It is simple really, people don’t like to be patronized. So don’t. That is, if you want them to hear what else you are saying, assuming the patronizing comment is not the main idea of your message, don’t do it. It is like speaking to your spouse for ten minutes and throwing in a couple of insults along the way – what do you think they will go away thinking about?
I’m sure we all know what it is to be patronized, but let me share some patronizing comments that I’ve heard from the pulpit in recent years (just to be sure we are all alert to the range available to us if we want to undermine a sermon or two!)
Patronizing the locale – “So this is the little town of…” Maybe it is “little” from the visiting speaker’s perspective, but most locals don’t like outsiders telling them where they live is insignificant. Call it pride if you will, but don’t expect such a warm hearing.
Patronizing the church – “I come from a church of X hundred, but it’s so nice to be in an intimate gathering like this…” It’s like being a tourist. Comment positively as much as you like, but not in implied comparison with the bigger and better that you have come from.
Patronizing the knowledge – “Have you ever considered the difference the next word makes to this passage?” Unless you are claiming to have come up with something new, some of them probably have considered that. (And if you’ve got something new, you may have a different problem on your hands!) Along similar lines, “turn to X in your Bibles, you’ll need to use the table of contents to find!”
Patronizing the experience – “You may not have seen this before…” This is similar to the previous comment, it implies that you are a first time guide (which generally grates on those seasoned travellers through the Bible). Bizarrely I heard one preacher say, “If you read through John’s Gospel every week for twenty years, you would see this…” I don’t know if that is patronizing or just plain deceptive – I struggle to believe the implication that since he had done that he could now show us this wonderful insight in the text (it was a fanciful, or should I say, a theologically driven twisting of the text on that occasion!)
The strange thing about patronizing is that it tends to be in the form of passing comments, rather than overall content. This isn’t a hard and fast statement. Surely some preachers may come across as patronizing in everything they say, but I suspect that is primarily attitude. The point is, people don’t mind hearing basic messages. The way to avoid patronizing is not to wow the listener with new insight, clever exegesis or overwhelming passion. The way to avoid patronizing is to speak with love for the listener. When we are sensitive to how we come across, then we will filter out the unhelpful quips along the way.