Don’t think “What am I saying?” think “What am I communicating?”

Her words caught me by surprise. One of my students suggested I preach with more energy and intensity.

I struggled to silence my inner chuckle.  Of all the criticisms I’ve ever heard of my preaching, lacking energy or intensity was not among them.

But I quickly remembered walking toward the sanctuary with a guest preacher years ago.  As we walked up the hallway, he asked me how long my sermons usually were.  “12-18 minutes,” I told him.

“Well, I’ve got 25 minutes worth, so they better be ready to listen for 25 minutes today.”

I cannot imagine sermon preparation beginning with an expectation that the congregation will listen to whatever I say, for as long as I keep saying it.  To me, the primary underlying thought that I try to keep in mind for preaching is whether or not what I want to say wants to be heard.

Surely, good preaching tells us things we really don’t want to hear.  But it finds ways to do so that invite us in, draw us close, build our trust.  Expecting someone to listen because you are preaching is the church equivalent of “because I said so!”  This doesn’t work really well with anyone over 8; I am not sure why we think it ought to work with adults in worship.

Even moreso: I don’t want to convey the idea that we serve a “Because I told you so!” kind of God.

This youth and I talked some more. I was hoping to figure out what she meant so that I might do something about it.

You see, I suppose my real primary underlying principle is to try to stay in touch with more than what I am saying – I am concerned with what I am communicating.  This means I have to take my audience into account.

This is true not just for sermons, but in every relationship.  I remember many times being misunderstood, and asked for clarification, when the next thing out of my mouth were the same exact words I had just used to miscommunicate.  The second time, perhaps, I would say them more slowly, or louder.

If someone doesn’t understand something you’ve said, and you want them to, do you merely repeat exactly the same words over and over again, or do you find a different way to articulate it?

If what you are saying is not communicating what you want it to, you may very well have to say something different, or differently.

5 thoughts on “Don’t think “What am I saying?” think “What am I communicating?”

  1. Sort of like when I first was in San Antonio for school and would try to order food at a locally owned place. While everything was in Spanish, I was resolute in thinking that if only I would say my English words slower and louder multiple times, the guy behind the counter would know that I wanted “Chicken tacos with extra tomatoes and no cheese.”

    Needless to say, because I kept saying the same words over and over again, without finding a different way to articulate it, the guy just handed me getting beef enchiladas.

  2. Stev, I agree to a point. We absolutly must take into account the cognregation/audience when we preach. We need to consider their expectations, demographics, lifestyle, depth of their relationship to Christ etc. Not to pander to them but to set up an enviroment in which they will be best able to hear and respond to the Gospel. It is the only way for us to, as Stott says, bridge the gap between two worlds.
    However ultimatley what we preach and how we preach comes from God through the direction of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me seekign what He wants us to say and how He wishes it to be said is more important then a congregation’s expectations. Energy is important, but I am reminded that even Paul put a youth to sleep during a sermon.
    Now for the fleshly side. I love when someone, especially a yougn person can presume to tell you how to do your job. A medical patient would not presume to tell a surgeon what instrument to use. yet it seems perfeclty Ok for someone, with no experience, to say to a pastor with a master’s degree and over twenty years of experince how to do their job. Of course we can’t do it, but have you ever wanted to look at a critic and thank them and then tell them you would be following them at work tomorrow so you can give them some friendly suggestions?

  3. Excellent points, Brian. We aren’t entirely responsible for how people hear/receive what we say. I think we have to consider our audience, then let the Holy Spirit work.

    Interesting comparison to a doctor – So many doctors I’ve sen over the years seem insulted when I ask questions merely to understand!

    My theory is that, generally, the less someone has invested in the relationship, the freer they are to offer unfounded criticism.

  4. Introspection is good … up to a point. However, you always have to consider the source. You wouldn’t want to act on such comments if the source is wildly different from most of your listeners … unless you just WANT to create a manic and circus-like atmosphere!!! Ramping up an already satisfactorily energetic sermon style on the basis of an intensely adhd kid might create that kind of atmosphere.

  5. I really want my hearers to understand what I say and take it to heart. If all I have is X minutes of speaking once upon a time, I likely won’t succeed. I rely on a couple of additional things.
    1. More occasions outside the single speaking event. That way I have more time to understand, interact with, and develop the context.
    2. My relationships with my hearers outside the primary speaking event. Rhetoricians talk about the role of ‘ethos.’ Doing ethos in a single speaking event is tough. Doing it in the context of life together is easier.

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