21st Century Preaching: The Storyteller’s Voice?

Story SlamIt used to be true that seminaries taught students to develop our Preaching Voice.  They were not talking about a preacher’s poetic or hermeneutical style. They were talking about one’s literal voice.

Some seminaries went as far as teaching how to gaze upward, hold hands firmly in the air, make a Power Stance, and – in some cases – eliminate all traces of “distracting accents.”  It was not unusual for someone to speak one way in a pulpit and another way in regular conversation.


Maybe this still happens in some 21st Century seminaries.  But while fewer people are interested in listening to traditional sermons (according to assorted church attendance studies), live storytelling slams and radio shows are booming in popularity.  I, for one, listen to This American Life, StoryCorps, Radiolab, and The Moth podcasts faithfully every week, and I’m not the only one.

They have become the sermons that inform my life and stir me spiritually.

Ira Glass – called “the most influential speaker” here utters kind of a nasally, imperfect sound.  The great Sarah Vowell has a playful voice with which she speaks hugely informative and entertaining tales about U.S. history.   They do not sound like polished (insert certain famous-ish seminary name here) graduates, but I could listen to either of them all day.

This excellent article speaks to why 20th Century Preaching is not as well-received in these days of “slangy approachability” and “confessional tones.”

So imagine this:  a trained professional pastor (if we must have one) sets up a real person’s story with The Story from scripture.  If I’m the preacher, I read from one of Paul’s letters or a Minor Prophet’s warnings or a poetic Wisdom piece or one of Jesus’ parables.  And then someone tells “a true story told live” in The Moth‘s parlance.

I’m in.  How about you?

Ira Glass says it best:  “Any story hits you harder if the person delivering it doesn’t sound like a news robot but, in fact, sounds like a real person having the reactions a real person would.”  Amen.

PS – Ira Glass?  Sarah Vowell?  Yes.  I am a stereotype.

4 responses to “21st Century Preaching: The Storyteller’s Voice?

  1. The seminary I attended in the late sixties did not teach mannerisms and affectations, and, I am happy to say, I have never attended a church in which the preacher had an affected style. Ironically, I find Ira Glass to have a very contrived way of using “up-speak” which conveys to me a blasé attitude and an arrogant detachment. The preacher is burdened with the task of teaching as well as inspiring. Some do a better job than others. But the stories on Moth (as wonderful as they are) of seminal events and not of the stuff that our daily hum drum lives consist of. Most people don’t live a drama.


  2. At Dubuque in the late 70’s we didn’t learn about voice. We were told that the right thing was to use our natural voice and gestures. Except we were warned that there are some gestures that project a negative message (like holding your hands with palms toward the congregation which, sort of, says “stop”).


  3. Finding your own voice is essential to getting your message across. Aping anyone else’s “style” — whether it is “Preacher Voice” or NPR voice is sure to get in the way of effective communication. BUT most of us need to have some training to understand how to use our vocal instrument, so we can access the different “colors” of our vocal palettes. Fortunately, such training isn’t hard and can be quite fun!


  4. I’m with you about the podcasts, but the ones I’m listening to regularly (and that I must assume are influencing my preaching) are not narratives but analytical panel discussions and interviews. Slate’s Cultural Gabfest, for example. I wonder if that kind of analytical speaking still has value in the pulpit


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