Back in the late Mesozoic era, when I was in seminary, my preaching professor told me, “You need to learn to write for the ear, not for the eye.”
“Well, phooey!” I thought. “How do I do that?”
So I kept plugging along, preparing the best sermons I could, and often feeling as if the words were falling like bricks in front of the pulpit. Thud! I wanted my words to soar. That kept me wondering about this business of writing for the ear.
My quest to learn to write for the ear took me in various directions, but one of the most fruitful of these has been learning about communication in primary oral cultures — that is, communication in cultures that use little or no writing.
Some preachers use manuscripts. Some preachers use notes. Some preachers take nothing into the pulpit but a Bible, a prayer, and whatever preparation they do beforehand.
Regardless of our sermon prep preferences, all of us can learn from oral cultures, because the goal of communication in primary oral cultures is to help listeners hold words in their memories, not on paper. Too often, our seminary-trained brains compose sermons for the reader, not the hearer.
Though a number of scholars have contributed to the discussion of oral-based communication, Walter Ong has done more than any other to enrich our understanding of primary oral communication. Ong points out that one of the most basic characteristics of the sounded word is its lack of permanence.1
Once a word is spoken, it disappears, except in memory. The written word, on the other hand, is fixed to paper and can be reviewed over and over. For this reason, one of the main goals of performed speech in primary oral cultures is to help the hearers remember what the speaker has said. This is not a bad goal for preachers to keep before us as we prepare to preach.
Ong offers an expansive list of characteristics of oral-based thought and expression.2 Ong’s work suggests three characteristics — make it memorable, use story, and emphasize relationship — that can be applied to preaching.
Make it Memorable
Speakers in primary oral cultures use techniques such a repetition, rhythm, refrain, formulas, clichés, and lists to help people think memorable thoughts. Using these techniques will conflict with some of what we were taught in English composition classes. In writing, we seek to trim the excess and excise the obvious. The more novel the thought, the more interesting it is in print.
Many of us seminary graduates have a particular proclivity for trying to find some fancy new approach to a passage of Scripture, based on whatever lit our exegetical fire last week. Certainly there is nothing wrong with offering a fresh look at an old text. The most effective preaching, however, is not necessarily preaching that passes on a curious little tidbit of biblical and theological scholarship each week, but preaching that articulates the “old, old story” in forms that are familiar and memorable to the people who have gathered to listen.
Speakers in primary oral cultures rely not on complex categories and detailed intellectual analyses, but on story and experiences from the hearers’ life in the world. Since writing allows a person to go back and review concepts, it also allows for abstract thought. Jesus’ use of parables provides a classic example of a speaker in a primary oral culture who remains connected to the human life world of the hearers. Deductive reasoning would never have played to the crowds in Galilee!
Many of us will fear that if we avoid formal logical reasoning processes, definitions, and comprehensive descriptions in our preaching, our preaching will seem simplistic. Certainly, many of us preach to congregations whose thought processes have been shaped by writing. We need to remember, however, that sound media increasingly shapes the thought processes of everyone in our culture. Furthermore, as theologian and cultural anthropologist Tex Sample points out, many congregations are filled with working-class people, whose culture is more oral than literate.3
Small children and people with intellectual disabilities also live in a world that is primarily oral. If we want to address the whole people of God in our preaching, we will worry less about the complexity of our thought processes and will instead concern ourselves with stories, images, and experiences from the world or our hearers.
Speakers in primary oral cultures are highly dependent upon the relationship between the speaker and the hearer. Ong summarizes this point by saying that oral-based communication is “empathic and participatory rather than objectively distanced.”44 One of the speaker’s main jobs in primary oral cultures is to remain open to the audience’s signals, which may come verbally, or through various other responses. Some preachers are very accustomed to depending on the hearers during their preaching for shouts of “Amen!” or “Have mercy!” or “Come on up!” For others of us, getting an “Amen” out of our congregations would be like getting blood out of a turnip.
The question for us to consider is not how to re-make our congregations’ cultures, but whether or not we, as preachers, are making a hospitable space in our preaching for hearers to respond to the preaching as the Spirit moves them.
Sometimes when I have preached, people shake my hand afterwards and say, “You gave me a lot to think about today.” Though I am grateful for the sentiment, those words never convince me that I have succeeded at my task. My study of primary oral cultures has convinced me that the outcome of preaching should not be that people leave worship impressed with the preacher’s ideas, but instead that people leave worship ready to preach the sermon over to themselves and to the people in their lives. In this way, the gospel will resound again and again in the Body of Christ and in the world.
1 Walter J. Ong, S.J., Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Routledge, 1988), 32.
2 Orality and Literacy, 33-77.
3 Tex Sample, Ministry in an Oral Culture: Living with Will Rogers, Uncle Remus, and Minnie Pearl (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 6.
4 Orality and Literacy, 45.