Paul Prather

A word in favor of preaching to the choir

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In a class I took as an undergraduate, the professor said that even among the great writers of the English canon, most really had only one or two stories to tell.

Although they may have published dozens of books across a long career, they were just trying again and again to better say those one or two key things they knew — about romantic loss or coming of age or social injustice.

I’ve seen a similar principle at work among ministers, both great and obscure.

The Rev. Billy Graham, the most renowned evangelist of the past century, said in a press conference I covered as a reporter that after decades of holding massive religious crusades, he only had a handful of sermons — all of which he’d based on John 3:16.

He preached salvation, and that was it. That’s what drove him.

On the obscurer end of the spectrum, I’m a radical believer in the doctrine of grace; or maybe it’s that I believe in a radical form of grace. Either way, like Graham, I basically have one message — that everything we receive from the Lord, whether it’s eternal redemption or the food on our dinner plates, is the result of God’s goodness rather than our own merits.

Grace isn’t always in my sermon notes, but it pokes its way into every homily I deliver.

Fortunately, my congregation seems not to mind. My parishioners are grace people, too.

Even so, it’s troubling to find myself saying some version of the same thing to the same people every time we gather together.

I’ve often wished I had a broader range, something new to expound on every week, or at least every year.

I feel similarly about writing for the newspaper. I’ve written hundreds of opinion columns.

But I don’t possess hundreds of opinions. I possess a handful of opinions I’ve expressed hundreds of times.

Here, I don’t prattle about grace, which usually isn’t an appropriate topic for a secular newspaper. But I do find myself writing repeatedly about family, the mysteries of time and loss, the tenets of a healthy spirituality.

Here, too, I wish I had something fresher. But I don’t, even though I read books, listen to thought-provoking podcasts and devour multiple newspapers.

My exposure to possible topics isn’t limited; my inclinations are.

I’m now considering that this might not be a handicap after all.

My wife Liz pointed me to an essay by writer and historian Rebecca Solnit that appears in her collection, “Call Them by Their True Names.”

Among other things, Solnit argues — convincingly to me, although maybe I just want to be convinced — that the most effective communication often boils down to what she calls preaching to the choir. In political circles, it’s called motivating the base.

To Solnit, preaching to the choir means making a few key points over and over to folks who probably already agree with you.

We err if we assume religious or political discourse should be designed to change others’ minds or crackle with new, head-spinning ideas, she says.

People are notoriously hard to convert. (Billy Graham’s evangelistic successes being the exception, I imagine.)

“Conversion or the transmission of new information is not the primary aim; the preacher has other work to do,” the essayist argues.

Religion regards its sacred texts as inexhaustible fonts.

“Don’t many adults, like most small children, love hearing some stories more than once, and aren’t there always new perspectives on the deepest ones?” Solnit says. “Most religions have prayers and narratives, hymns and songs that are seen as wells of meaning that never run dry. You can go lay down your sword and shield by the riverside one more time; there are always more ways to say how once you were blind and now can see.”

Mainly, people don’t go to church hoping to be talked into denying cherished doctrines or adopting new ones. They don’t visit a Democratic Party rally to see whether they ought to leave the Republican Party, or vice versa.

They go to hear their beliefs affirmed. They go to be revived and encouraged. They go to get a new wrinkle on a familiar revelation.

They tend to be drawn to ministers — or writers, or political leaders — who share their deeply held beliefs.

And they find it beneficial to revisit those beliefs again and again.

If Solnit is right, and if you’re a preacher, a writer or even a politician, it may not be a shortcoming for you to keep banging away at your one or two guiding, heartfelt precepts.

Indeed, that might be the main reason your audience is listening to you.