This was from an old Facebook note, but I like to share it with a broader audience here on my blog. A famous American preacher once said, “The plain thing is the main thing.” I have never forgotten this saying since the day I heard it shared by a well-educated layman who used to listen to me preach.
Recently, one pastor friend asked me whether my plain stuff that speaks the language of the man on the street is my rebellion against the more traditional churchy language of the last generation preacher. I’ve never thought of my style in those terms, but it is interesting that some may interpret it as such. I think, from the first day I went up to the pulpit, my style has not varied that much. It is also the way I teach my students. I’m pretty sure some people think that God has cursed my students with such a teaching. The fact is, I have my own reason for preaching in this plain and unsophisticated way. And my reason has nothing to do with rebellion against any particular institution.
I think “eloquence” is over-rated. Let me explain. My own PhD includes studies in modern and ancient rhetoric. My recent preaching book in Chinese also includes those elements. The problem is, people sometimes follow those handbooks without understanding the spirit behind them. If we read those books, we will find that they vary in the way they interpret “eloquence.” I won’t state any example. People can read my new book when it comes out, but the fact is, eloquence is contextualized. What if you “sound” eloquent, but no one understands what you’re saying? This faux pas in communication has dire consequences.
We preachers must know that our job is first and foremost effective communication. Did the audience get our point? Recently, a fellow minister only attended my luncheon but missed my lecture asked the other attendees, “What was his point?” I’m comforted by the fact that all the responses people gave fell within the perimeter of my talk. If MOST of your audience got the point, you’ve communicated effectively. If not, then the sermon was a dire failure. We’re bound to fail every once in a while, but if we do so all the time, then we’ve got a serious problem.
We preachers need to understand that our job is not to pontificate, to sound educated, and to make ourselves look good. Most of all, our job is not to try to earn the “Goodness, wasn’t that an eloquent speech” award. If you want that award, go to Toastmasters. If people do not understand and if the unchurched visitor who comes in through the church doors hardly understands a word we say (I presuppose that sometimes our visitors can’t understand EVERYTHING we say), then we’re in deep trouble. I suggest that most churches fall into the habit of speaking “Christianese”. We throw around terms like “spiritual,” “illumination,” “divine sovereignty,” and “eschatology” without any “street definition” or illustrations attached to them. Our audience listens to such words so much that they no longer think about what they mean. This is one major contributing factor for a non-thinking church. Can we blame congregations for not wanting to bring visitors to church? Why would anyone forego Sunday morning football to listen to a speech composed of huge vocabulary? Why would anyone want to feel THAT stupid?
IF people do not think the Jesus and Paul both used the language from people of the streets, I can probably write an entire book on this topic. IF people didn’t understand Jesus and Paul, they wouldn’t have crucified one and beat the other. Sometimes, the simplest words should unpack profound truths. We keep it simple because we care.