Empty signals

When you read an article on church planting and it says “Don’t worry about your numbers,” but two paragraphs later mentions the size of the author’s church…

When you hear a sermon where the preacher affirms a certain life circumstance as godly, but later only applies the passage to people in other situations…

Rhetorical signals need to be backed up with substance. Not just in your general life or in the life of your church, but in the specific piece of preaching or teaching or writing you’re doing. If you make a point about how to approach an issue then you need to apply that point to how you approach the issue. Make your own communication an example of how to live out your application. If you can’t do that, then I would suggest you don’t have a very good handle on the topic.

Rhetorical emphasis is more than what you say is important. You signal importance in a million other ways, including:

  • How much time you spend talking about it
  • What is the first and last topic discussed
  • Who talks about something (e.g. does the senior pastor talk about women’s issues? does the associate minister get to talk about giving? can the youth minister confront parents about sin?)
  • The number of examples you give
  • The emotional connection of an illustration (don’t use a powerful illustration to illuminate a minor point)

This paragraph about singleness is bad from a Christian point of view, even though everything it says is technically true:

Singleness can be terribly lonely. There is a lack of family to care for and support you, the loss of physical and sexual intimacy, no children to raise in the faith, and no biological legacy. The gospel offers comfort to the single Christian. It teaches us to leave behind our own desires in order to serve others and follow where Jesus leads us. And this brings us fulfilment and meaning.

That paragraph is bad because all the emotional weight and space is used up on describing the bad stuff of singleness. It needs to either be two sections – one on how singleness sucks, and another on comfort – or the bad stuff needs to be pared down. Here’s the revised one-paragraph version:

Singleness can be terribly lonely. But the gospel shows us that Jesus stands with us in every human problem, including loneliness. Jesus knows what it is like to be alone because of who you are, or because of the choices you’ve made. He’s gone through, entirely and fully alone, so he could be with us. Single Christians are not alone because Jesus is with us. And he has given us people to stand beside us. He has given us a family, made all his followers children of the same God.

See how weight falls on comfort in Jesus rather than the bad stuff about singleness?

Some helpful pointers (?) on emphasis from the guy in the fourth pew:

  • If you want people not to worry about something then downplay it yourself.
  • Don’t emphasise the thing you want people to move on from, but the reasons they can move on and towards what they should move.
  • If you suggest a category (of sins, of blessings, of actions, of people, etc.) then you should be able to name at least five or six. You don’t have to mention all of them. But you do have to be firmly rooted in reality and appear that way.
  • It can be helpful to dissect incorrect teaching or beliefs. But you have to actually show why they are wrong in a logically convincing way; you can’t just counter-assert your own teaching.
  • As a general rule, spend more time talking about the truth than about lies or distortions of the truth. The antidote to sin is not the law; it is Christ.