For the record, I hear Laurel. I can’t not hear Laurel. My wife hears Yanny. I’ll let you know how that works out.

This latest viral sensation, similar to ‘The Dress’ before it, plays on the maddening subjectivity of human perception. Whether it’s sight or sound, we take our sensory perception as bedrock and when something rattles it, the impact can be measured on the Richter scale. (In case you’re still shaken up, here’s an article explaining the science behind it.)

It’s interesting timing, given our church calendar. After all, the day of Pentecost centers in large part on how people hear and understand language. We can see this happening in Acts 2 on three levels:

  1. When the disciples begin to speak in ‘other tongues’, there was general confusion about what was occuring. Was this a supernatural miracle or were these men drunk at nine o’clock in the morning?
  2. The chaos leads to amazement but also confusion. The hearers can recognize the miracle—they hear all of these voices each in their own language—but are still overwhelmed by the cacophony. The language has meaning, but it isn’t being directed toward and for an audience. Peter finally stands, lifts his voice, and addresses the crowd.
  3. Peter’s sermon is entirely about helping the crowd re-hear words in a new way. He rehearses familiar passages and reinterprets them in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This follows Jesus’ own model from the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said…”

This scene exposes how naively we trust in the easy transmission of ideas through language. We rely on words to freight all our thoughts and emotions and to faithfully reconstruct them in the mind of another. But the arrival of the Holy Spirit helps us see the monumental task of human communication. We see the enormous obstacles that must be overcome before what we say can be heard and understood rightly by another. The barriers are as foundational as sound waves and grammar and as complex as the demands of rhetoric and the totally unique experience and background of every hearer.

It takes a miracle to get this right.

Preaching the Gospel in the Light of Pentecost (and Yanny vs. Laurel)

Yanny vs. Laurel doesn’t shock us because it shows us something we never knew before. It shocks us because it starkly illustrates the frustrating truth we encounter every day—we control what we say but not what they hear.

This made me laugh and cringe, because as a pastor, it hits a little too close to home. I’ve done more than a few double-takes reading an email on Monday morning from someone who “got so much out of” the Sunday sermon. Often, it turns out that ‘what they got’ was pretty far from ‘what I gave.’ Sound familiar?

In the light of Yanny, Laurel, and Pentecost, I thought it might be helpful to toss out three tips to help close the gap between what you say and what they hear. Ultimately, it is the work of the Spirit to bring the gospel plainly to the hearts and minds of those who hear us, but there are ways to make the Spirit’s work a little less tricky.

The Basics Aren’t Boring

You spend hours and hours on your sermon (well, hopefully). You’ve marinated in the passage, you’ve read commentaries, you’ve done word studies, you’ve honed your points and revised your drafts and even rehearsed it out loud a few times.

Guess who didn’t? Literally everyone else in the room.

The task of communication is made difficult by the ‘disparity of familiarity.’ If the insurance adjuster in the third pew were to stand up and start telling you everything about projected average costs of limited liability in bicycle accidents in the Upper Midwest, you’d probably tell him to slow down, go back to the beginning, and give you some context. That might seem unnecessary or boring to him, but it’s vital for you to hear if you are going to make any sense out of what he has to say.

Show your work!

When we preach, some basic concepts might feel boring to us, whether it’s the plain meaning of the text or a theological concept or a core aspect of our church’s mission. These things are so prevalent in our day-to-day lives that they feel blatantly obvious or mind-numbingly monotonous. But you are spending hours and hours thinking about this stuff—they are hearing this for about thirty minutes a week.

It isn’t about dumbing anything down. You can think of this like altitude—they have to acclimate along the way. Drop someone halfway up a mountain and ask them to start climbing and they’ll never make it to the top.

Or think of it like a math problem. If you present a difficult equation and only provide the solution, you’re going to get a lot of blank stares. SHOW YOUR WORK! Remember that your audience wasn’t there during all the time it took for you to arrive at the insights you hope to illuminate.

Write a Thesis Statement, Not a Doctoral Thesis

Pastors love lists. Me too! I just promised you three ways to make your sermon more clear. Nothing wrong with gathering your points into an outline. But having three points isn’t the same as having a point. Let me explain.

