Friday, January 1, 2016

Trump and Preaching

I've already blogged about how the rise of Trump is emblematic of the rise of the New Paganism, and I also noted the hypocrisy of our delight in seeing someone powerful call-out another powerful person's hypocrisy. Some things never change; morality and power. Trump has controlled the Republican polls with his communication style, which raises interesting lessons and warnings for preaching. (By the way it remains to be seen if Trump can translate strong polls into actual votes and if his campaign can survive surprises.) Anyway, take a look at this short video about Trump's communication style which analyses one of his answers during the campaign.

I've discovered that my preaching works best if I have a single big idea to communicate, use simple words, catch phrases and vivid images and stories. I try to mimic the rhythm of a story by setting up a problem and then showing how the passage answers it. Lately it's mostly worked, where I've failed is in my preparation, when I don't have a clear big idea or am not excited by it. When it all comes together people remember the catch phrases, maintain eye contact and comment that it was interesting etc. When it doesn't the congregation is nice and doesn't say anything.

The lesson of Trump's communication style is to use simple language, vivid imagery, repetition and catch phrases. Create an emotional response, associate particular feelings with particular ideas. The danger of Trump's style is that style masks substance. You get caught up being annoyed and remembering the gist of what his said, or impressed and remembering the gist of what he said, that you forget to follow and weigh his arguments! Communication is a symbolic act, you represent ideas and evoke emotions with symbols. (Note also that credibility and context are also important, because they shape our perception of the communication. Eg "He is a businessman" ..., "everyone else thinks" ...)

Preaching, like politics, is about representing and critiquing reality with the symbols of language. On the one hand you want to create a bridge between the congregation and the text and so a fair amount of nuance and reflection will be lost. If the ideas of the Bible are true, then you want people to be convinced by those ideas. However if the ideas are true, then you want people to grow in maturity and take the time to think about the logic of an idea, its provenance and implications. The best preachers (and there aren't many) are able to do both, carry you along emotionally and give you time to think about their arguments. When it comes to thinking about preaching it's also worth considering about the credibility leadership conveys and the psychological power of context.