What can Donald Trump teach us about preaching?

512501530-republican-presidential-candidate-donald-trump-speaks.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2One of the great puzzles of modern politics is why Donald Trump has done so well when so many people dislike him (and Hilary Clinton too—the US Presidential election is being contested by the two most disliked politicians of modern times). Part of the answer is to be found in his willingness to think the unthinkable and propose the politically implausible, such as rejecting the continued move towards globalisation, and ordinary people like this.

But an important part of the answer comes down to the way he uses language. Earlier this week, my daughter Becca was shown this analysis of Donald Trump’s use of language, and she found it so fascinating she shared it with me. It’s worth watching the full six minutes.

Notice the key elements of Trump’s language:

  • His vocabulary is very simple: 172 out of 220 words  are one syllable—that is 78%.
  • He uses very simple sentence structures.
  • He uses a few key words and repeats them all the time.
  • He addresses people directly using second person plural verbs.
  • He consistently ends sentence with strong punchy words—and goes to some effort to do so

I thought the commentator’s final observations were very telling.

You could never accuse Trump of being smart or well-informed. But that’s because Trump is a salesman. The best salesman could sell you a TV without knowing anything about the TV. It is not about the TV—it is about you.

But the most challenging observation was about how Trump compares with his rivals. Other presidential candidates have come across as typical politicians who ‘sound sophisticated but accomplish nothing.’ The reason why that is so challenging is that it is a phrase that could be used of much preaching. Trump doesn’t have much of a message—but somehow he communicates to people. If you are a preacher, then you have the best message in the world—so how come we don’t see it change people as much as we might expect?

The particular challenge here is to ask how the language we use in our preaching—and in all our theological speech, including liturgy—relates to the educational level of our congregations. Even more pointedly, how does it relate to the educational level of those who do not (yet) attend? There are several reasons why this is a sharp question, particularly for Anglicans. The first is that, on average, clergy have historically been better educated than the population as a whole. And, unless you are in a very unusual situation, it is almost certain that the educational level of your congregation will be higher than the overall population in your area. The Church of England has mostly appealed to the more educated, and mostly signalled failed to engage with (for example) working class culture.

I am conscious that this is a very awkward issue to raise—not least because it can easily sound very patronising. (I would be interested to hear responses on this from any lay readers of the blog). And yet it has been a major concern in driving recent liturgical changes in the C of E. The alternative Collects, the additional baptism texts, and the additional Eucharistic prayers have all been produced in response to a request for simpler language. The common reaction to these changes—and, if I honest, my major concern—is what we lose, pastorally and theologically, in move from more theological to less theological language.

Last Sunday I presided at Communion in a mixed ethnicity, inner urban congregation, and we used Additional Eucharistic Prayer 1. Instead of Jesus explaining that the cup was ‘the new covenant in my blood’, he says ‘This is my blood, the new promise of God’s unfailing love.’ Immediately I can see the problems: Jesus did not say ‘This is my blood’ but ‘This is the covenant’, and this change could be significant. And ‘covenant’ means much more than what we would associate with ‘promise’. Yet the striking thing is that ‘promise’ is a word that we would use in everyday speech, so is familiar to us and accessible; not so with ‘covenant’. I wonder how many in the typical Anglican congregation could explain what ‘covenant’ means and why it is important?

One of the strands of the Renewal and Reform programme is a review of lay leadership. This vital issue of the liberation of the laity has been on the agenda of a host of Anglican theologians since the 1930s—Temple, Sayers, Lewis, Stott, Newbigin—and it has been the subject of numerous thorough, astute and moving Church of England reports in 1949, 1963, 1985, 1987, 1995, 1999, 2000, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, but these have led to very little material change.

One of the key issues here is the theological teaching and equipping of the whole people of God, not in order for them to do more within the church, but so that they understand and make theological sense of their calling and discipleship in the wider world. When I have been visiting the States, I have been impressed by the numerous churches who, as part of their regular programme, include ‘Adult Sunday School’; it is expected that adults, and not just children, will have teaching sessions designed to deepen faith and understanding beyond what can be achieved within a usual Sunday service. This model—of teaching and learning in groups and then coming together for a service of some sort—actually takes us back to the probable pattern of the synagogue in the first century. I have come across it in some non-conformist churches, but never once in the Church of England.

Until this becomes a more normal part of church practice in the UK—and particularly in the Church of England—the gap between language and understanding is likely to remain. As long as the gap is there, then we either need to simplify our language or raise our understanding—or both. Perhaps there is something we can learn from Donald Trump after all.

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17 thoughts on “What can Donald Trump teach us about preaching?”

  1. I think you’re right about the education level of a congregation being on average higher than the area the church is in (I believe this is true in the case of the church I work for), but I’m not so sure about the educational level of ministers comparative to the congregation. If pushed I would say it’s about the same.

    We experience both a blessing and a challenge in our church that in our congregation of around 100 we have doctors and scientists, as well as what you’d call “working class” people. The struggle to engage the full range is something we recognize as a challenge. However I think we have two advantages that I think you might find interesting to comment on:

    The first is that we are in interregnum, and have been for two years now. This has meant that we’ve been blessed by a great mix of different preachers and teachers, some from within the lay congregation, and some from the wider churches in our area. Variety from the front has made a lot of difference, as it’s a different person (with a very different style) each week.