Always make sure you have one thing to say. Not three, not five, not seven (please not seven!). One. That’s called a thesis statement.

Many people still have a junior high understanding of a thesis statement. (Yes, I was a high school English teacher, so I’m not unbiased here.) They think of a thesis statement as just a rehearsal or a preview of everything they are going to say. Sample: The United States was founded on the ideas of liberty, equality, and independence. Anyone want to guess what the next three paragraphs might be about?

Help us see every angle

A real thesis statement isn’t interested in listing all the points; it lays out the one idea that holds everything else together. Example: The United States was an unprecedented experiment in trusting the essential goodness of the individual human person. Notice that the next three paragraphs might still be about liberty, equality, and independence, but I’ve created a unifying lens so that my audience will understand how these ideas hold together.

Without a thesis statement that makes this one idea plain, a sermon can feel an awful lot like rapidly walking past paintings in a museum. Each piece may be engaging or informative, but when the audience has to jump to the next one, they are forced to ‘reset’—that limits their depth of understanding and their retention of ideas. Your sermon points shouldn’t be paintings; they need to be different angles from which to observe a single sculpture.

It isn’t just your audience that suffers from a lack of a clear, singular thesis. Without doing that work in your preparation, your ideas will remain scattered. You will feel like you are developing multiple mini-sermons, each competing for priority. Or your sermon will start to feel like a bill in Congress—little addendums and extras being tacked right up until the end. When you arrive at a thesis statement, you will know what fits in this message and what can be set aside for another Sunday.

Hedge Your Bets, not Your Sermon

The previous two points are about basic communication skills, making sure that your ideas are clear and organized. That will get you a long way. But it won’t get you past the barrier of individual biases and preconceptions.

We all hear through the headphones of our experience

What makes the ‘Yanny vs. Laurel’ audio so divisive is how very, very similar the sounds are at a sonic level. The experiment wouldn’t work if it was ‘Walrus vs. Potato.’ It’s the same reason my mom always got on to me for mumbling nuh-uh or uh-huh instead of yes or no.

To be sure, there is a place for ambiguity and mystery in preaching. We should not be rash in proclaiming absolutes. However, when we are trying to state an unambiguous truth, made plain in the Bible and in the teaching of the Church, we must not hedge our words so as not to offend. In these moments, we often use vague language instead of calling a spade a spade. In trying be allusive, we often end up being elusive. Because we humans are sinners who wish to justify our sin, we listen to sermons the way billionaires read the tax code. We are always looking for loopholes.

Our pastor recently preached a sermon on sexuality and relationships. He said that the Church’s witness in this area should be less intent on hammering the negative connotations of abstinence and more intent on modeling and proclaiming the virtue of chastity as the God-ordained path to human flourishing.

I spoke with someone the next day and they expressed how much they enjoyed the sermon, saying it was about time they heard a preacher explain that sex outside of marriage was OK. I think my eyes crossed! I explained what our pastor had said, emphasizing that chastity of course implies abstinence when it comes to sex outside of marriage. They argued again that wasn’t what he meant. As generously as possible, I explained that I had helped our pastor revise the sermon. We had talked it all through. He absolutely was not meaning to say that Christians are permitted to have sex outside of marriage.

“Well”, they said, “I like the way I heard it better.”

We must take our lesson from Peter in Acts 2. He is crystal clear with his audience. The messiah came and you missed it. You saw all the miracles and you missed it. His hearers may have disagreed with him or may have been angry with him, but they most certainly did not misunderstand him.

The Good News of the gospel isn’t that our aren’t really as bad as we think we are or that our sins are really pretty understandable when we think about it. The Good News is that our state is exactly as hopeless as it seems, and yet Christ is still able to redeem us.

In John 16, Jesus tells his disciples that the work of the Holy Spirit will be to convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment. Perhaps we hedge our sermons because we’ve come to believe it is our job to convict. We hedge our words because we don’t know if we are qualified.

Well, we aren’t.

We are called to proclaim the way of Jesus. We are called to speak God’s Word as plainly as we are able. How will it be heard? How will it be received?

Thanks be to God—he gave us the Holy Spirit for that.