Response Elicitation in English-medium Christian Pulpit Discourse (ECPD)

Rotimi Taiwo (Ile-Ife)

1 Introduction

Language varies as its use varies. Consequently, it is structured in such a way as to reflect what the communication is all about (the field), the interpersonal relationship between the participants, which is determined by the social roles and relationships between the interlocutors (the tenor), and the role the language is playing in the interaction (the mode) (see Halliday 1973, 1994).

A lot of studies have been carried out on how to develop models that relate linguistic behaviour to the context and the social system. Such studies have come up with the findings on the structure and sociolinguistic features peculiar to certain registers (see Sinclair and Coulthard 1976 (classroom discourse); Martin, 1984 (children's composition); Figueiredo, 1998 (legal discourse), etc. Some studies, which have very close bearing with the present study, focused on the language of religion (see Crystal and Davy 1969; Mar 1998; Samarin 1976; Uhunmwangho 2000; Keane 1997).

Crystal and Davy (1969) identify different shades of the language of religion: the language of liturgy, sermon, theological discourse and biblical translation. They conclude that

the linguistic features which uniquely identify texts as belonging to the single variety of religious English are concentrated on the vocabulary and in certain parts of the grammar (p. 159).

Samarin (1976) is a broad examination of the various socio-cultural aspects of language use in religious practice. Mar (1998) demonstrates how language use reveals, expresses and constructs the unique coding orientations of a social group. She demonstrates this by focusing on a variety of prayers, and how the prayers from various Christian groups reveal the differences in the way the adherents relate to God.

Uhunmwangho (2000) summarizes the general characteristics of the language of religion thus: "it employs a deliberate, evocative use of terminology and phraseology which we must be alert to in order to appraise the primary purpose and meaning of the language".

Taiwo (2005) examines the general style of interrogation in charismatic Christian pulpit discourse. Interrogation is seen as a common approach to discourse control and sustenance. The author looks at the peculiar use of interrogatives by charismatic Christian preachers. Such interrogatives include polar interrogatives, wh- interrogatives, and rhetorical questions. Taiwo concludes that interrogation is not only used as a tool for getting information by charismatic Christian preachers, it is also used to regulate the linguistic behaviour of the congregation in the process of the discourse.

Keane (1997) is a theoretical study of religious language. Keane's study addresses the highly marked uses of linguistic resources in religious language, which is taken to include practices such as "magic" and divination (which some definitions of religion exclude). The paper focuses on the interaction of religious adherents with spiritual and invisible participants in such speech situations as prayers and other ritualistic practices. A major thesis of this work is the indeterminate nature of the relationship between the linguistic forms and functions of religious language. Such issues as identity, agency, authorship and even the very presence of the participants are seen as problematic in religious discourse (p. 47). Keane concludes by showing that the adherents of each specific religious group determine the linguistic practices and pragmatic properties in religions.

The forms and functions of language used in religious practices vary according to the beliefs of the adherents. The language could vary from highly structured forms to totally unpredictable ones, from voluble expressions to silent and meditative ones, from tightly structured unison responses to spontaneous loudness (see Crystal 1995: 371).

The present study is an investigation into the general pattern of discourse in English- medium Christian Pulpit Discourse (ECPD). Its focus is on the various ways pulpit preachers in ECPD elicit responses from their congregation. Pulpit preachers vary in their style. Style is generally determined by the preachers' affiliation and the beliefs of the group. There is a general categorization of Churches into evangelical, pentecostal and orthodox. Evangelical churches believe in personal relationship with Jesus and a commitment to the demands of the New Testament. They particularly believe in preaching the gospel as commanded by the Bible. The central focus in Pentecostal churches is the Holy Spirit and the manifestations of the spirit through speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy and discernment of spirits. They also believe in the casting out of demons. Loud prayers, clapping and shouting, usually characterize their worship. Orthodox churches typically refer to churches that precede the era of Pentecostalism. They are known to believe in and follow a specific mode of worship that is characterized by chanting of canticles (religious songs derived from the Bible) and quiet prayers. Preachers' style of response elicitation is largely determined by the category of churches they belong. However, sometimes, it becomes difficult to draw a neat line of distinction between evangelical and orthodox churches. Some churches that are grouped by virtue of their historical origin as orthodox (ie, churches that precede Pentecostalism) may also be characterized as evangelical by virtue of their doctrines and beliefs, eg, the Anglican Church and the Presbyterian Church.


