From the Shepherd’s Nook: The Pastor’s Language

Our Shepherd’s Nook column is by John Frye, who again takes us to someone many consider America’s pastor to pastors, Eugene Peterson. I agree.

When Eugene H. Peterson gave a keynote address that I heard at a writers’ conference at Spring Arbor College, he said, “Writers must be shepherds of words.” That stuck with me. EHP reverences words because he reverences both the sacred Text and the Living Word. In what Henri J. M. Nouwen calls our “wordy, wordy world,” we need voices that make us stop dead in our tracks and recall the wonder of the ability to speak, to converse. As we have seen, EHP suggests that the pastor’s two primary tools are prayer and parable, both essentially word-based.

How do you work on your pastoral task with words? What have you learned? How is Peterson’s three-fold breakdown of languages useful for the church?

EHP in several of his books describes three types of language in our verbal world. He simply labels them languages I, II, and III.  Let’s begin with language III. This is the language of description, the language of education. We begin to learn it early as we vocalize “mama,” “dog,” “rock,” “tree,” etc. Language III is the language of nouns to help us identify and negotiate with the things in our world. It orients us to reality. Language II is the language of motivation, the language of commerce and politics. It is a language of verbs—“buy,” “vote,” “stop,” act,” “stand up,” etc. Language II gets things done. Those in advertising have turned this language into a science. The advertisers know how to get money out of your hands and into the profit margins of products and services. EHP has nothing against these two necessary languages, yet he laments that these two language types have swarmed into pastoral ministry like a plague of locusts. Pastoral ministry has become all about description and education, about motivation and activity. The poster pastor is “Larry the Cable Guy” blabbing, “Git ‘er done!” Is there a place for languages II and III in pastoral work? Of course. People do need education and motivation. EHP writes, “Indispensable as these uses of language are, there is another language more essential to our humanity and far more basic to the life of faith.” EHP presses for language I.

Language I is personal language. It is primal language. This language uses words to express one’s self, to converse, to be in relationship. “This is language to and with.” This is the language of communion, not just communication. In this language, love is offered and received, ideas are articulated and expanded, feelings are voiced and respected, and silences are honored and interpreted with reverence. EHP writes that this “is the language we speak spontaneously as children, as lovers, as poets—and when we pray.” I recall this illustration from one of EHP books: EHP describes a new parent leaning over the crib side staring into the face of a baby. The baby makes cooing, gurgling nonsense sounds and the parent responds with similar nonsense articulations. No content is shared, no education offered. No imperative is voiced, no action demanded. Languages II and III are irrelevant. In this nonsensical exchange of sounds between baby and parent a relationship of love and trust is being established that will shape a life. “The pastoral task is to use the language appropriate in this basic aspect of our humanity—not language that describes, not language that motivates, but spontaneous language: cries and exclamations, confessions and appreciations, words the heart speaks.”

To deftly describe a broken heart does not cure it. To compel a broken heart to just get better is cruel. As we noted in the last post, pastors walk the way of the Galilean who was “a man of sorrows and filled with grief.” Education plus motivation does not equal transformation, no matter how excellent the information and no matter how compelling the motivation. The cure of souls takes place in the language of prayer and leisured conversation. If a pastor simply wants “to run a church,” she will lean heavily on languages II and III. If he wants “to cure souls,” he will (re)learn and become competent in the language of prayer, the language of love.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Tim Atwater

    Thanks John (and Eugene Peterson) for this:
    “The pastoral task is to use the language appropriate in this basic aspect of our humanity—not language that describes, not language that motivates, but spontaneous language: cries and exclamations, confessions and appreciations, words the heart speaks.”

    To deftly describe a broken heart does not cure it. To compel a broken heart to just get better is cruel. As we noted in the last post, pastors walk the way of the Galilean who was “a man of sorrows and filled with grief.” Education plus motivation does not equal transformation, no matter how excellent the information and no matter how compelling the motivation. The cure of souls takes place in the language of prayer and leisured conversation. If a pastor simply wants “to run a church,” she will lean heavily on languages II and III. If he wants “to cure souls,” he will (re)learn and become competent in the language of prayer, the language of love.

    Sounds, reminds of Romans 8 where the Spirit prays through us when we don’t know how to pray…

    grace and peace…

  • Alan K

    Thanks again, John. Wonderful.

  • pepy

    Wow, a very interesting take by Peterson on Beck and McKeown’s 1985 research on tiers of vocabulary! Nice. And I agree with Tim above that those closing paragraphs of John’s posting are the heart of what should be in every pastor’s heart.

  • Scott Gay

    I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expand this type of language beyond pastors. Many are talking today about the church in its days of weakness as different from when it evolved to days of power. It’s possible to think its language changed from missional to managerial(to run things). I’m saying Language I is missional. It leads toward a mutual forgiveness and a peace with God and therefore with neighbor whether they think, act, and look like you or not- it leads toward these even if they think you are subversive or wrong. Surely the key to unity in a plural group. I want it to be called Jesus language.

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    Thank you, John.

  • Roy

    “Language I is personal language. It is primal language. This language uses words to express one’s self, to converse, to be in relationship. “This is language to and with.” This is the language of communion, not just communication. In this language, love is offered and received, ideas are articulated and expanded, feelings are voiced and respected, and silences are honored and interpreted with reverence.”

    What a temptation it is to want to offer advice and “fix” people! But to commune with them, to listen intently and attentively, to express love, deep inner movements, this is powerful! Most of the people I get to journey with want this type of pastoral presence, not the “Here’s-what-you-need-to-do” counseling I hear.

    I think this also assumes that we are in a relationship with them and it’s not just an “office visit” and that’s that! It connotes a sense of doing life in community (to be in communion). It’s hard for me to provide pastoral care to people I don’t know. ;)

    Thanks for posting, Pastor Frye! :)


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