Preaching When Words Are Cheap
As a kid I got into a lot of trouble for talking too much. For me, school was a social event. Yes, I loved learning, but I loved studying my classmates through conversation more than I loved studying long division. I was repeatedly reprimanded all throughout elementary school for distracting my neighbors. Eventually I began to control my tongue a bit better, but by the end of a long school day I was practically bursting at the seams to have a conversation. So there I would find myself, sitting on the school bus with a captive audience as our bus driver would make the tedious drive across the bustling suburbs of Atlanta. Being small in stature, I would sit atop a stack of lunch boxes, and from my makeshift platform I would gather my school friends and ask, “Who wants to hear a story today?” This became a routine. I developed into an entertainer of sorts, telling all kinds of stories. Some of the stories were true, some of them were fictional, some of them were funny, others were suspenseful. I relished in the joy of words, and the ease with which they tumbled from my mouth. In hindsight, it makes a lot of sense that eventually I grew up to be a teacher and preacher. Teachers and preachers stand as testaments to the power and beauty of language. We use language in myriad forms to shape our communities because somewhere deep down, we truly believe in the power of words. And yet, if I’m being honest, I do not always believe in the power of words. Certainly young Amy McLaughlin would have considered words to be the most powerful resource at a human’s disposal, but in recent years that young storyteller has been disheartened. Perhaps the storyteller has grown up and changed a little bit, but our society has changed as well. Words have been cheapened. Some people somewhere along the way recognized the incredible and unparalleled power of words, and thought, “Hey—I could sell these words. I could control the masses with these words.” Actually, linguists and historians have been able to pinpoint specific shifts in our history that led to this cheapening of words. And thus as a result of our past, we are now utterly inundated by insincere, dollar-faced words, to such an extent that we can’t always distinguish between words of authenticity and the words of a sales pitch. As words become cheaper, we become numbed to words, thus requiring more and more extreme language.
All around us we find monuments to our corrupted communication. Look no further than Twitter, Facebook, or even newspaper headlines to find astonishingly exaggerated terms: “So-and-so SLAUGHTERS so-and-so in this week’s debate!” “Watch so-and-so completely OBLITERATE so-and-so!” “Group A CRUMBLES as Group B rises to the top!” Why is the language so extreme? Why so absolute? Why so violent? This is a sort of pornographization of language that denotes our inability to communicate with sincerity. Every line reads like a sales pitch, an eye catcher, a desperate attempt to mean something with words that mean nearly nothing.
Now at the end of a long day, I find myself speechless, exhausted from the abuse of words. I spend the day using my words in the classroom, clinging to the hope that these words still matter. But do they? Moreover, I think about our preachers. Our preachers are faced with the arduous task of appealing to an audience that is accustomed to poor forms of rhetoric. Our congregants on some level expect to be entertained. Preachers emerge as the entertainers, the story tellers, the jesters, dancing on stage doing anything and everything to hold the attention of the people just long enough to point to something that actually matters. If I make you laugh hard enough, will you buy this Jesus story? If I tell a riveting story, will you accept this message? If I exaggerate enough, will you lend me your ear?
If you have played this dangerous game in your ministry, then you can probably relate to the exhaustion that I previously confessed. This is not a sustainable use of words, and it is not a sustainable approach to preaching or teaching. Fundamentally, we as preachers and teachers of the gospel must believe that words DO matter, they do carry power, and they can transform our communities. But which words matter? I believe the words that really matter are the words to which we point--or rather, the Word to which we point--every time we step behind a podium. Perhaps our exaggerated gestures and over-the-top language points more to our doubt in the Word, than to our doubt in language itself. Maybe we have not truly believed that the Word is powerful enough to humble the proud, to comfort the lonely, or to heal the infirm. We rush to its aid with a multiplicity of show-stopping tricks, imagining that our supplemental material will do the work. How foolish of us!
If we truly believed in the power of words, we would uphold the integrity of the Word by getting out of its way. I am not suggesting that all sermon stories are inherently bad. I am not even saying that all sermon jokes are inherently bad. I think narratival illustrations and comedy serve important, sometimes even crucial, roles in appealing to the vulnerability of our congregants. However, if our sermons are structured around our illustrations or our jokes, we have bought into the same unfortunate lie of our culture: that words are cheap, and the masses must be cajoled into buying them.
I would like to think that the storyteller in me still has a calling in the Kingdom. I think many of us truly are called to ask that question, “Who wants to hear a story today?” But heaven help us if the best story we can tell is a story out of comedy routine. We have a beautiful story to tell, and the Word of this story defies the cheapening of language that we have regrettably embraced. Words are powerful. Preachers and teachers, we can do better. Let us conduct our work as though we believe in the power of these words.