let's talk. Image by Ron Mader via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
We need to talk. And by “we,” -- I mean, you and me.
For far too long, we (and by we, I mean you and me) have been diminishing the rhetorical power of your (our) sermons by neglecting to speak directly to your (our) audience.
For far too long, you (and maybe me) have been afraid to share openly about ourselves, hiding behind the royal “we.”1
It’s time to put an end to we-full and woeful preaching.
Hear me out.
I can tell you how I got sucked into the “we.” I dreamed of myself as a preacher in the rhetorical flourishes of Abraham Lincoln, standing boldly before the gathered crowd at Gettysburg:
We cannot dedicate - we cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow this ground … we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain …
Maybe my we-led preaching led from a desire to inspire -- rhetoric appropriate for a “sending” sermon or a time to rouse the congregation into action.
I suspect, however, that my occasional overuse of the word “we” also comes from a certain squeamishness about preaching -- and speaking. If, for example, a preacher wants to talk about the human condition or the existence of sin, or point out a “law” truth evident in the Bible passage -- it’s much easier to say we are horrible sinners in need of redemption, than “you” are a horrible sinner in need of redemption -- or I am a horrible sinner.
The same is true of discipleship sermons, or of pointing out where a text exposes a particular need in context; or where listeners have perhaps missed the chance to see how a text is relevant to their modern context. It seems less threatening to say “we” must change this, or “we” must see how what’s happening in our church is relevant to this text.
None of these are valid reasons to continue using “we” language exclusively in the sermon, and I’d like to argue two powerful reasons for choosing to use “I” or “you” language in a sermon rather than we, us, or ours.
Reason 1: Expose yourself
Many people, especially in congregations, won’t be able to hear the point of a sermon until they’re first established a sense of camaraderie with the preacher. This is sad but true, and it’s perhaps a result of a culture that values authenticity over perhaps anything else.
I think, though, that this has always been true for preachers. Preachers who were close to their communities were listened to better on Sundays. They were dinner guests and friends of the families, sometimes staying overnight at peoples’ houses.
Today, preachers have fewer chances to gain intimacy with their congregations. People are busier and spend much less time engaging with church. Thus Sunday morning takes on additional importance as a key time for preachers to connect with their congregations.
What does this have to do with preaching and using “I” and not “we”? Using “I” and “me” statements forces preachers to be vulnerable in sharing about ourselves. Many times, if I’m honest, the statements I make about “we” really represent opinions or truths about myself. So just be honest and vulnerable: Say “I,” and your congregation will have the opportunity to know you better: as a preacher and as a fellow follower of Jesus who doesn’t always get it right.
Reason 2: Speak directly to your hearers
I’ve spent the past year working part-time in a pastoral call and part-time doing freelance writing, speaking engagements, and working on a book. This means I’ve spent many Sundays in many different contexts, listening to many different sermons -- as I’m preaching fewer Sunday mornings.
I’ve learned that the word “you” makes me sit up in my seat, or my pew. I might be letting my mind wander during the sermon, and then as soon as a preacher says “you,” I reengage. I listen with sharpened ears. Using the word “you” rather than “we” makes it seem as though the preacher is speaking directly to me. And truthfully, isn’t that what all of us -- and all of our hearers -- want?
Using the word “you” gives listeners a chance to reengage with your sermon and find themselves in the story of Law, Gospel, and Biblical text that you are sharing with them. Unlike “we,” which is easily disengaging if a person does not agree with your sentiment and thus is not a part of “we” -- “you” is invitational. It invites people to see themselves in God’s story in a new way.
Particularly for guests and people who are new to the church (a rising population in America), using “you” rather than “we” is a key strategy. For someone who isn’t already part of your church community, “we” can sound like the church is an insiders’ club, for “us” and not for “you.” And if the content the preacher is sharing is unfamiliar for new people, continuing to use “we” in a setting that already might feel unwelcoming could be another reason for visitors to choose not to return.
I first noticed the tendency of preachers to use “we” over “I” and “you” while listening to sermons, and I also notice it when reviewing sermons as part of my work for Luther Seminary’s preaching curriculum. I also continue to hear myself use “we” when I preach, but now that I’m paying attention to it, I can sometimes catch it mid-sentence and refocus my sermon on “me” and “you.”
That’s what I hope this article does for you, my fellow preachers. I hope it helps you notice when you might be softening your sermon’s power, and I hope it helps you reveal yourselves and speak directly to your listeners. It’s important that they hear you -- and all the power of the message God has sent through you.
1 See, for example, Michelle Mazur, “How to Kill a Persuasive Speech with One Tiny Word.” https://drmichellemazur.com/2013/03/kill-persuasive-speech-one-word.html