    The second is that a member of our church is a professional speaker who runs a company that trains corporations all over Europe (I think it’s specifically the executives..) in how to make speeches/present information, teach classes etc, and has done for many years. He gathered together some of the people in our church (about 10 of us) and we are having monthly training sessions on how to be more effective communicators from the front, effective salesmen of ideas. Perhaps that is an aspect missing from ministerial training? We teach people information, but not how to communicate it.

    • Mat I am sure you are right in certain context about the comparative educational level between clergy and church. But I suspect your congregation is only typical in certain areas!

      Having a professional speaker in the congregation must make preaching terrifying!

      • Tell me about it!

        It’s actually very helpful though, as he always gives meaningful and constructive feedback, something I don’t think church congregations are very good at.

        Most people say things like “thank you for that message”, or “I was really challenged by what you said”, which is both edifying and very welcome, but you need someone whose opinion you respect to tell you things that can help you improve the way you present yourself and your message: things like “you said ‘um’ a lot, did you not prepare as much as this time?”, or “why did you use the word ‘Schadenfreude’, no one knows what you’re talking about?”, or even “why did you wear odd socks, it’s distracting, I wasn’t listening to what you were saying while I watched your feet?” (all real by the way)

        • I feel the same. The only person who ever gives me negative feedback about my sermon is my wife! (Because I ask her to, but perhaps also because she knows I know she loves me, regardless of what she thinks of my sermons, whereas other congregants don’t dare to risk offence). If you don’t know what you’re doing wrong, how can you improve?

          Right now though I am leading a small weekly service at work (as I work away for months at a time), and I find the almost complete lack of feedback about the sermons and the services quite frustrating. I am trying to arrange things that people find accessible and practical, and through which they can encounter God, and I have little to no idea of whether I am succeeding in any of my goals.

          Has anyone found some good ways of encouraging meaningful feedback from service-attendees?

  2. Ian, the Mission Theology Advisory Group has a Spiritual Journeys website for spiritual seekers. It’s interesting that some of the most popular downloads on the site are explainers for the lectionary under a heading of ‘what’s going on?’ because people simply don’t know and the sermon doesn’t help! The resource on the Nine Lessons and Carols is consistently one of the most popular downloads all year round (!) because we discover that people in the UK and other countries are using it as a simple form of getting to know the story.

    We’ve also done recent work on social engagement and evangelism (on the mission theology page of the Church of England website) which includes both encouraging lay people in hope, trust, confidence and sharing, and also asking who it is understands what it is like today not to be a Christian, – and how non-Christians try to understand what we’re about.

    When I was doing research for A Time for Sharing on collaborative ministry I came across a church where clergy and interested lay people came together before Sunday and studied and wrote the sermon together. At the time, that was considered a very dangerous and ‘on the edge’ sort of thing…

    • Anne, how interesting. We must have coffee some time soon!

      The collaborative sermon thing is interesting. I was in a church for a while where, on some Sunday evenings, the vicar chaired a discussion about the passage rather than preaching. Although ’empowering’, I also found it infuriating; after all, he was the one with the theological understanding, so why hadn’t he done the work in preparing something that would help us learn?! But preparing beforehand as you suggest is something quite different, and is not an abdication of responsibility.

      I have wondered about the process of putting readings out the week before, and asking people to read and think about them, and then contribute during the sermon. BUT empowering lay ministry is NOT about turning laity into little vicars, but equipping them for their calling Monday to Saturday…

      • I thoroughly agree. Anne’s example is interesting, particularly as it picks up on the issue that a pedagogy of lecturing with very little feedback loop to check understanding is well known in education as a poor way of teaching. Now, clearly, a sermon can be spiritually moving and release the Holy Spirit within us in a way that we wouldn’t expect in a lecture. However, encouraging some creativity and experimentation would help us to find the right balance. Notwithstanding that this is probably already happening in places so an initial search for innovative practice would be needed.
        Can I join you for that coffee? :-).

        • “a pedagogy of lecturing with very little feedback loop to check understanding is well known in education as a poor way of teaching.” I agree, but is the purpose of a sermon primarily to teach? That, to my mind, belongs more in the realm of adult Sunday school.

          A sermon should challenge, motivate, inspire, and reveal God to people (at least, that’s what I want when I’m on the receiving end). I don’t know if that is something easier or more difficult to achieve with some sort of collaborative approach, but some level of feedback is essential, even if it’s just whether people look like they’re engaging. If people don’t even understand the sermon in the first place, then they’re hardly going to be inspired.

