‘That’s nothing but a bunch of rhetoric!’ These words are often spoken dismissively after political stump speeches by those who deem them insincere at best, deceptive at worst. But how often are they uttered after a sermon? People may not like certain sermons, but I’ve not heard many equate them with rhetoric. However, negative connotations aside, might the comparison be warranted? Politicians and preachers are both often trying to convey messages to broad and diverse audiences. More than that, they are both hoping to persuade their listeners that the message they have to share is not only worth listening to, but worth acting on.
In the days before Christian ministers (but not before politicians), the ancients developed a systematic approach to persuasive communication and called it rhetoric. Aristotle led the way by identifying and defining some key communication concepts that characterized rhetors (people engaged in rhetoric) and the art of rhetoric. He took a scientific approach to this art in the hopes of creating a system whereby rhetors could increase their chances of successful persuasion. However, he sought not simply to develop people who could persuade, but sought rather to develop people who could determine the available means of persuasion in any situation.
Aristotle wanted people to be ready and able to adapt their style and approach to communication based on the specifics of their audience and the circumstances in which they were presenting. When put this way, perhaps rhetoric sounds less sinister and more practical. Why then, ought it not be applied by preachers? Wouldn’t sermons stand a better chance of effecting positive change if preachers determined to make themselves ready to adapt to their audience and their circumstances?
This might raise some theological eyebrows, because it could be interpreted to mean that I am advocating preachers be ready to adapt the essence of their message in order to be more persuasive—in other words, to alter the Gospel. However, this is not what I’m saying at all! Instead of an alteration of the message, I am advocating the pursuit of a fuller expression of this message in ways that the intended audience can understand and receive.
One approach would be to examine two situationally dependent ‘canons’ of rhetoric—the arrangement and the style—with an eye towards shaping them in response to the audience. Another would be to seek ways to embody the message in the delivery, or, put another way, to attempt in the delivery to allow the message to inhabit the messenger. It seems to me that a willingness to do so, if borne out of a desire to communicate most clearly with one’s audience, is admirable and in keeping with the communicative adaptation inherent in the incarnation of Christ. In Christ, the Word took on the flesh of his audience and, in so doing, became a living delivery. From a communications standpoint, rhetoric seems to offer the potential of aiding those seeking to faithfully communicate the things of God.
Socrates spoke to this very issue in his dialogue with Phaedrus. As the two of them were walking along talking about all sorts of things, the subject of oratory came up. Socrates, not willing to let a ‘teaching moment’ pass him by, said that one should not seek to develop oratorical skills ‘for the sake of speaking and acting before men, but in order that he may be able to say what is acceptable to God and always to act acceptably to Him as far as in him lies.’  Even Socrates recognized that the skills many use for their own gain could, and should, be used for higher purposes.
What do you think? Should there be a firewall of separation between rhetoric and communication within the church? Are there redeeming aspects of rhetoric, aspects that can be considered amoral, and therefore appropriate to be used in service to God? And finally, should rhetoric be considered an art like other more traditional artistic mediums (e.g. painting and music); and does it have the capacity, as some claim of these other mediums, to be instrumental in the revelation of the nature of God?