Tag Archives: plundering the gold of the egyptians

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9 things preachers can learn from professional wrestling

9 things preachers can learn from wrestlers

When you think about it, very few people in this world stand and fall on their ability to stand and deliver a compelling public speech. The field narrows somewhat when you’re talking people performing largely as themselves, or under their own names (not in character). Comedians. politicians. TV and radio presenters, motivational speakers, preachers… and Professional Wrestlers. In this post I’m going to air some dirty laundry – revealing that I know more about (and think far more about) professional wrestling than I should… but bear with me.

I suspect there’s stuff preachers can learn (given the right approach to learning) from the cream of each of these crops – be it Jerry Seinfeld and Ricky Gervais, Barack Obama, Ira Glass, or Paul Heyman.

Who is Paul Heyman?

This guy.

He’s not even a wrestler.

He’s a manager (essentially paid to be a mouth piece to help people who can’t speak for themselves get over with the crowds).

In that video he’s standing next to Brock Lesnar. He’s a bona fide fighter. WWE might be ‘sports entertainment’ – but Lesnar was the UFC Heavyweight World Champion. He just can’t speak (he’s not mute, he’s just not interesting). Paul Heyman has built a career out of speaking for guys like Lesnar.

A speech, in wrestling parlance, is called a promo. Promos are up there with in ring ability when it comes to advancing WWE storylines. Here’s another Heyman special.

There’s obviously a fair bit of bombast involved in the professional wrestling world. It’s over the top. And that sets the stage, and frames the delivery. But the audience is along for the ride. Hanging off every word. Booing and cheering when they should.

They are in the palm of Heyman’s hand. What’s extra impressive is that this speech is happening in the slot a typical WWE episode reserves for the ‘main event’ – the much hyped (but usually unresolved) match between two (or more) guys who will headline the next pay-per-view. It’s prime time in this prime time programming. And instead of over-muscled, juiced-up, meatheads grappling with one another for the cursory few minutes before outside interference renders the match void (to hold the finish over until a bigger pay day), we have a speech. This “speech in the place of a fight” both is, and isn’t, unconventional. Despite ostensibly being all about wrestling the WWE is nothing without speeches. Because the WWE’s product is the stories it tells. And the stories it sells.

The WWE, and its component superstars, are modern day story tellers. They use words and choreographed action to tell stories – much like the opera, the ballet, or the theatre. They might be a little oafish and ham-fisted in their delivery (of both lines, and blows). But they’re telling stories and selling out seats. Wrestling is a cultural event. Its a billion dollar business (changes within the company can wreak havoc with WWE’s market value – a recent change in the company’s broadcasting approach saw owner Vince McMahon lose something in the order of $750 million in a very short amount of time). It’s serious, even if it’s not ‘real.’

The WWE stands in a long and rich history of pugilistic endeavours being played out as the circus element of ‘bread and circuses.’ Cajoling an audience into cheering for the hero who is coming up against an exaggerated pantomime villain (while they hand over fists full of money) is an old formula , but it still works. The WWE is big business. And it relies on guys like Heyman (and the more articulate wrestlers – like Chris Jericho, pictured above) to sell tickets and move merchandise by telling compelling stories that the audience buys in to – with their money, their voices, and their emotions.

There’s some really nice writing underpinning this second Heyman speech – the building of intensity with a nice use of cadence and the escalating repetition in the paragraph quoted below which works because of the punchiness of the verbs, and the way they’re doing the heavy lifting when it comes to advancing the storyline.

If you want to overthink wrestling – Grantland’s Masked Man is a stunningly interesting commentator and historian on the phenomenon of professional wrestling. His book The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling is worth a read to get a handle on this quirky corner of the entertainment world. The Masked Man spends a few thousand words explaining why these promos from Paul Heyman are the archetypal pieces of wrestling oratory, there’s something nice, for instance, in the way Heyman plays with the fourth wall (in wrestling this is called ‘Kayfabe’) he mixes truths about wrestling and its fakery/scriptedness with fiction, and even with a bit of a hat tip to exactly what it is he’s doing as he speaks…

I don’t just stand out here and spew hype and hyperbole; I exploit historical facts to shove my points down your throats. To wit, I offer you what happened the last time my client Brock Lesnar zeroed in on someone and decided to give them a beating.”

This para throws to a video clip of Lesnar’s very surprising (and totally scripted) win over the indomitable Undertaker at Wrestlemania. It’s driving the storyline towards the next pay per view, where Lesnar won’t be facing the WWE’s perennial pin-up boy, John Cena. Lesnar is a part timer. The time allowed for his stories to get traction with the audience is contracted, Heyman’s job is to throw fuel on the fire – giving the story significance as quickly as possible.

