The Importance of Finding Your Church’s Unique Voice

jukeboxWhat kind of culture does your church have?

Are you a Willow Creek, or North Point church? Is your worship style more Hillsong, or Holy Trinity Brompton? Do you have an artsy, Mosaic vibe, a soulful, Brooklyn Tabernacle feel, or a structured, Saddleback system?

For many years, people knew what to expect when they walked into the door of a church by the denominational tag. And not just theologically. Even the style of clothing and music were likely to be similar throughout each denomination.

In recent years, many of the denominational barriers have fallen as a primary determiner of church culture. Now we adopt our style and culture from some of the more influential churches in our society.

A couple months ago, Brent Colby wrote a very insightful piece about this recent phenomenon. In his article, “Submissive Church Culture and Your Lack of Identity” he took a lead from Thomas Sowell’s writings about human cultures, and adapted them to churches.

Colby identified that many churches are defined by having either a dominant or a submissive culture. A dominant church culture not only blazes their own trail and establishes their own identity, but they serve as a template from which other churches – the submissive ones – draw cues for their own sense of identity and culture.

In short, some churches lead and other churches follow.

This is a problem.

If your church is trying to be like another church you admire, then you’re not being the church God called you to be. And the Kingdom of God is poorer for not having your voice in it.

 

Your Church Has Its Own Voice

God didn’t call my church or yours to be a lesser version of any other church, no matter how wonderful that other church is or how small my church may be. Sure, we can use curriculum, methods and products from other churches. I’m grateful that they design such great materials and make them available so generously, sometimes at little or no cost.

But, while we should use the best ideas we can find, we must be careful not to submit to any other church’s culture, even while using their curriculum or singing their songs.

Small Churches can be especially susceptible to this submissive tendency. After all, most Small Church pastors don’t have the time for leadership, training, vision-casting or sermon prep that a full-time pastor with a full-time staff has. But that doesn’t mean we should give up our unique identity.

Think of the irony of the following situation. A pastor preaches a message about how each member of his congregation is unique before God. Be who God made you to be. Find your purpose. There’s no one else quite like you. But the pastor didn’t even preach his own message – he downloaded it from Andy Stanley’s website the night before.

If we want to help our church find their own voice and establish their own culture, instead of trying to be a lesser copy of another church’s culture, it starts with us, pastors. And it starts, even more specifically, behind the pulpit.

 

How to Establish Your Own Voice

It’s not easy to develop your own style and learn to speak with your own voice. But if you keep parrotting words and ideas from other pastors, you’ll never get there.

Here are a few tips I’ve used over the years to get to the place where, for good or ill, a message by Karl Vaters is very obviously a message by Karl Vaters. And, taking a lead from that, our church has a fresh voice and culture of its own, too.

Stop plagiarizing. It isn’t necessary for every word of every message to be original. That’s not even possible. But passing off the exact words, outlines or specific ideas of others as your own is a lie. Yes, I meant to say it that strongly. It’s a lie. Journalists get fired for it, students get kicked out of school for it and authors lose lawsuits over it. Pastors shouldn’t be doing it, either.

You don’t have to verbally footnote every time you use someone else’s idea. That would make every message a brutal task to sit through. But a quick “thanks to pastor so-and-so for several of the points in today’s message” or a note in the bulletin saying “check out such-and-such-a-book for more info on today’s topic” gives credit where credit is due.

Trust God, yourself and your congregation. People come to your church to hear the gospel through your heart and in your voice. Trust that God can do that through your voice if you’re listening to his voice.

If your congregation wanted to hear a message written by TD Jakes, Mark Batterson or Max Lucado, they’d listen to them or buy their books. Actually, many of them already do. That’s another reason why it’s important to give credit. If you found that sermon online, they can too. And they do. I’ve worked with embarrassed pastors and angry congregation members over just that issue.

Know the people in your church. The culture of a church is best, not when it trickles down from the pastor, but when it bubbles up from a healthy congregation. Spend enough time with them to know what they’re interested in. What sports do they play? What music do they listen to? What do they spend 40 hours a week working at?

A well-researched sermon that was written by a pastor of a white-collar, big city, suburban megachurch won’t have the same impact if you’re in a Small Church in a blue-collar, agricultural community. Speak from the culture, to the culture and you create a new, unique culture.

