Church Communication: Differences between speaking and writing

I just read this beautiful excerpt from the latest manuscript I am editing, The Homiletical Beat, by Eugene Lowry. Lowry is an icon of preaching and the primary proponent of narrative preaching in our day. In this important new work he separates the narrative sermon from its mischaracterization as a genre to its proper definition as its essential nature. A sermon is narrative because it exists in time. It is spoken. It has a beginning, middle and end. Written, or printed words, on the other hand, exist in space. They are all-at-once. He distinguishes their varying attributes further:

Fred Craddock is not against writing, but he understands it as a servant toward the goal of oral speech called the sermon.   “To say a sermon is oral, he continues, “is not to say simply that it is spoken but that it is prepared with principles of orality closely observed.” [1]

Walter Ong clarifies this radical distinction further.  As he said in the Terry Lectures on the campus of Yale University some years back, “Spoken words flow…are free moving,” even “fleeting…[but] what is written stays put.  It is a record.” [2]

Indeed, writing loves complete sentences properly produced of good grammar–privileging the nouns, of course.  Rather than a verb-based language such as Hebrew, the Greco-Roman type languages privilege nouns and the stasis they suggest. We move toward resolution, marked by a big fat period at the end of the written sentence.  No wonder gestation and germination may, in fact, close down.  Oral speech, on the other hand loves the kind of run-on sentences that facilitates ongoing consideration.

Several years later Walter Ong noted in another writing that with print it’s even worse.  “Print is comfortable only with finality,” he said, and hence “the printed text is supposed to represent the words of an author in definitive or ‘final’ form.” [3]  This sense of moving toward “final form” is precisely why the period is geared to shut down thought.

Of course, the monumental differences between literality and orality are played out at multiple levels: contexts, sources, experiences and consequences of ongoing thought.  The bottom line, however, is that the dominant mode of speech is time; the dominant mode of writing is space.  Space as typically experienced has to do with settledness; time as typically experienced has to do with movement.  Written words lean toward separation; spoken words lean toward inclusion.

[1] ibid., p.169

[2] Walter J. Ong, S.J., The Presence of the Word  (New York: A Clarion Book, Simon and Schuster, l1967), p. 93.

[3] Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 132.


Why does this matter? Every communication you engage in – everything social in your life – happens in one of several mediums: oral, written, printed, imaged. Each medium you engage has unique qualities. The nature of what you communicate changes depending on how you say it. Lowry illustrates:

This difference, as so articulately named by Ong–how written language moves toward closure while spoken language moves toward openness–is especially noteworthy when occurring in the context of conflict.

I remember something my dear friend and fine colleague, Dr. Tex Sample, said to me one time a number of years ago.  I must have been involved in some kind of institutional conflict that now I cannot recall.  But I do remember what Tex Sample said:  “I know you feel strongly on this subject.”  No doubt he was correct–and so he explained his concern: “I don’t know how you are going to communicate your views, but I have a suggestion for you and that is, whatever you do, do not put it in writing, because if you do there is very little wiggle room from there on.  When you put it down it’s done.”  Exactly.  Said Walter Ong: “Writing ‘retains’ words.  This, indeed, is its raison d’être…. It holds words so that they do not escape.” [1]

Speech, on the other hand, is remarkable different.  Kirk Byron Jones, in his wonderful The Jazz of Preaching, notes that “the mysterious common ground of preaching and jazz is this: one never ever arrives.  Their wells are always deeper; there is always more.” [2]   Working aloud respects the fact that there is always more.

[1] Ong, Presence, ibid.

[2] Jones, Jazz, p. 41.

For twenty years a friend and mentor in communication studies, Tom Boomershine, wrote an ongoing magnum opus of church communication. Sadly, he never finished it. A preacher and a master of the oral medium, perhaps he was terrified of the finality of print. There’s freedom in talk. We can make mistakes or say the wrong thing without the same responsibility. We can suggest ideas without fully vetting them. Talk is open. It is exploratory. It invites. It is steeped in possibility. Print, on the other hand, is closed. It suggests the end of the conversation, not the beginning. (Writing and print are mixed now, because we’re almost entirely print. Some may remember when handwriting retained a bit of cultural cache with its combination of importance and intimacy. Print is simply the cold, hard facts.)

Such differences in communication systems have been of ongoing personal fascination for decades. Their relative use and influence have untold impact on our society at a macro and a personal level. I may explore these topics more in future blog posts.