In 34 years of marriage, the most frequent cause of argument has been—and remains—not terrible words I utter, but the tone of voice I use when I converse with my wife. The argument might go something like this:
Me: (Entering the house at the end of the day, and noticing that things are not in their place and the house is not as neat as usual) “What have you done today?”
Her: (Taking great offense at the implication that she hasn’t done anything when, in fact, she kept the grandkids for four hours, spent a large block of time counseling a church member, and completed a major task in the office that I had asked of her) “I cannot believe when you come in the house that your first words to me would be so judgmental. You’ve got a lot of nerve…”
Me: (Acting shocked at her response and now completely changing my emphasis) “What? All I said was, ‘What have you done today?’ Is it wrong to ask how your day has been?”
Every married person knows what I did there, repeating the words but recasting their significance by altering emphasis and tenor. Tone conveys meaning, sometimes more so than words. Tone can overrule and alter the significance of the words completely. Tone can open hearts or close minds. As true as that may be in any marriage, it proves more critical in preaching.
Sometimes, including when I agree with the content of a sermon I hear, I still find myself mad at the preacher because his tone is belligerent and disagreeable. At other times, I’ve heard preachers undercut the inherent power of God’s Word by preaching with a timid and fearful tone, although the message is firmly based on the authority of Scripture.
The orality of preaching makes it a more powerful medium than writing. Words on a page lie flat and subject to whatever tone or emphasis the reader wants to assign them, but spoken words stand erect, communicating not only through lexical meaning, but also through pitch, pace, volume, emphasis and especially tone. The listener immediately and subconsciously interprets verbal, vocal and visual clues to interpret the meaning the speaker intends to convey.
When preaching about a particular sin, for example, the preacher may come across as harsh and judgmental, or with a different tone as brokenhearted and empathetic. The same words can result in radically different audience responses based entirely on the manner in which the preacher says them.
Striking the right tone, as in all aspects of preaching, requires persistent vigilance, but a few steps of action can promote a more balanced and helpful approach. First, watch others preach and specifically analyze how they speak as much as what they say. Consciously evaluate their tone, as well as their content. Then, when you have developed sensitivity to the tone of others, watch a video of yourself. Video never lies. It will present exactly what you projected. Do you seem timid, arrogant, angry? Does your audience feel that you identify with their struggles, or that you haughtily sit in judgment of them? Does your tone draw them in or turn them off? Be honest with yourself about yourself.
When you are especially brave, ask friends with preaching or public speaking experience to watch a video of your preaching and appraise your tone. Ask them to be candid and point out specific parts of the sermon where you did not strike the right tone, where the content of your words and the manner of your delivery were incongruent. Steel yourself against any defensiveness when they share what they see. Their perception matters more than your intent.
Finally, if you think you are up to the ultimate challenge, if you are so consumed with preaching well that you are willing to suffer and sacrifice self in order to improve your tone, one pitiless but potent training method remains available to you: Ask your spouse.
Hershael York is Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Christian Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky.