Code-switching and Preaching: Can I talk to you about your sermon?

There’s always a moment of awkwardness when someone asks, “Can I talk to you about your sermon?” When you’ve put hours of work into crafting a message, when that message has a sacramental function, both praise and critique can be awkward to hear. A few times in my preaching career a visitor has approached me after church and asserted that my perspective in the pulpit did not conform to their ideas of Christian orthodoxy. The question “Can I talk to you about your sermon?” sets me on edge a little bit.

National Cathedral Pulpit

I heard the question recently after a sermon at Christ Church Cathedral. A teenager I didn’t know walked up to me, and pulled me aside and said, “Thank you for mentioning transgender people in your sermon.” The teen went on to say they had come to the Cathedral that morning because they were looking for a church that was open to trans people. The teen was still on a journey around gender. (I’m not using gendered pronouns in describing them, because I don’t know what the teen would prefer).

I had mentioned transgender people in passing in the sermon, in a list of people who are blessed, despite our culture’s attitude. It was one line. I didn’t really like this sermon generally. It wasn’t my best. But this teen was thankful for one line. Their response made me remember how I used to listen to preaching, as a young gay man. In college as I was first coming out, I sat through most sermons waiting, listening for my reality to be named. If I heard one line of affirmation, that’s the line I would remember.

The encounter came as I am thinking about an idea in communication: “code-switching.” The theory of code-switching asserts that all of us have various ways of thinking and speaking that are shaped by our gender, culture, ethnicity, personal history, and other markers of identity. Most of us actually are capable of speaking a variety of codes. Sometimes we have to have a more “professional” code. Often one “code” is privileged in a society. I think we also listen for our “home code(s).” We listen for markers in speech and action that tell us we are welcome.

The encounter with the teen continues to bring about questions for me. Who do we preach for? How do we prepare? What codes do we choose when we preach? Over the series of a few posts, I’d like to ask my fellow preachers: “Can I talk to you about your sermon?”

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “Code-switching and Preaching: Can I talk to you about your sermon?

  1. The more I try to target a particular code or audience, the more likely my preaching is to have lost its authenticity. In my first preaching class we were charged to find the Good News in whatever scripture lay before us and proclaim that. Twenty years later, I still start there when preparing to preach.
    Once I have that kernel of truth to start from, I can ask for the most effective way to offer it to the particular congregation (youth retreat, retirement community, vestry retreat, general Sunday morning). If I am focused on the Good News proclaimed in the weekly readings, I will be much more likely to preach honestly to any congregation, no matter who they are.

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