At SummerSlam my client Brock Lesnar will take John Cena down. Brock Lesnar will punch John Cena’s face in. John Cena, you’re going to be hurt by Brock Lesnar. Brock Lesnar’s going to injure John Cena. Brock Lesnar is going to mangle John Cena. And then, and only then, Brock Lesnar is going to F-5 John Cena and strip John Cena of the dignity of being the WWE World Heavyweight Champion, the same way Brock Lesnar stripped the Undertaker of his dignity and exposed the streak as just being a myth — the same myth that Brock Lesnar hears every week on television when John Cena is referred to as being the greatest WWE Champion of all time. Fifteen world titles in 10 years: Now that sounds like something worth conquering.”

So. I contend. There is much that preachers can learn, should we so choose, from the WWE. I’m not suggesting we ditch church and start up Christian Wrestling Federations (as some are in the habit of doing), or that we recruit preachers from the ranks of the WWE (a road surprisingly well-travelled – hall-of-famers Ted DiBiase and Shawn Michaels are engaged in various preaching gigs). When Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the flashy orators he wasn’t going to be like as a guy preaching about the crucifixion of Jesus, it’s likely the flashy orators he had in mind were oiled up guys who shaved their chests after spending too long in the gym… but it’s also fair to say Paul’s writings and the records of his speeches suggest a fairly sophisticated understanding of the guys he positioned his approach against… his opponents… the ‘heels’ (wrestling term for bad guys) to his ‘face’…

… And, if you want to get really technical with the wrestling stuff – Paul had a pretty massive ‘face turn’ – where Acts positions him as one of the worst of the bad guys – a Pharisee shooting up the ranks, and then depicts his conversion into the leader of the Gentile church. Paul’s biography is the stuff wrestling promoters have been copying for years. But I digress…

I’m also fairly convinced that Paul knew about oratory, that he learned from orators, and as a result (and because he was also being led by God) he was able to present the story of Jesus in a bunch of compelling ways that varied depending on his audience (as you see in Acts). And so I’m convinced that we, like Paul, should be looking around at people who are telling stories in ways people find compelling in our day and age. I’m not an expert preacher – and I’m so not experty that I’m prepared to learn from anyone who might help.

1. Understand your audience(s)

Wrestlers know they can get the crowd on side (if they’re good guys) or off side (if they’re bad guys) with a quick bit of contextualisation. If you’re a good guy you know who the local sporting teams are, you give them a shout out, you praise the town, and you get a ‘cheap pop.’ If you’re the bad guy you insult the town, insult the sporting heroes, and you get ‘cheap heat’… but there are more audiences to consider at every event. The beauty of Heyman’s speeches are that they play to the ‘cheap heat’ stuff, while also tapping into the genuine loathing of John Cena amidst the fans who consider themselves ‘insiders’ – people who see past the surface level fakery of wrestling and still choose to invest themselves in the WWE universe. Heyman nailed his appeal to these guys, because he understood their language and their disposition, and spoke to them.

There’s something in this for preachers – not just in reaching sub-cultures via their idiosyncrasies, but also in knowing what your audience is expecting from you and choosing to either deliver on expectations or subvert/exceed them. I like the idea that preaching needs to be sufficiently local that the people who you are preaching to feel like you’re speaking to them, especially if they’ve never heard preaching before, but also rich enough that people who think they know how preaching works are surprised by what you’re doing with a genre of communication they believe they’re familiar with.

2. Tell a story that connects the audience to something bigger (than you, and them).

The really good wrestlers – the ones that get big and headline big events – are the ones who’ve managed to achieve something like wrestling transcendence. Historically, these are the guys that non-wrestling crowds recognise. They get into movies or reality TV. They start movements of fans who influence the writing of the shows (most recently an anti-hero named Daniel Bryan managed to get so popular with the fans that he became WWE World Champion). They do this by capturing the imagination, by being relatable, and by including the fans in their stories. Incidentally, the WWE has poured bucket loads of money into building a presence online, especially on social media. It’s not uncommon for WWE storylines to be trending on Twitter, and for the Twitter stuff to become part of the storyline. WWE has democratised its product, giving certain amounts of control (or the illusion of control) to its fans. The more enfranchised the fans feel, the more connected to the process, the more they feel involved in the stories, the more they invest themselves into what’s going on. Emotionally, and, more importantly for the WWE, financially. Fans identify with wrestlers in these storylines – and they buy the T-Shirt to prove it…

There’s something about the power of the good v evil story that wrestling tells over and over again that gets the audience engaged. And you know who has a better good v evil story to tell than professional wrestlers? Christian preachers. We have a big story, our preaching should always connect to it, or we’re telling small stories that might move some people, but will (if the wrestling world is any reflection on reality) be a flash in the pan. There are plenty of wrestlers who didn’t cut it because their stories never became significant, multi-episode, entities, and as a result never reached the stage of including or exciting the audience.Sometimes I feel like I’m so caught up in the facts of the Gospel story that I forget how much the story is my story, and is also the story I’m inviting every body listening to belong to. Christianity is about more than buying a T-Shirt that says ‘Team Jesus’ – but the story is so compelling it can produce radical transformation to those who become part of it.

3. Play to the emotions (not just the head)

Part of the whole story-telling to get buy in thing involves moving the audience to cheer for the good guys (or the smart audiences to cheer for the bad guys), and boo the bad guys. Listen to the crowd in the Heyman speeches, watch the faces of the kids (and adults) in the crowd when their favourite wrestler loses a match, and you’ll see the real emotional connection people make with these wrestlers through these stories. Here’s a photo of the crowd response to the Undertaker losing to Brock Lesnar (before that he’d been 21-0 at Wrestlemania).

fanreactions

Image Credit: This post cataloguing responses to the surprise finish.

The thing about preaching is that we want people to be making an emotional connection like this – but not with us. With Jesus. I think we want to move people’s emotions, but we want our emotions to be moving in the same way. There’s a Cicero quote about his desire to never producing an emotional response in his audience that he didn’t feel himself first. Which is a good rule of thumb (or voice).

The great thing about preaching about Jesus is that we’re not the main event, we’re the fans who help shape the story of our hero as we tell people about him and participate in his victory. We feel emotions (or we should) when we’re talking about Jesus like those kid fans do. This means we’re in a position to deal in the emotional space with real authenticity. Unlike in the fake world of professional wrestling.

All too often I’ve found myself avoiding dealing in the emotional space. I think this is often because I forget I’m the kid in the stands and think I’m a vital piece of the show – where the pressure is on me to deliver. It’s not. Jesus wins the cosmic wrestling match. We cheer. We know the outcome. We wince with every blow now, as the bout carries on. But his victory is assured and we share the spoils. We will experience the emotional highs of victory. Our emotions need to ride this rollercoaster for us to really appreciate the story, and for us to really tell it. I think part of my inability to engage the emotions as I preach is, in part, because I’m worried that being emotional makes the story (or my preaching) about me. The nice thing about remembering that preaching is telling Jesus’ story (that it’s not about me at all) is that it frees me to respond emotionally as I tell it. I can be the fan who feels like my fate is caught up with the guy I’m cheering for – because it is.

4. Understand your character (and your role)

Using Paul Heyman as the example driving this piece is interesting because he’s not a conventional wrestling orator, by today’s standards. Most wrestlers do their own talking, and their success (in the ring, and out of it) depends as much on their ability to tell a story as it does on their in ring prowess. In fact. Because wrestling is scripted – even the stuff in the ring – wrestlers are judged on their ability to ‘sell’ the in ring action as well. They have to be able to tell a compelling story with everything they do. They have to be part of the story.

Every wrestling character has a role to play. And the story – like a piece of theatre – depends on them playing that role. These stories don’t work if everyone wants to be the good guy, or if everybody wants to be in the spotlight. In the normal wrestling equation there can only be one hero.

Heyman has made a career out of shining the spotlight on others (sort of, he’s never far from it, or from controversy). Even when he’s focusing the spotlight on others he is in your face and part of the main event. Preachers need to know our role in the story of the Gospel. It’s not about us, but we do have a part to play – as do the people we’re speaking to. The pull to make myself the star of the show is something I’m constantly aware of – partly because I like being the centre of attention, partly because sometimes I believe I should be…

5. Don’t write cheques with your mouth that your body can’t cash.

One of the enduring truths about wrestling – even with its occasional David v Goliath underdog victory – is that if you’re going to run your mouth, you need to match it up with action. There’s a stereotypical heel character who runs his mouth, and then runs away (or relies on underhanded tactics to get cheap victories). These are probably the least popular bad guys. The lowest of the low. The really famous wrestlers – guys like Steve Austin, The Rock, Hulk Hogan – they were able to deliver on the mic, and believably back up the talk with action.

There’s something in this for preachers. Wrestlers can’t live by anything that looks like “win the match, where necessary use fists” any more than preachers can “preach the Gospel, when necessary use words” – but both words and actions are necessary for in ring and in pulpit success. It’s a credibility thing as much as an authenticity thing. For compelling wrestling, and compelling preaching, words need to meet deeds with sublime consistency.

6. Be different.

Wrestlers don’t get attention by copying the gimmicks of those who have gone before. They might borrow the occasional move, in tribute to past greats, or to align themselves with wrestling lore and history. But originality is important. Finding a balance between imitating the people worth imitating and developing your own voice on the mic, and moves in the ring, is part of winning the crowd and influencing people. The really fun wrestlers know what the mould looks like but choose to break it. They innovate on the mic, they innovate in the ring. They figure out what sort of unique contribution they can make, and what sort of unique stories this enables them to tell.

I think this is true in preaching too. There’s a massive temptation the more other preachers move sets and voices dominate the podcast airwaves to borrow too much. To be a clone. That might work on a local scene where nobody has heard of the big famous guy, but it doesn’t work when everybody else listens to the same guy you’re imitating. People can spot fakes who are faking it in a fake world, I think it’s probably more damaging if you’re caught faking it in the real world. I heard some advice once, I forget who it was from, that preachers who are just starting out should listen to as many preachers as they possibly can, rather than just a hero. There’s something insightful in that. But I’d rather figure out what it looks like for me to preach as me, than for me to preach as a pastiche of my favourite preaching heroes.

7. Practice on the ‘indie’ scene

Practice makes perfect. There’s that (potentially debunked) Malcolm Gladwell theory about 10,000 hours being required to master something, and this could well be true for wrestlers. The best wrestlers hone their skills for years in small halls, regional promotions, wrestling has beens (ala Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler) and wannabes until they get noticed. This is the ‘indie’ scene. It’s where the guys who have tasted success in the WWE in more recent years have cut their teeth. Especially the ‘original’ guys – not the carbon copy muscular supermen who can’t string sentences together but look tough in speedos so experience a certain degree of success naturally guys – but the guys who tell unique and different stories. Guys like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, and Dean Ambrose (guys the Masked Man and other internet commentators write about with a certain degree of admiration bordering on obsession – see, for example, this treatment of the rise of Daniel Bryan).

I suspect part of finding your voice is using it. As much as possible. Wherever possible. To whoever possible. And getting a sense of what flies and what doesn’t. I don’t know what this looks like when it comes to training for preachers in this day and age, but I certainly haven’t racked up 10,000 hours of preaching (even with the equation including prep + delivery). That’s a 10 year project, assuming one preaches every week for 48 weeks of the year and takes 20-25 hours to prepare and deliver a sermon. So I’m comfortable that it’s going to be quite a while before I feel like I shouldn’t be preaching to 12 people in a dank school hall.

8. Always stay in character

The line between in-show character and real life person/actor is pretty blurry when it comes to your typical WWE superstar. The world of ‘kayfabe‘ means wrestlers are meant to only ever appear in public in character. Personas in tact. This is doubly true for what happens during a show – the wikipedia article on ‘breaking’ (which Jimmy Fallon was hilariously notorious for on Saturday Night Live) has its own special section reserved for professional wrestling.

It’s as important for my preaching as for the success of a wrestler committed to ‘the business’ that I stay in character. The difference between wrestling and preaching is that preaching isn’t fake. I am my character. I perform under my own name – for Jesus’ name. I don’t perform under a stage name for a multi-billion dollar company that depends on my ability to uphold an act. As a preacher I genuinely want everything I do to be telling the story of Jesus. In the pulpit or at home with my kids when visitors pop in. Christianity is part of who I am. I am part of the story of Jesus in every sphere, there is no room for breaking for the preacher (that’s not to say there isn’t room for stuffing up – part of the great news of the Gospel is that God forgives sinners like me through Jesus’ victory).

9. Try not to gasp

Because somebody might do this to you. And that would be bad.

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Spurgeon v Augustine: Egyptian gold, “faithful preaching,” equilateral triangles, and church growth

It seems we’re at a bit of a crossroads in the Australian evangelical church at the moment – once we recognise that the church isn’t really growing – do we throw our lot in with Spurgeon, or with Augustine… For many in our scene – faithful preaching from the pulpit is the ultimate panacea – and if the church isn’t growing then it doesn’t matter, so long as we’re faithful, or perhaps a lack of growth is a sign of some lack of faithfulness…

augustine spurgeon

I reckon the problem is that many of us have conflated “faithful preaching of the gospel” with “expository preaching on a Sunday” – and we’ve pretty much checked our responsibilities in at the door at that point. I’m not going to argue against expository preaching – because I think it is part of faithfully preaching the gospel – but I wonder if we’re missing two-thirds of the persuasion triangle… We seem hesitant, or suspicious, of anything other than unadorned words – be it emotive production values or anything that by itself would be manipulative, or an emphasis on the sort of life and good works we should be producing outside of the pulpit… Part of this has been from a desire to respond to the imbalance of the pentecostal movement on one hand, and the social gospel driven ecumenical movement, which focused solely on “liberating the oppressed” because nobody could agree on what the gospel actually is, on the other. But we’ll get to that when we get to the triangles below…

On the merit of “Egyptian Gold”

I read this stirring Spurgeon quote about preaching that Justin Taylor shared a couple of days ago, especially these bits:

“Are you afraid that preaching the gospel will not win souls? Are you despondent as to success in God’s way? Is this why you pine for clever oratory? Is this why you must have music, and architecture, and flowers and millinery? After all, is it by might and power, and not by the Spirit of God? It is even so in the opinion of many.”

…”I have long worked out before your very eyes the experiment of the unaided attractiveness of the gospel of Jesus. Our service is severely plain. No man ever comes hither to gratify his eye with art, or his ear with music. I have set before you, these many years, nothing but Christ crucified, and the simplicity of the gospel; yet where will you find such a crowd as this gathered together this morning? Where will you find such a multitude as this meeting Sabbath after Sabbath, for five-and-thirty years? I have shown you nothing but the cross, the cross without flowers of oratory, the cross without diamonds of ecclesiastical rank, the cross without the buttress of boastful science. It is abundantly sufficient to attract men first to itself, and afterwards to eternal life!”

