Church in an Oral World

Walley, Thomas; George Whitefield Preaching in Bolton, June 1750; Bolton Library & Museum Services, Bolton Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/george-whitefield-preaching-in-bolton-june-1750-163882

By all measures, you and I probably have in common, among other things, that we are highly literate. More often than not, I would much rather read a book than “waste time” listening to a someone speak. I am a writer; I get books. However, my experience with learning and literature is not exemplary of my church, nor of most churchgoers in Australia. According to data from 2013, only 15% of Australian adults read at levels 4 – 5 (the highest levels), with only about 1.2% reading at a diploma or higher level. The majority of adults, 44%, read at levels 1-2, which is up to the reading level expected by Year 10s. The remainder, 38%, read at the level of Year 11 or 12.1 One website estimates that 80% of the world’s population struggles with learning through literate means, many of whom are children, but others are oral-preferential learners.2

Oral-preferential learners are often divided into two categories. The 1st category consists of those who are unable to read or write; the 2nd category consists of those who might be called “functionally illiterate.” The 2nd category of learners struggled to derive meaning from written texts.3 Secondary oral-preferential learners can read the text before them but struggle to move from the act of vocalising to actually identifying meaning and responding as is fitting for the text. This means that those of us who are highly literate and prefer to learn from texts will have very different intuitions than those who are oral-preferential learners: we cannot rely on our intuitions to guide us in what is best for communicating to our congregations.

For example, I am struck when I read 16th-century texts in philosophy how different the authors’ assumptions are about the way the reader thinks from the way I actually think: Malebranche invites the reader to look inside themselves and scrutinise their ideas to discover the general, immutable, presumably eternal idea of a circle in the sensory experience of a particular circle; my response happens to be that of George Berkeley, when I search my thinking, I have no concept of anything but particular circles, with definite shape, size, and colour. How often do we do the same thing, asking ourselves questions about the best way to preach and lead a service, presupposing that even if we may be more educated than the average person in our church, we are on the same gradient as they do, so our intuitions will broadly line up with their experience? But what if that is not the case? What if, like the contemporary reader of Malebranche, our experience is alien to theirs (the example I have chosen is telling)?
For the past couple years, in an effort to improve my preaching in general, especially to congregations where many of the members do not speak English as a first language or are not highly educated, I have tried to learn as much as a I can about good oral communication, or preaching for the ear rather than the eye, as older works on preaching would say. If we step back for a moment and listen to our friends from cultures that are less literate than ours, and to people in our own countries who are oral-preferential learners or have learned from them, it quickly becomes clear that many of our church services (all services I have experienced in my adult life) are oriented primarily to text-preferential learners, not oral-preferential learners (I don’t mean “learning styles” by these categories but the contrast between literacy and illiteracy, in varying degrees).4

When we read the Bible, we often put the text of the reading up on a slide or invite the congregation to open their Bibles (providing a pew Bible, perhaps, if they don’t have their own); we presume that reading along will somehow aid comprehension for most people in our congregation. To generalise things, we presume upon the redundancy of a slide to fill in the gaps of our presentation: if our words fail, they can always read along. In more liturgical Evangelical churches, we will often put the words to a response or corporate prayer on the screen, again assuming that most people can or will benefit from reading along. We do the same thing with singing; we put the lyrics on the slides, assuming that someone who doesn’t know the song can follow the lyrics and that if they know the melody, the lyrics will be sufficient to enable the average congregation member to sing along. Because we rely on the lyrics on the screen, we vary songs regularly; we might shuffle through a fixed set of perhaps 100 songs each year, adding one or two new ones per-year. However, this means that in a given month, we might song a bit over a dozen songs, with little repetition. My daughter loves to sing, but she cannot yet read fluently, so she can only sing along with the songs she knows. If she knows a song, she will sing it, but this happens only once or twice in a month.

Furthermore, we presume by what we communicate about following Jesus that a mature faith involves reading the Bible regularly; I have seen the relief on a person’s face when I have explained to them that listening to the Bible, whether at church or through an audio Bible, is just as good as reading it—and better if it means they will actually hear God’s Word. How many times in a sermon have we invited the congregation to follow along in their Bibles, perhaps assuming in our preaching that they will be reading the words as we go? In an effort to keep our words within a certain time limit, perhaps we cut redundant language, repetition, explanatory material, or cram several sentences into one carefully written, compact but pregnant sentence. Have you, when planning a sermon series, decided to read a dozen or so passages from a biblical book and relied on your congregation to read the rest at home? Finally, our approach to small groups (whatever we choose to call them) tends to involve some form of inductive Bible study centred on reading the Bible.

