I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in more serious-minded, biblical churches–namely, the trend of preaching and praying…how do I say this…in a weird “holy preaching voice” under the guise of being reverent. The supposed logic runs thus: Because God is holy, and His word is to be preached by holy men with reverence, we should read and preach His word in a reverent voice. We should, however, note that reverence is a posture of the heart, not an intonation of our voice. While the Scriptures mention Jesus “crying out with a loud voice” when He preached, they never mention Him preaching in a “holy preaching voice.” The same is true with regard to praying.
For centuries men and women prayed in Old English. This continued into the latter part of the 20th century. No doubt, this was due largely to the fact that until the 1980’s, just about everyone grew up reading the Authorized Version of the English Bible and hearing those around them address God with Thee and Thou. This, no doubt, adds to some of the practices that have continued in theologically conservative churches in our own day. Holding on to antiquated speech can fuel a perceived need to have a tone of speech that differs from that which accompanies our everyday vernacular. In many corners of the Dutch world, the Authorized version of Scripture is still used in the churches. The utilization of the Thee and Thou in prayer is justified on the grounds that there is a “You” of majesty in the Dutch that can only be paralleled with the differentiations of the Old English language. A preaching and praying voice is employed by ministers in most of the churches where this practice continues.
Those who are convinced that we are to change our voice when we pray are in danger of two errors. In Matthew 5:5-7, our Lord charges His disciples with the following admonition:
And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.
It is altogether possible and–according to Jesus–all too common for men to pray in a certain way in order to be heard by men, or, in such a way to be heard by God. The Pharisees prayed out in the streets to be seen by men; the Gentiles heaped up many words to be heard by God. Jesus, however, teaches us how we are to pray when he says:
Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen (Matt. 5:8-13).
Jesus’ corrective to pretentious prayer is not found in the tone of voice one uses, but in the content and heart-motivation of the one offering the prayer to God. He gives us what we now call the Lord’s Prayer as the model by which our prayers should be structured.
That being said, the Scriptures do have much to say about how the word is to be preached and prayers are to be offered. The word of God is to be preached with great care (2 Tim. 2:15), urgency (2 Cor. 5:20), boldness (Acts 4:29; Eph. 6:19-20), humility (Eph. 3:8), earnestness (Jude 3), love (Eph. 4:15) and godly fear (2 Cor. 5:11). The same would, of course, be true of how we pray. The Scriptures command us to pray “lifting up holy hands without anger or quarreling” (1 Tim. 2:8); but, they nowhere command us to pray in a certain type of vocal intonation.
Both preaching and prayer should come from the heart of man as it is sanctified by the truth of Scripture in light of the Person and saving work of Christ. This, however, does not mean that the Lord bypasses our personalities, or in some way changes our personalities. The memorable words of Phillips Brooks are here applicable: “Preaching is truth mediated through personality.” This same can be said of public prayer.
This does not, however, mean that one man’s relationship with the Lord will not communicate a sense of his passion, zeal, intimacy, reverence, humility, etc. in his preaching and prayers; but, this will not be a homiletical trick. It will be something natural to his personality and the working of the Holy Spirit on his own heart and mind. It will not come across as theatrical rhetoric or pretentious presentation. It will coalesce with his own personality so that those who hear him speak outside of the pulpit will not think that he is acting or putting it on in the pulpit. The same person they speak to prior to the sermon is the same person they listen to preach the sermon.
There are many homiletical techniques and tactics that are natural and that fall within the realm of careful speech and delivery–both with regard to the rules of grammar and oratory; however, putting on a voice–different from that with which you speak on a day-in and day-out basis–is not one of them. Sometimes, the best way to overcome the practice of putting on a “holy voice” in preaching or prayer is to ask a spouse or a close friend if you sound natural in the pulpit.
The most effective preachers I know are themselves in personality and intonation in the pulpit. Certain aspects of their original personality might be heightened by the work of the Spirit producing zeal, unction, power, humility, boldness, urgency and love in the preaching and praying of God’s word. God uses the personalities of His people in the communication of His truth. This includes the voice that He has given them. So, let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that the people or God or God Himself expect us to change our voice when preaching or praying.