I just finished reading the interview with Doug Pagitt (Preaching, May-June 2006, pp. 35-40). I also appreciated the opportunity to hear him talk about preaching, and to dialogue with him at the National Conference on Preaching. Both encounters have stimulated my thinking. Here are a few emerging thoughts. (I speak as a seminary graduate, a former pastor, a current homiletics professor, and a weekly curriculum writer and adult Bible fellowship teacher.)

Somehow, we MUST find teachers/professors of preaching for our Bible colleges and seminaries that have training in communication/rhetorical theory as well as biblical exegesis and theology. It appears that Doug has been badly misled in his homiletical training. His portrayal of the sermon as mere "speech making" indicates that he has not been exposed to sound communication theory, at least in the context of preaching. Could it be that his description of preaching as the preacher sitting in isolation for 30 hours a week, having no contact with his people, and then dumping a load of exegetical theology on whoever might come on Sunday is accurate? If so, it flies in the face of true rhetoric and of what I have taught for 22 years. This characterization of preaching is simply not good communication theory!

Aristotle said a long time ago that, " . . . a speech being the joint result of three things — the speaker, his subject, and the person addressed — the end or object has reference to this last, namely the hearer . . . and the hearer must be a judge/jury" (The Rhetoric of Aristotle, trans Lane Cooper, 1966, p. 16). It has always been about the listener! And that means the listener in his/her context. Good preaching has always assumed that “people tend to begin with their own experience and their own life and their own way of thinking as being quite important in the equation of who they are and who they’re becoming” (Pagitt, p. 35).

The great rhetoricians have always thought about their audience in its immediate context. Lloyd Bitzer's "The Rhetorical Situation" in Philosophy & Rhetoric, 1 (Winter, 1968), 1-15, is classic communication theory. Speeches have been “classified” by context/situation for thousands of years. Aristotle’s “deliberative, judicial, and epideictic” classifications urged the speaker to consider how he might influence his listeners to 1) choose a particular policy in the political forum, 2) convict or acquit in the court, or 3) praise or blame in the public ceremony.

That is why Max Warren said, "Communication is a special ability . . . to out-do the Communist technique of 'double-think' and do a Christian 'quadruple-think'. 'Quadruple-thinking' is thinking out what I have to say, then thinking out how the other man will understand what I say, and then re-thinking what I have to say, so that, when I say it, he will think what I am thinking!" (The Crowded Canvas, 1974, p. 143).

Theodore Clevenger recognized that, "Much of the presumed audience control of skillful public speakers resides not so much in their ability to manipulate audiences as in their adroitness at fitting their speeches to ongoing behavioral patterns and tendencies in the audience." (Audience Analysis, 1966, p. 7).

Somehow Doug seems to have missed these most basic concepts and their influence on preaching! I hear centuries of rhetoricians rolling over in their graves.

Additionally, communication theory has been talking for centuries about the role of the sermon in creating community. The "building of community" concept was alive and well long before Doug’s great, great-grandparents drew breath. This was demonstrated in Ernest Bormann’s work on rhetorical vision. In a chapter entitled "Vision-Casting Through Preaching," in Integrity of Heart, Skillfulness of Hands: Biblical and Leadership Studies in Honor of Donald K. Campbell, ed. Charles H. Dyer & Roy B. Zuck. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994), 332-347, I wrote:

In his seminal article, "Fantasy and Rhetorical Vision: The Rhetorical Criticism of Social Reality," Quarterly Journal of Speech, 58, (December 1972), 396-407, Ernest Bormann argued that the oral dramatizations of life that occur in small groups as members express and test their visions of reality continue on into public discourse. If a personal vision, dramatized by a member of a group, is not accepted by the group, the vision dies. But if the vision, expressed as a dream or "fantasy" by the group member, is accepted by the group, it is then adjusted and enhanced by the group. That "rhetorical vision" is ultimately delivered to the public as a "reality."

“The dramatizations which catch on and chain out in small groups are worked into public speeches and into the mass media and, in turn, spread out across larger publics, serve to sustain the members' sense of community, to impel them strongly to action (which raises the question of motivation), and to provide them with a social reality filled with heroes, villains, emotions, and attitudes” (Bormann, p. 398).

Bormann's illustration of the American Puritans provides a classic example. They practiced the "inter-relationality and the give and take of people with people" that leads to “the developing community” that Doug has “discovered.” This concept, too, has been around for millennia.

How are our students missing all this in our homiletics classrooms? Where are our professors of preaching coming from? Do they not ground their students in any kind of basic rhetorical/communication theory? Apparently not.

Anyway, if Doug (and others) have to "discover" traditional communication theory on their own, it's certainly better than preaching the "straw-sermons" they otherwise would if they followed what they may have been taught in seminary.


Timothy Warren is Professor of Pastoral Ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary.

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