Shifting Preference Talk and Rule Talk to Wisdom Talk

Q

Our church is stuck in conversations about worship. Everything seems to come down to personal preferences and to how many people we can satisfy in any given week. We also have a stack of policies that really stifle our imagination. How can we get out of this pattern?

A

This seems like an apt description of hundreds of communities. And it points to the deep culture of a community—something harder to describe than to address. It’s likely that nothing will fix this quickly. Still, it’s worth the effort!

While there are many ways to approach this challenge, I continue to be inspired by leaders who pay attention to the “language culture” of a community—its characteristic communication habits.

First, pay attention to the very different ways that leaders introduce a new idea or try to strengthen a long-established practice.

Some leaders do this through “preference talk”—for example, “I was at a conference and heard a new type of song that I simply fell in love with, and I knew we had to try it,” or “I love our edgy pre-sermon videos and would hate to ever see this practice go away.”

Others do this through “rule talk”—for example, “Our rule is that we always sing two hymns and three praise songs.”

Still others do this through “wisdom talk”—for example, “Forward-looking churches proactively seek to invite younger members to join teams and committees so that we build leadership capacity for the future,” or “We have discovered together how wise it is to have a team of people to prepare and review each Sunday service and to benefit from each other’s perspectives, gifts, and insights.”

We can’t move congregations out of preference talk if we use it as leaders. When we do try to replace preference talk, we’ll succeed more in deepening the culture of a community if we embrace wisdom talk—ways of talking that help people see the underlying reasons for a given approach.

Second, help people learn to recognize these contrasting ways of speaking in their own families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools. In each of these contexts, we all tend to slip into quite arbitrary defenses of a given practice in terms of either our personal desires or a somewhat arbitrary rule. Notice what happens when the topic of worship comes up in car rides home from church or at family reunions or water cooler conversations in the workplace.

  • Preference talk: “I can’t stand it when they play that song so slowly.” “I prefer it when our associate pastor preaches.” “I love old hymns.” “I’m a guitar-and-drums kind of person.”
  • Rule talk: “We never sing Christmas carols during Advent.” “We never show religious imagery that might offend people.”

Then, starting in your small group, team, committee, or council, hold each other accountable to make it through an entire meeting without slipping into preference talk or rule talk. As you do, remember that you can quite easily transform just about any comment or observation from one mode of speech to another. Suppose you think to yourself, “I just can’t stand having carpet in church.” Consider all the options you have for expressing it:

“I don’t like carpet in church.” (preference)

“Do not carpet church sanctuaries.” (command)

“The first principle for congregational singing is: do not carpet your sanctuary.” (rule)

“Could we explore removing our church carpet?” (question)

“Carpeting church sanctuaries dampens congregational singing.” (observation)

“Wise is the church that plans its acoustics to enhance congregational singing.” (proverb)

“When my former church got rid of carpet, we started to sing like a little choir, and the place came alive.” (testimony)

The proverb and the testimony here change the atmosphere of the conversation. They gently shift the focus toward the rationale and enduring strength of a given practice. They are a form of wisdom talk.

Wisdom talk is a way of talking that can help sustain a healthy practice over time. If a church sings a lot of music by a given songwriter just because “the pastor or worship leader happens to like it,” that sets up a scenario where these songs are forgotten the day that leader leaves. If a church learns to love the deeper reasons why that music is pastorally compelling, it’s more likely to last.

This is just as true for church leaders as it is for athletic coaches, physical therapists, and dietitians who often offer some of our culture’s most compelling examples of wisdom speech. We are more likely to practice a given athletic drill and eat healthier food when we grasp the deep reasons why.

There are caveats to consider.

First, sometimes we and the people we lead use preference talk when we don’t mean to. Sometimes our hopes would more honestly be conveyed in the form of a testimony or conviction or proverb. But when we talk about our hopes, they come out in the form of a preference because that’s all we ever hear around us! More than once as a teacher, I have known the deep reasons why a given practice is so compelling but was nevertheless tempted to slip into commending something in terms of my own tastes.

Second, at the same time, this linguistic shift toward wisdom talk could be used manipulatively. We all can be tempted to dress up our own preferences in whatever way is likely to carry the day—even when there really isn’t much enduring wisdom there.

Third, it’s important to acknowledge that both rule talk and preference talk have their place. Preferences for certain foods or parks or animals or colors can be an expression of delight in creation. Firm rules can save us from touching a hot stove or diving into shallow water.

Still, I would posit this: Communities are deeply blessed when their choices about worship are grounded not in a set of personal preferences or arbitrary rules, but rather in enduring wisdom that is openly discussed, shared, and mutually affirmed.

See if you can gather even a small group of people to experiment with new ways of talking about what you do and why.

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.