Preaching for youth: the tone of your message

[This post is part of the series on Preaching for Youth] An important element of preaching is your tone. It’s hard to define, but with tone I mean the overall feel and mood of your sermon. It’s how a sermon comes across, what emotions it radiates and invokes in the audience.

Here are some words you could use to describe the tone of a sermon (it’s by no means an exhaustive list, it’s just meant to give you some examples of tone):

Solemn, restrained

Warm, loving

Accepting

Distant, impersonal

Happy, joyful

Angry, confrontational

Personal

Energetic, active

The tone of a message is its overall feel and mood. It's important that the tone matches the subject and goal of a message. (photo: A. Feldmann)

How to create a tone

Creating a tone has to do with using different elements: volume, speed, pitch of your voice, facial gestures, body language and gestures, to name a few. Each of these can be used to create a certain tone.

Example: to create a happy tone you usually speak a bit faster with shorter sentences, you can be somewhat louder and your voice will be higher, you will smile, make shorter gestures and your body will show energy.

It’s important that they are all congruent with each other. If they aren’t, audiences will usually pick up on it and will feel that there’s something off about your message. It will negatively affect the impact of your message.

But if you can’t match your tone and message spontaneously, it can also be a sign something is wrong. Maybe you’re trying to preach a message you don’t believe in, or that you haven’t experienced yourself. If you feel you can’t authentically match tone and message, dig deep till you find the problem.

Example: I once heard a sermon on the importance of asking for forgiveness. The preacher used an example from his own life and I felt something was off. He said all the right things, but his tone didn’t match his message. I knew his daughter however and later heard that the example he used wasn’t true and she was furious with him for sharing it.

If you’re not experienced in creating a tone yet, just practice. A good way to practice tone is to either speak in front of a mirror, or even better: make a video recording of your message and watch it back. You can easily see then how you come across and what you can do to improve your tone.

The right tone for youth

What tone then should you aim for when preaching for youth? In general I’d say your tone should be personal and informal when your audience consists of mainly young people. They will respond far better to you when you’re likeable, someone they can identify with.

But there are some other aspects regarding tone you should think about:

1. The tone should match the subject

If your sermon is on a heavy subject like bullying or teen depression, your tone will need to match this. It will come across as really weird if you’d preach on a subject like this with a happy-clappy tone.

2. The tone should match your goal

There’s a difference between a sermon meant to admonish, one meant to confront or one meant to console for instance. Your tone has to match your key message and objective for the sermon.

Just think of the tone of a funeral sermon, it’s usually warm and loving, because the goal is to console, to offer hope and perspective. The tone of a wedding sermon is more happy and joyful however, because its goal is to celebrate.

By the way, you can also subtly change tones within your sermon. If you have a ‘admonishing’ phase in your sermon, but want to end with an encouragement, your tone can follow the change.

3. The tone should match your personality

Every preacher has his of her own style and that also impacts your tone. My tone is usually warm, very personal and informal with a bit of humor. It reflects my character, because I’m actually like that in real life. I say what I feel and think and my tone reflects that.

You should try for a tone that matches who you are. A friend of mine regularly preached for youth, but has a completely different tone than me. He’s way more formal and authoritative, but youth accepts him because that’s how he is in real life too.

4. The tone should always match God’s grace

Whatever we preach on, whatever the occasion is, our tone should always match God’s grace. Or maybe reflect is a better word here, because we won’t ever be able to match God’s grace. Reflecting God’s grace in our tone means we do not condemn, hate, or judge people. We can condemn or hate or judge sin, but never the sinner.  Our tone should always reflect God’s unending love and grace.

Have you ever studied your own tone of that of other preachers? What could you do to improve your own tone?

p.s. For a different perspective on tone, check out this excellent post on finding balance in your tone on Biblical Preaching.

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