined their ministries because they abused their larynx by trying to produce an unnatural sound. 

Spurgeon affectionately calls the preacher’s pulpit language “the Jerusalem dialect” and he says, “The Jerusalem dialect has this one distinguishing mark, that it is a man’s own mode of speech, and it is the same out of the pulpit as it is in it.”

So, when we plead with sinners, we should plead as if we were pleading with someone in our natural voice, we should warn in our natural voice, we should praise, exult, mourn, testify, and glorify in our natural voices. Our preaching is not monotone, but it rides freely the roller coaster of all emotions and can shrink into a whisper as well as grow into a wailing. “Suit your voice to your matter” was Spurgeon’s advice.

II. Speak so as to be heard. But the goal here is not sheer volume, but to be understood. “What is the use of a preacher whom men cannot hear?” “Distinct utterance is far more important than wind-power.”

Some men can fill a room with their voice, but no one can understand what they say; other men can speak distinctly, but the folks in the back row cannot hear him at all. Find the balance between loudness and distinctness.

Spurgeon said, “It is an infliction not to be endured twice, to hear a brother, who mistakes perspiration for inspiration, tear a long like a wild horse with a hornet in its ear till he has no more wind, and must needs pause to pump his lungs full again…pause soon enough to prevent the ‘hough, hough,’ which rather creates pity for the breathless orator than sympathy with the subject at hand.”

III. Do not exert your voice to the utmost in ordinary preaching. Spurgeon said, “It is all very well to ‘cry aloud and spare not,’ but ‘Do thyself no harm’ is apostolic advice.” “Be a little economical with that enormous volume of sound. Do not give your hearers head-aches when you mean to give them heart-aches: you aim to keep them from sleeping in their pews, but remember that it is not needful to burst their ear drums.”

Here are a few suggestions for maintaining your voice and keeping it strong:

1) Preach as often as you can because it toughens the voice and makes it more resilient. “Gentlemen, twice a week preaching is very dangerous, but I have found five or six times healthy, and even twelve or fourteen not excessive.” 

Not everyone will preach that often, but take a step back and look at the lesson here: if you’re losing your voice after one sermon, then perhaps your abusing your larynx by bad habits, or perhaps you just need more practice to toughen it up.

Spurgeon believes so strongly in the need to practice proper “crying aloud” that he suggests that “men training for speaking professions to peddle wares in the streets for a little time. Young ministers might go into partneships with newsboys awhile, till they got their mouths open and their larynx nerved and toughened.”

2) Improve your voice by exercising. Spurgeon may not have been the epitome of the male physique, but he could fill a few thousand seats with his voice a half-dozen times a week. He said “Gentlemen with narrow chests are advised to use the dumb-bells every morning, or better still, those clubs which the College has provided for you. You need broad chests and must do your best to get them.”

3) Get your hands out of your pockets, and “throw your shoulders back as public singers do.”

4) Lift your head. “Do not lean over a desk while speaking, and never hold the head down on the breast while preaching.”

5) Do not wear constrictive clothing. “Off with all tight cravats and button up waist-coats; leave room for full play of the bellows and the pipes.” Now, Spurgeon wore waistcoats and cravats, but he did not wear them tightly. I preach in a suit and necktie, but I never button the top button of my shirt. If you feel pressure on your larynx, it’s because your shirt is too tight.

6) Grow your beard. Spurgeon suggested instead of wearing a scarf you should protect your neck by growing a beard. “Grow your beards! A habit most natural, scriptural, manly, and beneficial.”

7) One of Spurgeon’s voice remedies was to drink chili and vinegar. He believed astringent substances were better than emollient compounds. I’m not sure if modern medicine would agree, but Spurgeon had practical proof for his method. He said, “When I began to preach at Exeter Hall my voice was weak for such a place – as weak as the usual run of voices, and it had frequently failed me altogether in street preaching, but in Exeter Hall (which is an unusually difficult place to preach in, from its excessive width in proportion to its length),I always had a little glass of Chili vinegar and water just in front of me, a draught of which appeared to give a fresh force to the throat whenever it grew weary and the voice appeared likely to break down.”

Spurgeon cautions us with his home remedy, saying, “I am not qualified to practice in medicine, you will probably pay no more attention to me in medical matters than to any other quack.”

Now, if you are struggling with your voice, you feel it isn’t strong and likely to fail. Don’t lose heart. Spurgeon closes with these encouraging words:

My belief is that half the difficulties connected with the voice in our early days will vanish as we advance in years…I would encourage the truly earnest to persevere; if they feel the Word of the Lord like fire in their bones, even stammering may be overcome, and fear, with all its paralyzing results, may be banished. Take heart, young brother, persevere, and God, and nature, and practice, will help you.”

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