Language Matters: Interpretive Divergence and the Preaching Moment

In the initial post in this series I sought to lay out the general terrain of what I am calling Interpretive Divergence. This phenomenon has immense implications for the ways in which our language and practices have the potential to shape or misshape people into the likeness of Christ for the sake of the world. I explored a couple of places that we see this reality, of a diversity of interpretation that results from human communication (either between two human agents or even between God and humanity). 

Here I want to begin to articulate the importance of this reality for the preaching moment. First a little bit about the language I am choosing here...

I am consciously choosing to refer to this as the preaching moment for a couple of reasons: (1) The formative implications and the space in which interpretive divergence takes place are in no way restricted to the individual delivering the sermon/homily/devotional/forty-five minute diatribe/rant. (2) This moment is not necessarily the entirety of the message. In fact, oftentimes the most impactful teachings (for good or for bad) that we internalize and embody are rooted in brief clips and flashes of memory. (Just try to remember the general three-point outline of the last six sermons you have heard.) 

So with all this in mind I want to explore the ways in which the preaching moment functions as a space where significant interpretive divergence can be experienced.

Take for example this teaching clip produced within my theological tradition (Churches of Christ) entitled, The Truth About the Lord's Supper. (It is not necessary to watch this clip to make sense of this post, but I wanted it to be included to help provide context if you are interested.)

One of the most memorable moments (for me) in this twenty-one minute presentation is summarized in this screenshot:

How might interpretive divergence in this preaching moment occur?

  1. The recognition that this five minutes is 0.05% of our week may not trivialize the Lord's death on the cross, but certainly the practice as it functions has the capacity to trivialize its place in the community who practices it.
  2. The recognition that this practice is subservient to (and thus in some way inferior to) practices that take much more time in the communal gatherings such as singing, prayer, preaching, and maybe even nonreligious activities like announcements.
  3. This could be taken as a logical and convincing argument concerning the frequency and value of the congregational practice in its current form. 

All three of these interpretive possibilities (and more!) are possible in a gathering of individuals with a diversity of perspectives, experiences, and convictions. It is also possible that while one may presume that in the moment this particular presentation was convincing and satisfying, it may be the case that down the road, that this same formative moment leads to an entirely different interpretive decision. (This is an example of hearing the same thing in a different way or with a different perspective. This is common place enough in our lives that it shouldn’t really be contentious that we presume this can occur with spiritual formation as well.)

SO WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS INESCAPABLE REALITY THAT THE THINGS THAT WE SEEK TO COMMUNICATE IN THE PREACHING MOMENT ARE BOTH SUSCEPTIBLE TO AND WILL INEVITABLY EXPERIENCE A DIVERGENCE OF INTERPRETATION, FORMATION, AND EMBODIMENT?

I think that there are three big takeaways here that every church leader must understand and bear in mind (even if, and maybe even especially if, they aren't the ones doing the talking/teaching/preaching) as they lead their communities of faith as ambassadors of the Gospel:

(1) WHILE THE PERSON SPEAKING IS NOT NECESSARILY CULPABLE FOR THE INTERPRETIVE DIVERGENCE THAT WILL INEVITABLY HAPPEN, IT IS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER THAT THEY ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE IMPLICATIONS OF THAT DIVERGENCE. 

This means that preaching must be done with extreme care. A careless phrase, an unarticulated assumption, an old hang up, or just an unwillingness to attend to the complexities of language and the formative power of words can both stunt spiritual formation and have devastating consequences. It seems unlikely (if not philosophically impossible) that a multiplicity of interpretation can be prevented, but we must remember that our ability to mitigate (or at the very least minimize) the malformative implications of our language falls squarely on those who are leaders. 

(2) THIS SERVES TO HIGHLIGHT THE IMPORTANCE OF A PLURALITY OF VOICES AS WELL AS THE NEED TO CREATE OPPORTUNITIES FOR DIALOGUE AND DISCERNMENT IN THE TEACHING LIFE OF THE CHURCH.

