Code-switching and Preaching: knowing your context.

Preaching, at its best, expresses the Gospel in a specific context. Code-switching helps us to understand the contexts in which we preach. My previous post focused on the danger of code-switching into “preacher voice.” Before we can understand others’ contexts, before we can hear another’s code, we have to know our own. My undergraduate thesis supervisor, Orlando Espín, would often tell me that to understand another person’s context, you first have to know your own. You have to own that you speak with a particular code, based on culture and history, if you are to approach preaching with another code in mind.

In order to preach the Good News the preacher must know the specific people among whom she ministers, know their language, know their history, know their code. In traditional writing terms, you have to know your audience. I have to confess, I worry sometimes that preachers are writing more for their “followers” online than for the people in the pews. Our social network following tends to be naturally less diverse than a congregation (and that’s saying something). “Will my friends click like?” should be the last question a preacher worries about as he works on a sermon. There is danger in preaching to our Facebook friends. When we so constrain our sense of context, a sermon can become an “insiders” game.

Seminarian sermons tend to be laden with theological jargon. Seminarians live and breathe the context of academic theology. You can tell a good seminarian sermon when the multisyllabic theology words are limited and translated for the congregation. A great seminarian sermon gets a laugh out of that translation, because they know the congregation well enough to make them laugh. A preacher who knows her congregation well is in the business of translating tradition to a specific context.

Our task in the pulpit is not to teach the people to speak as if they had a seminary education. The work of the preacher is to make the Gospel available to the congregation. How can ancient stories and teachings come alive in a particular context? Code-switching helps us approach an answer. We have to learn to speak in the various codes of our congregation.

I was incredibly fortunate in my first call to parish ministry. I had the chance for four and a half years to preach among the people of St. John’s Lafayette Square, a historic congregation just across from the White House. Part of St. John’s vibrancy comes from the diversity of its members. I often found myself preaching in English in the morning and in Spanish in the afternoon. After a few sermons crashed and burned, I learned that I had to translate more than the words to preach in Spanish. I needed to think through the metaphors I used and stories I told, the emphases I looked for in the text. What preached in the morning among English speaking lawyers and government officials often fell flat with day laborers and recent immigrant families.

Code-switching is about more than speaking a language. Code-switching is about knowing the stories and history, art and poetry. Speaking about race in Washington is always tricky. Preaching about race at St. John’s got me in trouble a couple of times. A vestry member, a prominent figure in Washington’s black community, pulled me aside after a particular sermon to let me know I had made some assumptions I shouldn’t have made. I disagreed with his conclusions about some particular points in my sermon, but came to the realization that I had some homework to do. I asked him out to lunch.

I didn’t preach about race for awhile. I spent time with this parishioner, and with some other members of the black community at St. John’s. I got to know them better, to know their stories and passions. When the fourth of July came around, I was assigned as the preacher for the preceding Sunday. At St. John’s, this is a big day. They bring in a pipe and drum, and sing a number of patriotic hymns. The danger in this particular Sunday is American Triumphalism. It can seem in the liturgy like we are identifying America with the Kingdom of God, as if our nation were the fulfillment of God’s dream. I knew I had to say something about our nation’s ongoing struggles. I had to talk about race. I also knew now, I couldn’t just speak for myself. Hearing a white young man talk about injustice in his own words wasn’t enough. I needed some support. I leaned on Langston Hughes. Hughes was once Washington resident, a busboy at a big hotel, and I centered the sermon on one his poems:

O, let America be America again–The land that never has been yet–And yet must be–the land where every man is free.

O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath–America will be!

The vestry member, who was a poetry buff, congratulated me on my sermon that Sunday. “Anytime you use Langston Hughes in a sermon, you’ve got me.” I’ll say, I didn’t think the sermon was perfect, but what I learned from the experience was that I could get a lot farther by listening to the people with whom I preached. I could communicate more effectively if I incorporated poets, writers, and songs that had meaning for the members of my congregation. I had to diversify my reading and listening to preach effectively. I had to listen. It takes time to learn to find the grace, the Good News, operating in another cultural context. It takes a lot of listening to the members of your congregation who have found that grace in the work that has given them life. I had to learn to listen with them. Listening doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m a talker. I’m still learning to listen.

I know that if I want to be a great preacher, I’m going to have to spend a lot of time listening to the people among whom I am called to preach. It is rumored that Karl Barth said the task of the theologian was to open both the Bible and the newspaper. I would say that the task of the preacher is to open up the Bible and to open up the stories told round the kitchen tables of the congregation. Bringing the Good News to the people means knowing them, knowing the hymns they love and the assumptions that make them angry. To be a good preacher is to allow your congregation to show you how God has found them in their particular context. To effectively preach is to code-switch for the sake of Gospel in the multiple contexts of your congregation. I dare say, when I have approached preaching this way, I have been surprised by God’s grace. It turns out that God appears in ways I couldn’t have dreamed up on my own.

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