2 The Data

The data for the study consist of pulpit messages given by some Christian preachers in denominational, non-denominational and interdenominational services in the South-Western Nigeria. This classification is based on the composition of the church - the kind of worshippers in a service and their background in the Christian faith. By denominational, we mean churches with people who have distinct interpretation of the Christian religious faith and are part of a larger Christian organization. These include some churches that have their origin in Western Europe and America, but now have large organizational structures in Nigeria, such as Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, The Apostolic Faith, Foursquare Gospel Church, and so forth. Other churches are non-denominational in the sense that the composition is such that the organization is independent and does not operate under the structures of larger organizations. They include chapels in institutions and other independent churches. Interdenominational or ecumenical church settings are services that bring together Christians from different denominations. Usually, they ensure that no particular church doctrine is dominant at such services. Preachers at such gatherings stress those things that are common to all worshippers, rather than those things that make them different.

The author attended all together 25 church services (representing the different kinds of settings discussed in the last paragraph) in some major towns in South Western Nigeria, such as Ibadan, Ile-Ife, Abeokuta, Akure and Osogbo. Data were collected from all the services, using participant observation method and also obtaining audio and video recordings of the services. Each of the services lasted for an average of three hours. However, the messages lasted between 45 minutes and 1 hour. For the analysis, 15 of the messages were selected (five form each type of services earlier identified - denominational, non-denominational and interdenominational).

The choice of the kind of church services was based on church composition (denominational, non-denominational and interdenominational) and not on church belief/practice (evangelical, pentecostal and orthodox) because there are always overlaps in beliefs and practices, especially now that some churches are losing their members, especially the youths, to others. The scenario is such that most churches in the country are becoming alike in practice. Whatever beliefs and practices are working well in churches with large congregations are fast becoming norms in most churches. This makes it a little bit difficult to do a neat classification of churches based on their practices in the areas covered by the research. For instance, some churches, which started out as orthodox are fast adopting certain practices that are typically Pentecostal, such as speaking in tongues, baptism of the Holy Ghost, spiritual healing, and so forth.


3 Language in Religion Practice

Religion practice, like any other social system has norms guiding members' behaviour. A group of people adhering to a given set of religious beliefs and practices are called "a religious community". According to Samarin 1976,

such communities tend to also set apart linguistically and thus religious communication may be characterised by variations along lexico-semantic dimensions. (p.7.)

Members of a religious community are expected to share certain of the community's language expectations. Some of such expectations include what Fairclough (1985: 744) calls "knowledge base", which incorporates the knowledge of language codes, knowledge of principles of norms and use, knowledge of situations and knowledge of the world.

In most religious communities, what to say, how to say it, and when to say it are largely determined by the leader of the congregation at any point in time. Also, the atmosphere in the religious gathering constrains and regulates the participants on how they use language. This could be explained by the fact that religious leaders are seen as representatives of God. Their major role in any situation of religious practice (including situations when language is used) is to initiate and control the discourse. However, in order to ensure participation of their congregation, preachers always prompt them to respond to their messages.


4 ECPD as a Register

The expression "ECPD" is used to embrace every situation of language use when a message is given in English from the pulpit in any Christian religious practice. Other terms commonly used to express it in the Christian community include "exhortation", "ministration", "the word", "the message" and "sermon". The first four expressions are more commonly used in the evangelical and pentecostal settings, while the last one is more restricted to orthodox Christian gathering.

Topics covered by ECPD are based on popular biblical teachings like holiness, love, salvation, faith, perseverance, and so forth. The mode of presentation of the discourse by preachers is largely determined by the latter's background in terms of the organization they belong, their theological training (if they had any) as well as their personal styles. For instance, an orthodox presentation is usually a very formal presentation, usually devoid of spontaneous expressions and unsolicited responses. Such presentations are usually written to be read out, or at least followed in the process of the discourse. However, in many Pentecostal and evangelical churches, pulpit discourse is more informal in the sense that messages are often interjected by unsolicited comments, noise or clapping from the congregation showing their approval of the message. Pastors are also less formal in the sense that they could leave the pulpit and move along the aisle as they presents the message, pointing at people directing their speech to them and asking questions from them (see Taiwo 2005: 124).


5 Response Elicitation in Discourse

In any discourse where there are two or more people interacting, the participants speak in turns. Typically, what the last speaker says constrains the next speaker. In other words, nobody speaks in isolation. There is a link between what was said earlier by speaker A and what speaker B now says. The link may be overt, that is, tied to the linguistic items used, or covert, that is, inferred from the shared knowledge of the speakers' world. Responses may be verbal, non-verbal or both. For instance, it may be a word, a repetition of the last speaker's utterance, an action or just a thought, or a combination of two or more of these.

The context in which the communication takes place goes a long way in determining the kind of response to be elicited. For instance, a speaker cannot dominate the discourse for too long unless the situation places some constraints on the co-interactants to listen while he speaks. In strictly formal situations like the classroom, courtroom, church and lecture, a particular speaker is vested with the authority to determine who responds to what and the kind of response to be given. There cannot be self-selection of speakers in such situations, but rather turn allocation to speakers by the one who controls the discourse (see Coulthard 1976: 33).


