[ 7 minutes to read ]The title sounds heavy-handed but it is a quote from Spurgeon and we will get to it momentarily.
When I first began in the ministry I owned about six books and had subscriptions to a couple of monthly Baptist papers. The internet was barely usable in those days with my 56k dial-up modem. I did frequent www.spurgeon.org and read everything on there, as well as a site with John Bunyan’s works and one with Arthur Pink’s. I didn’t have the money to improve on my supply of books very much at the time and the only thing I had in abundance was boxes of preaching tapes. I would listen to preaching tapes while driving and would go through several a week. Whenever I heard a good sermon, I would listen to it several times in a row to drain every drop out of it I could.
Listening to good preaching is a helpful thing to do, particularly for young preachers. Cassette tapes are a thing of the past but the internet and mobile devices have made it easier than ever to listen to good preaching. As helpful as it is though, there are some problems you want to avoid. Let me tell you about one of the problems I encountered and hopefully what I learned will help you as well.
A biographic bit first
I was one of those bright-eyed youths who was a natural-born imitator. I could easily imitate the voices and sounds from cartoons, equipment, sirens, etc. Once I was conducting a high-speed chase on the dirt pile by my house complete with sound effects. The siren I produced was enough to make a neighbor inquire if there was a fire or something.
Understand that I’m making no expert claims but only that I was passable enough to be entertaining to others and those passable imitations came with little to no effort. Through school and even into college I would sometimes entertain others with imitations of teachers and well-known figures.
This may not seem relevant nor interesting, but bear with me and it will be relevant. I cannot speak to the interesting part. The practical effect of such a gift is that I can imitate without meaning to. If I talk to a person long enough, I can start to mimic some of their phrases, voice inflections, and mannerisms if I don’t actively work to prevent it. The more distinctive the aforementioned are, the more likely I am to pick it up. I’m not saying I could stand in for the person and fool their friends and family as to who was speaking. I am only saying that it alters my own speech and mannerisms if I am not consciously avoiding it.
The relevant business
Pretty early in my ministry, I was preaching at different churches: pulpit supply, special services, and so forth. I started hearing a comment after I preached in different places. I started hearing that I reminded people of a certain preacher. The different people in different places were referring to the same preacher.
I didn’t think a lot on those comments at first. I figured they were being kind because I knew I did not compare in any way to that preacher. The comments starting changing after a while from me reminding people of this other preacher to people saying I sounded like this other preacher. They were still referring to the same preacher and I was little concerned about this.
Then I heard the comment that sent me into a panic. After I had preached, a man came up to me and told me I sounded just like that other preacher. He went to say that if he closed his eyes and listened to me, he would have thought that other preacher was preaching.
I don’t even know how to adequately describe the concern this caused in me. I wasn’t deliberately trying to imitate this preacher. So I managed to get a cassette tape of my own preaching and listened to it. First of all, listening to yourself preach is a weird experience and I don’t know why anyone would do it willingly. I was so unsettled by this comment though that I had to get to the bottom of it. When I listened to it, to my dismay, I had to agree that I sounded like him. I don’t think that it was so much that someone with closed eyes would mistake me for him, but it was undeniably like him.
I was so upset at this discovery but didn’t know what to do. A little prior to this time I had acquired a number of tapes with this preacher on them and I had been listening to them a lot to learn from them. I wasn’t re-preaching his sermons or anything, but in the process I had picked up some of his mannerisms and way of speaking.
I was mortified and didn’t know what to do about it. I turned to many different books on preaching and pastoral theology, but they didn’t address this particular situation. They did discuss plagiarizing but that wasn’t what was going on. Then I found the help I needed so desperately.
Charles Spurgeon has written on every topic under the sun
Not quite, but he got close. I love reading Spurgeon and sometimes the esoteric bits and plain advice can be as profitable as his sermons. I came across a passage in his Lectures to My Students that shined the light on my dark foreboding.
Gentlemen, a needful rule is — always suit your voice to your matter. Do not be jubilant over a doleful subject, and on the other hand, do not drag heavily where the tones ought to trip along merrily, as though they were dancing to the tune of the angels in heaven. This rule I shall not enlarge upon, but rest assured it is of the utmost importance, and if obediently followed, will always secure attention, provided your matter is worth it. Suit your voice to your matter always, and, above all, in everything be natural. Away for ever with slavish attention to rules and models. Do not imitate other people’s voices, or, if from an unconquerable propensity you must follow them, emulate every orator’s excellencies, and the evil will be lessened. I am myself, by a kind of irresistible influence, drawn to be an imitator, so that a journey to Scotland or Wales will for a week or two materially affect my pronunciation and tone. Strive against it I do, but there it is, and the only cure I know of is to let the mischief die a natural death. Gentlemen, I return to my rule — use your own natural voices. Do not be monkeys, but men; not parrots, but men of originality in all things. It is said that the most becoming way for a man to wear his beard is that in which it grows, for both in color and form it will suit his face. Your own modes of speech will be most in harmony with your methods of thought and your own personality. The mimic is for the playhouse, the cultured man in his sanctified personality is for the sanctuary. I would repeat this rule till I wearied you if I thought you would forget it; be natural, be natural, be natural evermore. An affectation of voice, or an imitation of the manner of Dr. Silvertongue, the eminent divine, or even of a well beloved tutor or president will inevitably ruin you. I charge you throw away the servility of imitation and rise to the manliness of originality.
Lectures to My Students, Vol. 1
Lecture 8, On the Voice
That whole passage is like apple butter on a hot biscuit, but the part about his own struggle after visiting Scotland or Wales was what helped me directly. Knowing that I have such a propensity means that I have to consciously fight against it. I have found there are steps I can take to avoid this problem as much as possible. You might think the answer is to avoid ever reading or listening to anyone else. That is a serious problem on its own and obviously not the answer. The answer however has broader application than mere voice mimicry so let’s broaden the scope a bit.
Originality: the same kind of different as me
I trust no one would intentionally mimic another in preaching and I hope no one would intentionally plagiarize another in preaching. There is a difference in being influenced by someone and copying them. Being influenced can be good and bad, but copying is never good and you especially never want to copy without giving proper attribution.
There are ways to avoid this unintentional effect, whether it would be the voice or the subject matter that is mimicked.
- Be aware of it as a possibility. Even if you don’t have the propensity to imitate the voices you hear, you must understand that being immersed in the writing or preaching of one man will have some effect on you. If you do have the gift of natural imitation, be on guard against it so you can reduce the effect as much as possible. This is also important to young preachers who sit under the regular ministry of a pastor.
- Diversify your reading and listening choices. Don’t immerse yourself exclusively for long periods of time in any one author or preacher. It’s probably also a good idea to diversify the time periods you are reading in. You don’t want to write or preach as though it were the seventeenth century.
- Analyze what you read and hear. If something affects you, think on it to try to understand why. If a particular presentation of truth strikes you as being clear and understandable, think about it and try to identify principles employed in the explanation.
- If you do quote someone, whether word for word or materially reproducing their ideas, give the proper credit. There is no shame in quoting in moderation. If someone has said something that is well put, memorable, and more concise than you could do it, quote them and give them credit. For example, I have preached a message on forgiveness where I use a brief list of what it means to forgive that I gleaned from Thomas Watson. When I use it, I give him the credit for it and do not try to pass it off as my own work.
- In reality, no one is completely original. We are all a mixture of upbringing, environment, education, influences, experiences, etc. Be self-aware and honest about it. At the very least, we are standing on the heads of those who have gone before us.
I hope some of this might be of help to you. At the very least, it’s something you should be aware of.