In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall tweeted: “What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side…” He was roundly derided for his comments and promptly lost a lucrative endorsement deal. Yet to be honest, most thoughtful Christians were considering very similar questions after bin Laden was killed. To what extent should we be glad at the death of another person? How much of the subsequent great national exhale and celebration was motivated by an improper desire for vengeance?
Many preachers felt compelled to temper the celebration somewhat by reminding their congregations of the dignity of all human life, even one so distorted. Some of those sermons no doubt helped congregants process the week’s momentous event. However, Mendenhall succeeded only in alienating people—and those who disagreed with him only continued the vicious cycle by further alienating him.
Why did Mendenhall fail? Students of literature know a flat literary character is simply a stereotype, someone who does not exhibit genuine human complexity. We might say communication in the age of social networking is flattened—that is, frequently speakers and listeners are flat characters to each other.
Whether the speaker is a celebrity or a Facebook friend we have not seen for 20 years, we often communicate online with people we have no intention of seeing in real life. Because of this, we have no real accountability to them; when communication with them gets too complex or difficult, we can step away from the computer and away from our relationship. Thus, we are free to attribute to them whatever characteristics we desire, and they cannot protest. So the high school jock is still a jerk; the old girlfriend still wishes she hadn’t dumped us; and the Hollywood actor is as self-absorbed and pretentious as we have been led to believe.
Social networking allows us to get a glimpse of many lives—but only a glimpse. We most often interpret that glimpse in terms of what we know those characters to be or perhaps what we want them to be in order to make sense of our lives and theirs.
Why do we do this? After all, this bears little resemblance to the way Jesus dealt with people. He seemed stubbornly unwilling to accept that Zaccheus was a mere tax collector or that lepers were merely lepers. For Jesus, there was always a person beneath the labels—precious, complex and quite capable of growth. We do not reduce others to flat characters because it is Christlike, but because it is easy. Flat characters are more manageable than actual people; it is easier to see people as stereotypes, stock characters or demographic data than to deal with the complexity of their being.
In a global world, where we constantly encounter new people, we are able to manage more relationships when the other parties in the relationship cannot change, grow or otherwise surprise us. Mendenhall’s tweet demonstrates the futility of communication between flat characters. Here we see no genuine heart-encounter or exchange of ideas. There is only Mendenhall and the rest of the world, each confirming each other’s worst fears: the world seeing Mendenhall as a naïve, ignorant, overpaid, spoiled professional athlete; Mendenhall increasingly feeling as if the world is set against him.
Unfortunately, the fiasco is eerily reminiscent of many sermons. The pastor intends to say one thing and the congregation hears another. The congregation, presuming it knows the pastor, interprets the sermon through a particular lens which confirms their worst suspicions of their pastor, perhaps the previous pastor or even a televangelist.
Likewise, the pastor blames the congregation’s unenthusiastic response on the fact that they, as laypeople everywhere, are just not in step with the Spirit. Round and round the vicious cycle goes, until (just like Twitter!) the congregation officially quits following the pastor, or the pastor unfriends the congregation.
It does not have to be this way. Preaching has the potential to be a radically embodied form of communication because speaker and listener have to deal with each other as people. Preaching holds laypeople accountable for the way they live; yet the preacher also is vulnerable, having to give account for each word in a sermon. In my home growing up, Sunday roast beef dinners were a tradition. Most Sundays, it was not only the roast that was carved up and devoured—the sermon also was on the menu! Whether my parents and siblings received it positively or negatively, it never was dismissed.
When I became a pastor, I found the flip side was also true. My wife and I also discussed the successes and foibles of the congregation: the music of the morning, who was falling asleep, who appeared alert and properly receptive.
Preaching makes us vulnerable to each other. Often we understand this dual vulnerability as negative. So congregants try to appear well-scrubbed to the preacher, and preachers strive to appear non-judgmental and relevant to their congregants in an effort to relieve the tension caused by being vulnerable to each other.
However, it is that vulnerability—the fact both preacher and congregation are accountable to each other—that gives preaching a power unmatched in a world of tweets and throwaway online identities. The accountability makes us fully human to each other and encourages genuine, fruitful communication. When we know we will have to answer for our words and deeds, that we have to find ways to be productive and loving despite our differences, and our words take on a new urgency.
Most preachers get half of this equation right, instinctively understanding we need to recognize the full humanity of our listeners. We need to respect the complexity of our listeners’ lives and emotions, and good preaching instinctively takes this complexity into account. Yet if preaching is to be truly fruitful, it is also important that preachers find a gentle way to insist on our full humanity.
Our listeners need to be reminded we also are complex human beings, capable of growth and change. If we do not demonstrate we are fully human, then our word becomes disposable. Just as we can turn off the computer when our flat Facebook friends frustrate us, we reduce others to stereotypes that are more manageable in our relationships with them; likewise our congregants can avoid grappling with our ideas by turning us into a stock preacher.
Having been informed by movies, television and anecdotal evidence of what preachers are like, our listeners lump us into this stock category and simply cannot hear anything we say that contradicts that stereotype. Listeners don’t do this because they are cruel, but because they are human. It is up to preachers to demonstrate our full humanity and that as fully human beings we have ideas that are worth engaging.
