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melissa powell: stretch it wider

I love language. It fascinates me, so much so that I have studied four languages other than my own at a tertiary level. As a preacher, I approach the task of sermon writing with a mixture of excitement and fear, because it gives me the opportunity to play with language, particularly with words; to engage in the art of carefully crafting an argument in order to advocate a point.

But I wonder sometimes, do we as preachers rely too often on the cleverness of our words as a means of communication? Does our earnest and valid desire as evangelicals to affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of the scriptures sometimes cause us to unintentionally exclude those who are illiterate, mentally ill, or those with cognitive ‘disabilities’ like autism – just to name a few, from hearing the gospel that we preach?

Many of the tricks and tools we have come to rely on as preachers both to communicate and apply our point rely on the trappings and assumptions of a text -based literate world.

And yet for many this is not a reality which they inhabit.

If the gospel is for everyone then our preaching should have the ability to reach everyone, including those who experience the world very differently to us.

What we believe about the kind of communication which is a valid means of expressing ourselves says something about how we view the human person, as this profound short film, ‘In My Language’, points out so eloquently. Try not to be tempted to fast forward to the ‘translation’; it is worth watching to the end.

While one might argue that this falls at the extreme ends of the communication spectrum, there are profound implications of this even for the ‘average’ congregation member, because how we experience the world around us is much more diverse than our means of communication often takes for granted.

A study of adult learners done in New Zealand in the mid 1990s suggested that more than 70% learned primarily through kinaesthetic/tactile and visual experiences rather than through auditory communication. And yet the primary means of communication used in delivering most sermons is the spoken word, occasionally backed up by text based PowerPoint slides with the occasional pretty picture.

I do believe that words are necessary. But if we want to take seriously the affirmation that ‘the message of the Bible is addressed to all men and women’, and that through the Holy Spirit God ‘illumines the minds of God’s people in every culture to perceive its truth freshly through their own eyes and thus discloses to the whole Church ever more of the many-coloured wisdom of God‘, then our preaching should not be limited to our use of words.

Our means of communication must stretch much wider.

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Melissa Powell was the Associate Pastor of cession|community for 6 years until December 2009 and is currently embarking on the journey of church planting. She is married to Jacob and mum to Emily, and soon to be mum of one more.

3 Comments

  1. Hi Melissa
    I want to agree fervently on your main point that the message needs more than ‘words’ alone. There are many ways of touching all the senses in worship and in preaching. We should regularly be touching, tasting, and smelling, as well as seeing and hearing the Word. Of course, the key means of communicating the incarnate Word is the whole life of the whole body of Christ; how do we live as churches?
    A minor note; I think, in your second paragraph, you talk about ‘cleverness’ in the use of words that excludes those who don’t share our ‘abilities’. I think it is true that words can be used to make us sound ‘clever’ – i.e. learned and academic – but that’s not a clever use of language.
    I have an extremely intelligent member of my congregation with severe psychiatric disorders, and she will ocassionally tell me after a sermon, “Too many words.” And it has nothing to do with the word count, but with sloppiness in my preparation. I can be too willing to use academic ‘short-cuts’ in communication, using five long latin-based words where one anglosaxon word will do the same thing. Stringing together clause after clause with no thought for the whole sense of the sentence or the place of that sentence in the ‘thought’ represented by the paragraph, and no consideration given to the place of that paragraph in the whole ‘story’ of the sermon. The basic problem here is the need to give enough time and care to our crafting of the Word, so that the crafting is invisible, and the crafter can become transparent, and the Word stands forth in its own illumination for anybody to see and grasp.

  2. Scott Mackay says:

    Hi Melissa,

    I found it interesting that you didn’t mention deaf people – auditory communication is surely least accessible to this group!

    As you say however, difficulties in communicating the gospel will never eliminate the necessity of words. The gospel we communicate is essentially news – an announcement of God’s unique, time-bound, saving actions through Jesus. It’s hard to communicate ‘the Word’ (in the NT: ‘the news about Jesus) without using words. I’d suggest that it’s actually a commitment to this truth which will motivate better communication of the gospel to various ‘hearers’.

    Your example of autism and the video you reference does raise some big questions though. Can we even speak of communication ‘disorders’, or are they simply different modes of communication? Is a literate society desirable, or should we embrace completely the post-literate, multi-sensory, you-tube-devouring culture which is emerging? How does the biblical doctrine of creation contribute to this discussion? How does the incarnation relate?

    One initial thought – I think it is significant that Genesis 1-3 establishes humanity’s relationship with God in terms of speech. Adam and Eve are addressed by God, and this relationship of words forms the basis of their identity as ‘in the image of God’. In all our discussion of communication difficulties, and learning styles (which are indeed complicated) I don’t think we can loose sight of this creation-reality which is so programmatic to the rest of the Bible story.

  3. Paul Windsor says:

    I appreciate the fine line you are trying to walk here, Melissa. It is one of the very tricky ones which we preachers need to find. The tension I feel is that I do not want to end up thinking less of words and word than God thought of them – or the New Testament church, for that matter. They give them such priority and place so much confidence in them. On balance I still reckon this is still something that needs to be recovered today – alongside the concerns that you are raising here.

    Thanks

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