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How do we speak well—of each other as ‘the church’?

Bryan Wolfmueller is a Lutheran pastor in Austin, Texas, who has an extensive ministry on radio and online on YouTube. He usually publishes twice a week on YouTube, including Sunday Drive Home, where (slightly unnervingly) he reflects on his Sunday sermon in the car as he drives home from church.

But he is a consummate communicator, and I previous both observed his online broadcast skills and conducted an interview with him about what is need for online preaching. I think we all needed help in the switch to online service, and many are still streaming services for people to watch at home. And many people who preach are reluctant to work on developing their skills in delivery, even though this is a vital part of preaching. As I have pointed out previously, we need good content in what we say to preach well, but we also need to learn the skills of delivery if we are to avoid preach badly.

So I was very struck by the short video he published last week ‘I like Jesus but not the Church’ in his occasional series ‘What-not’ on common questions or issues. I here offer comments at two levels: first, simply observing this as an example of great online and preaching communication; and secondly, reflecting on the content. If you are at all involved in preaching, teaching or communication, then first watch the video attending only to issues of communication. This is a discipline, since we are naturally drawn to listening to the content—but if we are going to become more effective communicators ourselves, we also need to learn the discipline of observing good communications skills and adapting and adopting them ourselves.

Here is what I observed; I have indented the issues which particularly relate to online speaking, to distinguish them from more general issues around communication.

The video is at an unusual angle—he appears to have his phone on his desk—and yet the composition of the shot is excellent, with his eyes in the upper half, so it is very natural for us as viewers to engage with him. This is one of the basics of online recoding to get right.

Bryan is very good at another basic discipline of online video work: he looks at the camera. You can tell he is recording on his phone, because very occasionally he is looking to his right, which is where the image of himself is. Again, a basic mistake of much phone recording is that people look at their own image, rather than the camera, which makes the viewer feel as thought the speaker is not engaging with them.

He gets straight to the meat of the issue, rather than having a long pre-amble. He needs to as this is only a six-minute video—but there is a style of preaching which has too many preliminaries and could do with getting to the point.

 

What was the focus of Jesus’ prayer in John 17?

The Sunday gospel lectionary reading for Easter 7 in Year C is John 17.20–26. It continues as part of the ‘dicing up’ of sections from the farewell discourse in John 13–17 across the three years of the lectionary, and like other readings it is strangely short—which creates the real danger that we read each part in isolation, and lose the context and flow of Jesus’ speech here.

Part of the distinctive issue in this part of this gospel is that Jesus’ language here proceeds by circling round ideas, and with each new circling, adding in new dimensions and aspects; the closest analogy I can think of is creating a rope by winding threads together, and as it progresses adding new strands (though I am not sure I have expressed that very well!). So we cannot really read this passage without noting what has gone before, and how the ideas are developing. For example, the first phrase in our reading is ‘I do not ask for these only…’ which raises the question, who are ‘these’, and what has Jesus asked for them? What does he mean by ‘word’, and why is there a contrast with the ‘world’?

This applies especially to the language here of unity. If I was given sixpence every time I heard someone quoted John 17.21 ‘…that they might be one…’ then I’d have a lot of change that I wouldn’t know what to do with. It is commonly suggested that, in this, Jesus’ ‘high priestly prayer’, we see his last desire expressed to his heavenly Father, and that desire is for his people to have visible unity. We must therefore take this seriously, and make it a priority above other issues since, after all, it was so important to Jesus that it formed his final wish. Specifically, this concern must override any other, so that we do not allow differences in doctrine to undermine the unity; we must ‘agree to disagree’ in order to stay together. 

It is worth looking at the prayer a little more closely, and putting it in its context both in John’s gospel and amongst the gospels as a whole. The prayer forms the climax of the Last Supper discourse in John—but of course John himself mentions no supper, but instead focusses on the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus. This reminds us that we need to read John in one hand with the synoptics, and particularly Mark, in the other; the two fill out each other and give each other context. So we read that, after this prayer of John 17, Jesus goes out [to Gethsemane] in John 18.1, but we need to turn to Mark 14.32 to know the name of the place and what happens there.

(A perennial puzzle in this whole speech is the occurrence of ‘Rise, let us go from here’ in the middle of Jesus’ speech at 14.31, which some critical scholars have taken as evidence of clumsy editorial stitching together of diverse source material. But why assume the writer is so stupid, that he did not notice this? It is perfectly possible that Jesus’ teaching from John 15.1 onwards takes place as they walk through the city and past the temple, not least because the temple has a sculpture of a vine adorning it, which would fit well with Jesus’ teaching about the vine. Then, in John 17.1, being out of doors Jesus really does ‘lift his eyes to the sky (heaven)’, and when they ‘go out’ in John 18.1, they are going out from the city (not from the room) in order to cross the Kidron Valley.)