…In this house we have proved successfully, these many years, this great truth, that the gospel plainly preached will gain an audience, convert sinners, and build up and sustain a church.

There is no need to go down to Egypt for help. To invite the devil to help Christ is shameful. Please God, we shall see prosperity yet, when the church of God is resolved never to seek it except in God’s own way.

There is much to like in Spurgeon’s quote – the church is God’s agent in the world and its job is to promote, proclaim, declare, whatever verb you like, the wonder of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s our mission, and arguably how we worship.

But there are a couple of things that rankle me in this quote – while I agree that the gospel requires words – because it is the story of God’s word made flesh…

  1. I still can’t help but think that the reduction of our mission to just words misses the point of both the actions that the written accounts we call gospels contain, and the strong links made between the lives we live, the good we do, and the love we give and our testimony to the world (so to provide a sample of from three different New Testament’s authors – John 13:35, 1 Cor 10:33, 1 Peter 3:8-16). Interestingly, Augustine suggests that the good we do should be to the end of seeing people come to know God
  2. I don’t understand the assumption that the Spirit can’t work through architecture, music, flowers, or even millinery – surely the Spirit doing so would be a greater testimony of his power, not lesser. Surely if there is a milliner, or flower arranger, in your congregation they can find some use for their profession as part of the body, to point people to Jesus – these things can’t replace word ministry but word ministry doesn’t need to happen in a cultural vacuum (and the right balance is important). I like Luther’s potentially pseudopigraphic “make a good shoe and sell it for a fair price” quote at this point…
  3. I can’t figure out why “word ministry” as in the promotion of the Gospel should be limited to the spoken word in a way that rules out using the “gold of the Egyptians” – or without the metaphor – the good parts of the created order that can be applied to gospel ministry and declaration of truth. Music, video, the arts – all of these can be used as “word” ministry – they just lean heavier towards pathos than logos when it comes to the persuasive act.
  4. This displays a limited doctrine of creation – one I’ve been guilty of in the past when it comes to free range eggs (and the environment) – the way we treat creation and how we use it is also part of our testimony – and this includes the way we think of the arts, and things that people make as part of our stewardship of creation and desire to bring order to it… as an aside: I don’t think the way “creation” and “redemption” are as separate as some people want to suggest (there’s a bit of a debate about this) – I now think redemption, and God’s mission, encompass creation – and how we use it – but “redeeming creation” is not an “end,” it’s a means to support the ultimate end – our mission to redeem people.

In fact – on the second point – what we do with the “gold” we find – or the goodness of creation – is an incredibly strong part of our testimony.

The “receive, redeem, reject” paradigm for culture that has been made popular by Keller, Driscoll, et al is pretty useful – and it works with the plundered gold analogy that Augustine ran with…

If the gold of Egypt is some sort of “truth” – a “created order” thing, being used in a cultural way – perhaps, for the purpose of this post, a persuasive technique, or musical style… it seems to me there are four options for this thing:

1. Leave it in Egypt – assuming the gold itself is inherently bad – because people use it to make idols.
2. Bring it with you, as is, or make it your own idol – like a golden calf, at the foot of Sinai.
3. Bring it with you, because gold is beautiful – recognise its goodness without worshipping it – music whether written to honour God – like Bach, or written as a recognition of the way ordered sounds can work together to create pleasure – captures something of the goodness of creation, as music.
4. Bring it with you, use it to glorify God – build the temple out of it, artistically, with sculptures. People will then both understand a good God made it, and understand that this Good God is Yahweh, who reveals himself in creation, and the redemption of creation.

The first seems to be Spurgeon’s approach when it comes to what happens in church, the fourth seems to be what Augustine advocates… it’s no secret that I think Augustine is right – my masters project is going to be an application of his principle to modern communication theories. Here’s the money quote…

“…all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also —that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life — we must take and turn to a Christian use.”

There really is no “Egyptian Gold” – but rather an Egyptian use of Gold, that may or may not be redeemable. This is demonstrably the case if we believe that every idol results from taking something good that God has made and using it in wrong ways.

On “faithful preaching” and equilateral triangles

But all this got me thinking about “faithful preaching”… and triangles.

