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.