Now, the Bible is a written text, and we cannot discount this. Encouraging literacy is a good thing, yet the Bible gives ample evidence that it was to be read in public (e.g. Deut 31:11; Neh 8:1-8; Luke 4:16-21; Col 4:16, 1 Thess 5:27) and sung (the Psalms are a clear example here), so we cannot treat hearing the Word of God as somehow deficient in comparison to seeing the Word of God. Certainly, our belief in the power of the preached word demonstrates our conviction that speaking and hearing are important parts of the Christian life. As John writes, “blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it” (Rev 1:3, NIV). Of all the texts in the Bible, John expects The Revelation of Jesus Christ to be read aloud and understood that way.

If we are going to reach the people in our congregations who come from countries that are not highly literate, if we are going to reach those who are just learning English, or if we are going to reach the significant portion of Australians who are not able to move from a written text to meaning, we need to think seriously about how we can preach and plan services for the ear, rather than for the eye. I am by no means an expert, but I want to offer some reflections to stir your thinking, reflections based upon the insights I have gleaned from others and my own efforts to implement these insights. I do not claim these are new insights; they are often repeated in the best books and discussion concerning service leading, and are attested across the history of the church, but are rarely or inconsistently practiced in many of our contemporary churches.

1. Services and Bible Reading

Not so long ago, repetition was a critical characteristic of liturgy. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer, for example, had set services that would be followed and regular patterns of prayer that would be repeated on certain occasions. If we repeat something every couple of months, chances are, members of our congregation will not learn it. However, if a pattern is repeated monthly, they may just catch the rhythm, and if regular prayers or patterns of prayer (that is, prayers that differ in wording but follow a regular cadence, structure, and thematic development) are used, people will learn them. Most of us have not set out to memorise the Lord’s Prayer, but we know it in one form or another because we have repeated it so often at church. Similarly, if a congregation that cannot read is going to learn a song, they will need to repeat it regularly. Repetition may sound boring to those who are used to concise, sparse style of academic writing and journalism, yet repetition is crucial to oral learning and retention. We often think that people need variety, that they desire novelty, but most people actually need consistency. Novelty may entertain, but consistency will actually form people around the Gospel and God’s Holy Scriptures. The Book of Common Prayer is an example of serious Christian thinking around communicating the Gospel and God’s Holy Scriptures to oral-preferential learners, so even us who are not Anglican stand to learn something by studying this resource, and similar resources from other traditions.

There has been a movement in recent years to read the Bible well in the gathered church; doing so is crucial if we are going to communicate to oral-preferential learners.5 If congregation members rely on the person speaking rather than reading the words set before them, then a reader stumbling over names, mumbling, or reading in a manner reminiscent of a computer will raise obstacles to hearing rather than effectively communicating the word of God. Paul tells Timothy, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim 4:13). The public reading of Scripture is something God has commanded us to do, so we must think about doing it well, just as we do with preaching and teaching. Given that many people in our congregations cannot or will not read the Bible at home, the public reading of Scripture may be the only reading of Scripture they have, so we ought to do it well. Part of this, I am convinced, means committing to reading the whole Bible; if the Bible is the very words of God, certainly proclaiming “the whole will of God” includes God’s actual words (Acts 20:27, NIV), not just our teaching of them.6

Thinking seriously about reading the Bible well, and striving to read the whole Bible in the gathered church, along with attention to the repetition and regular patterns of worship will help our services clearly communicate the Gospel to oral-preferential learners, however, the sermon is a critical part of Protestant church gatherings, so we will need to adjust our preaching as well. We need to think seriously about preaching for the ear rather than the eye.

2. Preaching

I have spent nearly my entire adult life in academia, most recently completing a PhD. I have always hated the presentation of academic papers, including my own fair share of presentations: oral presentations are a terrible medium for communicating the sort of extended argument, terse rhetoric, and technical precision—let alone the sources and supporting citations—that characterise academic literature. The skills necessary to communicate and persuade orally are different from those used in most forms of written communication.

A. The Problems of Preaching for the Eye

When I began studying theology and the Bible academically, I grew to love writing essays. Because I had to write so many essays, and interpreted the Bible in the context of such writing, my early sermons read a lot like an academic essay: there was an introduction, statement of the thesis, outline of the argument, three or so body paragraphs arguing for the thesis, and a conclusion restating the thesis and identifying its significance. Not only was the structure like an academic essay, but my sermons also often used long, subordinating sentences and terse, compact sentences with little explanation or redundancy.7 In short, my sermons were written for the eye, where the reader can slow down, re-read a sentence, see the logical relations explicit before them, and take the time to unpack the meaning of terse or ambiguous speech. However, a sermon written for the eye is no sermon at all.

