May 28, 2013

Alban Weekly 5/27/2013 Preaching as Sermon Communication

Preaching as Sermon Communication

by Lori J. Carrell

I have a confession. I usually call preaching by another name. I refer to it by the odd and bulkier two-word phrase sermon communication. At best, this word choice raises an eyebrow and a follow-up question from pastors. At worst, the term creates defensiveness, misconceptions, and even distance between some clergy and me. Oh, the power of words!    

This past semester I witnessed this power at work when I invited a guest speaker to my Intercultural Communication class. The students were a highly engaged group on whom I could depend for lively dialogue. I bragged to the speaker about these eager learners, promising highly responsive listeners as the reward for donating his time and energy. The speaker had been asked to discuss language and race, and he titled his talk "The N Word." As this passionate black man and his white colleague pulled up their first slide displaying the title of their session, the room fell silent. Not just hushed, with the usual background noise of laptop keyboard clicks and students shifting in their seats, but completely and utterly quiet.    

During the presentation, this experienced speaker and his colleague had us hear "the word" again and again—voiced by comedians, rappers, white supremacists, and unidentifiable others. Questions from the speakers followed: Do you use this word? How do you use it? Have you heard it used? How does the history of the word affect the way it is used? Does the use of this word in certain contexts affect its use in broader culture? Who can use this word? When can they use it? How could meaning related to this word change over time?    

The pin-dropping pauses lengthened after each question was asked. If you know northeastern Wisconsin, you may be able to guess that, as is sometimes possible in this region, the speaker was the only African American in the room. Finally, one young woman said, "That is a bad word that I was taught never to say." Then someone else added, "But people do say it. You know, they don't mean it in a bad way—um, usually . . ." A few other brave learners commented politely. After the presentation, students wrote about the experience, and nearly all said they were struck by their own unusual silence. One student noted, "That word has so much power. It shut us all up. Nothing has ever done that before." And a senior communication major who had sat stone-faced and unflinching throughout the class session scribbled, "I will never forget this presentation. I had no idea what a word could do."    

You probably already accept that word choice matters. Some words are even considered so hateful and simply "wrong" that their use has been challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court, in spite of this country's firm legal and cultural commitment to freedom of speech. "Pastor" Fred Phelps (notice how uncomfortable I am giving him that title) leads his flock to intrude on military funerals and proclaim, "God hates fags." (Oh, the pain of even typing such stuff!) In a 2011 ruling related to this group's hateful speech, Chief Justice John Roberts said, "Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain." Yes, the words we select are critical, and though citizens of the United States—Phelps included—are free to choose any words we wish, the impact of those words on our ways of thinking and being and doing deserves close inspection.    

What difference does it make to think or talk about preaching as sermon communication? Does my use of that term annoy or concern you? Perhaps you are intrigued. Having had this conversation with hundreds of pastors during interactive workshops over the past several years, I am aware that curiosity is a less common initial reaction than disagreement or consternation.    

A pastor who had heard only the title of my recent talk "Transforming Sermon Communication" wrote to me just last week to set me straight: "Preaching is not the same as communication. It is more holy, led by God. Studying communication techniques would diminish the movement of the Holy Spirit." In other cases, clergy have raised their hands to speak, working carefully to correct my usage of the term. "Don't you mean to say that though we are communicating when we are preaching, we are doing something more than that?" or "In fact, preaching is really completely different from other forms of communication, wouldn't you say?"    

Another incredibly common reaction when pastors hear the wordcommunication in close proximity to the words sermon or preach goes something like this: "But only a few preachers still use emotional manipulation to get people out of the pews and down to the altar." The underlying assumption of these initial responses seems to be that connecting the concept communication with the word sermon somehow degrades preaching. Dozens of pastors have shared various versions of seminary preaching-class stories in which the "communication" component of the process was set aside, noted as tangential to textual analysis or even declared unworthy of consideration for preachers-to-be.    

In contrast, as I look through the lens of the communication scholar, this way of describing the sermon or homily elevates expectations for what will happen as a result of the sermon. A communication perspective on preaching brings together the pastor's analysis of the text and the listeners' responses. Because preaching has often been taught as if the text and the listener are separate, I purposefully use the cumbersome term sermon communication to lead preachers and listeners to a different way of thinking about this sacred experience.    

By incorporating the idea of communication, I seek to help capture the essence of preaching at its best: people in relationship with one another and with God, speaking and listening for the purpose of spiritual transformation. I intend for this sermon communication paradigm to pull clergy toward a heightened awareness of critical realities in preaching: the spiritual growth purpose, the struggle to make meaning from spoken words, the concept of community, the profound responsibilities of speaker and listeners, and in light of all that—our tremendous gratitude for the Holy Spirit's participation in the process.    


This article is adapted and excerpted from Preaching That Matters: Reflective Practices for Transforming Sermons by Lori J. Carrell. 

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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