The Plural Problem

F or a too-brief period I was an acquisitions editor for Abingdon Press. I enjoyed the work and wasn’t particularly interested in moving, but I kept getting contacted to consider a creative slash communication position at a local church. Most friends and professional colleagues were supportive of the idea. Like me they saw the unique opportunity the position provided for me to continue my career calling. But, one pastor friend with whom I’d previously worked was dismissive. As we ate lunch together, I explained the position. He said, “Communications? That would be a step down.”

I resisted the urge to poke him with my fork. There’s little that bothers me more than the plural.

The plural is the “s.” Communications. For some leaders, communication is communications, a specialized role for someone to oversee a set of technical tactics and strategies for “getting the word out.”

Most of the time, these kinds of churches aren’t effective.

Every year or two an article or issue appears in a church leadership magazine devoted to rebutting the need for or even the existence of communication. A recent example is the Spring 2011 issue of Leadership magazine, which says on the cover, “Tool or Trap?” The cover has what the publishing business calls a kicker below it, which reads “The role of entertainment in spiritual growth.” Inside, one pastor asks if entertainment has replaced Scripture in worship. Another asks if today’s church is caught in an ever increasing trap of producing spectacular worship services. These are good questions to ask. It’s important to maintain some tension with culture.

Yet, persuasion is an inseparable part of any communication act. Asking if entertainment has replaced Scripture is a straw man argument. Communication is much more than a tool. It is a means to persuade. Persuasion can be scary word. It suggests, for some, and especially in church work, a dangerous or even immoral manipulation of an unfettered truth. It connotes an Elmer Gantry figure, a shyster disfiguring decency on the way to the bank. And there are certainly unethical anecdotes.

In his writings on rhetoric, Aristotle was the first to recognize the relationship between what we say and how we say it. The classical understanding of rhetoric is a set of instruments or tools used to create a specific persuasive goal. This is the plural. But the contemporary study of communication as a discipline has revealed deeper connections.

More recent conceptions of rhetoric treat art as intrinsic to human knowing itself. Since we employ language as a symbol-making system in order to communicate … dismissing rhetoric as nothing more than manipulative efforts to influence others, even when people use persuasion appropriately, is naive. Rhetoric, for good or ill, is intrinsic to all the convictional understanding of our lives–to all reasoning. (Reid, Robert and Lucy Lind Hogan. The Six Deadly Sins of Preaching: Becoming Responsible for the Faith We Proclaim. Abingdon, 2012. p. 9)

Sure, sometimes people just use the plural out of habit, and it’s unfair to base a philosophy on a minor semantic difference. That’s why it’s a pet peeve and nothing more. But the underlying issue is serious. Those who think of communication as purely manipulative tactics, for good or ill, have an unexamined philosophy. They see communication as an instrument for a linear transaction. In The Wired Church I called this the AV mentality. It’s an approach that sees communication as a pneumatic tube that shoots our message to the receiver.

This pneumatic tube is an illusion of neutrality and stasis. It assumes that there are no outside forces affecting the message, that the sender and receiver stand on the same path, and the message itself is a neutral composition of information and will be understood in the same way by every person that opens it. All of these are false assumptions.

The medium and the message are conjoined. This may remind you of a famous saying by Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the message.” By the time I entered the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication in the early 90s, McLuhan’s idiom had been thoroughly debunked as overly simplistic and deterministic. The medium isn’t the message. The medium is neither good, bad, nor completely neutral. It impacts the message. They’re inseparable. In other words, it’s more complex than that. Unfortunately, this aphorism won’t die because it’s pithy. Dang McLuhan.

Although you can’t separate the two, preachers, even in innovative environments, try to split them apart. A screen image, advertising an upcoming sermon series, says “Galatians” in beautiful art design. Another one shows a flock of birds taking off and says “True Freedom.” Each is a professional quality treatment of a topics or a text. But neither has impact. (Just like it’s not about the technology, it’s not about the art direction either. You gotta have both, but as any good filmmaker learns, effective communication both requires these elements of craft and demands much more.) Even worse, I’ll hear pastors try to separate topical preaching and biblical preaching. A pastor designs one series using a sports image, then another, “more serious study” on an Old Testament book.

We’ll never craft a message that changes lives if we assume communication is communications, or a linear set of tactics. Our message doesn’t travel down a pipe in a sealed plastic tube to our intended audience.

So what do we do? This is the subject of my new book, coming soon. As I write, I will continue to post segments of the book in this space.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).