Monday, June 27, 2005

Five Cardinal Rules

[This is an excerpt from an email I received concerning the changing characteristics of communication in our modern 'media' age. I'm interested to hear what you readers think of these 'Five Cardinal Rules', agree or disagree. I think there is some truth to some of them, but not others :) ]

Contemporary scholarship suggests at least five cardinal rules for preachers
in the media age. Some are new, but most are tried and true.

1. Whether in text, audio, or video, those who fill our pews have become
accustomed to messages that are brief, to the point, fast-paced, and
powerful. The 20-minute, three-point sermon is long out of date in such an
environment. We may bemoan the fact that brevity does not allow for
theological depth. Nevertheless, to avoid the click of the changing mental
channel, we must come to the point quickly.

2. The media environment is one that is based on the telling of stories.
Writing and print can be used referentially, to record data and to work out
detailed logic. Oral and electronic means of communication are more emotive.
Therefore, a body of thought known as narrative theory suggests that the
preacher attempting to reach a media-soaked congregation will do better with
stories than with subtleties of doctrine or exegesis. Jesus¹ parables
endured, often when the context of where and when he originally told them
had been lost. The gospel itself has come to us primarily in the form of
story. Preachers, to be effective, must use narrative to the fullest. Tell
stories, jokes, parables, and tales.

3. Today¹s dominant media make use of visual as well as aural or textual
channels to communicate. Preachers, too, must be visual. Just because a
congregation can¹t afford a fancy video projection system is no reason not
to use visual means to get meaning across. An object used for a children¹s
sermon can be carried over to become a visual aid for the homily. Pictures,
charts, or even the good old-fashioned chalk board can be employed. The use
of visuals, such as stained glass windows and symbols sewn into paraments,
has a long history in the church. Just make sure that the visual is large
enough to be seen from the back pew. Painting pictures with words can be the
next best thing. Use visual imagery in illustrations, in setting the scene
for narratives, and in describing biblical settings.

4. If one has video projection technology available, commonsense
communication practice demands that the visuals enhance the sermon and
neither compete with the spoken word nor replace it. If a visual is too
³busy,² with excessive movement, highly textured background, poor color
contrast, or just too much text on the screen at once, attention will be
turned away from the preacher and diverted to deciphering the image. Keep
PowerPoint® slides simple. Use a large font and a few words for emphasis,
not an entire text. Avoid the temptation to utilize elaborate animations or
to cram a few more lines onto the screen. Use the visual only when speaking
about it, then switch to a blank slide or one suited to the following point.

5. Finally and most essentially, oral presentation must be truly oral.
Written language and spoken language are different. Media professionals are
paid a great deal of money to write and read scripts in a way that doesn¹t
sound like reading. The skill is difficult. Most people can¹t read from a
manuscript and still sound natural and conversational. However, an
extemporaneous sermon < carefully planned, prepared, and practiced < can be
delivered in a conversational style. In extemporaneous delivery (not to be
confused with impromptu or unprepared delivery) the focus is on using a few
notes to order key ideas while using everyday vocabulary and maintaining
near constant eye contact with the congregation. In this mode, the voice
naturally becomes more expressive, and attention is maintained.


Joe Fremer said...

Hey JV,

I've thunk long and hard on this whole issue, not only with preaching, but with the divine service entire.

Do we come down to where the people are? Dumb-down the service to the kind of least-common-denominator music found in elevator Muzak and commercial jingles? Dumb-down the sermon to a few bullet points a la infotainment factoids?

Or do we hold the line, and give people a learning curve to climb, to grow in their mastery of the aural skills necessary to meaningfully participate in the literate and intelligent use of Holy Scripture ?

I guess you can tell where I lean, at least as far as the divine service is concerned. But I'm ok with that, because I do not see the divine service as communication, so much as conservation and display of timeless classical treasures.

Art museums teach art appreciation classes, and supply docents, to bring the visitor up to speed to be able to appropriately interact with the stuff on display there. They don't take down Monet and put up Garfield cartoons.

OTOH, in Bible class, catechism, and personal counseling, I am communicating content, and try to do so in ways that are fresh, engaging, and short.

So the real question is: what is the sermon "for"? Who is the service "for"? The 'seeker' category is not very useful, because there are seekers who are not looking for more of the same, but for something authentically transcendant and timeless.

Josh Schneider said...

Joe, I like how you stated your point: "Or do we hold the line, and give people a learning curve to climb, to grow in their mastery of the aural skills necessary to meaningfully participate in the literate and intelligent use of Holy Scripture ?" I definitely agree; we should not be 'dumbing down' either worship or the sermon, especially since that would be both to condescend to our people and also to leave them in ignorance. Instead, as you put it so well, there should be a 'learning curve' to climb. It truly is sad that much of the Christian laity have come to a state of such Scriptural illiteracy, but this is not simply their own fault. The burden falls heavily on pastors, I think. And as such, to lower standards continually, and not to give the church the full meat of the Word, is not to deal with the problem, but to worsen it. So certainly it is our job to catechize and preach faithfully the whole counsel of God--not aiming to shoot over the heads of our hearers, but to challenge them to grow in the Word; taking extra time and patience to teach all those who struggle, that none be 'left behind' (no pun intended ;)

Ok, so my thoughts regarding the '5 Cardinal Rules' :
#1, with regard to length, I've heard sermons that held my rapt attention for 30 minutes, and been bored by sermons of only 12 minutes. I do tend to think its better for sermons to be shorter nowadays, but length shouldn't be the main consideration. Can we really keep people from 'changing channels'?

#2, This is a difficult point: stories are often good for getting people's attention, but does that mean we should choose stories over the 'subtelties of doctrine or exegesis?' What of a person who is not skilled at storytelling? And what stories to tell? I DON'T think that people are unable to grasp doctrine or exegesis, provided it is preached or taught in an understandable way. Certainly there are bad ways of doing it, for example like giving a dogmatics lecture, or reading a book, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. And furthermore, not everyone has the 'knack' for storytelling. And why do we think that the words of Scripture are too difficult to understand, so we must instead tell 'stories, jokes, parables, and tales'? Why not stick to the parables and imagery of the bible?

#3, about visuals: I think object lessons probably have a limited use, and may be good for children, but again, not everyone has the special creativity (I don't) to continually think up new object lessons. However, this point does have some validity: I think Christian artwork and symbolism can be great tools in preaching the Gospel, and decorating the church (with proper reverence and taste). I also agree with the point that painting pictures with words, and using descriptive, illustrative language can be highly beneficial in preaching.

#4, this point isn't worth saying much about. I wouldn't use power point myself, and think it to be a distraction, as the rule itself admits. I don't really see what it adds.

#5, This point is the most interesting to me. I agree strongly that oral communication and written communication are different, and this greatly affects sermons. I have struggled with this particular challenge in my own sermon writing--to develop more of an oral than a written style. And by that I mean that the words spoken should be natural to speech, not the more awkward written form. I suppose this is one of the hardest things for me to critique and notice in my own sermon writing, though I find the best way to detect it is by reading my sermon out loud to practice. As to the degree one can become largely independent of notes or a manuscript, I suppose that is something again that varies with the talents and practice of the preacher.

Well, those are my general thoughts. I thought the 5 Cardinal Rules provided a good foil for discussing some of the elements of preaching in our modern context.

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