Your preaching: does it go out over “channel clear” or “channel staticky”?

"And so, brothers SSSSSS reason for faith SSSSSSS glorif SSSSSS Amen? SSSSS"

“And so, brothers SSSSSS reason for faith SSSSSSS glorif SSSSSS Amen? SSSSS”

Last Sunday I was on a road trip, and wanted to hear some Bible teaching. I guess we had already driven past the FM station that I picked up, so we got a garbled message:

words words static words static words static static

When the buzzes and pops finally prevailed in their assault against the preacher, I switched it off. Message not received.

People in our congregations may be picking up more static than we would estimate. At times I have put myself in the shoes of people with less mileage in Christ than I have, or even people who are not believers; I’ve listened to sermons and mentally pushed a STATIC button every time the preacher used an uncommon word or failed to explain some concept. At times my index finger has been kept very busy. [1]

On the other hand, it is pleasing to Google “plain preaching” and to see the enthusiasm for that topic. Many cite William Perkins – “It is a by-word [“a popular compliment”, let’s say] among us: It was a very plain sermon: And I say again, the plainer, the better.” By plain he did not mean shallow, but the clear and unavoidable speaking of truth.

If I love my neighbor, than I will make sure that he or she can understand God’s Word. If they fail to obey it, it won’t be because they couldn’t make out what I am saying.

Do you tell people to be filled with the Spirit? That’s biblical, but don’t command them to do a thing if you don’t tell them what it means! Let’s be “salt and light” in the world? My yoke is easy, my burden light? His faith was “reckoned” as righteousness? We sinners “fall short of the glory of God”? Sin, redemption, depravity, faith? Soul, heart, spirit?

  • Why speak of raiment, when we mean clothing?
  • What is a “countenance”?
  • What does Paul mean by “the flesh”?
  • What does it mean, our Christian slang of “coming alongside of someone”?
  • If we aren’t preaching to a church of ceramists, what is a potter’s vessel?
  • If we don’t preach to farmers, what does it mean that “They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind”? (I touched the “static” button three times on that one).

Pardon the expression, but please let’s just spit it out. What are we trying to say, in clear, everyday English? If we are unable to unpack it and explain it in plain terms, then we don’t understand it. Just repeating a thing over and over – You’re children of light! Children of light is what you are! – does not make it clear, only repetitive.

Some have this idea that casual preaching is more accessible and understandable, because the preacher hasn’t spent time looking at dusty books and cluttering up his mind. In fact the opposite is true: plain preaching is harder to prepare than complicated and confusing preaching. It is the preachers’ job to immerse themselves in the Bible, to make the rough places a plain, to snip away the same old anecdotes that the church has heard a dozen times, to swap out fancy vocabulary for everyday. More people are bored by the careless ad-libber then they are by the craftsman.

Charles Spurgeon was a devotee of plain preaching; nevertheless, he expressed himself in a culture very different from ours:

I have long worked out before your very eyes the experiment of the unaided attractiveness of the gospel of Jesus. Our service is severely plain. No man ever comes hither to gratify his eye with art, or his ear with music. I have set before you, these many years, nothing but Christ crucified, and the simplicity of the gospel…I have shown you nothing but the cross, the cross without flowers of oratory, the cross without diamonds of ecclesiastical rank, the cross without the buttress of boastful science. [2]

Let’s honor Spurgeon, but let it be by following his approach, not by mimicking his Victorian idiom.

When I was a boy, I crossed a threshold in my church experience. We did not have Junior Church, and so all children above nursery age sat through the service. Sermon time was for coloring or daydreaming or poking my brother. Then suddenly I noticed that the sermons – which hadn’t changed at all – seemed to be getting clearer, and I paid attention. I couldn’t understand all the concepts or application, but I was able to capture the gist of the message. I was perhaps 10 year old.

When I preach in a church today, be it educated or not, be it urban or rural, in whatever country, I try to pick out a 10-year-old in the congregation. If that boy or girl does not capture what I say, then I have failed to communicate to the church. And the advanced believers should not worry: they will of course get what they need also.

Why not let a child preview your sermons once in a while, so he can draw a line through anything he doesn’t understand?

But someone will object: Shouldn’t our preachers be concerned with raising the level of biblical and theological literacy? Indeed, and I hope that that’s what I’m communicating here. But let’s not do so at the expense of immediate understanding. Understanding the Bible without a dictionary is hardly the vice of “instant gratification.”

I spent a year going to a church where the worship and preaching were in a language I poorly understood. One philosophy said that we new missionaries should exclusively immerse ourselves in the Spanish-language church, since that is where we would spend the rest of our lives. The other philosophy, which I hold to, is that the language student should attend Spanish worship, but supplement that with English church services: two chapel meetings a week, and later on, one church meeting a week at our Spanish church. Picking up Spanish was imperative, but not at the expense of the spiritual vitality that missionaries need in full.

We can, and should, bemoan the low rate of literacy in our country. It is shameful that high school and even college grads read below level. Something should be done – but not by confusing the flock on Sunday morning.

NOTES:

[1] I have already written at very great length about why preachers should rarely use Hebrew or Greek terms in the pulpit; start HERE. This present post should be regarded as an additional comment on pulpit language.

[2] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 1888, vol. 34, p. 563

“Your preaching: does it go out over ‘channel clear’ or ‘channel staticky’?” by Gary Shogren, PhD, Professor of New Testament at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Gary, Thank you for this clear and unstaticky comment on communicating the truth of Scripture in a way that the hearer can benefit from without so-called “dumbing down” the message. You are so right – if we can’t put what we are trying to explain in simple (not simplistic) terms then we do not fully grasp our subject. It is a way to show respect for our hearers to speak/teach/preach so that we can be understood and not misunderstood – that is the responsibility of the speaker. It requires hard work to do a sort of mental translation from high sounding theological language into common parlance. But it produces good fruit when we can stir our hearers on to love and good practices. You excel at this – thank you for your example!

    • Carol, always great to hear from you! I do agree: it is the communicators’ task to make themselves understood


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