If the following linked premises hold true:

  • Preaching must involve the faithful articulation of the gospel. I’m with the Bible, the reformers and the Westminster Confession on this – for a church to be a church, it needs to be a gathering of people united by the gospel of the Lord Jesus, who are proclaiming the gospel through preaching and the sacraments.
  • Our “preaching of the Gospel” can’t just be words. It has to include words – so Francis of Assisi is still wrong – but those words need to be backed up by action. How the church lives and loves its community is part of the package of faithful gospel preaching… because teaching is more than words.
  • Paul’s call to “imitate him, as he imitates Christ” (1 Cor 11:1) is a bit of a unifying principle delivered to a church fractured over preaching styles (the conflict he addresses earlier in the letter) – where imitation was a key part of first century oratorical competition (so, for example, Cicero bemoans poor choices about who and what young orators imitate and pushes for an imitation of substance over style).
  • Paul, in both 1-2 Corinthians, champions an approach to preaching that includes the embodiment of the cruciform (cross-shaped) life as the key aspect of this imitation (you’ll have to read my essay on Corinthians to find out why I think this)
  • Preaching is an act of persuasion (no doubt governed by the work of the Spirit – I’d argue, like Augustine, that rhetoric works because it recognises a truth about the order God has created in the world, particularly how human minds work).
  • Faithful preaching is more than what is said from the pulpit, but is how a preacher, and by extension the church, as a whole, lives as the Body of Christ in their time and place.

There’s something nice and Incarnational about all of this that I’m increasingly appreciating…

But if these points are true – then we can kind of understand “faithful preaching” using an Aristotelian framework, which includes logos, pathos, and ethos – with the type of life the preacher lives (ethos) being a decisive communicative act – serving to either emphasise or undermine the “pathos” or “logos” (ie the content of the preaching)… Which is where the triangles come in…

I’d argue that part of the mix which is limiting the growth of our branch of the church is that we’re so cerebral and logos driven in our approach that we’re relying almost entirely on our ability to persuade solely by reason (I’m not suggesting the Spirit can’t work through this – simply that it might be true that God has created us to respond to pathos and take note of ethos as well – and that we’ve been instructed to employ those aspects as part of our “preaching” more than we might at present in our gatherings and the rest of our life as a church).

It’s hard to make generalisations here… and I’m reflecting a little on my experience in some churches that were actually growing as a result of faithful and engaging Bible teaching – and some attempt to figure out how to engage with the world around us (I don’t think they’re just doing what Spurgeon says is all they need to be doing – they typically also have excellent music, well thought out architecture, and other bits and pieces) – but also on my observations of the churches that I’ve been part of that seek to imitate the logos aspect of those churches without necessarily investing heavily into pathos in a way that treats each place and people group as different…

I’m also reflecting a little on my training, the things that have been emphasised as I grew up in evangelical ministries in Australia including my churches, AFES, other groups I’ve been part of, and my experience at theological college. All of these groups require a certain threshold for “character” when it comes to involvement, but I don’t think ethos – which I’m defining as how to live in the world in a winsome and persuasive way that backs up my words – has ever been the focal point of the training I’ve received.

I’ve been pretty well equipped with the logos stuff… I think, like Spurgeon, we’ve been pretty suspicious of pathos too, because without logos it can be manipulative and lacking in substance (and we’ve seen that a little in the worship wars and the Pentecostal movement), though I think being “winsome and gracious” in how you speak is a mix of pathos and ethos.

I suspect the lack of focus on ethos is because ethos will ultimately look, without the logos, like the social gospel stuff we’re all so keen to avoid.

And now. For the visual learners and thinkers… a triangular approach to this issue.

This is a triangular picture of Aristotle’s approach to rhetoric. It’s an equilateral triangle, and represents all these aspects being held nicely in balance – I suspect this is the model for faithful preaching – because I think Aristotle has rightly recognised the way humans are persuaded of truths.

Aristotles Triangle

If this is a truth about the way people, and creation, works – then we should expect to see some fruits of it in terms of growth, assuming that the Holy Spirit works, in some way, consistently with the created order that God declared to be good. Perhaps even by helping us see that order in a way that guides our participation in the world.

This is my caricature (thus it is a little reductionistic) of the emphasis I think exists in our evangelical circles, it’s not without pathos or ethos – but logos is heavily emphasised.

The evangelical triangle

This is my caricature of the emphasis in more charismatic churches… My guess is that these churches are growing faster than those in the evangelical tradition because their triangle is a little closer to being persuasive – while they don’t necessarily place a heavy emphasis on solid teaching, they tend to, as a generalisation, be more interested in social justice type stuff, and much better at appealing to the emotions via their production quality, use of music, style of music, etc… Though their teaching is a little shallower than we might like, and occasionally just plain wrong in terms of what promises are fulfilled now for Christians, and what is still to come – it’s generally recognisable as Christian preaching, in that the Lordship of Christ is foundational.

Pentecostal triangle

And this is my caricature of the emphasis in liberal churches where the emphasis is on bringing transformation to the world, and liberating the oppressed – rather than articulating any actual definitive truth. There’s a complete lack of balance here – and depending on the churches in question, the lack of anything remotely like logos translates to a lack of moderating influence on what constitutes faithful gospel shaped pathos or ethos, which is why I think the liberal church is shrinking faster than any other variety.

