What is your rhetorical stance when you get up to preach?
No, this is not a question about foot work. It is about the way we think about what we are doing when we preach.
Any act of communication can be thought of as involving four elements: the encoder of a message, the decoder of that message, the reality to which the message refers, and the signal that transmits the message. Scholar James Kinneavy wrote that we can think about the aim of any communication by thinking about which of these four elements gets the most emphasis.
Encoder-focused messages aim at self-expression. They are the screams of protest, the intense sharing of personal feelings, or the testimonials of the devoted. The primary concern is what the sender of the message wants to say. In the most extreme forms, they can lose almost all contact with decoders and reality beyond the person who created the message.
Decoder-focused messages aim at persuasion. We are bathed in these messages every day by advertisers, politicians, and everyone else who wants to convince us to do this or that. Many sermons surely fit in this category. Indeed, this strikes me as the presumed focus of sermonic communication.
Signal-focused messages aim for literary effects. Here we put the focus on the artistic elements of language or movement or visuals. Poetry is the prototypical form of signal-focused communication.
Reality-focused messages aim to accurately report on the subject of the message. Journalism and scientific communication are the exemplary forms of this kind of communication. I could also see some forms of expository preaching or preaching as proclamation about who God is as leaning toward this form of communication.
In the end, of course, most forms of communication touch on all four aspects. This cannot be avoided. All four are necessary elements of every act of communication. But it can help us think about our purpose in preaching if we consider our point of emphasis.
For instance, if the greatest emphasis of a sermon is supposed to be on the effect it has on the person who hears the spoken word, then we have to ask at everyone turn what effect we are trying to produce and how well are we producing that effect. We should be students of rhetoric and persuasion who seek to know as much as we can about those who hear our sermons and what is likely to move them.
Describing the sermon this way may strike some as too grace-less. It appears to make the effect of preaching all about technique and not at all about God’s gracious action.
Such reactions are, I think, what leads a Karl Barth to declare that preaching should be nothing more than a restatement of the things the Bible already says. He moves to the sermon as referential restatement of the Bible, leaving the effect of this preaching to God.
In the end, I find myself uncomfortable leaning to much toward the persuasive aim. I recoil at anything that feels like manipulation. This may be a fault in a preacher. But I am hoping that self-understanding will help me improve.