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Language and the pulpit/ministry

Language has come on hard times.  In philosophy, many thinkers have questioned its reliability. In the media, there has been a shift in the way language is used. In just the short time since Pearl Harbor, the vocabulary used in reporting has been dumbed-down.  John McWhorter’s book, Doing Our Own Thing, documents these changes taking place in the way language has been used over the past fifty years.  The subtitle of McWhorter’s book, “The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care” leads us to an important question: Why should we, like, care that language is not being used as well as it has in the past?

Ken Myers has said on a recent Mars Hill Audio Journal that the degradation of language is a dehumanizing trend.  Why?  Language, Myers says, expresses both the rationality and relationality of humanity.  In other words, language is vital to two fundamental human activities: reasoning and relating to others.  Language, then, makes humans unique among the rest of creation, which is why Myers is so worried about these dehumanizing effects of the loss of language.

This trend in the way language is used is of particular concern for Christians, especially preachers. This is because our authority is the highest expression of language, the written Word.  One area where pastors can shine forth as an example to the power of language is through preaching.  Through preaching what God has said to his people is explained and unpacked.

What follows are questions for the preacher in light of this importance of language:

1)     How much prep time is devoted to quiet study of a single passage? How does this time compare to the time spent on sermon jokes or other frivolous comments from the pulpit? How many times have you read the text before consulting a commentary? It is all too easy to rely on the work of others without really getting into the text. As you read jot down ideas, questions, etc. that you have. Save the commentary use for later. Getting into the “language” of the text is crucial for understanding it. This comes by spending time in it reading, re-reading, pausing, and reflecting. By the way, this sort of time-consuming reading and reflection is not easy.

2)     Do you write your sermons down? If the written word is the sharpest, most sophisticated form of human communication, then shouldn’t our sermons be written prior to delivery? It may seem that this writing process takes too much time—it does take time. But the sermon will gain clarity, cogency and you will have something to file for future use—which will save time down the road.

3)     Do you make use of video in your sermons? Remember: videos rely heavily on images, not words. While I won’t say that there is never a place for video on Sunday morning, I will say that it usually not of much help (I am talking of the worship service, not teaching time). Church should provide a reprieve from the endless chain of flickering images that dazzle our eyes daily. Also, part of the greatness of human communication is that it is physical. While, thanks to technology, we can talk to others (and even see them while talking) that are not physically present, is it not better to be physically present, looking into their unmediated eyes? Who would rather Skype a friend in China than meet that friend for coffee? Not using video, or using it sparingly, helps to keep the worship service a bastion for human communication at its best.

4)     Do you converse with your congregants? If language points to our ability to relate, then have you related to your congregants? Like many things, care spills over. The person who is careful with words, one would hope, is also careful with people, that is, they care for people. Many pastors are masters at hardy handshakes and brief, weightless exchanges, but what about substantial conversation? And, by the way, this will improve the pastor’s ability to reach his congregants via the sermon.

5)     Do you pray often over your sermons? Gospel growth is not something that we do. We certainly play a part in making the conditions right, but it is ultimately the work of God. Therefore, pray that God would do his work. Pray that God would take the words you speak from the pulpit and give them the creative power of those first words spoken by God so that individuals would literally be re-created.

Author: Casey Shutt

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  • Brent

    Good post Casey. Very helpful for me. Thanks.

  • http://sbcsnowman.blogspot.com/ Chad Kaminski

    Thank you for a thought provoking post. I could see some disagreeing somewhat with number three, as many will argue that the younger generation is very visually driven and technologically oriented. Yet, as I believe your post subtly expressed, less would be more when it comes to using videos during sermons, as over dependence on videos would possibly distract from the text and its message while diluting the preaching experience, especially if the videos weren’t used prudently.

  • http://baptistmessenger.com/category/insight-network/insight-blog/ Casey Shutt

    I think you are right: some (probably many) will disagree with number three. I guess to those “visually-driven” folks I’d say that God has communicated via the Word. We must be a culture that prizes that written word. Part of that means in many ways defying this image saturated culture we inhabit. And this must begin early. For example, Christian parents could/should start reading to their children from a very young age (I’d say day 1 to build the habit) and teaching them to prize reading.

    In my mind, the worship experience would be refreshingly counter-cultural if left free from television. When I get in cars, go to the dentist, get a haircut, drive by billboards (now), and fill up for gas I cannot escape the constant buzz and flicker of tv. What a relief to experience worship without that background noise. I’d admit that for many the lack of such noise and presence would make them uneasy. But maybe that’s not so bad. (there are other problems, too, with television as a medium like its fleeting nature and its primary use as a medium to entertain)

    Thanks for the comments.

  • Gary Capshaw

    While it may be ideal for parents to read to their children and it would certainly be better if the written or spoken word was more often used, the fact is that many of those we need to reach with the Gospel are from the video generation, whether we like it or not.

