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Many of us view preaching as a short-term (tactical) practice of transmitting information. Communication theorists, however, have drawn attention to the inadequacies of the sender-message-receiver or “transmission” model of communication, inherited largely from classical rhetoric. There are a whole host of other elements at work in any communication situation: conventions of listening, worldviews, local history, felt needs, language repertoire, physical setting, and so on. J. Randall Nichols calls this the larger “communicative field” for preaching.

Communicative Field 1

The “long range preacher” develops a preaching plan that contains certain goals for changes within this “communicative field” in the future. As a long range preacher, I see preaching as part of a process that takes time to complete, a process designed intentionally to promote over time certain themes, messages, doctrines, approaches to scripture, attitudes, theological worldviews, core values, or understandings of the relationship between Christ and culture. Preaching is a shared journey, and I am in it for the long haul.

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This journey, of course, involves the entire communication life of the church and is most effective when the goals for my preaching are integrated with similar goals in religious education, congregational meetings, publicity (newsletters, website) and so on. In this way, preaching is seen as a part of what Seward Hiltner once called the larger “communicating perspective” on ministry.

In order to develop a long-range vision, I might want to engage in congregational study or careful critical reflection and try to discern theological gaps, inconsistencies, issues, or aspirations within the congregation. After such study or reflection, I might establish long-term goals for the communication life of the church, perhaps in consultation with my church board or leaders in the congregation.

For instance, my congregation might be ready for diversity of membership, increased knowledge of biblical history, a more socially-conscious approach to theology, a firmer knowledge its heritage, and more openness to the certain cultural and social changes. From this list, I can develop a list of concepts, messages, values, attitudes, and forms of communication that will, over time, contribute to bringing about these changes in the congregation.

It is probably too bold to say that sermons actually construct the way that a listener is situated within a communicative field. Listeners are participants in multiple subcultures and negotiate messages from the pulpit at the intersection of many overlapping discourses.

Ritual Communication

Over the long term, however, preaching can provide new categories of thought and encourage new forms of speaking and practice. Preached messages push, pull, nudge, encourage, and cajole listeners. If these messages are consistent and strategic, they can, over time, shift the position that listeners occupy within this complex communicative field, opening up new possibilities for thought and action.

Several approaches to preaching have attempted to take into account the ways preaching has the potential to re-shape the signs, symbols, theological worldviews, and conventions of listening within congregations over time. (see for instance, McClure, The Four Codes of Preaching: Rhetorical Strategies, Tisdale, Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art, Nieman, Knowing the Context: Frames, Tools, and Signs for Preaching).

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