Sermons are oral communication, so they need to be crafted with a listener, not a reader in mind. “There is no way to stop sound and have sound. … There is no equivalent of a still shot for sound”; the person listening to a sermon cannot stop and ponder a dense phrase or re-read a complicated sentence.8 Preaching for the ear means we cannot presume that people are following along with the written text before them, especially since many in our congregations could not do so even if this were, theoretically, a helpful practice.

It is also probably unhelpful to think in terms of a formal or analytical outline, with enumerated headings and subpoints supporting the main contention of each point, all serving to prove the thesis or “big idea” of the sermon.9 Doing so is helpful in structuring a serious academic argument but will be difficult to follow (and putting your outline on a slide won’t help oral-preferential learners). I suspect seeking to prove or explain a proposition is not a helpful approach as well for various reasons we will consider below, which can be summed up as: we preach to transform the person, not install a soundbite.10 If someone walks away from a sermon remembering “You shall not murder,” the sermon is not a success: they should walk away knowing how “you shall not murder” identifies their own sin, convicted that their anger indicts them, and convinced that a life and world shaped by “you shall not murder” is better than a life where anger and murder reign with impunity.

When writing, we can become focused on sentence-level communication, carefully crafting powerful sentences, sometimes with little attention to the cadence, flow, and cohesion of the paragraph. The problem with a sentence-level focus is that, once again, listeners cannot pause to unpack that sentence. In reading as well as listening, we process texts in a synthetic way, holding on to chunks of text synthesizing them into a broader understanding of the text, beyond the words and sentences composing it.11 In reading, we often break this synthesis by analysing words and sentences that trip us up; we rely on our ability to re-read and analyse for understanding. In turn, academic writing, and those influenced by academic practices (like seminary educated preachers) often rely on a similar idea of reading that relies on analysis. In literature written for text-preferential learners, attention is not always given to digestible proportions and the role of words and sentences not as the primary conveyors of meaning but as parts of paragraphs, the primary conveyors of meaning.12

These are examples of some problems afflicting our sermons if we intend to communicate orally. Sermons that fail to communicate orally are not only boring to the average congregation member, but they are also practically incomprehensible. So, how can we do better?

B. Preaching for the Ear

First, repeat yourself until it drives yourself nuts! Consider this description of orality and oral communication:

In an oral culture, to think through something in nonformulaic, non-patterned, non-mnemonic terms, even if it were possible, would be a waste of time, for such thought, once worked through, could never be recovered with any effectiveness, as it could be with the aid of writing.13

In a primary oral culture, to solve effectively the problem of retaining and retrieving carefully articulated thought, you have to do your thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence. Your thought must come into being in heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions or antitheses, in alliterations and assonances, in epithetic and other formulary expression, in standard thematic settings (the assembly, the meal, the duel, the hero’s ‘helper’, and so on), in proverbs which are constantly heard by everyone so that they come to mind readily and which themselves are patterned for retention and ready recall, or in other mnemonic form.14

Repeat key ideas in multiple forms, repeat concepts that you cannot simplify in other words, and repeat phrases that are separated by explanatory material. The word “dream” is ambiguous, so pair it up to communicate clearly: “dreams and aspirations.” Learn from biblical poetry, “YHWH raises the poor from the dust, he raises the needy from the ash heap; to seat them with the nobles, and give them a throne of honour” (1 Sam 2:8, my translation). In written language, we can make a parenthesis without repetition: “We all believe—to my shame, I know I believe—that earthly comfort is worth seeking and that we can find happiness in things of this world.” However, in oral speech, parenthetical material can render a sentence unintelligible, so use repetition or reword the sentence:

We all believe—to my shame, I know I believe—we all believe that earthly comfort is worth seeking and that we can find happiness in things of this world.

We have been sold a vision of comfort—maybe it’s home ownership, a stable job, and a comfortable retirement—we have been sold a vision of comfort and told that following Jesus is compatible with that vision.

