Communication: The rhetorical situation and preaching event
During college I witnessed one of the most profound sermons on September 11, 2001. After terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, our campus was scared, sad, and spiritually distraught. The college president called for a special service and spoke on Luke 13:4, 5, in which Jesus asks, “ ‘Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No’ ” (ESV). He shared a gospel perspective on life’s tragedies that gave comfort to a group of frightened young adults. At that moment the president could have spoken on anything. More than that, he could have just sent an email note with a generic sentiment about hard times. Instead, he found a text that matched our situation and spoke a Jesus perspective into it that helped us to process the tragedy. That lesson stayed with me as a young theology major.
Later, I found myself sitting in a large auditorium listening to a keynote speaker, someone known for their work in preaching, deliver a canned sermon from several years ago. The sermon was so well-known that I took out my smartphone, pulled up the manuscript, and followed it word for word. What made this situation especially painful is that it occurred a day or two after the Pulse nightclub shooting, in which Latin LGBTQIAP+ young people were shot—resulting in 49 dead and 53 injured. News reports talked about police seeing the cell phones on dead bodies lighting up with calls from terrified parents. The speaker that day did not mention a word about the event. Instead, he stuck with a script and missed speaking Christian love to a situation that many social-justice-savvy millennials, as well as others, had heavy on their hearts. One comment I heard afterward came from a former church member of the speaker who expressed disappointment at having attended only to hear a message he had heard five years before.
The rhetorical situation
One of the most well-established rhetorical theories in the field of communication appears in Lloyd Bitzer’s Rhetorical Situation. In Bitzer’s view, any work of speech “comes into existence for something beyond itself. Rhetorical discourse comes into existence as a response to a situation, in the same sense that an answer comes into existence in response to a question, or a solution in response to a problem; a speech is given rhetorical significance by the situation.”1
The implication is that the production of a sermon must be in response to the environment we find ourselves in. If our content does not match the situation our congregation lives in, then whatever we say will fail to receive a hearing.
Bitzer says every rhetorical situation involves an exigence (urgency), an audience that can be persuaded, and constraints given by the exigence. That means that certain dynamics in the situation demand to be addressed to an audience searching for an act of communication that gives it clarity. Constraints in a situation mean that whatever scenario we find ourselves in, it has symbols, realities, and actions that must be dealt with. Such situations operate as a question to the preacher— will we respond? Or will we dig out any old sermon and drop it into the service as though it did not matter?
Bitzer’s theory draws on the work of the ancient Greek Sophists. The Sophists believed in kairos (special seasons of time) above chronos (chronological time).2 One of the reasons that some considered Sophists as suspect was their avoidance of absolute truths that sought to fit into every situation. While they did not reject objective truth in theory, they did deny that people had the tools to know it absolutely. Therefore, they had to read a specific situation to know what communication would work best in it. While Christians believe in truth and that truth has been revealed in Jesus, we also acknowledge with Paul that we “see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12, KJV). That said, this theory is not meant to call into question objective truth; it is meant to recognize the communicative situations we find ourselves in, so that we may speak the truth more accurately into them.
Kairos and communication in the Bible
The idea of kairosexists in the biblical text and the ministry of Jesus. Mark 1:14, 15 describes how Jesus began His proclamatory ministry. “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time [kairos] is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ ” (NRSV, emphasis added). Mark sets the rhetorical situation by noting John’s arrest and Jesus’ response to it. Jesus uses the term kairos to designate the time of His ministry of proclamation, one calling forth additional rhetorical acts of repentance.
Elsewhere Jesus weeps over the lack of response to His ministry in Jerusalem. He laments, “‘They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time [kairos] of your visitation from God’ ” (Luke 19:44, NRSV, emphasis added). How has Jesus visited our church members this week? How has He visited our nation, city, or us personally? Being able to recognize the kairos is vital for any communicator for the kingdom.
