Some people are more interesting to listen to than others. I’m sorry, but it’s true, and it’s now out there. Some people make me sit on the edge of my seat, and others have the gift of encouraging me to slide back as far as I can go. So what makes the difference? What makes a talk engaging rather than sleep-inducing? Some people have written books about this, but even the very best of these leave something out. Yes, we can make sure that our language is arresting, and our structure clear, and our application rich and our biblical theology compelling—but there is another factor which is slightly harder to address. It’s the personality factor.
The Personality Factor
I listen to a lot of preaching—both from experienced preachers, whom I love listening to—and inexperienced preachers, who are often having their first or second go at opening up the Bible for God’s people. Sometimes, listening to them is a little more challenging! The more I listen, however, the more I am struck by one basic difference between say sermons preached by Tim Keller or Phillip Jensen, or Don Carson, and sermons preached by first and second year students at QTC (I say first and second year, because by the time they have reached third year their sermons are obviously better than anyone on that list!). What’s the difference? There is good content, there may even be good content well-delivered. It all just seems a bit … well a bit grey.
Of course, there is—or should be—a richness that comes with age and experience. There should be a difference in depth between someone who is giving their first talk on John’s Gospel, and someone who has preached 500 times on John. But there is something more basic than that. When I listen to really good preachers, I have a very strong sense of their personality. Even though Christ is front and centre, even through the talk is saturated with and driven by the text, when I listen to these guys, I feel like I get to know them. Whether they are slightly diffident and bookish like Tim Keller, or off-the-scale passionate like John Piper, their personality shines through. Of course their content is fantastic, but the content is delivered in ways that is uniquely ‘them’. It comes wrapped in their personality, which somehow makes the whole thing richer. And it’s that personality-driven richness that many other sermons lack.
A Neglected Topic
We can’t afford to ignore the impact of our own personality when it comes to keeping growing as preachers. And it’s surprising that so little has been written on the topic. The only book I have been able to find that deals with it is Heralds of God (1946, Edinburgh) by James Stuart Stewart. In his lectures on preaching he advises preachers to:
“Be yourself [and] Forget yourself. God has given to each man his own individuality, and standardisation is emphatically no part of the divine intention for your ministry. How intolerably dull it would be if every preacher had to be cut to the same pattern!... Do not think that personal idiosyncrasies are merely to be suppressed and levelled out. Be yourself. … but also forget yourself. You are to use for the delivery of the word every faculty God has given you, and simultaneously you are to renounce yourself utterly so that in the end the messenger shall be nothing, the message everything. You are not to cramp or stifle your individuality, but you are to offer it so completely to God upon the altar that when the worship service closes, the dominating thought in the worshippers’ minds will be, not of any obtrusive human proficiency or cleverness, but only this—‘The Lord was in his holy Temple today!’
Be yourself—forget yourself
Stewart’s two steps: ‘Be yourself—forget yourself’ are so helpful. I would like to unpack them briefly and add a third principle of my own alongside them.
Step 1: ‘Be yourself’
They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and there’s something in that. But it’s also deeply inauthentic. In contrast, there is real freedom in accepting that you are who you are, and learning to speak in your own voice. Although I would say though that this is more easily said than done.
I was an Assistant Minister in a large church which had a reputation for expository preaching. The pressure was on to preach ‘weighty’ sermons. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the atmosphere in the church affected me quite significantly—my preaching got heavier, and duller, and wordier. Fiona would say that it was really only when I left that I started to sound like myself again.
This is the single biggest reason why most trainee preachers are hard to listen to: they haven’t found their voice yet. They still don’t sound like themselves. In some cases, they never will. But there should be a basic continuity between the way we are in real life and the way we are when we preach. We should be recognisable when we preach. It should sound like us. That’s the first step.
Step 2: ‘Control yourself’
It is vital to find your voice, but, once you do, there’s another temptation to be self-indulgent. For example we might be tempted to:
- Talk ourselves up, highlighting the depth of our insights, our commitment to the gospel, our connections, our experience, godliness and so on.
- Use jokes to make people like us.
- Continually return our own interests and hobby horses.
- Showcase our vast knowledge.
- Only ever apply the Bible in a way that comes naturally (so for me, I apply the Bible really well to optimistic, 50 year old fathers of three from Ireland who happen to be College Principals!)
Step 3: ‘Forget yourself’
‘What is the rule then? It is: be natural; forget yourself; be so absorbed in what you are doing and in the realisation of the presence of God … that you forget yourself completely. That is the right condition. That is the only place of safety. That is the only way in which you can honour God. Self is the greatest enemy of the preacher, more so than in the case of any other man in society. And the only way to deal with self is to be so taken up with, and so enraptured by the glory of what you are doing, that you forget yourself altogether.’
Martyn Lloyd Jones, Preaching and Preachers, 264
When we start out, it is hard to get past the sheer challenge of understanding the Bible and getting the words on the page. It is then a terrifying thing to stand before God’s people and get from the start to the end. But we need to get past the point where our focus is just on getting the words right. We need to get past ourselves to the God whom we serve.
So does Personality matter? Yes it does. Our personalities, however messed up, are part of who we are; they reflect the fact that we are created by God for God. There is something in each of us which is unique, and which will surely remain into the new creation. If you think that your quietness or introversion or lack of ability to tell jokes means you can be of little use to God, then please do think again. God certainly wants to change your character—to renew you inwardly day by day (2Cor 4:16), but this doesn’t mean pretending to be someone else.
Photo: Steve Evans, flickr