Try those sentences without repetition, and then again with repetition and intonation emphasising the repeated phrase. In oral speech, especially in sentences with multiple people mentioned, pronouns introduce unnecessary ambiguity, so repeat the antecedent:

After following Jesus for a while, the disciples had an idea who Jesus was, but even they didn’t see the full picture. To Jesus’ question, “who do you say I am,” Peter responds, “you are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Related to repetition is the use of redundant language. Academic writing prizes terseness and sparsity, even while it supports the use of cumbersome syntax: we may use excessive commas and colons, but we drop as many prepositions as possible, minimise repetition, and substitute pronouns for nouns prolifically. However, broadly speaking, in oral communication, redundancy is more desired than unadorned sparsity. Repeat nouns instead of substituting them with pronouns, repeat phrases and questions in different words, and generally avoid the intuition to immediately cut anything that looks repetitive or redundant. Consider Walter Ong again: “Oral expression thus carries a load of epithets and other formulary baggage which high literacy rejects as cumbersome and tiresomely redundant because of its aggregative weight”; “Traditional expressions in oral cultures must not be dismantled: it has been hard work getting them together over the generations, and there is nowhere outside the mind to store them.”15 Colloquial language relies on idioms and cumbersome expressions: this is not something to fight against if we desire to communicate to people who primarily communicate colloquially.

Oral communication also prefers coordination or additive syntax over subordination. That is, in oral communication, there is preference for full stops and compound sentences (“He ate dinner, and he went for walk”) over the use of dependant clauses (“After he ate dinner, he went for a walk”). In written communication, sentences don’t begin with “and” or “but,” but we often begin sentences this way in speech.

Though there is a place for punchy sentences, and proverbial like speech, broadly speaking, focusing on paragraph level communication facilitates better oral communication. That is, if we try to communicate for the ear using repetition, redundancy, and simple, additive syntax, we will find that we are focusing on constructing comprehensive paragraphs, not isolated sentences. Short paragraphs are easier to follow than large paragraphs.

Above I mentioned the problems with thinking in terms of an analytic outline for structuring your sermon; another way to think about it is in term of plot and movement. We associate “plot” with narrative, but we can apply plot to non-narrative communication. A plot is not a series of subordinated thought points but a linear progression of events, A – B – C – D, events which are connected and often exhibit a causal connection (A, a war begins; B, a country is invaded; C, the country calls for help; D, its allies wage a rousing defence and attain victory). In a sermon, thinking in terms of a plot means thinking of your sermon as journey from one place to another and plotting a path of necessary connections to get there.16 For example, I recently preached on Matthew 16. Where we start is a problem: we have been deceived, we love a life that cannot last at the expense of life unending and full of joy.17 Our lives don’t reflect the Christ whom we say we follow. I want us to end with the conclusion Christ gives us: following him means forsaking this world, and it’s worth it. Speaking to a congregation that already wants to follow Jesus, I need to show them who Jesus is and how the world has deceived us into thinking that following Jesus is compatible with loving the world. If we take Jesus’ seriously, he shows us that true life is found in forsaking the things of this world and following him unto death. We can get from the problem to the solution by looking at who Jesus is and where he leads us, so the plot of my sermon is: A.The problem: Who are following? do our lives look like we are following Christ? B.The Christ we followed was crucified. C. The solution What does it look like to follow the crucified Christ?

Thinking in terms of a problem people genuinely struggle with or would struggle with if it were made known to them means that we will make a meaningful connection to a person’s life. Bryan Chapell observers, “By identifying listeners’ mutual condition with the biblical writer, subject, and/or audience, we determine why the text was written, not just for biblical times but also for our time.”18 Sermons are often boring not because the speaker sucks but because the sermon is irrelevant, and this is our fault: the Bible is highly relevant to every single person in our congregation. The Bible is useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” so that the person who follows God will be fully equipped for the life God has called them to (2 Tim 3:16-17, NIV): a preacher must connect the text to the listeners life so that they feel and are changed by God’s power through his word.

If we are not depending on a congregation to follow along with their ears, not through slides or a written handout, then we will need to flag transitions and major movements of a sermon orally. If we are thinking in terms of a plot, we don’t need people to walk away with an outline in their head, but do want them to know they are making progress. We want them to feel the progression towards the resolution of the problem as demonstrated from Scripture and to know that we will not continue talking forever. As a turn signal indicates to everyone around that a car is about to change direction, so oral and physical cues can be used to indicate major movements in the sermon. A cue may be a major pause between major sections of the sermon, or for those who are not bound to a pulpit, a physical transition can highlight and reinforce a transition in the sermon itself.19 Repetition of a key idea or structuring theme, perhaps the problem, at the end of each section flags a movement to another part. Offering a road map early in the sermon and referring to it as you proceed also helps the listener locate where they are and the progress being made.

I am not a great preacher, and certainly not proficient at oral communication, but these are some ideas I have gleaned from many sources over the years. I commend them to you not as infallible principles for insightful preaching but as a food for thought to get you started thinking through preaching for the ear rather than the eye. A good conclusion is also probably valuable for oral communication, but I would be a hypocrite if I gave such counsel.

