Few people enjoy being “talked down to” or “preached at.” Superiority has no place in a believer’s life much less in the pulpit. Spiritual elitism is no better than everyday elitism. If the Pharisees are any example, it is worse.
Personal conversations have shown me that people really want to know if God has said anything, and if so, what? People hungry for God and people with only an interest will listen quicker if they know the person preaching or teaching is not “too big for his britches.” Pastors who are open about their personal foibles will gain a hearing quicker than those who act as if they are faultless.
But “wait,” someone says. “I never present myself as faultless. I know better.”
Perhaps we do not consciously think of ourselves as faultless, but if we have a heart of spiritual superiority we will not easily be able to keep it hidden. Sometimes our language can betray us. It is from the abundance of the heart, after all, the mouth speaks.
That is why I think the use of “we,” “us,” and “you” when preaching is important.
You Bunch of Sinners
When I was a much younger pastor, my preaching featured a lot of “You should repent,” “You should have a quiet time,” “Why aren’t you doing X,” and the like. My preaching was 20% exhortation and 80% excoriation; worse on a bad day.
Sermonic thrashings were my stock-in-trade.
After some soul-searching—and a lot of conviction—I came to this realization: not only do I need to “preach the gospel to myself,” the congregation benefits from hearing me do so. Thus, “You need to read your Bible” became “We need to read our Bibles,” “When you sin” became “When we sin,” and “You need to share Christ” became “We must share Christ.”
Careful Little Mouth What You Say
I need correction and admonition as much as any brother or sister in Christ. My role as a pastor does not make me less in need of instruction, but more.
My choice of words when preaching either reveals this awareness or reveals my lack of that same. If, as the old saying goes, the ground is level at the foot of the cross, I should not seek an acclivity from which to preach down on the gathered crowd.
John uses inclusive language in 1 John 1:6-10. I’ve italicized the plural personal pronouns:
If we say, “We have fellowship with him,” and yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth. If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (CSB)
In this brief passage, John identifies himself with his readers in speech, in fellowship, in spiritual walk, in cleansing, in sin, and in confession.
This is not to say I never use “you.” The apostles used “you” at times. I use it when it’s time to level a challenge or distinguish between alternatives:
“You may be an expectant mother who is worried about your child.” (I am not.)
“You may be a successful businessman with an opportunity to make millions.” (I am not.)
“Maybe you have been out of God’s word for many years.” (Not everyone has.)
“It may be that you need to repent of hatred in your heart.” (Not everyone does.)
“If you have not believed on Christ, today is the day of salvation.” (This is a direct challenge to unbelievers.)
“Are you exercising generosity on a regular basis?” (This is a challenge to examine one’s self.)
“Why would you not receive eternal life as so many here have?” (This is a challenge and a distinction.)
Including yourself in the bulk of the sermon using “we” and “us” allows your listeners to identify with you and you with them. As a result, there is a sharper contrast in the sections where “you” is employed. Listeners realize, “I have to answer this for myself.”
I do not use “we” and “us” in hopes of getting listeners to like me. I use them in hopes of getting listeners to hear me.
One important communication principle is audience identification: find common ground from which to build. It isn’t “you” who fail in many ways; “we” do so (James 3:2). Hebrews 12:1-2 reminds me we are in the race together:
Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith. (CSB, italics mine)
Using inclusive pronouns is one way I make clear that I am a disciple, I am learning, I am growing, I am not perfect, I experience victories and defeats, just like those listening. I am not above you; I am with you.
Featured image credit, edited for size.