  3. It’s good article Ian, I have certainly used all age Sunday Schools from time to time in parish ministry, I think Trevor Lloyd used them systematically when he was a vicar in North London. On language, I well remember my lay readers training and having a real disagreement with the warden of Readers who thought that my language was too simple! My case was based on the reading age of our young families, many in multi occupational accommodation in a poor area of the city. It’s my big concern about the C of Es current approach to both evangelism and discipleship which can be over academic and course based. Maybe the C of E sounds too much like our contemporary politicians and not enough . Wesley’s method was a contemporary attempt at all age discipleship model, and mentoring. I think St Helens Bishopsgate is particular good at this. But this level of discipleship takes time and isn’t going to produce numerical growth in the short term, something the C of E is becoming increasingly obsessed with?

    • How interesting Vernon. Trevor has done many good things in his time. But it is interesting to me the way the some quite creative and integrative evangelical practices have been squeezed out in a general move to a more formulaic approach to ministry.

      In my experience, it tends to be conservative evangelical churches who are committed to this. That usually means non-conformist, but of course their ethos overlaps with Anglican churches at the conservative end too.

  4. Liturgical language is meant to be heard over and over, whereas Herr Drumpf’s answers are meant, basically, to be forgotten. Though there is a need to make liturgical speech accessible (and a real need to get free of thee and thou, for example), there is no need to cast it in *simplistic* terms. Remember, if someone is a daily communicant, they are likely to hear the same anaphora tens of thousands of times before they die. So they need something to sink their teeth into, and they’ve got time to do so.

    • There is always a balance to be struck though. If someone attends once but never again because they simply don’t understand / connect with the language of liturgy then they won’t be hearing the anaphora tens of thousands of times. I come from a low church background, and when occasionally I attend services with sung liturgy I feel excluded because I don’t know how to join in. It may be beautiful and enriching for those who stay long enough to learn the tunes, but it also actively singles out newcomers as “not in the club”. The language can have the same effect if it is too alien to normal day-to-day speech.

      That notwithstanding, sermons are not liturgy. They will not be repeated verbatim tens of thousands of times, and so the need for accessibility and intelligibility at the first (and only) hearing is all the greater.

  5. As a lay person: very interesting, Ian. A few points: 1. My husband spent a few years in America and greatly appreciated the (Presbyterian) Adult Sunday Schools he attended; 2. At a Scottish church I attended someone criticised the sermons as being too wordy or intellectual (can’t remember words used.) Person B then said, “No, they’re all John 3:16”, to which Person A responded, “Yes, but they’re John 3:16 sermons for people who read books.” I do think there are very few sermons that really change or give new guidance to someone who actually reads the Bible (with notes!). 3. Surely a sermon is not the same as a political stump speech? 4. Trying to simplify the liturgy often means including lots more explanation, which can be boring. I have some sympathy for John Burnett’s comment above.

  6. Yesterday I read this article, as well as another by David Peterson: Worship and Edification in the Book of Common Prayer. He picks up a little about ‘modernising’ (or ‘dumbing down’, as some might put it!)

    He says under the section on relevance:

    Put another way, we may ask how much the Bible is actually used and influences what we do when we gather together today. If Bible readings are reduced, psalms are not used, biblically informed prayers and praises are removed, and affirmations of faith based on biblical teaching are neglected, what do we have left? Songs that are only superficially biblical and spontaneous prayers that fail to express the breadth and depth of biblical spirituality?

    Being outsider-friendly or making services accessible to children and young people is fine. But how do we expect people to progress in their experience of corporate worship and to grow to maturity in Christ? Some would argue that biblical preaching is sufficient to edify the church, but the Bible’s teaching about
    edification challenges that conclusion.

    From the perspective of our church, we have a mix of people from various backgrounds and levels of education. I think the reason most of them are part of the church is not because we use a liturgy which is immediately comprehensible from the moment they walk into the church.

    I think the idea of adult Sunday schools is a good one – I’ve come to believe that in a culture which is so BIblically illiterate to begin with, you need something more than simply one service per week to train people to think theologically! Multiplying the way we teach people (one-to-ones and specific training as well as general) will be immensely helpful.

  7. As a lay person in training there are so many challenges. I understand that we need to be able to show a grasp of theological concepts and ideas but what we have to write to show our understanding is an academic style theological essay in which we lose marks for forgetting to put brackets round the right bits in the bibliography. We are not learning to communicate in language that will be understood by our congregations. We have learned about homiletics (my clergy didn’t know what that was), how to do an exegesis (which I cannot pronounce). We articulate rather than say and then suddenly we are let loose on some poor unsuspecting congregation that we expect to understand what we mean. Communicating clearly does not mean simplifying or dumbing down; it means saying or writing things that people can understand and use as the foundation for their own study and meditation. If Donald Trump is successful it is because he has enabled the masses to understand what he is on about in a way that they have not been able to before and for them that is empowering. Should we be perpetuating mystery or sharing the gospel?

  8. Some years ago, I was invited to deliver a lecture at Worcester Cathedral in a series on The Creed. I got lucky: ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit’. I said that more than anything, the church needs a new gift of languages. And I held up a copy of that morning’s ‘The Sun’. There was a sharp intake of breath through the gaps in the molars, and (skipping past page 3) invited people to consider ‘If the church is going to raise up able communicators for this age, it would benefit from a fresh anointing of the gift of languages that would get you a job on ‘The Sun’, even if bits of its content are not quite pitched for gospel approval.’


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