There are times that I wince when I hear a preacher use big words in his or her sermons, words that presuppose a high degree of formal education on the part of the audience, or technical terms understandable only by those who have had some theological education. I am particularly concerned when there are youth in the audience. It’s hard enough to get their attention. It doesn’t help if we use terms that they don’t understand. I am also concerned when there are folks in the congregation who do not have a high level of formal education. I am concerned because if they don’t understand the sermon how can they benefit from it? Furthermore, I am worried that we send the wrong signal to this group — that if you are not smart enough, or not educated enough, if you don’t know big words, you don’t really count in the body of Christ.
I understand that there are times when we have to use certain terms because they are the only ones suitable to convey an idea. If that is the case, the speaker needs to take the time to explain the meaning of the word. But we should use words that are understood by the majority of the group we are addressing.
The issue here is understandability. This is the main reason that Paul was against the use of the gift of tongues/languages in public worship without interpretation because people would not be able to understand what was being said.
. . . If you speak to people in words they don’t understand, how will they know what you are saying? You might as well be talking into empty space. (1 Corinthians 14:9 NLT)
In other words, when we are speaking or preaching to a group, we need to choose words that will be understood by the group. We know that Paul puts this into practice in his own preaching. When he is preaching to a Jewish audience he will quote extensively from the Old Testament (Acts 13:13–43). But when he is speaking to Gentiles he argues from creation and from religious experience, using concepts and language that his Gentile audience would understand (Acts 17:22–34). The content of his message remained the same but he was careful to choose words and imagery that would make sense to a given audience.
The issue then is not “big” words, but suitable words; words that are appropriate to a particular audience. When I am speaking at a Christian Medical and Dental Fellowship event, I would not hesitate to use medical terms, and words known mainly by those in the medical fraternity. In fact if I don’t do that I would be failing as a communicator. However if I were to preach that same sermon in my church, I would have to rethink as to what words would be suitable for that audience. The Word of God remains the same. The message remains the same. But the words I use must be understandable by the people I am ministering to.
It is interesting that Jesus spoke using parables a lot of the time.
Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables. (Matthew 13:34 NLT)
There is something universal about stories. They communicate to all sorts of people, from children to scholars.
Story’s role in human life extends far beyond conventional novels or films. Story, and a variety of storylike activities, dominates human life. (Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal. [New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, 8])
It would make sense then that speakers and preachers should incorporate more stories into their presentations. Even then we need to select appropriate stories for each audience. Speaking to farmers and fishermen, Jesus used stories from their worlds.
Crafting one’s sermon by choosing the words and stories appropriate for a particular audience is hard work. Prayer is assumed and the Lord often surprises you with just the right word or the right turn of phrase. But it’s still hard work. After all these years, it is still very hard work. And really there is no way you can guarantee that the words you choose, no matter how carefully chosen, will be understood by everyone in an audience. Why bother? Because the preacher is a servant to his or her audience.
The listeners are not there for our sake. We are there for theirs. Yes, we are servants of the Lord first, and our Lord has given us a high calling, to speak on His behalf (1 Peter 4:11a). It is our duty to make God’s message clear and understandable to its intended audience. In my seminary classes I sometimes ask my students: “Do you love preaching or do you love people?” If we love people, our sermons must be rooted in the Word but packaged in a way that is understandable to its intended audience. That is the heart of preaching. We are building a bridge of understanding between the world of the Word and the world of our hearers.
Sometimes, people will come up to me after I speak and tell me that my sermons are simple and down to earth. They may not know it, but that is high praise indeed.