Lawrence E. Aker III, senior pastor at the Cornerstone Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, followed in the footsteps of two larger-than-life preachers. His predecessors, Dr. Sandy F. Ray and Dr. Harry S. Wright (who pastored at Cornerstone for a combined 56 years) were both living legends of powerful African-American preaching. Dr. Ray also opened the pulpit to an energetic young preacher who was often passing through town—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the midst of this rich legacy of great preachers, Lawrence is learning what it means to find his own voice as a preacher.
How would you define what it means "to find your own voice" as a preacher?
After I had preached one Sunday, a colleague came up to me and said, "Congratulations, Lawrence!" I said, "Thanks, but for what?" He replied, "I think you've finally found your own voice."
To me that implied that I'd finally found the freedom, power, and authority to let the Holy Spirit use me. It meant that I finally felt comfortable in my own skin as a preacher. I had learned so much from other preachers—especially my predecessors—but now I wasn't just mimicking someone else.
What did your mentor Dr. Wright do to help you find your own voice?
He never wanted me just to mimic his voice. For instance, I distinctly remember what he said to me during our final time together before my transition from pastor-elect to senior pastor: "Lawrence, this is your ship now. So let Sunday morning be your joy. Let that preaching hour block everything else out. Regardless of what you've been facing or what you will face next week, let your sermon be a time of renewal. Just stand in the pulpit and let God use you for that moment." Those words certainly freed me up to enjoy being myself in the pulpit.
How would you describe your voice as a preacher?
It's still emerging because I'm still growing as a preacher and as a follower of Christ. Hopefully that's the case for every preacher. Your own spiritual growth and life experiences will continually shape your voice. For instance, when you go through suffering and then preach from your own pain, you have a deeper level of authority and authenticity. Now you don't just have to look through the "S" section of a sermon illustration book to find a story about suffering. The Holy Spirit has dealt with you in your suffering and so you speak from the depth of that experience.
But more specifically, I'd say that my voice is a combination of biblical exposition, cultural relevance, and a commitment to connecting with all four generations represented in our church community. I'm passionate that every sermon has something—a quote, a story, a movie or song reference, a historical event—that's relevant for each generation while staying true to the biblical text.
What would you say to other preachers who are in the process of finding their own voice in the pulpit?
I'd encourage preachers to trust that God has uniquely entrusted them with certain gifts. Develop confidence in that truth. Have confidence to be who God has made you to be. Start praying along these lines: "Lord, I want to be your instrument, so show me my voice as a preacher."
Second, I'd advise preachers to get a mentor or some trustworthy people who are not pastors who can give you honest feedback about your preaching. That's a huge help. Don't be afraid of honest evaluations. If you get positive feedback, pay attention to how the Holy Spirit is using your preaching to bless people. But then also let people give suggestions on how you can get better as a preacher.