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For many years people considered communication to consist merely in the transfer of propositions from one mind to another. Many preachers still do.  Actually there is a lot more going on. Without getting too technical, Speech-Act Theory analyses communication using three measures instead of one. There is quite a bit of scope for this communications theory to help preachers consider their task. Here are the three measures:

A. There is the actual set of words that comprise the communication, which can be evaluated for meaning, but only incompletely.

B. What the theory underlines is that speech doesn’t just say something, it is always delivered with the intent to do something. Some acts of speech are typically used as clear examples, such as, “I pronounce you husband and wife” ... in the right context, those words actually do something. In reality every act of speech is given with the intent to do something. There is the intended impact of the speaker that is communicated with and by the actual words used. So you might use the same set of words, but with different intent depending on numerous other factors, to communicate the following: a threat, a promise, a flirtatious hint, etc.

C. Once we open up the realm of the intent of the speaker beyond mere analysis of propositions (which we automatically do as listeners), then there is a third measure to bring into the mix ... the actual effect of the speech-act. What actually happens may be intended or unintended, and it may be multi-layered.

If you want to chase Speech-Act Theory, by all means search for it, or for the terms locution, illocution and perlocution. For now I want to probe this final element described in respect to preaching ...

Do the actual effects of our preaching match our intended effects?  Obviously we have a significant added dimension as preachers—that God brings conviction, transformation and growth. Nevertheless, it is definitely worth pondering our impact prayerfully. Here are some possibilities:

1. Do people take our tone in the way we intend? You might mean to come across as loving in what you say, but actually be felt to be antagonistic, negative or aggressive. You might intend to couch certain content in a tone of hope, but come across as uncertain and hesitant.

2. Does the main goal of the message get through? We do look to God to bring about transformation, but that doesn’t excuse us from prayerfully intending certain impact. Are we seeing that impact over time?

3. Do secondary but significant goals get achieved in your preaching? For instance, you might intend for your listeners to be motivated to read their Bibles during the week, but does your preaching bring about that motivation? Prayerfully pondering actual impact might lead to some tweaks in your preaching that will help your church.



Peter Mead is involved in the leadership team of a church plant in the UK. He serves as director of Cor Deo—an innovative mentored ministry training program—and has a wider ministry preaching and training preachers. He also blogs often at BiblicalPreaching.net and recently authored Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation (Christian Focus, 2014). Follow him on Twitter

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Lawrence Webb

commented on Jan 22, 2015

We would all do well to consider your questions. They call two things to mind: (1) I get daily email devotions from a friend. He probably doesn't realize it, but he almost always is negative. He reminds me of a former pastor who knew the right language, but I often felt he was beating us over the head with God's grace. (2) In a homiletics class in seminary, after a student preached on hell, the professor said the student smiled much of the time as he preached about fiery punishment!

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