A Hazy Shade of Preaching

Do We Know What We're Trying to Say?

It surprises me how often I and my colleagues use language from the pulpit that we understand but few others can. Sometimes people can understand the words. They just don’t mean much. “Freedom,” “Grace,” “Love,” etc. are words we throw around and use frequently. We leave them to themselves, and the listener to understand what they mean without explanation. When politicians today say, “Freedom,” they think everyone understands what it means the same way. Not so.

If I use words like “justice,” “Gospel,” “Kingdom,” “For the sake of the world,” (and I should), then I need to help people see what that means, precisely. This provides clarity for the listener and accountability for the preacher. I must know exactly what I’m trying to say if I’m going to throw around big words, I need to know what they mean and what actual relationship they have to the text I’m preaching.

Take “Kingdom.” Jesus himself was known to say, “The Kingdom of God is like…” and then provide people a snapshot of the Kingdom. Holy ambiguity isn’t a very effective way to preach–yet I continue to step into it.

I’m not at all encouraging a “dumbing down” of language we use from the pulpit. I’m calling for the opposite. Use the big words.

And the small ones.

The colorful and beautiful words.

However, let’s not create a fog or dumb down our language by overusing powerful language that begs to be embodied verbally. Perhaps we use such words and keep on moving for a couple of reasons: 1) We ourselves may not be exactly sure how what we’re saying looks like lived out, 2) We think everyone knows what we mean. Even if the aforementioned two things aren’t applicable, why wouldn’t we want to put flesh and life to the words and concepts we’re bring out of the Scriptures.

I know the creative side of some loves the mystical side of using language. We think to ourselves, “let them wrestle with it.” Well, it may be better to save their wrestling for God. Instead, let’s introduce them to the God with whom they can wrestle by helping them understand His Will clearly. I don’t want them to wrestle with my words. My words should paint a vivid picture of One who transcends them.

Thoughts? How would you like to see preacher’s use language more effectively?



Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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6 thoughts on “A Hazy Shade of Preaching

  1. It would paint a firm promising picture of eternal life. ,now I say we must be careful of how we paint for the sake of the unbeliever.

  2. The use of “mystery” language (terms, words, phrases, etc.) is common in most professions. When was the last time you understood a doctor, a politician, an academic, an engineer, a contractor, inspector, and so on without having to ask clarifying questions or seek more information on your own? There are many reasons for using mystery language. A professional may want to hide the truth or project an air of authority. Sometimes it is about control (if people have to ask me what I mean, I control the message) and other times it is about ignorance (forgetting who your audience is).

    Please do not confuse accessibility with “dumbing down.” I write and edit a variety of technical documents. I teach technical communications. Accessibility is the key to great technical communications. Many scientists, engineers, developers, etc. often think that their technical communicators are dumbing things down when in fact we are making the product, invention, technology, etc. accessible to audiences that need to use that product right the first time without having to make lots of time to figure it out.

    Most religious movements use mystery language. Sometimes intentional. Sometimes accidental. What has changed is that post modern audiences do not tolerate the use of mystery language. Whether a product, an application, or a profession; today’s audiences will leave the inaccessible for something using language they can understand.

    Jesus, the apostles, and the disciples following him all made the gospel accessible. Preachers and teachers today must follow in their footsteps, making the good news accessible. From my perspective, that requires three broad sets of action: 1. Take Alexander Campbell’s advice – know the historical, cultural, and linguistic context of what is recorded in scripture. 2. Know what the Holy Spirit is saying to you about scripture at any given time. Listen, ask, seek clarity from the original author. and 3. Make the time to know your audience – what are your primary, secondary, tertiary, and extended audiences? What do they need to see the gospel? What do they need to hear the gospel? What do they need to understand the gospel?

    Making the good news accessible may require action first. It may require explanation of terms from ancient languages and cultures that are not commonly understood by audiences. One of my spiritual mentors, Bill Day, used to tell the story of preaching in India and using the example of “a first kiss” to describe some aspect of love. His audience did not understand what a “first kiss” was all about. He learned in that moment that colloquial expressions do not always transcend cultural experience.

    If there is anything that should be made accessible to all, it is the good news of Jesus. Make it as easy to understand as Jesus did. Use Paul’s examples and methods in his letters. Follow the example of early believers in Acts. Make the good news accessible to all of your audience members, believers and unbelievers alike.

    Keep up the great work.


  3. Sean, thanks for sharing that. I loved the Standard and Poor. Though I may have emphasized the language aspect, I’m talking mostly about haziness of concept that language betrays or communicates.

    As I suggested, I really think we need to use language as artistically and in-depth as possible. We should use lofty language when talking about God…provided it isn’t for our own aggrandizement and that we are communicating God’s “over our headness” and not simply haziness of thought or language.

    It’s a dance I think each preacher has to figure out.

  4. I know what you are saying. I often define the word over and over. Love for instance is seeking the best for another even if it means dying for them. Or kingdom is the rule of God. That way people know what I’m talking about. Finding good understandable definitions is difficult.

  5. Interesting thoughts. I “wrestle” myself with the use of language. Here’s something that I recently wrote for something I’m working on. I’d like your response to it…and anyone else’s.

    “People complain that sometimes when I preach the words I use about God are ‘over their heads’. But what greater compliment could be given? It is over your head. And over mine. And should we leave our houses of worship each Sunday straining to get a glimpse of the Holy One of Israel, whose ways are higher than our ways, we are better, not worse, for it.

    It isn’t that the word of God should not be accessible, but it is that it should not be common.

    I am embarrassed any Sunday when I have to downgrade the word of God to language that is both Standard and Poor, just so someone, whose mind is cluttered from the rancor of a loud-mouthed, TV, Cable News culture can understand without thinking.”