Liberal triangle

So, I reckon Spurgeon is right – I think all that is required for the church to grow is faithful, Christ centred, gospel preaching – but I think that encompasses more than the delivery of a logos-heavy presentation from the pulpit, it’s got to involve using the goodness of creation to point people to the creator of that goodness, through the right use of pathos – music, art, and an understanding of how to stir the emotions, but it’s ultimately got to be matched with the type of ethos outside the pulpit that lends weight to our words when we talk about God loving people.

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Plundering “gold” from “public relations”

Tying up some loose ends around here before I return to serving up YouTube videos which is just about the limit of what my mental capacity can handle for the next few weeks, I just wanted to lay out some of my thinking about what the relationship between my last career (which I still do a bit of) in Public Relations, and my future vocation – gospel ministry.

I’m increasingly aware not just that there’s a gap in the market for thinking about how churches engage with the public via the media (a subset of PR), and not a huge number of resources out there for thinking about what Christianity looks like in the Media. CPX does a great job, the Sydney Anglicans, and especially Peter Jensen, have some resources, which we saw come into play on Q&A this week, and Communicate Jesus is a great first step for thinking about how to communicate timeless truths in a timely way.

I’m also aware that for many people “PR” is synonymous with “Spin” and deliberate deception, or providing inane sound bites so that you’ll get picked up in the news cycle. These are essentially antithetical to Christian ethics, and the message of the gospel. Though clarity and being succinct is important.

I also mentioned in my post about what college is teaching me that I’m increasingly reflecting on how proclaiming the gospel benefits from understanding culture. I want to flesh that out a little in this post – particularly as it relates to how I think about public relations and whatever skills I might have there.

So – in a nutshell – I think Paul, in his rejection of Corinthian sophistry (see B.W.W Winter, Paul and Philo amongst the Sophists) turned to Cicero, who in De Oratore had rejected flashy, substanceless, but impressive oratory that majored in pathos, for an approach to oratory that focused as much on ethos (the character of the speaker), and logos (the substance), as pathos (the ability to stir an emotional response). I think Paul was a highly trained, though non-professional rhetorician who became a Pharisee because he couldn’t professionally advance as a Jewish orator, and this explains the rhetorical power of his letters, and his impressive presentations to councils, kings, and court rooms in Acts.

I think his appearance in the marketplace, and then the Areopagus, in Athens is, by analogy, the first century equivalent of blogging, media engagement, speaking to parliament, and going on a TV talk show.

I think he benefited from recognising a truth in Cicero, also present in the work of the prophets etc – where value was placed on character and developed this to emphasise a Christ like suffering character (and I think that explains his words in 2 Cor 10-13 – you can read more in my essay here). I’d argue that in some sense he has “plundered the gold of the Egyptians.” Which is a concept that Augustine pushes pretty hard when he tells Christians to get a good “classical” education in De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching – again, you can read more of my essay here).

“…all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also —that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life — we must take and turn to a Christian use.”

Luther followed suit a little bit, he was particularly keen to communicate in forms that worked, and part of the nature of their “working” was their popularity. He even liked fonts. He sent a letter to one of his rich friends that said:

“have some boy collect all the German pictures, rimes,songs, books, lays of the Meistersinger, which have this year been painted, composed,made, and printed by your German poets, publishers, and printers. I have a reason forwanting them. We can make Latin books for ourselves, but we wish to learn how tomake German ones, as we have hitherto made none that please anybody.”

He didn’t just use pop culture, he also played the media relations game, or its equivalent.

Here are some stats about his use of the printing press during the reformation (read more in my essay here).

It is estimated in the first three years, 300,000 of Luther’s 30 popular pamphlets were circulating,and by the tenth year, two million copies of Luther’s 400 plus pamphlets were circulating, not just in Germany, but throughout Europe. The Reformation led to a sixfold increase in output from German printers.

These were published in the vernacular, and aimed at the public, not the elite.

The case for making PR, which is a modern form of “communication” and an academic discipline an example of this “gold” means establishing that it is actually a redeemable thing… and not just saying whatever it takes to get people to believe whatever you want.

First off, it’s worth making the distinction between “media relations” and “public relations” – media relations is a subset, an important subset, of PR, and its really where my expertise lies. But media relations will be a bit piecemeal, and disconnected from an organisation’s priorities – or in this case the mission of the church – if it isn’t part of a bigger communications plan that considers what your message is, and what its implications are for the public, and how you’re going to communicate your message so that the public understands it.

I was a Christian before I started working – so my approach to PR, and my PR ethics (and before that, my approach to journalistic ethics which I thought about while at Uni) were shaped by my faith. I think this actually made me better at my job, because I think the murky side of PR which is caricatured as “spin” and prides itself on not answering questions with anything but a repeated “key message” or not engaging with criticism is a communications cul de sac, which will hopefully eventually die out when people realise what sort of politics and public discourse it produces, and that it erodes the very trust that PR should be seeking to build. I think that’s starting to happen. I was more interested in full, and pre-emptive, disclosure of stuff that went wrong, never lying by commission, or omission, showing how key messages related to issues, questions, and real life for real people, and maintaining a relationship with journalists and the public by generally being trustworthy. This didn’t always happen, and it may be that I’m incredibly naive.