Therefore, preaching is incarnational. Preachers proclaim the Word most powerfully not when we have our ideas right (important as that is), but when we are fully human. This is what Philips Brooks meant when he famously defined preaching as “truth through personality”; preaching is not simply cognitive, but a heart-encounter between preacher and congregation.
I want to turn my attention to three strategies that wise preachers can use to demonstrate their full humanity and have more fruitful communication with listeners.
First, wise preaching emphasizes the humanity of the preacher through personal stories. I am aware of the difficulties here; one should not be too much of a hero in one’s own preaching, or does one want to be such a goat that people wonder why they should grant the preacher moral authority in the first place? Further, in some congregations, congregants expect exegesis and exposition, and illustrations are understood as a sign of weakness in a preacher; if he can’t preach the Bible, he tells stories.
Still, personal stories are worth the risk. Reflection on the common things of life—the birth of a child, the joys or difficulties of marriage, struggles with anger or loneliness—all of these go far beyond making individual points. They establish the preacher’s personhood. They remind listeners that even preachers have a range of emotions, that they experience highs and lows, that the special devotion of the preaching life does not erase the scars of our humanity. Personal stories remind the listener the preacher is a real person and worthy of attention.
Wise preaching emphasizes the humanity of the preacher through metacommunication. Metacommunication is communicating about communication. In the case of the preacher, it is using time in a sermon to reflect on the task of preaching. There are two ways this can aid the proclamation of the Word. First, it places the minister in the world of work. Just as most listeners have jobs, the preacher has a job, too. Preachers are not hermits; they do not seek to withdraw from the world but actively to engage the world by directly contributing something meaningful. Preaching is more than a job; but the fact it is a job humanizes the preacher to listeners.
Two, metacommunication models the kind of reflection preachers hope for from their congregation. All preachers hope their listeners approach life differently because of their faith. In a work-oriented society, a Christian must think critically and creatively about their attitude toward work. Do we work too much? Too little? Are we spiritually scattered enough that our attention is on vacation when we are at work (and vice versa)? Do we subconsciously think our work defines who we are?
Reflecting on your own work through metacommunication provides an example for your listeners to follow. When you remind people that you have a real job, you gain the right to be heard about how to approach that job. You then can talk about how difficult it is to strike an appropriate attitude toward work that neither makes an idol of it nor treats it as worthless. Better yet, you can talk about the rewards of such an attitude—a balanced, healthy life that makes room for all God’s gifts, including the ability to engage in meaningful work.
Wise preaching emphasizes the humanity of the preacher through appropriate use of video technology. I occasionally teach evening college courses which meet for four hours, which is a long time to lecture or engage in heavy discussion. I soon realized I needed to intersperse video material into class; so now, after about two hours of discussion or lecture, we break and watch a video related to the topic of the day.
It is interesting to compare the students’ behavior during the video to their behavior during the rest of class. In lecture or discussion, students generally appear alert and involved. If one’s mind begins to wander or if he or she begins to nod off, the fact that there is a real flesh-and-blood person with authority in the room with them makes them snap back to attention. During a video, though, students feel much freer to scatter their attention, whispering to each other, yawning or checking their phones. Why? Because the students know the presenter is not really there and they do not feel the same sense of accountability. The video is not a waste of time: I show my students videos featuring people who are far smarter than I am. Still, they do not have the same impact as class discussion because the interaction is not interpersonal.
Today, it is common to project the minister onto a screen, either because the congregation is large or because the sermon is intended for multiple campuses or watching online. Such technology is not going away—and shouldn’t.
Yet we should consider how this practice impacts our listeners. The interpersonal dynamic which gives preaching its power is put at risk when the preacher is put on screen. Think of it this way: We never would walk out of a stage production, but think nothing of flipping the channel if a TV show proves unsatisfactory. In the same way, the screen makes the preacher two-dimensional and renders the preacher’s word somewhat disposable.
Again, we cannot turn the clock back and completely eschew video technology; but wise preachers will recognize the flattening effect of the screen and find other ways to emphasize their humanity. This may well be done by studying the craft of the screen actor. As opposed to the sweeping gestures and volume of the stage actor, actors on screen rely on more subtle variations in voice and movement to communicate their characters to the viewer.
Preachers may find that borrowing such techniques will help them. Video preachers also should find creative ways to have genuine interpersonal contact with their listeners outside the pulpit. In doing so, they give their listeners a glimpse into their personal lives, which perhaps will render them less disposable when they appear on screen. However they choose to emphasize their humanity, the key point is that preachers must not be naïve about technology—the medium shapes the message, and encountering a person on a screen is vastly different than seeing someone in real life.
Flattened communication can be disastrous, as in Rashard Mendenhall’s Twitter controversy; it also can be banal, as when we meet a Facebook friend in real life and discover we liked them better on Facebook. When our preaching is flat, it runs the risk of being disastrous or banal.
As ever, though, preachers hold out hope for a miracle—that God will take His Word and impress it on the heart through human words. Yet only genuinely human words ring true to the human heart. Listeners must understand the speaker is indeed human—in all our glory and brokenness—in order to see Christ reflected through the speaker’s words.