The Preacher’s Voice!

The day was when if a man did not have a voice he would never have been a preacher. Today with all kinds of electronic gadgets weak-voiced men can and do get away with it. But, left without any of such gadgets how would you fair? Even some ministers and theologians in their churches and auditoriums would not be heard. It is one thing, believe me, to preach in a comfortable, warm, quiet, non-hostile environment and another in a cold, wet, hostile one, where mayhem is breaking out all around you. On the street, you need a voice. There have been records of some of the renowned preachers of a former day, George Whitfield, for instance. It is said of Whitfield he could drop his voice to a whisper while preaching to thousands of people, and still be heard. Whitfield, of course, had planned a career on the stage prior to being converted and entering the ministry. So he would have learned how to use his voice to good effect. In the providence of God, this was a great blessing to him and many who heard him. There have been others we could make mention of also. Preaching even in churches wasn’t always as it is now, today’s ministers have it very easy. In Geneva, in John Calvin’s day, the circumstances were somewhat different. “ Great preachers of the past such as Girolamo Savonarola in Florence and John Wesley in England may seem today bloodless on the printed page, for what most distinguished them is lost to us – their voice. Bland estimations of the Reformation speak of Protestantism as a religion of the book in contrast to the sensuous or affective religion of the Middle Ages. To enter Calvin’s world and the world of sixteenth-century Geneva requires imagination, a sense of how the spoken word could move, anger, console and edify. Far from the solemn quiet of modern churches, preaching in the sixteenth century was somewhat akin to speaking in a tavern. Preachers had to compete with barking dogs, crying babies, general chatter and constant movement, even fist-fights. They required presence to command respect and their most important tool was their voice. Johannes Oeclampadius, the reformer of Basle and a widely admired scholar, was rendered impotent in the pulpit by a weak voice. Written texts of Calvin’s sermons exist, but they are problematic. They were recorded by others and provide only an inkling of what it must been like to hear to him. He spoke with no or few notes, and often with only a copy of the Bible in front of him; sheer spontaneity was an essential part of the experience as he applied God’s word to that moment in the life of the people. It was also a matter of time. With his endless pressing engagements, Calvin simply did not have the luxury of preparing sermons, so he spoke extempore. Nevertheless, when Calvin preached the people came” (Calvin, by B Gordon). Today we get upset if baby cries, Mum must have the child out or none will hear the preacher (even with his microphone alive). If someone’s mobile phone goes off, having forgotten to switch it off, excommunication would be on the cards. But what if the person actually had the temerity to answer the phone call? Well, the description of Calvin’s circumstances in Geneva does remind me of some the scenes I have encountered while preaching on the streets. How’s your voice young man, do you have one? You’ll need it. Oh, and if you’re having trouble with your voice, sucking sweeties (candy) is not the answer. Water is, drink plenty of water. Finally, Calvin’s lack of time for preparation and his extempore preaching. The latter was not an excuse, idleness, he was busy like we don’t how today. He was a man of great erudition. He studied, he was learnēd, indeed. And this is not for someone to use as an excuse for not preparing himself for the Lord’s service. On the subject of notes when preaching depends upon the individual. For some without any notes at all would mean them endlessly repeating themselves, which some do. A small scrap of paper in one’s Bible with a few words on it is not a crime. Alas, some ministers cry they have no time for preaching on the streets, they have books to read. So too, I’m sure, did John Calvin. But, study you must. Every city. town, village, and campus are different, and so too is each and every preaching opportunity. The preacher has to learn to adapt, it is experience alone that will teach you this. Again, Calvin, “Comparisons of Calvin’s sermons…reveals how the reformer adapted his language and style for the people while making few theological concessions. Accommodation did not mean dumbing down” (Calvin, by B Gordon). And again, “The lot of the preacher and prophet was not only to be trained in sound doctrine but also so to be able to withstand attack and rejection. Clavin saw resistance as a sign of right preaching: a preacher must not avoid confrontation with the congregation; harsh words are often necessary” (Calvin, by B Gordon).

(©️ Jimmy Hamilton aka The Street Preacher.

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