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The Army Chaplaincy   Summer-Fall 1997

Preaching and Communication

by Chaplain (MAJ) David P. Hillis

Gerhard von Rad, a German Old Testament scholar, once said that the best sermon he ever  heard was given in the middle of World War II —  some of the darkest days for the Germans.  With bombs exploding all around and fear striking the hearts of all Germans, this tiny congregation had gathered to hear a young inexperienced preacher.  When he stood up to preach, he gingerly and carefully opened up the Bible to his text as if he were, von Rad said, unwrapping a package of dynamite.1

Lives are changed through mere words  —  maybe that’s the only way we ever change.2 Every effort to trace man’s ability to use words in the theory of communication is as old as ancient rhetoric itself.  From its earliest beginnings, the church has agonized over language in order to communicate its message.  The following article will attempt to address those issues that pertain to the relationship of preaching and communication. Attention will be given to rhetorical theory, theories of language, communication theory, and the new homiletic.  

From the days of Aristotle and Cicero, rhetorical theory has always been concerned with the effective use of discourse.   In contrast to Aristotle, Cicero was more systematic in his understanding of rhetoric.  

Cicero outlined five principles of rhetoric that would later influence preaching for centuries.  In them, the speaker:  

  • discovers what should be said (invention)
  • arranges the speech in a particular order  (arrangement)
  • clothes the thoughts with language (style)
  • secures the speech in (memory)
  • effectively (delivers) the speech..3.

Augustine was the first to integrate the classical aim of rhetoric and the purposes of preaching in his work entitled De Doctrina Christiana.  In so doing, he created the church’s first handbook on preaching which established the study of Christian rhetoric for over a thousand years.  It was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that thinkers began to re-evaluate the origins and functions of language.  This emphasis foreshadowed the work of 20th century rhetoricians, such as I. A. Richards and Kenneth Burke.  

Burke understood language as the primary medium for communicating reality.  Thus, words portray images; language creates reality.  In other words, finding the right words to invoke certain images and responses is making use of effective communication and rhetorical skills.  Being attuned to idioms and symbols within a rhetorical community and the essence of language has become a contemporary passion.   

Rhetorical awareness reminds preachers that they need to consider the areas of audience analysis, linguistics, cultural biases in communication, as well as more traditional purviews of speech studies.  Craig A. Loscalzo describes the rhetorical process as one viewing a painting.  The viewer has the freedom to look at the whole.  Speech communication comes to hearers in a serial medium; that is, one word follows another, one thought follows another, one image follows another, and so on..4.

David Buttrick describes this movement as a kind of "sequential talking ... pacing the movement of a speech with linking blocks of content like a freight train linked with cars to keep all the issues of the message in motion."5.  It is here where the rhetorical process of intentional movement and design can best inform preaching.   

Richard Lischer, Professor of Homiletics at Duke University, addresses this issue by stating, "Preaching endeavors to match words with situations, so the now of God’s summons finds its now in the congregation of listeners."6

Words properly said at the right time, ideas and images framed skillfully,  can have a tremendous impact on the lives of the hearers.  In many cases the shape, design, and language of a sermon will be derived from the surrounding environment and situation.    

Given the fluid and fleeting nature of language ... the spoken word has its fullest truth among the people between whom it flourishes, and in the moment at which it happens.7 Language derives its meaning, significance, and purpose from within the context of the community.  

The modern theory of rhetoric that most clearly reflects this view is Kenneth Burke’s first law which states, "the scene contains the act," which he follows with "the scene contains the agent."  

By this he means that under normal circumstances language does not possess communicative properties outside the community that authorizes and understands it."8  It is interesting to note that the words "communicate" and "community" are derived from the same root.  It is in the context of the military community that the chaplain learns the Army’s language, customs, and rituals.  It has always been a theory of rhetoric and communication that language is encased within the situation that evokes it.  It is the speech’s environment that gives language its meaning and purpose. 9

During the past few years,  a renewed interest in the theories of language has spawned numerous studies focusing on the relationship of preaching and the forming of  communal identity in the church.  Most notably are that of professors Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Duke University, who advocate that preaching should assist the hearers in relearning the "distinctive language" of the church in ways that will inform their ethical decisions and lifestyle.10 Other homileticians attempt to find language that assist the hearers in acting out their faith in the ordinary fabric of life.11.  