Conforming to the type of PR that involves essentially selling one’s soul and becoming a robotic sound bite speaker driven by self interest, or the desire to win, or conforming our message to whatever medium we’re speaking to – so, for example, going on Q&A to score cheap points by insulting the views of the people next to you, rather than listening to what’s being said and offering a gentle opinion – would be a case of turning the gold we plunder into a golden calf (see this Matthias Media piece on being mindful of how we use “gold”).

So when I talk about PR I’m essentially assuming this worldview, and this definition. Which isn’t always what other people are operating with.

But what are the implications for this? I’d say we need to think about how we do the media relations part (and you can read my thinking about how to do that here), but that needs to be a subset of thinking about communication, of our key message (the gospel, how king Jesus changes lives through his death and resurrection and the launch of his not yet fully realised Kingdom), how it relates to our audience (everybody), and the manner in which we’ll communicate this (I’d suggest Paul’s “all things to all men” 1 Cor 9:19-23). I think we need to think about what theoretical frameworks or disciplines we can use – like Augustine – and what mediums we can adapt – like Luther.

The media engagement stuff is useful, in a sense, without this sort of thought and planning. If you have an event you want to promote, or something. Which is why I write how to posts. But it gets supercharged when you plug it into some strategic thinking about how you’re going to communicate to the same person in an attempt to build, or nurture, a relationship with them. A relationship doesn’t have to mean you know their name, or have their phone number, that would be nice – but a “brand” type relationship means they don’t just know who you are, but have some idea of what you stand for, and how that is relevant to them. This is what “public relations” is about.

Public relations ultimately isn’t so much about knowing how to say what you want to say. It’s about knowing why you’re saying something, and who you’re saying it to. This is where having some sort of Public Relations or Communications Strategy for your brand – in this case, your church, which is essentially a subset of a much bigger franchise – is essential. We’re never going to be able to sit down and get a universal “Communication Strategy” for the church beyond the Great Commission – so I’d argue each church has a responsibility to think about how it communicates the gospel as part of its call to participate in the Mission of God.

A Public Relations strategy starts with identifying what it is that you, as an entity, want to communicate, and why. I’d say that’s relatively easy for us in the first instance. It’s the gospel. But then it should probably include what you want to communicate as your church’s distinctives – what’s your point of difference from other churches, on the basis of your context, or theological convictions. What do you “do” that you want people to know about before they come into your doors? What do you do that you want people to know about when they come through your doors (at Creek Road we have some really helpful “Plumb Lines” that describe our approach to church).

Then it identifies “who” you want to relate to – and should include internal stakeholders – our members, leadership teams, elders, staff, as well as our external stakeholders – the people in our community, non-Christian friends and family members with some association with the church, the people of our state and nation… and what sort of channels we’d use to talk to them in the most authentic and relational way possible.

Then it moves to “how” best to relate to these groups – you’re probably best off relating to as many of the internal stakeholders face to face, or as “authentically” as possible. Your communication should be a reflection of your relationship. So it’s ok to communicate to people you don’t know in the pages of your local paper, but it’s probably not a good idea if your elders are finding out about changes at church when they sit down with the paper for a cuppa. This means, for external people, knowing the demographics of your area, and knowing what sort of channels those demographics use to learn stuff – so to caricature a couple of generations – talk back radio for the oldies, Facebook for anyone under 25…

Once you’ve got the strategy sorted out – you can produce a communications plan – so that what you’re doing integrates with what you’ve decided you should be doing. Steve Kryger at Communicate Jesus posted up one week of his Communications Plan for Church By The Bridge. It’s a really useful example of what applying some thought looks like, and once you get to that stage having some idea how to do things like putting together an email newsletter, or writing a media release, or doing stuff on social media, is really useful. You’ve also got to figure out how often you want to be communicating with people – both those who are on your team so that they stay on the same page – and those outside so that they develop a picture of who you are and what you stand for.

This is what I think when I use the words “Public Relations” – this sort of strategy, planning, and doing – not just the doing. I don’t mean the shadowy stuff where you’re sort of pulling the strings to create opportunities to be heard, or coaching your spokespeople to stay on message and not look silly doing it, or cleaning up the mess in a crisis – though these are all aspects of what PR is.

Public Relations – like this – is useful for getting the members of your church family working together and knowing what you’re on about when they’re out being ambassadors for Christ in your community, it’s useful for managing changes – large or small – in your congregation and the way you do stuff, and it’s useful for presenting the gospel in a way that people have information communicated to them in your community. That’s why I think this is gold worth plundering.

I guess part of the reason I’ve written this post is because I realise that I’ve focused on the “how” more than the “why”… and that’s potentially unhelpful.

Here are some of the things I’ve written about why we should do PR, and the substance of our “message” from my Public Relations resources page

Here are some “how to” posts