Chapter 6: Barriers to Dialogical Preaching

Partners in Preaching: Clergy and Laity in Dialogue
by Reuel L. Howe

Chapter 6: Barriers to Dialogical Preaching

In the preceding chapter we considered three parts of the preaching situation: the congregation, the preacher, and the life-worship dialogue as the context for preaching. We shall now consider a fourth factor: the presence of meaning barriers.

Most of us assume the process of communication to be easier than it actually is: namely, that if we will tell people what they need to know, and if they will have the good grace to hear and do what we tell them, the job will be done. Nothing could be more mistaken than that expectation, as the young clergymen whose conversation was recorded in the opening chapter discovered.

Aside from the difficulty of saying what we mean, the real question is whether we will be heard and heeded. There are some inevitable complications that need to be considered: the barriers to communication that exist in every relationship, including that of preacher and congregation, as represented in the diagram on the following page.



The Nature of the Barriers

A barrier is a block that prevents a meeting of meaning between two or more people. In the case of preaching the barriers are usually between the preacher and his consciously organized effort to communicate a message, and the individual persons who make up his congregation. As we have already pointed out (and as the arrows in the diagram indicate), there is a movement of meaning from each side; but the arrows moving in the opposite direction indicate that meanings often do not meet and return without receiving response. It is as if the meanings hit something between the communicators that caused them to bounce back.

These barriers exist in and between both preacher and congregation. Fundamental to all barriers is the condition of general ambivalence that all human beings -- and specifically, here, preacher and congregation -- experience in communication: that is, as human beings, we both want to speak and do not want to, and we both want to hear and are afraid to do so. Such ambivalence stems from our ontological condition -- that is, we both want to know and be known, and do not want to know and be known -- and, therefore, our power to represent ourselves and to hear the representation of others is adversely affected. Concretely, this means that the preacher, as he stands in his pulpit, both wants to speak and preach the gospel and does not want to; and his people, as they sit before him, have come to hear, yet do not want to hear the gospel.

There are many illustrations of how this ambivalence affects us. The preacher can be ambivalent about preaching the gospel itself because to truly present it truly brings him under judgment and calls him to commitments that threaten his way of life. And members of the congregation experience the same kind of ambivalence. They would like to respond to the promise of renewal that they sense in the Good News, but they also want to hold back a great part of themselves because of the demand for change in them that comes with the promise. And thus each occasion of preaching is marked by an ambivalence on both sides.

Part of the preaching task is to overcome this ambivalence, and it can be done only as both preacher and people accept the ambivalence and help each other with it. In contrast to this realistic aim, I find that both preacher and congregation are often unaware of any ambivalence in themselves and each other and, therefore, cannot help each other toward removing its disabling effect.

Sharing the Problem

They could help each other by at least sharing the problem. The church’s preachers and teachers for the most part seem to ignore the processes of interaction and learning. What goes on between preacher and congregation is rarely talked about, identified, and made a part of the curriculum -- that is, made a source of learning. Neglect of this part of the preaching encounter centers all meaning of preaching on content which, because it lacks correlation with its human counterpart, cannot possibly seem important or challenging. What happens when a preacher identifies and discusses his own and his congregation’s ambivalence about honest communication and about the gospel? Most people welcome the preacher’s effort. They like his honesty, and it engenders trust of him. They pay more attention to the other things that he says. They become less guarded in meeting his message with their own meanings. They talk with each other and with people outside their own church circle about the experience they have had together and the ambivalence they see in all relationships. And they seem to acquire some power over it because they recognize and name the condition.

There will be some people, of course, who will resist and be alienated by such honesty between preacher and congregation, but their responses have to be accepted as inevitable.

Some Specific Barriers

This ambivalence is also reflected in certain other identifiable symptoms which act as more specific barriers to a meeting of meaning.

Jim Darling and his friends had found that language can be a major barrier. And yet how strange when language is supposed to be a carrier of meaning. Language can be both a barrier and a carrier. When people, for example, bring different meanings to the use of the same word, their communication gets hung up on that word. The same word also may have different meanings and that will make it difficult for participants in the communication to understand each other. One person understands "judgment," for example, to mean condemnation; another person may understand it to mean evaluation leading to reconstruction. Their communication may then be complicated or blocked by the different understandings they have of the meaning of the word.

We should remember, too, that the meaning a person has for a word is not only a matter of semantics. It may have its roots in life’s experiences. Language problems are often expressions of relationship problems. The word "Bible," for example, can have a repressive moralistic meaning for one person because the Bible and its teaching was used to suppress gay and spontaneous responses during his childhood. Another person will have joyous and constructive meanings for the Bible because it was used to elicit responses of trust and love. Similarly "home" for one person is a place of fulfillment, for another a source of anxiety and dread, both meanings coming out of the relationships experienced in the home.

