Why do some preachers repeat themselves more than others? Why is it that some preachers even do this self-consciously, on purpose? If you’ve heard any number of preachers in your life-time, you’ve probably asked yourself questions like these. I’m not thinking now of repeating certain truths (like the gospel) from time to time in different sermons, but repetition in the delivery of an individual sermon.
I can’t speak for every preacher, obviously. But I think I can certainly identify two main reasons why some preachers repeat themselves.
One has to do with the brain-mouth connection. This is especially an issue when it comes to those who preach from rough notes, an outline, or maybe not even anything at all. There are some preachers who naturally have the “gift of the gab.” They have a strong brain-mouth connection where one never lags behind the other. These preachers can speak fluently and cogently without missing a beat, moving smoothly from one thought to the next. But then there are others who aren’t so gifted. They’re still trying to preach from notes or an outline, but the brain-mouth connection sometimes suffers short-circuits. Such preachers let a truth sound forth from the mouth, and then the brain takes a bit to catch up and provide the next line. But rather than stand silently before his hearers, this preacher takes the last line and repeats it in slightly different words. He buys a little bit of time for his brain to catch up. Sometimes he needs a bit more time, so the repetition goes to the third period, and sometimes even into overtime. Finally his brain shoots and scores and we get to move on.
Another reason has to do with training. In my seminary training, our homiletics professor repeatedly (!) stressed the need for repetition. I remember one of my fellow students telling me that his hometown pastor told him that when you’re preaching, one of the most important things is to state, restate, and repeat.
Such an approach is supported in many books on preaching. A notable example is Dave McClellan’s Preaching By Ear: Speaking God’s Truth from the Inside Out. McClellan draws extensively from the work of the Jesuit scholar Walter Ong on orality. Ong was interested in the differences between oral and literate cultures. Orality characterized premodern Europe – it was a time in which people were more accustomed to hearing and speaking than reading and writing. The printing press, the rise of literacy rates, and other associated developments made the cultures of modern Europe turn literary. McClellan views this as somewhat of a regrettable development specifically because of its negative impact on preaching.
In chapter 6, McClellan summarizes Ong’s nine characteristics of oral communication. The third one is redundancy. He writes:
Redundancy, normally a taboo in written culture, is necessary in orality. Even Ong’s own categories of these very psychodynamics bear this sense of overlap and repetition. He explains that readers can always go back to reread something they missed. The writer doesn’t have to “wait” for the reader. But the speaker has no such luxury since the audience cannot “backloop” at will. So the preacher must repeat creatively what has already been said to allow the listener another chance to grasp something first missed. (p.92)
This appears to make sense. He continues:
Homiletically speaking, the oral impulse allows us to loop through the same content repeatedly and does not require each thought to be spoken only once. Redundancy is utilized, even celebrated. This opens the door for a preacher to “read” the room and repeat or reinforce as needed until there is a sense of shared understanding. (p.92)
But if this is true why do Reformed congregations get homiletical heartburn from repetition? It seems to be backfiring and there must be a reason why.
I want to suggest that Walter Ong was on to something when he distinguished between oral and literate cultures. But I also want to suggest he was wrong to suggest that orality is better or that we should somehow turn the clock back to pre-modernity. That might serve the interests of a Jesuit, but it doesn’t serve ours. The Reformation wouldn’t have been possible without the gains that turned Europe literate. We’re the heirs of that. Still today, even if many individuals in our churches don’t read much, we have a literate culture, not an oral one. We’ve been brought up with books. We’re used to linear presentations with little need for repetition. We value clarity the first time around. So if you’re a preacher and you need to repeat yourself, either what you just stated was really complex (which can happen), or you didn’t say it clearly enough the first time (which shouldn’t happen).
Preachers and those who teach them need to understand that we live in a literate culture. Perhaps it’s on its last legs in the broader cultural context, but certainly in our Reformed churches it’s generally alive and well. Our preaching needs to take that into account. Pre-modern classical rhetoricians taught the need for repetition. We don’t live in pre-modernity. In most situations, the man preparing his sermon should hear these words echoing in his ears: “Pastor, you said it, we get it, now move on.” It might help to write those words down too.