Death by a thousand explanatory notes

I recently remembered this old monologue from David Mitchell, back when he did a Soapbox thing for the Guardian:

The point he is making is that children will never learn new concepts if we only ever reference things that they already know. Like him, when I came across references in something, I went away and I looked it up. If I couldn’t find it in the handful of books we had in the house, and it wasn’t on Encarta, bad luck to me. More often than not, asking someone else normally sorted it out.

I was set to thinking about this in relation to our preaching. Received wisdom tends to suggest that we shouldn’t reference things outside of people’s experience and knowledge. But if our job is to teach the Bible, and if our church is full of exactly the kind of people you would hope would be there, just like those working in children’s television, the people in front of us won’t really know much about what we’re talking about at all. Unchurched unbelievers and baby Christians simply won’t get the references and will hear of a lot less if we refuse to tell them stuff because they don’t already know about it.

I think David Mitchell hits on something: ‘The whole experience of being a child is hearing words, ideas and references you don’t understand and either working them out by context, asking someone or looking them up.’ By the same token, the whole experience of being an unbeliever or brand new Christian in a church is that you will hear words, ideas and references that you don’t immediately understand. We can try to mitigate that in our preaching and teaching as much as we like, but in the end, if we try to stay within already known frames of reference nobody is going to be learning very much at all. Better, surely, to run headlong into the concepts and references that these folks don’t yet know (and, let’s be honest, thanks to this prevailing wisdom, many seasoned believers don’t know them too) and let them work it out by context, looking it up or asking someone.

And I agree with him about the issue of curiosity. I am not convinced that people immediately turn off when they encounter something they haven’t heard before. Often, it piques their curiosity and causes them to at least ask, ‘I wonder what that is?’ My son, who is only 7, is constantly reading and looking things up because he finds them interesting. At the minute, his interests seem to be dominated by stuff to do with the sea, geography about Asia and anything related to Nintendo Switch. He went through a period of watching old travel documentaries by Michael Palin because he found them interesting. He constantly ran into stuff he didn’t get. But when he watches TV and doesn’t understand stuff, he asks about it or looks it up. He never just turns it off.

I suspect the same is true in our preaching. That isn’t to say that people don’t switch off. Of course they do. But they switch off because we are boring, not because we referenced something they haven’t heard of. And if we think we are referencing something they might not have heard of, it usually pays to quickly explain what that thing is (quickly being the operative word). But we’re never going to cover off every possible thing people might not know. So, instead of never saying them so they never get to hear about them, shouldn’t we encourage them to look it up or ask someone about it? Ultimately, if you want to learn anything, that is the way to do it.

But I think far too much of our preaching is desperate to make sure that we don’t reference stuff that people might not have heard before. Whilst we obviously want to try and make ourselves understandable, I wonder if in our desire to make sure everybody understands absolutely everything, we caveat and explain ourselves to death so that we end up being really boring. And then we think that people have switched off because we mentioned something they hadn’t heard of before, or didn’t understand, when actually they tuned out because we spent so long explaining the thing that we just bored them to death instead.

Certainly, it is frustrating as a believer who does get the reference to have over half a sermon dedicated to explaining references we definitely get. For new believers, I suspect they would gain far more out of a sermon with some occasional, brief refences to things they don’t know that use the rest of the time to fully and helpfully explain and apply the text than they would from a sermon that uses most of the sermon explaining the thing they have never heard of that they could have asked somebody about afterwards.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for trying to use straightforward language. Why use ten words when two will do? But sometimes, it is the big word or concept that in one word says exactly what we are trying to explain with our ten. And aren’t there, sometimes, theological concepts and ideas that we want our people to know and engage with? A sermon might not be the best place to go into a detailed discussion of them, but introducing the word and concept might be helpful.

In the end, I wonder whether we sometimes treat people like idiots for fear that they might not fully understand a word or concept. But most people can work out from context, asking someone or looking it up what most things mean. In a bid to make sure people definitely understand every reference, we may end up patronising them. But more likely, I suspect we’ll bore them as we go to great lengths to explain every new concept and idea they might not have heard before and, when it boils down to it, our sermon dies the death of a thousand explanatory notes. We obviously want to be understandable and clear to as many people as possible, but we also want our people to learn too. And sometimes, just leaving a reference to dangle so that those who know it get it and those who don’t might need to ask or look it up may just bring people on helpfully in way that our countless (and, let’s be honest, often tedious) explanations just won’t.