The Tone of Your Sermon Should Match the Tone of the Text

A good suggestion from Calvin Miller’s Preaching

A brief word about genre: it exists; honor it. Paul’s letters are different from the Psalms, from the minor prophets, from the Pentateuch. Preachers should not handle the Bible as though there is no difference between the various kinds and styles of biblical writing.

When preaching any passage, get in touch with the author.

  • When you preach Jeremiah, find something of the melancholy in it and let the tone suffuse the sermon.
  • When you preach Ecclesiastes, do it wistfully.
  • When you’re in the Psalms, let there be a hint of melody about it.
  • Let the fire out of the Apocalypse and let courage bleed from Esther;
  • let the wind blow in Acts.

Further, find ways of illustrating every individual sermon text with insights and moods that communicate the genre.

  • T. S. Eliot will better illustrate the Psalms than will Billy Graham. Billy might do better in the book of Acts.
  • Let the poets speak to Genesis 1, and the newspaper to 1 Thessalonians.
  • Archibald MacLeish would do better commenting on Job than a prosaic commentator.
  • Let Shakespeare’s sonnets speak to Ruth and Frodo Baggins to the Christ-redemption passages.

Above all put on your touchy-feely wardrobe and pick up the agony and ecstasy and every nuance of form that rings through the various writers of Scripture. To understand this—to feel this—is to give a great gift to your auditors. The gift is one of tone, relationship, and the subliminal.

To fail to honor genre is to give your people the fuzzy notion that the Bible, like the Golden Plates of Nephi, was handed down from heaven as a single piece, and all of it is pretty much alike. But the biblical heroes were immensely different.

  • Ezekiel borders on the neurotic,
  • Isaiah on the elegant,
  • Jeremiah on the morose,
  • Micah on the visionary.

The task will not be easy. It is difficult work to make a genre live. It is like the studious work of an actor, who will study for weeks the part he wishes to portray before he ever steps out on stage to portray it. Then when at last he interprets the part, he is captive to it. The role alters the player’s complete personality, and the actor cannot easily shuck what he has worked so hard to gain.

Even within a single writer there will be various tones.

  • Moses is a furious zealot in Exodus, but in Deuteronomy he is a reflective old man. Don’t preach both passages the same way.
  • Paul is firm and tough in 1 Corinthians, but he is moody and tender in 2 Timothy.
  • Jesus is full of parables in Luke, but full of prayer and philosophy in John.

Giving these various moods and tempos, styles and emotions will bring to your people a rich sense of the varied nature of how God speaks through human agency. Let the Bible become as variegated to you as you would like it to be to them. God does after all speak in various ways his wonders to perform.

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Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax

My name is Trevin Wax. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. My wife is Corina, and we have two children: Timothy (7) and Julia (3). Currently, I serve the church by working at LifeWay Christian Resources as managing editor of The Gospel Project, a gospel-centered small group curriculum for all ages that focuses on the grand narrative of Scripture. I have been blogging regularly at Kingdom People since October 2006. I frequently contribute articles to other publications, such as Christianity Today. I also enjoy traveling and speaking at different churches and conferences. My first book, Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals, was published by Crossway Books in January 2010. (Click here for excerpts and more information.) My second book, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope(Moody Publishers) was released in April 2011.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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