Speak to Serve
Rick and Barb were Christians and decided to marry. Rick was a virgin; Barb was not. Before they wed, Barb discovered she was HIV positive. She wondered if Rick would end the relationship. Doctors said Barb had less than a year to live, but she and Rick married anyway. Barb lived on, for over twenty years and counting. So did their marriage. Along the way, Rick and Barb discovered that they could serve others by speaking publicly about living with HIV/AIDS and forming healthy marriages.
They never imagined launching a speaking ministry. They were not trained public speakers, and their story was embarrassing. Nevertheless, they faithfully responded to God’s call for them to serve others.
This chapter is an invitation to accept God’s call to become a faithful public speaker—a servant speaker. Servant speaking is using God’s gift of speech publicly to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Start with Neighbor Love
Speech is part of how we live as God’s image bearers. We speak in order to grow friendships and marriages, to teach and to preach, to lead and to learn. Some of our speech is public—in front of groups or larger audiences.
When we begin public speaking, we tend to focus on skills. But what about our motives? Should we speak primarily to serve ourselves or others? How do we serve the Lord as public speakers?
Desire to Love Others with the Gift of Speech
God calls and equips each of us to use the gift of communication to serve our neighbors, who potentially include everyone in need. Our ability to speak is a present from God. We inherit the gift as God’s creatures, made in his image.
What should we do with such an amazing gift? Give thanks for it, develop it, and even enjoy it—all in the service of others as well as ourselves. In short, we are called daily to love others with the gift of communication. Servant speaking is one way for us to respond faithfully to God’s command that we love God and our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27).
Sometimes we are asked to speak formally, perhaps at work, church, or a wedding. Other times we might feel we must speak up in order to right a wrong. In any case, our words should come from our loving hearts (Matt. 15:18). When we desire to love others, our words can specially bless them.
Seek Shared Understanding for Community
Communication is sharing understanding. Successful communication creates shared understanding. Whether we agree or disagree with one another, we still can seek to understand one another. We just need to keep trying. The alternative is ex-communication—breaking off our communication.
God’s gift of communication is also the gift of community. Communication is how we build communities of understanding, hope, and love. Communication is one of the most powerful ways that we put our love of God and neighbor into action for community. When we break off communication, we dissolve community. When we deliver an effective speech, we form community with our audience.
Listen for Ways to Serve
If we listen to others and to the Holy Spirit’s prompting, we discover many speech callings in our lives. In Scripture, listening is becoming intimate with reality—with the way things really are in our relationships, communities, and the wider world. When we listen to God and others, we become personally aware of particular neighbors’ needs.
The greatest listener was Jesus Christ, who humbled himself by taking “the very nature of a servant” (Phil. 2:7–8). Jesus “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt.
20:28). He started speaking publicly as a boy in a synagogue. His public speaking continues today through Scripture.
As followers of Jesus, we humbly pay attention to others’ needs. As we listen, we discover which of our neighbors we might serve by speaking—and what to say to best serve them. A servant speaker must be a good listener, and a good listener, with an open heart and mind, will feel called to serve others.
We do not normally speak just to promote our own interests, although sometimes we should speak up in order to protect our names, defend our faith, and even appropriately advance our careers in church or society. The principles of public speaking are excellent for job interviews.
Even as we practice public speaking in a classroom or online setting, we should do our best to serve others. As we think and practice “service,” we are well on the road to becoming servant speakers.
We learn to find things to speak about when we listen to our own life experiences. Our lives include many parable-like experiences, which are stories waiting to be told. In fact, we tell personal tales all the time to friends, family, and coworkers. Such personal storytelling is a major part of our interpersonal communication—face-to-face or digital interaction between persons. Our own life experiences can be powerful examples and illustrations for speeches. For instance, we might personally have been a victim of verbal bullying or harassment. We might have been shunned by friends or coworkers. These could be stories worth sharing.
We might have been wonderfully blessed by people who walked alongside us when we lost a loved one. Our faith might have been deepened by a parent or grandparent, a particular minister, teacher, counselor, or physician. These too might be stories worth sharing.
See Audiences as Neighbors
The biblical analogy for servant speaking is the story of the Good Samaritan, who stopped along the road to help the man who was robbed, beaten up, and left for dead after religious people passed by without assisting him. Jesus uses the parable to explain that fulfilling God’s law is about loving God and loving neighbor as self. Our neighbors are all of those in need, including our audiences (Luke 10:25–37).
Speak Up for Neighbors beyond Audiences
In addition to serving our audience-neighbors directly, we can love our audiences by informing and persuading them to serve others. If we have the power and platform that others lack, we can speak up for them. In effect, we serve our audiences by becoming Jesus’s ambassadors for the voiceless—those who do not have a means and audience to speak up for themselves.
What gets in the way of our speaking up for others? Primarily ego and fear. Even when we overcome the fear, we tend to think that we own our
ears and voices solely for our own self-interested use. Our egos keep us focused on ourselves.
Parents of a disabled son discovered that the Christian school system in their area did not adequately address the needs of such children. They researched the best ways of serving disabled children, shared their findings with other parents, and soon were speaking to school administrators and wider community audiences. They spoke up in love for “the least of these,” advocating for God’s young image bearers who were not able to speak up for themselves (Matt. 25:40). Their convicting message was that when disabled children are served well, the entire community benefits.
Listen for God’s Calls
God calls us to use our voices, when he desires, for his plans. We are his speech agents, no matter how fearful or unskilled we are.
God called Moses, a very reluctant and challenged speaker (perhaps a stutterer, with “faltering lips”), to address the Israelites and Pharaoh (Exod. 6:30), even giving him Aaron to help (Exod. 4:14–15). God called Jeremiah, whose excuse for not wanting to obey God was that he was too young (Jer. 1:6).
God called the apostle Paul, who admitted he was not a great speaker, to become the first major Christian evangelist (2 Cor. 11:6). Paul told the Corinthians, “I did not come with eloquence [smooth, effective speaking] or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God” (1 Cor. 2:1). Paul might have lacked speaking skills, but he made up for it in being a hard-working servant to particular audiences.
These biblical examples can give us hope in God’s power to speak through us. I was an awful communicator for many years, gripped by a
panicky fear of public speaking. Yet God kept calling me into situations where I could serve others with speech. Often I protested, “God, why me?” I eventually became a professor of communication and a frequent public speaker. I am still astonished. I worked hard, but the Holy Spirit accompanied me, revealed my neighbors’ needs, convicted me, and gave me courage. This is what God does if we ...