Another aspect of the language problem has to do with technical language which applies to preaching. Many biblical and theological terms, as we have already noted in other connections, are foreign and uncongenial to contemporary man. He neither receives nor conveys meaning by their use. Words and concepts such as "creation," "fall," "heaven," "hell," "kingdom," "resurrection," "ascension," "redemption" are meaningless to thousands of people, including lifelong church members. And yet the preacher has been trained to employ this language and is baffled to discover its ineffectiveness. The traditional words, however, need not be discarded, but when the preacher uses them, he should explain their original meaning and significance, and help people relate that meaning to the meaning of their lives today. This means that every preacher has the job of building bridges of understanding between the historical meaning of traditional words and the contemporary situation or symbol in which the same meaning is imbedded.

Second, images are another barrier to the meeting of meaning. The images which the participants in communication have of one another or of the subject matter under consideration can effectively obstruct communication. What we say to each other has to filter through what we think the other is like, and therefore what we think the other is saying. Preaching as communication can be blocked by many images: images that the clergy may have of the laity, and the laity may have of the clergy; images both may have of the church, the gospel, religion, or of the relation of the church to the world.

One of the most disabling images with respect to effective preaching is the image which clergy have of laity as passive consumers of preaching rather than as active partners. A common disabling image that lay people frequently hold is that of the preacher as an otherworldly idealist who knows little about life. A crippling common image of the gospel and the Christian religion generally is that its main concern is for the maintenance of middle-class American morality. A prevalent image of the relation of church and world is that the church’s business is religion and the preacher ought to stick to it and leave the world and its affairs to practical-minded men. The existence and inhibiting effect of these images are not generally recognized, and therefore preachers and congregations often remain helpless victims of them. All these images and others as well need to be brought out into the open, examined, and dealt with as a part of the preaching curriculum.

A third barrier that blocks the flow of meaning is the differences between people with respect to age, sex, education, cultural level, etc. The difficulty which different generations have in communicating with each other is common knowledge. Male and female are participants in a relationship that is often referred to as the war between the sexes although, as one wit observed, the war has not gone well because of too much fraternization between them. Differences in education create problems of communication. For example, theological education of the clergy can block communication with laity. Cultural differences block the communication between the traditional and the contemporary; or, the church is still emotionally related to the nineteenth-century conditions while the world is involved in the explorations and tensions of the twentieth century. These differences, among others not mentioned, condition the church’s preaching.

Again the question for the minister is: What am I doing, as a part of my preaching responsibility, to work through these barriers?

Fourth, our anxieties are another barrier to the meeting of meaning. These anxieties may be personal, situational, or topical. Our personal anxieties are usually born out of our relationships and our concern about being accepted and loved. Our situational anxieties have to do with the circumstances and security of our lives, how they are to be affected by such technological advances as cybernetics, by inflation, or by war. Our topical anxieties are concerned with subject matter, such as having to talk about difficult or embarrassing problems, or about such loaded subjects as open housing. It is not uncommon for all of these anxieties to beset us at one time. Preaching can easily activate these anxieties in a congregation to the point where the members will not be able to hear what is being said. Therefore, preaching has the responsibility for acknowledging and dealing with them. Unless the preacher breaks the barrier that they offer, the gospel cannot be heard.

Fifth, anxieties can also cause us to be defensive, and this defensiveness, in turn, can both confuse our speaking and block our hearing. All people inevitably develop a system of defenses and defensiveness in order to keep themselves relatively secure. Unfortunately, most people do not seem to be aware of their defensiveness and cannot protect themselves and their relationships against its effect. If we feel under attack, for example, a very natural defense is to reject the criticism by justifying ourselves as we are, with the result that criticism never becomes for us a source of learning. Incidentally, I find that this is a common defense of preachers who apparently are so vulnerable in their preaching that they cannot accept critical comments or even honest discussion that represents another point of view. Congregations, also, can be defensive and engage in self-justification or scape-goating when challenged. It is imperative that preachers and congregations, who together have the responsibility of representing the gospel in the world, should help each other with their defensive reactions to anxiety in order that they may become more open in their communications with one another and with the world and thus more perfect instruments for the diffusion of the Word of God.

These are only five meaning barriers. There are others. such as divergent purposes and preoccupations, all of which make it difficult for us to communicate with each other and require our attention.

Now, the question is: What can we do about them?