Let new ideas simmer. When you get good ideas from a blog, book or seminar, don’t preach on them right away. Let them sit in your heart, mind and spirit for a while. In time, those new ideas will link up with God’s voice, your life experiences and other good ideas, which will morph into something that starts sounding like you.

 

Preaching isn’t the only element in establishing a unique culture for your church. But it can spark an atmosphere where discovering, appreciating and ministering in and through that culture becomes more possible.

It doesn’t take a bigger building, more money or a PhD in creativity to establish an innovative church with a culture all its own. It takes listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit as he speaks in your church and through your church. Then from your church to your community.

 

So what do you think? Has your church borrowed its culture from another church? What can be done to find and express your unique voice?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(Jukebox photo from Anonymous Collective • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

18 thoughts on “The Importance of Finding Your Church’s Unique Voice”

  1. Early in my ministry I preached a John MacArthur message–almost word for word. I even thought I did a better job.

    As I was greeting people after the service a visitor said to me, “That was a great message. Matter of fact I heard it a couple of weeks ago at Arrowhead Springs (Campus Crusade). You must have shared your notes with John MacArthur.”

  2. Early in my ministry I preached a John MacArthur message–almost word for word. I even thought I did a better job.

    As I was greeting people after the service a visitor said to me, “That was a great message. Matter of fact I heard it a couple of weeks ago at Arrowhead Springs (Campus Crusade). You must have shared your notes with John MacArthur.”

  3. I’ve never been one to preach a message from another pastor, I actually cringe when I get those catalogs or emails saying something like; “Short on time to prepare this week’s sermon”, “We know your busy pastor, so we’ve prepared the resource to help you…”

    We all get them.

    I was even very hesitant to use commentaries when I first got started (I would like to hear your take on the use of them).
    I have found an old school concise version that helps me to understand the passage I am teaching through better, but I allow God to give me the words.
    Yes, there are times I will quote it verbatim, because it turns out that is the best way to say it.

    But in church society/culture today, I believe we have gotten too cookie cutter.
    And as you point out so well Karl, we’ve been give our own voice.
    Maybe that is one of the reasons why people get burnt out on church?

    I have found also that I’ve quoted this certain pastor a bit more than others lately, but he’s written an amazing book that really fits my church’s culture, and I always give credit for it to God and him…
    I guess I’ll buy him lunch for his efforts soon!

    Keep at it brother!

    1. Me too, Scott. It really bothers me that so many pastors shortchange that holy, important time behind the pulpit by doing a grab-and-go from someone else..

      As to commentaries, I’m not a big fan, either. I’m not opposed to them being used, of course, but in a lot of ways, they’re still someone else’s opinion on the passage at hand. I think they’re best for confirmation that you’re on the right track, especially if you’re working on a particularly challenging passage. But starting your study with a commentary isn’t that much different from using someone else’s notes.

      I say start with the bible. Not for sermon prep, but for personal growth. What the Lord shows you from his Word will push you into deeper study, and it will give you more than enough to preach on.

      I am curious about that cool book you mentioned, though. I’m sure the author is looking forward to having lunch with you and Deena, too.

  4. I’ve never been one to preach a message from another pastor, I actually cringe when I get those catalogs or emails saying something like; “Short on time to prepare this week’s sermon”, “We know your busy pastor, so we’ve prepared the resource to help you…”

    We all get them.

    I was even very hesitant to use commentaries when I first got started (I would like to hear your take on the use of them).
    I have found an old school concise version that helps me to understand the passage I am teaching through better, but I allow God to give me the words.
    Yes, there are times I will quote it verbatim, because it turns out that is the best way to say it.

    But in church society/culture today, I believe we have gotten too cookie cutter.
    And as you point out so well Karl, we’ve been give our own voice.
    Maybe that is one of the reasons why people get burnt out on church?

    I have found also that I’ve quoted this certain pastor a bit more than others lately, but he’s written an amazing book that really fits my church’s culture, and I always give credit for it to God and him…
    I guess I’ll buy him lunch for his efforts soon!

    Keep at it brother!

    1. Me too, Scott. It really bothers me that so many pastors shortchange that holy, important time behind the pulpit by doing a grab-and-go from someone else..