  1. “Literary and Access,” Government, Australian Government Style Manual, 27 February 2024, https://www.stylemanual.gov.au/accessible-and-inclusive-content/literacy-and-access. []
  2. “International Orality Network | Oral Learners: Who Are They?,” https://orality.net/about/oral-learners-who-are-they/. []
  3. Rick Sessoms, “Who Are Oral Learners?,” Freedom To Lead International®, 12 April 2012, https://freedomtolead.net/telling-story-great-commission-oral-learners/. On the first category, see Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Routledge, 2002). On the second, see Réka Vágvölgyi et al., “A Review about Functional Illiteracy: Definition, Cognitive, Linguistic, and Numerical Aspects,” Front Psychol 7 (2016): 1617, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01617. []
  4. On learning styles, see Harold Pashler et al., “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence,” Psychol Sci Public Interest 9.3 (2008): 105–19, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x. []
  5. E.g. Simon Camilleri, “How to Organise an Epic Bible Reading,” The Gospel Coalition | Australia, 10 March 2023, https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-to-organise-an-epic-bible-reading/; Justin Borger, “Don’t Forsake the Public Reading of Scripture,” Tabletalk, 31 July 2020, https://tabletalkmagazine.com/posts/dont-forsake-the-public-reading-of-scripture/; Kevin Halloran, “Devoted to the Public Reading of Scripture: Ideas, Techniques, and Resources,” WordPartners, 2020, https://wordpartners.org/resources/devoted-to-the-public-reading-of-scripture-ideas-techniques-and-resources/. []
  6. Andrew Reid and Tim Patrick commend preaching the whole Bible, but they offer an unrealistically long period for doing so. I would prefer to emphasise reading the whole Bible and preaching what is necessary to communicate it clearly. Tim Patrick and Andrew Reid, The Whole Counsel of God: Why and How to Preach the Entire Bible (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020); J. Alexander Rutherford, “Review of The Whole Counsel of God – Teleioteti Book Reviews,” Teleioteti, 18 May 2020, https://www.teleioteti.ca/2020/05/18/review-of-the-whole-counsel-of-god/. []
  7. Subordinating sentences are those that use conjunctions and prepositional phrases to create multilayered sentences with explicit logic relations: when Monday came, he ran to the playground because he was eager to play, for it was a holiday; however, a storm was soon to put a damper on his fun. []
  8. Ong, Orality and Literacy, 32. []
  9. The preaching textbook I first learned with (and certainly learned from) put it like this, for a sermon that explains a concept, “In the introduction to such a sermon we state the complete idea; in the body we take the idea apart and analyze it; and in the conclusion we repeat the idea gain. Certainly such a development wins through clarity anything it loses in suspense,” or “When [an idea needs proof], the idea appears in the introduction as a proposition you will defend. Because your stance as a preacher resembles that of a debater, your points become reasons or proofs for your idea.” Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), chap. 6. []
  10. One could rightly state that a “proposition” repeated and explained is easily memorable, but having a proposition memorised is hardly an adequate end for a sermon. Sermons rather shape and convict us, they drive us to action, shape our affection after God, point us towards him, and humble us before his throne. All of these ends can be achieved without walking away with a single memorable statement, and having such a statement is arguably to the detriment of the multifaceted way written and spoken communication can teach and shape us. See, for example, John Frame’s critique of texts having a single idea or proposition and Michael Polanyi’s discussion of the broader framework of knowledge within which we function, more than just statements of belief. John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1987); Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2009). Cf. Esther L. Meek, Longing to Know (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003). []
  11. Consider, for example, the discussion of phonology and subvocalization in the process of reading. E.g. Catherine Walter, “Phonology in Second Language Reading: Not an Optional Extra,” TESOL Quarterly 42.3 (2008): 456–58, https://doi.org/10.2307/40264478. []
  12. For a critique of the word level practice, which is reflected at the sentence level, see Moisés Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics, rev. and expanded ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994); D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996). See also Polanyi’s discussion of synthesis in knowing and the problems of “destructive analysis.” Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension. []
  13. Ong, Orality and Literacy, 36. []
  14. Ong, Orality and Literacy, 34. []
  15. Ong, Orality and Literacy, 38. []
  16. Though I would neither commend his theology nor the account of actually composing a sermon in the latter half of the book, the first part of Andy Stanley’s Communicating for a Change makes a point similar to this. Andy Stanley and Lane Jones, Communicating for a Change (Sisters, Or: Multnomah Publishers, 2006). []
  17. On starting with a problem, I am indebted to Bryan Chapell as filtered through V. Phillips Long. See Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 48–57. []
  18. Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 52. []
  19. The illustration of a turn signal is used in Stanley and Jones, Communicating for a Change. []

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