Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Six More Thoughts on Preaching to Today's (less than deeply literate) Audiences

           Someone recently reminded me that I had once given a talk on preaching for secondary-oral audiences. What is a secondary-oral audience? Well, these are people who are merely literate rather than deeply literate. They read well-enough to manage the Toronto Sun sports pages or a Fifty Shades novel, but they don’t read literature, or deeply, or much at all.

            A great deal of communication scholarship, from pioneers like Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong, to modern brain-science scholars such as Stanislas Dehaene or Maryanne Wolf has argued, in fact, that the very act of watching television—and perhaps other modern forms of electronic media—even in small amounts, makes it much more difficult for people to read with understanding, read for multiple levels of meaning, and read for interiority—the emotions, thinking, feeling, and psche of characters. Instead, people need simplified vocabulary, lots of action, agons (near-supernatural heroes like vampires or wizards or Supermen) to move them along through a novel. The days of the unabridged Les Misreables are long gone; the musical version is in. And so on.

            The bottom line, with respect to preaching, is that preaching that mimics the linear, printed word and theology's abstract categories doesn’t connect with many in our audiences  nearly so well as it used to. People have no practice with such reading—and so hearing sermons written on the pattern of dense writing about abstract principles is doubly difficult to understand.

            Anyway, along the way, in that manuscript, I suggested ten strategies for reaching secondary oral. What follows here are six of those strategies beyond the ones that I suggested in my last blogpost, or that expand on them a little bit.

1. In the modernist, highly literate culture, we tended to understand good preaching as rational, ordered, three or four points, doctrinal or moral, with good illustrations. People listening to such sermons listen as readers, using their reading skills to decode the sermon as a written document. But since people no longer read as well, they are much less adept at doing so. So we must entice audiences to listen for stories.

In oral cultures, where no one read, preaching was designed not so much to engage the audience's critical faculties as it was to engage them in the story. Oral era preachers did so through wordplay and fun. Taking a cue from orality, sermons made use of complex rhetorical devices (mnemonic devices, commonplaces, rhythm, rhyme, assonance, repetition, and type scenes—which might be drawn from modern media) to ensure that they can be simply heard. We can learn much about the storyteller’s art from the Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, the Iliad, and the Atrahasis Epic, to name just a few ancient stories. In the premodern era, Augustine put it most simply by saying preachers must leave difficult ideas to books. I would add, "stick to one idea per sermon, and infuse it in the story.”

2. Use multiple channels to teach and preach the gospel. Oral cultures even employed a rich array of literary genres to teach the truth: morality plays, parables and proverbs for wisdom; story and statuary for telling the old, old story of scripture. All this color and variety was largely replaced, in print culture, by written doctrines & confessions explained in print and spoken discourse that imitated complex print. Churches threw out drama, statues, images, and organs. Sermon forms are linear, expository, narrative, doctrinal, and often very abstract.

Today our preaching audiences are full of people used to seeing icons and trademarks, who love watching visual images on television, and listen endlessly to music. We need to support our preaching by using other avenues than just the spoken word to get across key messages. We need to turn back to oral preaching for hints about how to reach today's post-literate audiences.

Consider bringing people and arts into the sermon. I'm thinking of film clips, staged settings for sermons that make use of cultural artifacts, banners, liturgical elements that use candles, visuals, and processions. The possibilities are nearly endless. I've preached sermons on how hard it is to get close to God from the top of a ladder, and sermons on forgiveness where I unpacked my baggage from a real suitcase. I used to regularly do part of the sermon as a five minute drama that was written by lay people in consultation with me. They had to understand what I was getting at to write the drama, and I had to work with them to make sure the quality was high and it fit seamlessly with the rest of the spoken message.

3. One problem that we have in today's church going audiences is that we have multiple kinds of audiences in the same sanctuary. I'm generalizing, but younger people who read less, with less pleasure, and who have not internalized the linear, rational model of literate Christianity inside are sitting next to people who love nothing more that that a sermon should--as it has for the past 400 years--mimic written documents. In order to address this reality, one possible approach is to offer multiple choices in their worship services to reach multiple kinds of oral/literate people, as well as blends. Truth is, we are a niched society not only in terms of marketing niches, but modernist/postmodernist, literate/oral audiences. So, think of offering two services, or three. One a Taize or jazz service, another a modernist rational presentation, and the third a sermon based on oral-era strategies

4. Exegete popular culture without ceasing, for yourself, and share what you learn with your audience. Your twenty-minute sermon is up against twenty or more hours of popular culture. People choose to spend their precious life on these entertainments, and they imbibe deeply in the values and hopes and dreams of such entertainments. You won’t win a battle for the hearts and souls by ignoring it or condemning it wholesale. Bring the TV shows, the stars, the bumper stickers, the toys, the games, the clothing, the games and the finances of popular culture into the pulpit. There is a rich, rich vein of critical literature about television, major league sports, the fashion industry and on and on. Find out where God is in it and celebrate that. Identify the potholes and put up warning signs. Make media literacy a high priority of your adult and teen education programs. Read John Van Sloten’s book, The Day Metallica Came to Church.

5. Churches must consider time constraints of members when it comes to Sunday morning liturgy and sermons. You need to come to grips with the short attention span that is an inevitable corollary of secondary orality. If you don’t, you may be right, but you’ll also be a bore. In our context, Jesus' parables and beatitudes are a better fit than Paul's letters.

6. Music. People learn their theology through music. I know this is tough for us pastors to accept. But if this was true even in a literate society, it is doubly and triply true in a post-literate society. We need musical words of our own to go along with the deadly misinformation conveyed by a steady diet of nothing but praise. We need room for lament too, and complaint—as in the Psalms. We need room for music that teaches morality. We must make peace with music that is a pale imitation of secular rock and roll because many relate to that genre; but we need lots of other genres too, songwriters who will mine the depths of the gospel instead of the shallows of human fashion.

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