Pub talk and pulpit talk

I’m always thinking — too much many people would say — about the nature of preaching.

What exactly is it that we preachers are trying to do when we get up and talk?

I listened to a sermon earlier this week. Okay, confession, I listened to about 30 minutes of a one hour sermon. One hour! The main purpose of the sermon appeared to be to allow the preacher in question to talk about himself a lot. The full first 10 minutes of the sermon was a single anecdote about the preacher’s reactions to someone else’s reaction to something he had preached on a different day. If I had more time and energy, it would be interesting to listen to sermons and write down how many times a preacher uses the words “I” or “me.”

But it is unseemly, I suppose, for a blogger to get on someone else for being self-absorbed.

So, here’s the question of the morning.

I was reading a piece by Terry Eagleton about technology and communication. It is full of satire and British understatement and lampoonery, which makes it hard for an American to know just where he is being serious and when he is having a joke at my expense. But this line near the end did stand out:

Language is first of all a way of being with other people, and only secondarily a way of getting things done. This is why the paradigm of human communication is not the public relations agency but the pub.

It reminds me of some things Eugene Peterson has written about language. It reminds me in the opposite way of some things Adam Hamilton has written.

Hamilton’s book on preaching begins with an explanation about why he preaches the way he does. He argues that preaching is 100% about “getting things done.” He compares preaching to building a house.  Although he offers no theory of language, I suspect Hamilton — who has another whole book about how running a church is like selling shoes — finds language mostly a tool for accomplishing important tasks.

For my part, I find the notion of hanging out at a pub and “being with other people” alarming. I am a raging introvert, so for me language is mostly a way of figuring out what I think and coming to grips with the world. In my own way, my use of language is as self-referential as the preacher I did not care for. (Look at all those “I” words creeping into my writing here.)

At its best — and my best may not be very good — my preaching tends to reflect this theory of language. At its best, my preaching is exploratory and curious and about seeing the world through scripture. I’m not very good at giving marching orders. I fear my preaching does not get a lot done. I am not even sure what it would mean to preach as a way of being with other people as Eagleton describes pub talk.

I’m curious how other people think about these things — or even act on them. Acting and doing things in the world — as opposed to writing about things — is something I hear that some people do.

What is language mostly about for you?

Being with people?

Getting things done?

Bringing order to the world?

Something else?

How does that view of language shape your preaching?


3 thoughts on “Pub talk and pulpit talk

  1. Can you share some of Eugene Peterson’s view of language or point me to where he writes about it?

    1. I will try to reply later at more length. He writes about it in the Contemplative Pastor. I think he writes about it elsewhere, too.

      I’m not sure if there is anything online I can point to.

      I’ll try to share more later.

  2. For me, language is about ALL those things.

    But not all at once, and generally not in the same places.

    It depends what it is I’m and we’re supposed to be doing in the particular gathering of these particular people.

    Sunday Worship is not primarily about “being with people.” Rather, it’s about people being with God, together, and offering themselves, individually and collectively to God. Preaching in this context is designed to do something– it is to facilitate us all “being for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood,” something we’ll recapitulate when we pray the Great Thanksgiving, and then seek to do when we’re sent into that world again.

    If for some reason my preaching ends up being too much a practice of “being with people,” I’m not doing my job in worship. I as preacher have really sort of hijacked the reason this assembly is supposed to have gathered, and redirected it to some other end.

    That said, certainly my preaching, even when properly directed, is a way of being with people. It will reveal things about me, and the comments and responses (verbal and non-verbal) will reveal things about the people as individuals and as a congregation. That’s a good thing, a fine thing. But that’s not why we’ve gathered. We’ve gathered to worship. And as pastor, it’s my job to help the congregation do that as well as they can to the best of my ability.

    A pastor has many other occasions for “being with people” that are better suited to other forms of speaking. Pastoral visitation, fellowship gatherings, small groups, classes, working with others in mission projects… each of these and more beside provide appropriate forums for pastoral presence in other ways.

    We should use them all– each as each occasion requires.

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