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.
Although I think he has carefully prepared what he wants to say, he gives it an air of spontaneity by including short hesitations and by looking away thoughtfully. This gives the talk a sense of being conversational, so that we are engaged with rather than lectured at.
The conversational tone is helped online by being quite close to the camera, and speaking with a normal, conversational, voice. This gives it a feeling of intimacy, that he is speaking just to me.
Despite the elements of spontaneity, note that his words are actually quite precise and well crafted—there is no stumbling or hesitation or reformulating. He knows precisely what he wants to say—but delivers it in a spontaneous style.
It is striking that at 0.45 he immediately says that he thinks this attitude (‘I like Jesus but I don’t like the church’) is wrong—it comes as a surprise, and makes the listener wonder why he thinks this so clearly.
His illustration about someone saying they like him but not his wife comes with real emotional force—you can feel the emotion behind it. ‘Hey buddy’ is delivered with feeling, even though his speech is still very measured. There is a sense of anger and disappointment, gently expressed. Again, by looking to one side as he formulates this, it is as though he has just thought of it.
Notice his various of expression—the joy at his mention of his wife, and his puzzlement and disappointment that anyone should distinguish between them.
He repeats, emphasises and then pauses to allow his main point to sink in: ‘Jesus loves the church’.
At 1.26, he deploys a double, nested pair of a list of threes: ‘in spite of all her weaknesses, in spite of all of her failures, in spite of all of her sins, brokenness, blemishes…all of it…’ He does this again later.
Again, at 1.36 there is a change of emotion—of real delight that Jesus not only loves the church but likes it.
Note that, in communicating changes of emotion, he uses hand gestures, but keeps them controlled and within frame; if you look carefully, you can see these gestures are actually quite minimal. In speaking to camera, we need to adapt our hand gestures so that they look normal to those watching.
In terms of structure, the phrase ‘Jesus loves the church’ becomes like a gate opening into a wide courtyard of biblical material, which we then explore.
‘As a bridegroom delights over his bride’ is actually a quotation from Is 62.5, but Bryan does not make a big thing of saying so or giving a reference; he allows us as listeners to think ‘I am sure I have heard that before…’
At 1.56 there is another moment of acted spontaneity, as he recalls the text from Eph 5. By reciting the material from memory, rather than looking it up, he retains eye contact and engagement with us as viewers.
At 2.18 there is a good example of ‘anacolouthon‘, where he breaks off mid-sentence as a fresh idea appears to come to him. We find examples of this in Mark 2.10 and Eph 3.1. In speech this gives the impression that the speaker is caught up with the excitement of what he or she is saying.
He offers a double explanation of the idea that we begin to love the things that Jesus loves, giving a summary, then a fuller explanation, and then finally coming back at 2.52 to complete the sentence he broke off from at 2.18.
He then gets to the text in Rev 21 which has probably given rise to all this thinking—but instead of starting with it, and ideas flowing from it, he has already expounded and explained the ideas, so that the text immediately has credibility and meaning.
Note that he reads the text from a card, which is immediately below the camera. Wide angled cameras on phones exaggerate movements, so we only need to look down a little; actually looking down shows off the top of the speaker’s head, and is worth avoiding.
He continues to read the text fro Rev 21 with a genuine sense of delight and surprising, even laughing at it.
Note again how his gestures with his hands, which are right next to the camera, exactly fill the frame.
At 4.13, we get another set of nested triples:
‘The Lord says: you want to see something amazing?
You want to see something beautiful?
You want to see something wonderful,
Powerful use of a pause after ‘Look at my bride, the church’ during which Bryan actually holds our gaze—which is quite a skill, considering he is just looking into his phone camera!
Note throughout the variation of pace. In introducing a range of new ideas, he speaks quite quickly, but when it comes to his key points, including his conclusion, he slows right down, and it not afraid to allow silence.
Having started at a place of disappointment or even anger (‘Hey, buddy!’) his rhetorical strategy is not to rebuke or to reprimand—but to love as Jesus loves. It is a positive and joyful corrective.
If there were other things you noticed in Bryan’s delivery, do add them in the comments below.
So much for the delivery; what about the content?
When I posted this video online, there were two sets of negative comments.
