How Your Sermon Language Shapes Your Community (A Guest Post)

Photo by  Jason Leung  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

The Reverend Micah Jackson, Ph.D., is a Backstory Preaching Partner and the President of Bexley Seabury Episcopal Seminary in Chicago. He recently served as the John Elbrige Hines Associate Professor of Preaching at Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, Texas. He is the author of a forthcoming book from Church Publishing: Preaching Face to Face: An Invitation to Conversational Preaching.

Do you ever think about the kind of relationship you’re having with your congregation?

If you do, you probably think of it mostly in terms like “good” or “bad.”

But there are lots of other ways to imagine the relationship you’re having with those who hear your sermons. Think of concepts like “teacher/student,” or “herald of the good news,” or “fellow pilgrim.”

Of course, there may be more than one way you and your community relate to one another depending on circumstances. It’s actually likely that sometimes you preach as an authoritative teacher, and sometimes you speak from your position as a fellow Chirstian.

But then ask yourself:

How does the way I talk about myself and my community in my sermon signal those relationships? How do I build and strengthen those relationships through my words? And are there ways in which my sermons actually impede the very community formation that I hope to achieve in my ministry?

A quick example of what I mean. I served a congregation alongside a long-time rector who had begun to consider retirement. She spoke quite openly about her intention, though her plans had not become clear, so there was no explicit end date to her ministry with the congregation. She became very aware of the way she spoke about herself, the congregation, and their work together, especially when it came to using terms like “we” and “you.”

When she talked about their worship life, their active ministries in the community, even planning the upcoming budget year, she was careful to use “we” to describe the group that was doing such things. She didn’t want her flock to think that she was checking out too soon, or abandoning her leadership of the community.

But when they began to prepare for and engage in a process of strategic planning, one that might take several years to develop, and that certainly would inform the direction of the community far beyond her pastorate, she found herself speaking to them far more often as “you.” It was never “our strategic plan” under consideration, but “the future of your ministry” being discerned. She felt that this was more honest, and helped them to begin living into the time beyond her leadership.

She felt her way forward with this insight, and it wasn’t ever as simple as saying that that things less than a year away would be talked about as “us” and things farther away would be “you.” But it was a helpful way for this preacher and her community to begin to define what work belonged to whom, and how their relationship would inevitably change as she approached her retirement.

Even if nothing so dramatic as a pastoral transition is happening in your congregation, the way you talk about the community and your place within it is still important.

Most preachers never even consider this, let alone act deliberately to foster the kind of relationship they and their congregants want to have.

This week in the Collective+, I’ll be offering some more examples and principles of language that makes community. We’ll even talk about one of the most common questions about preaching: “What difference does it make when preachers say ‘I’ from the pulpit?” I’m looking forward to offering some ideas and hearing your stories as we talk together about this important aspect of sermon preparation, delivery, and followup.

Want to Hear More?

Join us in The Collective + for Rev. Micah Jackson’s workshop TODAY at 4:00 CST.