      As to commentaries, I’m not a big fan, either. I’m not opposed to them being used, of course, but in a lot of ways, they’re still someone else’s opinion on the passage at hand. I think they’re best for confirmation that you’re on the right track, especially if you’re working on a particularly challenging passage. But starting your study with a commentary isn’t that much different from using someone else’s notes.

      I say start with the bible. Not for sermon prep, but for personal growth. What the Lord shows you from his Word will push you into deeper study, and it will give you more than enough to preach on.

      I am curious about that cool book you mentioned, though. I’m sure the author is looking forward to having lunch with you and Deena, too.

      1. Yeah, like I said I use it to understand a bit better but I still rely on Scripture interpreting Scripture.
        Cross referencing and word/languge definitions have been key for me.
        I usually have 3-4 translations out plus the 3-4 that are accessible on my computer when I write out my notes.
        The canned products just seem as though they would be robbing from the Holy Spirit doing His work in us!

  5. From the pew – You’re spot-on! For the gifted speakers/pastors (your one) there’s a definite style to the way they both speak and write. And I think with any speaker, their more relaxed in appearance when the material is their own. The comfort that comes from presenting your own material is palatable to the the audience (we know when it’s you). I think there’s also a component to consistency of style that brings us back week after week, month after month, year after year. What I always enjoy about listening to your sermons is that they are balanced. You don’t shy away from being academic, sometimes very academic if warranted, but you always balance it with a practical application. If you suddenly shifted style, it wouldn’t make sense and I would probably struggle to follow. My point is that consistency in being who you are is important and it all adds up to making your message accepted/believed, or not. I hope this made sense.

    1. I never thought about the consistency of style angle, but that makes perfect sense. After a while, you do get familiar with a person’s voice and style. Any break from that would be jarring..

  6. I made a comment earlier in this post about your sermons having a certain academic nature when called upon, that get fused with practical application. I was reading an article today in a magazine that had a factoid concerning whales, that I found interesting and thought I would pass along. It’s a small thing along the lines of something you might fuse into a sermon, but a part of your style and thus Cornerstone’s “Unique Voice.”

    Article is on the chemistry of pet foods. The comment is concerning whales:
    “Taste, like smell, is a doorman for the digestive tract, a chemical scan for possibly dangerous (bitter, sour) elements and desirable (salty, sweet) nutrients. Not long ago, a whale biologist named Phillip Clapham sent me a photograph that illustrates the consequences of life without a doorman. Like most creatures that swallow their food whole, sperm whales have a limited to nonexistent sense of taste. The photo shows 25 objects recovered from sperm whale stomachs. It’s like Jonah set up housekeeping; a pitcher, a cup, a tube of toothpaste, a strainer, a wastebasket, a shoe, a decorative figurine.”

    Sure, the bible says only he was swallowed by a great fish and we don’t know that it was a whale, maybe it was, but this is one of those “literal” teachings that so many have difficulty ummmm….. swallowing (lack of faith). It’s always of interest to me when science and theology intersect. For me, I know these little “factoids” were like paint strokes on a canvas. Individually, they added up and filled in parts of the “big picture” where my faith was perhaps lacking at that point in my walk. Eventually doubt gave way to faith, so I could read a story like Jonah and not doubt, but rather accept that as a human, I don’t know everything, but could trust in God.

    Back to my point, your injection of little factoids like this into sermons are part of your linguistic style, and over the course of time, what helped me to come to faith. Little brushstrokes, sometimes not noticeable at the time.

    Rather short follow-up, hope it made sense and added further clarity.

    1. Thanks, Brian – for the compliments and the factoid. I’ve heard similar stories about whales, but that definitely adds a new texture to it. Apparently sperm whales are the goats of the ocean.

  7. Pingback: Your Congregation is Fact-Checking Your Preaching (And That’s Good News) | Soteria Publishing House

  8. Pingback: Your Congregation is Fact-Checking Your Preaching (And That’s Good News) | Soteria Publishing House

  9. Pingback: Want to Build a Great Church? Stop Burying the Lead | New Small Church

  10. Pingback: How Any Church Can Be a Great Church—Regardless of Size

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *