In the class I teach at Indiana University, use a classic piece on communication early in the semester to set up conversations with the students about the processes and parts of communication.
Part of the chapter is a four-part explication of what has to happen for communication to have a chance to have the effect you desire.
- You must gain the audience’s attention.
- You must use a set of “signs” that the audience can understand and that the audience interprets in the same way you do.
- You must evoke a need within the audience.
- You must give the audience a way to act or respond that is possible for the audience.
In both the chapter and the class conversation we talked about the fact that communication almost never has the effect we intend if we do not start from where our audience is. You need to start within the beliefs and values the audience already holds and then try to move them toward the goal.
None of this is new or revolutionary, which is why I use it with sophomores.
But it does get me thinking about the sermon as an act of communication. I hear common sermon advice in here. Andy Stanley wrote a whole book that pretty much covers these same points. Rick Warren writes about the need for to evoke a felt need. Paul in Athens famously followed the bulk of this advice when he preached. Even John Wesley shows in his journals how much he thinks about where his audience is as he determines what to preach.
And yet, I am also mindful of how many voices — especially post-liberals and neo-Barthians — counsel treating the sermon as an impossibility. Will Willimon writes often about the fact that it requires a miracle for us to hear the sermon rightly.
So, I wonder about the balance between technique and Spirit in preaching — and communication in general.