The first related to the meaning of ‘church’: is it about an institution, or a religious organisation, or about the people of God? This is a vital question, and one that Bryan does not tackle in this short video. One of the strengths of his message is that he is, in various ways, simply making one, single point: Jesus loves his ekklesia and so we should too.
In English, the word ‘church’ has quite a broad range of meanings, a broad ‘semantic range’. For most people, it primarily refers to a building (‘St John’s Church, Beeston’) or an institution (‘The Church of England’). This is why people can talk about ‘going to church’, meaning visiting a building on a Sunday morning, or ‘going into the church’ meaning being ordained in the institution. This kind of use reflects the etymology of ‘church’, which comes via the German Kirche from the Greek adjective kyriakos meaning ‘of the Lord [kyrios]’. This adjective only occurs twice in the New Testament, in 1 Cor 11.20 referring to the Lord’s supper, and in Rev 1.10, referring to the Lord’s day, which at that time probably still referred to the Sabbath, though with an important theological twist.
The Greek term that we translate ‘church’ is ekklesia, from which we get eglise in French and ‘ecclesiastical’ in English. Although etymologically related to ek and kaleo, ‘out’ and ‘to call’, the word does not mean ‘called out’, since words do not mean what their etymology says, as meaning is determined by usage. (We might well indeed be a people who are ‘called out’, but we cannot know that from the etymology of the term.)
This has two important background usages. The most immediate is the ekklesia of the Greek city, which is comprised of all free men over the age of 30, who meet to make decisions on the running and governance of the city. This relates to the idea of the people of God as citizens of the New Jerusalem, and Paul makes the comparison directly but implicitly in writing to those believers in the Roman colony of Philippi by inviting them to ‘live as citizens [of heaven]’ in Phil 1.27.
The second is that ekklesia is the term used in the Greek Old Testament for the ‘congregation of the sons of Israel’ (in the AV). This means that there is a central element of continuity between the people of God who are followers of Jesus, and the Israel of God in the OT—and this continues to be the case when gentiles who believe in Jesus are included even though they do not become Jews.
Given that there is such a different sense in the range of meanings of ekklesia in Greek and ‘church’ in English, I think there is a good case for never using the word ‘church’ in translation! When I taught in a theological college, I banned the word with reference to the people of God, because it always carries the baggage of building and institution.
When Bryan notes that the ‘church’ is the bride of Jesus, that Jesus loves the ‘church’ and we should do so too, he is talking about the ekklesia and not the building or the institution.
This then leads into the second objection that people raised online: how can we love ‘the church’ (the institution) if it is corrupt, or if we have experienced abuse or the misuse of power by its leaders and representatives?
This is no mere theoretical question, but pressing for institutions like the Church of England (in the light of historic abuse cases) but also for many individuals, including many clergy, who feel that they have been treated badly by the institution. Although I have not experienced abuse like others, I do myself have quite a long list of experiences of the misuse of power by leaders in the Church of England which I realise (often with hindsight) were abusive, at times leading to delay and uncertainty, financial penalty, personal pain, and even the loss of my job and home.
Interestingly, the Church of England’s own 39 Articles of Religion come to our aid here:
XIX. Of the Church.
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.
XX. Of the Authority of the Church.
The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.
Together, these two articles point to the complex relationship between the ekklesia of God, and any institution which calls itself a ‘church’. Ideally, ‘churches’ do represent the ekklesia, and potentially they become vehicles for the healthy growth of the people of God. Yet institutions are always an awkward admixture of the human and divine, and so they are subject to corruption and error, and often need serious challenge and reform.
What I find helpful in Bryan Wolfmueller’s exposition is that, in offer this challenge and calling for reform, our basic orientation must be this: Jesus loves the ekklesia, his bride, and calls us to love it too. If we are to see the various institutions we call ‘church’ becoming truer signs and expressions of that ekklesia, this love must be our primary motivation, and frame all that we do. That doesn’t prevent rebuke—after all, God himself says to the ‘lukewarm’ (that is, ineffective) ekklesia in Laodicea, ‘Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline’ (Rev 3.19).
But love is the goal, and love is the motivation. That is worth remembering whenever we start to criticise ‘the church’.