Arthur Miller’s famous play, Death of a Salesman, has come to mind recently in a somewhat facetious, but applicable way.
The first time I was aware of it was when a then-famous preacher asked me what my role was at College Church. This in itself was not particularly unusual. Titles for positions of church staff are sometimes opaque, and it makes sense to delve a little further.
Before I had a chance to reply though, he interjected, ‘Are you “the communicator”?’ I was caught off-guard, for while my main role is indeed preaching, I had never thought of myself as quote, unquote, the communicator. I mumbled a hesitant, ‘Uh, yeah, I suppose so…’ and the conversation continued along other lines that are not pertinent to the point of this article.
What we call preachers
Since then, that conversation has continued to ring in my mind as I have observed various labels related to preachers develop in popular Christian subculture in America. The most obvious is the category known as ‘gifted communicator.’
I ask myself these days what that actually means. Obviously, I believe in there being different gifts given by God to edify the body and reach the world. Equally obviously, I do not think I need to look through the particular list of gifts in the NT (such as in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians) and specify a particular gift by name in order to include it in the pantheon of giftedness today. God’s grace gifts are gracious, and I am sure there are more gifts than specifically mentioned in those lists, overlapping and exemplary as they probably are.
Paul, the gifted communicator?
The concern I have is not so much with the category of a gift which cannot itself be found in the gifts of the Spirit in the Bible; though that causes me to pause. I can comfort myself that different translations of different gifts could be expressed in various ways in the vernacular, and that there are surely more gifts present than are listed there.
No, my concern is that I am suspicious that the category of ‘gifted communicator’ actually falls more naturally, within the NT’s descriptions, in a somewhat negative rather than positive light. After all, when you read through 1 Corinthians, you find that Paul – no doubt self-aware of being a gifted speaker, in some sense, and a gifted writer – was heavily criticised for his lack of spectacular gifting in these areas by the Corinthian church. In fact, as the category of ‘gifted communicator’ goes, he seems pretty determined to distance himself from that idea.
In retrospect, I probably should have answered the question ‘Are you “the communicator”?’ with: ‘No, I am a preacher of God’s Word by God’s power, not human rhetoric’. It seems to me that that is closer to what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians.
The relevant passage is worth quoting in full, for while you can no doubt find it in your own Bibles, I would especially like to draw attention to the way that Paul frames his understanding of his purpose as a preacher of God’s Word in God’s power. It is inescapably polarised against preaching with the rhetoric of the standard schools of rhetoric (read, ‘communication theory’) of his day:
‘When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power’ (1 Corinthians 2.1-5, NIV).
In case you think this is an interpretation of this passage that suggests that preachers, therefore, should not attempt to communicate well, should not do their homework, should not try to structure their talks and writing in ways that are most likely to persuade, consider Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Surely he, of any of the 20th-century preachers, was at times given to preach with God’s power, and had, most would say who heard him, an unusual communication ability. Yet he did not view preaching the same as having perfectly-crafted, gifted communication. Sentences were not always grammatically accurate; structure was not always perfect. He lived in a different time and had different issues against which to contrast his ministry, but the point I think is well taken in our context.
Being able to speak for an hour without notes and make everyone laugh as you do so, all the while keeping within the bounds of conservative, reformed evangelicalism, does not necessarily equate to preaching with the power of God. In fact, perhaps, if we take Paul’s writing above carefully, on its own it cannot.
Josh Moody is the senior pastor of College Church, Wheaton, Illinois.