Nathan W. Bingham
Connecting in a Hyper-Connected World

Do Your Sermons Need A Language Warning?

Listener Advisory - Unclear Language

Last week I made an appeal for preaching that is simple, but not simplistic. That post stemmed from some reading on preaching that challenged me, and from observing the temptation in my own heart to parade a seminary education from the pulpit as opposed to actually preaching to people.

Though being dead, yet speaketh

It is often said that the great men of God throughout history, “though being dead, yet speaketh.” It may be true that death has not silenced them, but recite a few paragraphs of their writing to the average person on the street in your community, and how many of them understand what’s being said? If they do understand, how clearly do they get it?

They may still speak, but can they be understood?

This is not an attack on the saints of old. In their day many were very colloquial, speaking the language of the people. Instead, the issue is the language of their day is not always the language of our day.

“So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air.” – 1 Corinthians 14:9

Who are you parroting?

Why is this a potential problem? Because we parrot those we listen to (or read).

As a father of three young children I’m too familiar with the problem of parroting. My girls will parrot everything they hear; odd words, inappropriate words, you name it. What has been most surprising to me is how often I’ll ask, “Who said that?” and the reply I get is, “You Daddy.”

There are many nuances and patterns of speech I use that until I had children I was unaware of. I guess that’s one reason why homiletic professors encourage their students to undergo the painful task of listening to their own sermons.

Our language is shaped constantly by the culture and community we’re immersed in.

Children learning a language are not the only people that parrot. Adults parrot too. Our language is constantly shaped by the culture and community we’re immersed in. I have friends that were born and raised in America. They came to Australia as teenagers several years ago. Although an almost involuntary and gradual change, they now speak more like an Australian than an American, despite retaining their native accent.

For preachers, especially in the Reformed tradition, the culture and community they immerse themselves in can be vastly different from the one outside their study. Why? They’re often immersed in the writings of “dead guys” from another culture.

Read the dead guys. Speak like one living in the 21st century

How do you mine the deep treasures of the “dead guys” writings and at the same time not leave your hearers scratching their heads and concluding time-travel exists?

“I may be a preacher but I sure don’t have to sound like one.” – A.W. Tozer

Step Away From The Book

I’m no expert, but the first and most obvious tip is to make time outside of your books. Meet people in your community, speak with them, and listen to them. Spend time with the all the people of your church –not just those who read puritan paperbacks in their sleep– intentionally remember it is to them that you’re speaking on Sunday.

Read More Widely

Beyond that very obvious suggestion, I had been scratching my head. That was until I read a thoughtful piece by Tim Challies encouraging Christians to “read books that are in the cultural mainstream.”

What struck me most was not his article, but one of the first comments left by a pastor.

Here is the comment:

“When I became a pastor I decided that since a lot of the books I work with were written a long time ago I would read well-written contemporary fiction to avoid adopting an archaic speaking and writing style.” – Le Gallois

In this one comment Le Gallois expressed the issue I had been wrestling through, and offered a very practical solution that I had not considered.

Simple. In addition to your current reading, spend time in books written today; especially contemporary fiction.

As a side, with a Kindle [aff. link] this would certainly be easy to implement, and with many free or cheap eBooks, even affordable.

Clear and simple

To be clear and simple in preaching does not mean removing Biblical words from your sermon. Certainly, there will be words added to your vocabulary if you’re in a healthy church with a healthy pulpit ministry. However, a sermon is much more than the odd Biblical word that needs explanation. And how do you explain an unclear word if you don’t know the language of the people?

Now over to you:

  • Do you see language as a potential problem in the pulpit?
  • If you’re a preacher and you agree, in what ways have you tried to prevent it being a problem?
  • Whether you’re a preacher or not, if you’re a reader of contemporary fiction already, have you got any suggestions?

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