We all know what it is like to hear a sermon that takes the same emotional tone from start to finish. No matter how good the content of the sermon, a mono-tone sermon is hard to hear. What is true of hospitals is true of homiletics – nothing healthy flatlines.
I would agree that tone ought to be secondary to content in our preaching. Poor content is not enhanced by dramatic delivery. That would be manipulative. It is true, conversely, that great content can be enhanced by effective delivery. Great content delivered without passion risks being overlooked and under-appreciated. Great content delivered with a matching passion in tone can take a sermon to another level.
Of course, overly dramatic preaching can be just as difficult for the listener. Simply raising the decibel and intensity levels can flatline just as much, though perhaps with greater irritation for the listener. The key seems to be an intentional variation of tone. I encourage preachers to track the emotional shape of the various moments of the sermon. Like a sculptor, we need to work to shape the tone of our sermon, varying the pace, volume, and intensity to match the content as it is communicated.
We don’t always appreciate that we have much control over this sort of thing. We sometimes believe that we are what we are and that there is little to be done about a lacklustre style if that is our natural bent. Putting all of our energy into the ideas in the sermon, we tend to think that how it comes out is simply how it comes out. I have come to see, however, that every preacher has an emotional bandwith. In some cases, that bandwidth is narrower than others, but we all can work to stretch and max our range. Whether we are quiet or boisterous by nature, we can all attend to a variation of our tone.
Our sermons should have contemplative moments, motivational moments, light-hearted moments, and intellectually challenging moments. A great preacher will sculpt the sermon intentionally to lead the listener through all such ways of being.