Theology Thursday - Against Saying "We" in Preaching

J.C. Ryle continues dispensing some advice for preachers:1

The fourth hint I will give is this: If you wish to preach simply—use a DIRECT style. What do I mean by this? I mean the practice and custom of saying “I” and “you.”

When a man takes up this style of preaching, he is often told that he is conceited and egotistical. The result is that many preachers are never direct—and always think it very humble and modest and becoming to say “we.” But I remember good Bishop Villiers saying that “we” was a word kings and corporations should use, and they alone—but that parish clergymen should always talk of “I” and “you.” I endorse that saying with all my heart.

I declare I never can understand what the famous pulpit “we” means. Does the preacher who all through his sermon keeps saying “we” mean himself and the bishop? or himself and the Church? or himself and the congregation? or himself and the early Fathers? or himself and the Reformers? or himself and all the wise men in the world? or, after all, does he only mean myself, plain “John Smith” or “Thomas Jones”?

If he only means himself, what earthly reason can he give for using the plural number, and not saying simply and plainly “I”? When he visits his parishioners, or sits by a sick-bed, or catechises his school, or orders bread at the baker’s, or meat at the butcher’s—he does not say “we,” but “I.” Why, then, I should like to know, can he not say “I” in the pulpit?

What right has he, as a modest man, to speak for anyone but himself? Why not stand up on Sunday and say, “Reading in the Word of God, I have found a text containing such things as these, and I come to set them before you”?

Many people, I am sure, do not understand what the preacher’s “we” means. The expression leaves them in a kind of fog. If you say, “I, the pastor of the parish, come here to talk of something that concerns your soul, something you should believe, something you should do”—you are at any rate understood. But if you begin to talk in the vague plural number of what” we” ought to do, many of your hearers do not know what you are driving at, and whether you are speaking to yourself or them.

I charge and entreat my younger brethren in the ministry not to forget this point. Do try to be as direct as possible. Never mind what people say of you. In this particular do not imitate Chalmers, or Melville, or certain other living pulpit celebrities. Never say “we” when you mean “I.”

The more you get into the habit of talking plainly to the people, in the first person singular, as old Bishop Latimer did—the simpler will your sermon be, and the more easily understood. The glory of Whitefield’s sermons is their directness. But unhappily they were so badly reported, that we cannot now appreciate them.

Notes

1  J.C. Ryle, Simplicity in Preaching: A Few Short Hints on a Great Subject (London, UK: William, Hunt and Co., 1882), 29-33.

794 reads

There are 12 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

My vote is for using "we" only when you mean "basically all of us here in the room."

T Howard's picture

Quote:
I declare I never can understand what the famous pulpit “we” means. Does the preacher who all through his sermon keeps saying “we” mean himself and the bishop? or himself and the Church? or himself and the congregation? or himself and the early Fathers? or himself and the Reformers? or himself and all the wise men in the world? or, after all, does he only mean myself, plain “John Smith” or “Thomas Jones”?

Is this really a concern / question today in your church? Do your people really think you're referring to other people other than you and them when you use, "we"?

Ron Bean's picture

I've heard too many preachers justly point out the failings and sins of their congregations using "you" and often leaving the impression that they were somehow exempt. I try to deliberately use we when the failing/sin/exhortation to action involves myself as well.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Bert Perry's picture

I'm with Ron here.  If the preacher ought to preach to himself--every good one I've encountered says that's exactly the case--then how do we get around using "we"?  Plus, it emphasizes the community of the church when done right.

Don Johnson's picture

while it is true that we were taught to preach directly, using "you," that isn't what this post is about. Read it again. 

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Bert Perry's picture

Don, in my mind the trick is that if Ryle admitted that his pet peeve is pastors being sloppy about antecedents, as the passage quoted by T. Howard indicates, instead of generically the use of the first person plural, I don't know that anyone would object to what he says.  The trouble is that Ryle does the latter, which has some other indications that he doesn't acknowledge.  So what he does, really, is cast away a perfectly valid pronoun, one with huge benefits for the church if used properly, while ignoring the fact that other pronouns can be obscured by the neglect of antecedents.

Jim Welch's picture

Growing up, I remember many guest speakers saying something like, "We are so happy to be here."  I always wondered where the rest of the gang was.  Someone gave me the advise of using "you" in preaching and reading Whitefield's sermons to understand how to use "you" correctly.  Don J is right about Ryle's point.

Andrew R.'s picture

Ryle isn't talking about identifying verbally with the congregation ("We must never forget, brothers and sisters, that . . ."). Instead, he's talking about an affected manner of speech (the royal we) that seems to have been more common in the 19th century ("Our opinion is that this text means . . ."). I recall seeing it even in Spurgeon. To the best of my knowledge, this practice has died out; but Ryle's broader point of using a register of speech appropriate to the audience is timeless.

Ron Bean's picture

I agree that Ryle is probably addressing the royal we of his era when there was also more of a space between clergy and laity than there is today. I can't recall a current use of the royal we that I've heard. If my pastor says "we" my assumption is that he's talking about all of as a church. 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

G. N. Barkman's picture

I have a preacher friend who consistently uses the "royal we".  (or whatever we care to call using the plural in place of the singular "I".)  I've always been a bit confused and even amused by his practice, but he is an effective itinerant preacher who has maintained a full schedule for many years.

G. N. Barkman

Rob Fall's picture

have a mouse in his pocket?

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.