When I Say “We”, I Really Mean “You”: Preachy First-Person PluralReligion — By Nathan Bennett on October 10, 2012 at 7:00 am
It is easy to tell people what to do. You often have to tell people what to do. As a matter of fact, I have recently come to the conclusion that nagging is a debased form of effective leadership. High school teachers always said that we students had to learn to write down and remember when that big paper is due because professors weren’t going to keep giving us reminders like we got in high school. I found my college experience to be the opposite, and professors often gave me and my classmates a lot of time to help us outline and compose our papers and projects. All along the way, they told me what to do, saying you, you, you and I loved them for it.
When I was in high school, I asked my youth pastor if I could speak on a Sunday morning about the dangers of secular humanism. Aside from the fact that he never did get around to saying No, he taught me some basic preaching skills. What I most remember are his lessons on using “we” instead of “you” to sound more personable and less preachy. It is easy, when speaking, to say “you” when you really mean “anyone really, but it might as well be you”; my youth pastor taught me to say “we” for general examples so that when I say “you” it really indicates the people I am talking to, and then when I tell you what you need to do, you are not tired of hearing the word “you” and you sort of know that I don’t think myself superior to you because I also said “we” a lot. Ever after, I conscientiously controlled my pronouns in speaking and even in writing, but language tweaking is only one sweetener to send medicine down the reader’s throat.
As I blog, I find it easy to say what big churches should do differently or what lukewarm Christians should do heat up or chill out lest Jesus spit them out of his mouth. I can hammer out a message to send a message to lukewarm, flip-flopping nominal slacker Christians, but that’s just bloating Mary Poppins’ pharmaceutical racket. Message medicine might help sick people, but it is a fraction of a balanced diet. What is more helpful is putting together good descriptions of the world we live in and writing good stories that influence how people structure their understanding of it. In a recent period of extreme spiritual upheaval, I turned to Harry Potter and to The Lord of the Rings rather than John Piper or John MacArthur because I knew that those stories would tell me things that I needed to hear, but the stories weren’t even about me in the slightest bit.
It is harder to tell a compelling story than it is to tell people what they have to do. No matter how many times I fudge the pronouns or use the passive voice, it is easier for me to write purely didactic stuff because I am too lazy to string stories and facts together to move what people actually think and feel. Even when I say “we” and talk about things that need “to be done” rather than say that “you need to do them”, I am boring or unproductively annoying. This is not being a gadfly like Socrates or a prophet like Isaiah — and Socrates told good stories and Isaiah wrote good poetry — it is substituting hand motions for hands-on work in making the world better. While popular authors (e.g. John Piper and John MacArthur) do good for lots and lots of people, I never turn to their books when I am spiritually in a dark hole. J. K. Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkein, on the other hand, show me life in motion and give me scenes of people making choices that I can follow.
There are people in this world who can tell me what God wants me to do, and some of them I purposefully go back to listen to every week. (THAT MEANS YOU, PASTOR.) There are some people whose recommendations I follow sedulously. (THAT MEANS YOU, MR. SCHULTZ.) Other than them, I want people to tell me about the world and all that is in it. We tell the same gospel over and over again because what people should do about it varies in the times and the places in which it is told. In the end, let’s have more good stories and storytellers. You and I need exhortation, but I for one know that I can’t live on it.