    We may LIKE to do it our way, and we can, but what if we spend all our time using words and nobody is listening? While the message itself is eternal and un-changing, the media we use to spread the Gospel has changed over time and perhaps must be changed again to reach generations after the written or spoken word has become passe.’ The old days are not coming back and, in fact, new media and new realities are on the horizon which will drastically change how people exchange information. It behooves us, as ministers of the Gospel, to change right along with everyone else or lose future generations.

  • http://baptistmessenger.com/category/insight-network/insight-blog/ Casey Shutt

    Gary, All my comments above concern the worship service itself (“big church” as I use to say). It is my belief that worship is not for non-believers but believers. In other words, driving the preparation of worship service should not be how can we save the lost, but how we can equip the saved and assist in their worship of the Trinitarian God. From Sunday, the believers, having been refreshed by the preaching of the gospel, move out with a more evangelistic purpose. This is not to say that we are out to alienate all seekers from our worship service. That would be tragic.

    I hear you on keeping the message the same but being flexible on the medium. And I agree to some extent. The snag comes when those mediums alter the message. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message”. Sometimes the mediums we use trivialize and relativize the messages conveyed.

    I am not opposed to using technology in the worship services. I think microphones are fine, overheads, light bulbs, and even books (which are technologies) like the hymnal and Bible. I simply think that these technologies are not neutral. They impart ideas themselves (Peter Berger has explained this well in the The Sacred Canopy). And I would also say that many young people are drawn to more traditional churches (read: more high church, not 1950s Baptist traditional) precisely because they find a mystery and reverence that something like a movie clip squelches.

    Thanks for the comment, Gary.

  • http://www.jfokc.com Ryan Abernathy

    Casey-

    Good words. For further study, I would recommend Shane Hipps book “Flickering Pixels.” Great study on the subject. Personally, I have fewer reservations than you express about the use of video, etc in a worship gathering, but I do agree that we must be wise in HOW we use it and (in more and more churches today) RELY on media to communicate.

    I will offer one caution in all this discussion of culture, technology, worship, etc. The church in the 1st century relied primarily on 2 forms of communication- oratory and the letter, especially the circular letter. Both forms of communication were the most common of the times. As the church bridged culture, the messsage was conveyed in different forms- art, essay, debate, radio, film, TV, and now the internet. I am not trying to confuse the issue. I know you are talking about a “worship gathering” and not everyday life, but the forms used in the 1st century were incorporated into worship- letters read aloud, 2 hours of Paul talking and people falling asleep in windows… I don’t want us to simply disregard a form of communication simply because it is abused in some settings.

    Just my 2 cents…

  • http://baptistmessenger.com/category/insight-network/insight-blog/ Casey Shutt

    Good points, and thanks for the book reference. You are right, and, to clarify, I am not opposed to video in every setting. Our church is working through a Paul Tripp DVD series on anger and it is excellent. I have posted the kinds of videos they are producing St Helen’s church (out of the UK) and they are doing a great job. They are communicating via a medium that connects, and they are doing it well (good quality, tasteful, good acting, production, etc.).

    Here is my concern (and I think you agree, Ryan–at least with the principles maybe not how it plays out): watching tv and reading are two very different activities. Reading is more difficult, requiring more brainwork and linear thinking. The church should foster this dying art because we believe that God has spoken to us via the written Word. At the very least, I think the worship service should cause people to pause due to absence of “flickering pixels.”

    Thanks all for the comments–enjoying the dialogue.

  • Michael Grout

    In reference to number 3, what do you think about the use of smartphones during services to read the Word? I have seen many pastors lately breaking out their phone and using YouVersion (which is a great Bible study tool) or Bible Gateway, but never encouraging anyone to actually open and find the verse for themselves in the Bible…

  • http://baptistmessenger.com/category/insight-network/insight-blog/ Casey Shutt

    I am partial to books, tangible books. I remember where quotes or points are based on their location in the book on each page; towards to the front or back, top of the page, middle, or bottom, etc. All that is lost with reading materials online. I don’t think I care too much where the pastor reads the text from (whether book-form, in the bulletin, on their smart phone, etc.) so long as it is read. FOr me, things read or seen in the digital world tend to get lost in my mind because of the free-flowing, random, and sporadic nature of the medium.

  • http://baptistmessenger.com/category/insight-network/insight-blog/ Casey Shutt

    For those interested, here is another post with a helpful interview at the bottom regarding this medium and message relationship: http://baptistmessenger.com/madonna-and-playboy-bunny/

  • http://baptistmessenger.com/category/insight-network/insight-blog/ Casey Shutt
  • http://www.jonathandodson.org Jonathan Dodson

    Good stuff here, guys. Hope the cross links are helpful. For a more equipping link on knowing your city, check out

    http://jonathandodson.org/2010/07/knowing-your-city/

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