Preaching’s interest in communication has typically concentrated in basically three areas:  

  • the creation and delivery of messages,  
  • the maintenance of community and  interpersonal relationships,  
  • the cultivation of  spiritual formation, faith development, and world view.    

This new emphasis in linguistics and rhetorical/communication theory has created a new radical shift in preaching.  A variety of new methodologies has been offered as an alternative (e.g. inductive, narrative, story, imaging and drama).   Serious attention has been given to the formation of creating an experience for the listener allowing a range of possible responses to the text rather than trying to control a specific response.12.  

Other homiletic theories such as that of Eugene Lowry maintain that narrative preaching should emphasize experience rather than logical prepositional arguments.  By reexperiencing the text through narrative preaching, the listeners are afforded the opportunity to recontexualize the biblical story in the landscape of contemporary soil.13

One of the best examples of the new homiletic is David Buttrick’s book entitled, Homiletic: Moves and Structures,  where he shows how language forms in human consciousness and how individuals relate what they hear with lived experience.  

However, Richard Lischer offers a warning to those homileticians that prefer narrative preaching:

For many, narrative preaching has meant telling stories or illustrations in order to make contact with our hearers’ most  cherished experiences, which too often entails aestheticism or canned illustrations. In fact, we tell stories because God’s involvement with a historical people generated a story.  The point is not to tell bunches of substitute stories for their inspirational value or to recount meaningful experiences that are vaguely analogous to divine truths but to tell one story as creatively and powerfully as possible and to allow that one story to probe our world.14


Lischer concludes his article by declaring that, "the renewal of preaching will not begin with a new form or style of sermonizing, or tinkering with our sermons but by relearning the distinctive languages of faith, prayer, and worship."10J24715255J0 

In other words, the beginning of a renewal in preaching is not only the discovery of what needs to be said, but how and when it needs to be said.  The preacher could have the most profound insights in theology, the most imaginative stories, and yet the sermon will never get off the ground if delivered without intentional movement, linguistic sensitivity, cultural awareness, and spiritual direction.

The opportunities and possibilities for preaching in the military environment are only limited by the chaplain’s lack of initiative and creativity.  For today’s chaplain, the challenges of a smaller Army, the modern battlefield, and the ever-increasing military mission, only serve to reinforce the need for solid and effective preaching.  Whether the chaplain chooses to preach an expository sermon or narrative sermon, the requirements are still the same:  dedication, commitment, excellence, relevance, preparation, and practice.


1. Willimon, William, "The Power of Mere Words," A Voice in the Wilderness:  Clear Preaching in a Complicated World, ed. by Steve Brown, Haddon Robinson and William Willimon, Multnomah Press, Sisters, OR, p. 23.

2. Ibid., p. 19.

3. See Cicero, De Oratore, I, p. 31 and Craig A. Loscalzo, "Rhetoric," Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, ed. by William H. Willimon and Richard Lischer, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, p. 410.

4. Ibid., p. 414.

5. David Buttrick, Homiletic, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1987, p. 24.

6. Richard Lischer, A Theology of Preaching, Labyrinth Press, Durham, NC, p.61.

7. Ibid., p. 60

8. Ibid., p. 80.

9. Ibid.

10. See Stanley Hauerwas’ work, "The Church as God’s New Language," in Christian Existence Today, Labyrinth Press, Durham, NC, 1988, pp. 59-62; and William Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, William B. Eerdmans publishing Co., 1992

11. See Mary Catherine Hilkert, "Naming Grace: A Theology of Proclamation," Worship, Sept. 1986.

12. Fred Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1990, p. 121.

13. Eugene Lowry, Doing Time in the Pulpit: The Relationship Between Narrative and Preaching, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1985, p. 27.

14. Richard Lischer, "The Interrupted Sermon," Interpretation, April 1996, p. 178.  Also see his article, "The Limits of Story," Interpretation, W0January 1984, pp. 27-29.

15. Ibid., p. 180.

Chaplain (MAJ) David P. Hillis serves as an instructor for the Chaplain Officer Basic Course at the Chaplain School.