 When the primary (or exclusive) preaching/teaching voice for a congregation is relegated to a single individual or a number of individuals with a relatively narrow range of perspectives the likelihood and intensity of interpretive divergence is heightened. This is why I said earlier that the formative implications, the space in which interpretive divergence takes place, are in no way restricted to the individual.” In this kind of arrangement, one source of immense interpretive divergence is the inevitable encounter with people outside of the community of faith (whether congregational, denominational, or even people of other faiths or no faith). This encounter is likely to produce more interpretive divergence and disorientation than those who are formed in communities that value a multiplicity of voices and practice discernment and dialogue. Studies showing that many people raised in Christian Fundamentalism walking away from all forms of faith (as opposed to moving into less fundamentalist or more "progressive" expressions of the same faith) should be instructive here. 

(3) THE INEVITABILITY OF INTERPRETIVE DIVERGENCE SHOULD CAUSE US TO RETHINK THE WAY IN WHICH WE SEEK TO COMMUNICATE FORMATIVE TEACHING AND LANGUAGE IN OUR CHURCHES.

I have in mind three interrelated suggestions here that I believe are worth some discussion: 

We would be wise to move away from sermons that are long on time and heavy on content.

This is an important decision for a couple of reasons: (1) The amount of actual, durative retention in a monologue (which is what a sermon is, even when delivered by a dynamic speaker) is relatively low. And in this case the answer is not merely to increase the length of the sermon in hopes that what little they do retain will be more than the people who hear short sermons! (2) Most often, sermons that seek to be heavy on content and long in duration are in fact often filled with “fluff” (not in the sense that it is irrelevant or immature, but that it is material that is not essential to the overall idea being presented). Presentations of any real length require significant time and language to be used in building rhetorical and transitional structures in order for the presentation (again, a monologue) to “work”. In our contemporary culture, these kinds of presentations are often ineffective in producing the kinds of “retention” and formation that we are looking for.

We would be wise to move away from singular (or few) voices employing one-way communication with the community towards a more diverse and dialogical model of teaching and formation.

Undoubtedly we are feeling with full force the implications of our long-time decision to professionalize ministry as well as to root the teaching and leadership of our churches in the hands of a few individuals. When the formative voices of a congregation are (functionally) always a small group of people this should be taken as a sign of two things: (1) That the leadership of the community is not developing or forming any new voices that are worthy of consideration. (2) The space for people of different perspectives and interpretations will inevitably grow smaller and increasingly hostile. 

This is particularly true of communities in which the size (and sometimes the diversity) of the congregation makes one perspective not only unfeasible but pastorally irresponsible. This is my primary critique of multi-site ecclesiologies, the assumption that a message that is deeply formative yet generic enough for diverse and geographically diverse locations can consistently be drafted by the "expert" (a.k.a. preacher/pastor/founder/etc.). These kinds of communities inevitably are unable to capitalize on this moment in ways that are still attainable for other communities of faith. 

We would be wise to ask how our message would be heard by the "Other". 

This is the place where we can ask some really important questions like these:

  • How would this message be heard by someone coming from an entirely different perspective or life experience than the audience to which I perceive I am speaking?
  • Would this hold true for someone who professes faith in Jesus in a different part of the world? 
  • How would the poor, the suffering, the persecuted, the LGBTQ community, the divorced, the single, the orphan, the abused and neglected, and the jaded hear this message?

I think that perhaps this is the place where the most insightful realizations about the power to (mis)shape with our language can occur. And if leaders find themselves unable to imagine or understand the perspective and potential interpretive divergence for these "others" then perhaps a deeper more fundamental problem has surfaced. 

In  many (particularly Evangelical-like) churches the preaching moment is intended to serve as the primary location of general spiritual formation for the community. Greater care must be given to the actual implications of the messages and beliefs that are communicated in this space. Leaders especially are responsible for the things that they communicate and the implications of things communicated poorly.