Beyond the use of the term, Scripture records numerous examples of those who recognized their rhetorical situation. When Nebuchadnezzar’s wise men fail to interpret his dream, the frustrated king sentences them all to death. However, “Daniel went in to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to destroy the wise men of Babylon. He went and said thus to him: ‘Do not destroy the wise men of Babylon; bring me in before the king, and I will show the king the interpretation’ ” (Dan. 2:24, ESV).
Daniel recognizes the seriousness of the situation and seeks God’s wisdom in understanding the images that have created it. Thankfully, he appears before the king and is able to deliver the lifesaving words of truth.
At Pentecost, confusion breaks out as the Spirit falls on the early church. The supernatural manifestation creates a rhetorical situation that calls for the words of the gospel. Scripture says, “But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words’ ” (Acts 2:14, ESV). Then he delivers a sermon explaining the situation to the people in light of Joel 2:28—a text that explains the spiritual phenomena taking place. Because he was able to read the situation, the Bible goes on to say, “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41, KJV). So often the words spoken in the pulpit provide answers to questions people are not asking, and instead of souls being won, they remain in confusion.
Perhaps no greater biblical example of the rhetorical situation exists than what occurs in the book of Esther. When Mordecai learned of the genocidal conspiracy against his people, he went to his relative the queen and spoke timely words that saved thousands of lives. Within his words is an exhortation to impress upon Esther the seriousness of the situation: “‘For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’ ” (Esther 4:14, ESV).
This final phrase has been the theme of numerous other rhetorical situations, such as youth retreats, camp meetings, and conferences. Perhaps it can be part of the homiletical situation we face each week. With this in mind, the pulpit can never be a placeholder for generic sermons unthoughtfully delivered.
Bitzer’s theory, partially inspired by the rhetoricians of ancient Greece, has also been enhanced by scholars such as Jenny Edbauer, who suggests changing the name of the theory to “rhetorical ecology.”3 Edbauer says, “Situation bleeds into the concatenation of public interaction. Public interactions bleed into wider social processes. The elements of rhetorical situation simply bleed.” She suggests “an ecological augmentation adopts a view toward the processes and events that extend beyond the limited boundaries of elements.”4 In other words, rhetorical acts (such as sermons) happen against the backdrop of micro-rhetorics (smaller conversations) that help shape the communicative environments that we speak into. To craft a rhetorical response to a situation, we must first understand the conversations and symbols at work in our specific life contexts.
How do we discover such micro-rhetorics? Visitation. When we encounter others in their homes, at the hospital, at social events, or even in the hallways at church, pay close attention to the narratives people tell. Listen for the metaphors people use that will clue you in to the imagery that fuels their life. New works on rhetorical ethnography call on researchers to reflexively do rhetoric “with” a group.5 By doing life among our parishioners, we become aware of the situations that lead up to the weekly worship situation we are called to speak into. Remember, part of the power of the rhetorical situation is noticing the elements that make it up and then weaving them into our messages.
In our weekly “rhetorical situations” it is critical that we ask Jesus for eyes to see and ears to hear what is happening in our people’s worlds. A good scripture to meditate on in regard to Bitzer’s theory is Proverbs 25:11, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (NRSV). The imagery is that of a jeweler doing filigree work—not a one-size-fits-all, prefabricated, bargain-bin message from Sermon Mart. Jesus has placed you in a specific ministry context. What setting will you speak into this week? What words can you craft that will fit into the specific local context your people live in? What questions do you need to ask? May Jesus give us eyes to see and ears to hear the rhetorical situation in order to speak the truth needed in the right season.
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1 Lloyd F. Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” in Readings in Rhetorical Criticism, ed. Carl R. Burgchardt (StateCollege, PA: Strata Publishing, 2010), 8, 49.
2 Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, eds., The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings From Classical Times to the Present (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001).
3 Jenny Edbauer, “Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 35, no. 4 (Fall 2005): 5–24.
4 Edbauer, “Unframing Models,” 7.
5 Michael Middleton et al., Participatory Critical Rhetoric: Theoretical and Methodological Foundations for Studying Rhetoric In Situ (Lanham, MD: LexingtonBooks, 2015).