Speaking Intelligibly

“I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.┬áBut in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
-1 Cor 14:18-19

When I first started seeing clients in my training to become a marriage and family therapist one of my main goals was to get my clients to cry. What better way was there, I thought, to determine that I had connected with them on an emotional level? Their tears were evidence that I was doing my job. And boy, did I do my job well in those early weeks!

Similarly, when I first started preaching about a year ago, whenever someone cried in response to my preaching I felt I was doing a good job. Though I was certainly not trying to elicit a tearful response from my preaching, I still found that I measured the quality of my preaching based on the immediate emotional response of those listening. If someone cried, it was a good sermon. If no one cried, it was not.

The Apostle Paul, in his letters to the Corinthian church, speaks frequently about the proper use of spiritual gifts at the assembly of the church. The Corinthians, both Christian and non-Christian, were deeply attracted to any sign of spiritual power. They wanted to see the power of God (or the power of the gods). Paul often defends that his ministry, although it has so much suffering and appears to be weak, is actually revealing the power of God. (See 2 Cor. 4:7)

Paul teaches the Corinthian church that during the assembly seeking the sensational power of God, even if it is an actual spiritual experience, is not as important as speaking only a few words intelligibly. If Paul is speaking about actual spiritual gifts, how much more does this apply to basic subjective human responses that are not spiritual, like crying or “being touched”?

In my sermon preparations I do not avoid trying to making connections that “move” people, but I do not make those my goal. My goal is to speak intelligibly, explaining the Scriptures and how we are to respond. I want us to think first and feel second. This is why I prepare my sermons word-for-word in advance through prayer and study, and do not operate by responding to the Spirit on the spot.

Should you and I measure a sermon or overall church service by how it makes us feel or by what it makes us think about? By how intelligibly it shares the story of God in Christ or by how well it makes us connect to the living Christ?

Are we correct to seek to connect with God personally and experientially during a church service? Is it right to determine the quality of the service based on its ability to lead us into this experience?

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4 Comments to “Speaking Intelligibly”

  1. James Mariam Says:

    I understand what you’re saying about your prep for your sermons being more focused on bringing forth the truth of God and instructing people clearly than trying to tell funny stories or make people cry, but I think you misunderstand what Paul is saying.

    You correctly note that Paul is pointing to maintaining order and community in worship, but at the same time I think you are downplaying what you call the “sensational” of God, which I would actually call the experience of God in worship. Paul explains that speaking in tongues can be meaningful for believers, but only if it can be interpreted and used to encourage other believers. However, he points to prophesy as a more worthwhile means of communicating God’s presence and what God has to say to his people, especially non-believers.

    However, I wonder if we are used to expecting too little of God and end up assuming that every time of worship is simply meant to be some intellectual exercise rather than also being an experience of God emotionally. While I don’t think we should expect every time of worship to be a mountain top, super-emotional experience, I think it’s equally dangerous to expect to use our mind, but not our heart or spirit in worship.

    In fact I think what Paul is encouraging the Corinthians towards is a balance between the spirit and the mind, as he says in 1 Cor 14:15: “So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.”

    Think about the statement: Jesus loves you.

    We could have a whole service devoted to this statement, but both the spirit and the mind have to confirm this statement. The mind affirms that this statement is true, we can point to different passages of scriptures that affirm this statement or passages in which God promises he loves us. Then again in our worship we feel that affirmation of God’s love and God’s presence in our lives. If we simply affirm God loves us at an intellectual level, but cannot confirm it by the Spirit and can not find confirmation of that fact in our hearts, than I believe that intellectual affirmation does little for us.

    Now I’m not saying that each time we come together to worship we all break down in tears because God loves us so much, but if our spirit and our heart do not confirm the words of our mouths than I think we are in trouble.

    And so I would definitely argue that both our mind and our spirit (our experience of worship, of being before God) have to confirm the statements and actions of our worship.

  2. Stephen Callender Says:

    @James Mariam — I think the way I set it up may have been misleading. The issue is not so much about intellect (mind) and emotion (spirit/heart), but comprehension and confusion. If something is confusing, even though it is a gift of the Spirit, it is not to be said or done in the assembly. The trump card is not whether something is “Spirit-led” or “Spirit-filled,” but rather if it is intelligible for the sake of edification.

    Now, if it is intelligible and edifying, then it should not necessarily be prevented. It seems prophecy meets this standard for Paul.

    Since the priority during the assembly of the church is given to speaking intelligibly for edification of everyone present, in my preaching, I’d rather speak clearly and have you understand what is being said. Hopefully, you understand throughout your whole being (body, mind, spirit), as you point out. If the Spirit moves within my attempt to speak intelligibly, then praise God. If He moves when I’m unintelligible, then praise God.

    I can’t worry about the Spirit, however, for I don’t control him. I’ve been instructed through Scripture to speak intelligibly, to preach Christ. Of course, I can speak intelligibly and be emotionally moving, even make you cry. Maybe one day I will. :) Yet, the first measure of the sermon would not be that you were moved emotionally, but that you understood it. The second measure may be that you were “moved” into action. I hope both happen.

    For the music, you can lead us in a song about a generic, unnamed god, and we may have a wonderful experience singing that song, but that would not be acceptable in the church. We must be clear as to who it is we are singing. The experience of the song is not the goal. The goal is to sing to God or even about God. If we experience God in the meantime, then praise God. And, of course, God wants us to be sincere in our singing, but I’m not convinced sincere singing is marked by deep emotion as much as it is marked by honesty.

    One last thought. I don’t think we need to manufacture the experience of God, which I believe happens too often in too many churches. I believe what many people think is the experience of God is really the experience of themselves. Our job is to make sure we clarify who God is and what he has done, is doing, and will do through song, Communion, and preaching. God must do the rest. I rest in that hope that He will. If He didn’t I would quit preaching. I do not expect little of God, I trust He will perform miracles.

  3. James Mariam Says:

    @Stephen, in the Greek, the Holy Spirit is referred to in the feminine, and therefore you would say you do not control her, rather than him.

  4. James Says:

    Actually, I was thinking of wisdom being in the feminine. The Spirit is actually in the male tense in the passages I have been reading lately, though obviously the Spirit in reality is neither male nor female, but is assigned a gender in the smallness of human language that struggles to define and speak of God’s majesty!

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