6 Response Elicitation in ECPD

In ECPD, the preacher controls the discourse and the congregation shares in the process of the text as it unfolds. Three major methods of response elicitation were identified in the data: the use of interrogative, declaratives and imperatives. The responses elicited can come in form of speech, ie, vocal utterances. This is typical of many speech situations, so it is an unmarked response. The response could also come as mental behaviour. This is done when preachers make statements or ask questions, which demand no verbal response or physical action. The context helps the hearers to interpret the expressions as ones that require them to respond by reflecting on what they have heard. Responses may also be physical actions, ie, the speaker makes the hearer to act or behave in a particular way. In Fig. 1 below we present the ways responses are elicited and the types of responses identified in the data.



Interrogative with Spoken Response (INSR)

Gap Filling That great song says "who is like unto thee…? oh-oh Lord
Polar Question Are you with me? yees


Jesus said "go ye into the world and preach what? the gospel

Interrogative with Action as Response (INAR)

  Let me ask you, how many of you were at the Holy Ghost Miracle Night we had on Friday? Some raised hands
Interrogative with Mental Response (INMR)   I know you speak in tongues everyday, but how many demons know you? The congregation just reflecting on the question

Declarative with Spoken Response (DESR)

Conventional Answers Offering time! Blessing time!
Response to Prayers This month, you shall go forward. Amen
Gap Filling The joy of the Lord is my… strength
Corrected Statement If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature, old things continue to be with him Noo! Old thing are passed away
Repeated Statement This month, I shall not beg for bread This month, I shall not beg for bread
Declarative with Action as Response (DEAR)

I lift up my hands unto the Most High God for He is worthy of my praise and adoration (raised hands) Some also raise their hands
Declarative with Mental Response (DEMR)

You know the difference between extraordinary and ordinary is extra The congregation reflecting on the statement
Imperative with Spoken Response (IMSR) Conventional Answer I need a resounding hallelujah! A deafening shout of Hallelujah!
Response to Prayer I want you to shout "amen" in such a way that this building will shake A loud shout of "amen"

Repeated Statement
Common, open your mouth and tell God "Lord! have mercy on me and deliver me from my enemies" Lord, have mercy on me…
Imperative with Action as Response (IMAR)

Open your eyes and lift up your hands to the Lord The congregation opened their eyes and lifted up their hands

Table 1: Elicitation Types and Responses in the Data


A total number of 144 response elicitation types were identified in the 15 messages analyzed from our corpus. These elicitation types were broadly categorized on the basis of their functions within the contexts of the messages, viz: interrogatives, declaratives and imperatives (see Tables 1, 2 and 3 respectively). The elicitation types, their occurrences and percentages are shown in Tables 1, 2, and 3 below.

INSR 22 43.14
INAR 14 27.45
INMR 15 29.41
TOTAL 51  

Table 2: Occurrences of and Percentages of Interrogatives in ECPD


DEAR 01 1.61
DESR 57 91.94
DEMR 04 6.45
TOTAL 62  

Table 3: Occurrences of and Percentages of Declaratives in ECPD

IMAR 13 41.94
IMSR 18 58.06
TOTAL 31  

Table 4: Occurrences of and Percentages of Imperative in ECPD

Analyses revealed that Christian pulpit preachers elicit more spoken responses, as shown in the tables above where there was a preponderance of spoken responses in the three methods (Interrogative INSR: 43.14%; Declarative DESR: 91.94%; Imperative IMSR: 58.06%). This follows the most natural tendency in spoken discourse where a spoken form is used to elicit another. Samples of the data reflecting the three methods of elicitation and their types are presented in the appendices.

The spoken responses in ECPD normally come in five different forms. The forms are discussed below.

6.1 Conventional Answer

This is a response known to every member of the religious community and they understand the forms used to elicit it. Anytime the form is pronounced by the preacher, the congregation responds with its conventional chorused answer. Some examples from the data are:

   Preacher  Response
5.1  God is good  All the time
5.2  Glory be to God  Halleluyah
5.3  Praise the Lord  Halleluyah
5.4  Offering time  Blessing time
(See Appendix B: DESR 1)

6.1.1 Response to Prayer

There are two ways preachers elicit responses to their prayers: they either say obvious prayers to which they expect the congregation to say "Amen" (so shall it be).

   Preacher  Response
5.5  This year, you shall not weep  Amen
5.6  The Lord will lift you above your enemies today  Amen
(See Appendix B: DESR 2)

The other way is that preachers, in the course of their preaching make statements, which they intend the congregation to interpret as a prayer. Such statements are usually in the first person singular form, and they have some positive benefits to the speaker. The congregation, however often ascribe these benefits to themselves by seeing the statements as prayer and responding with "Amen" (so shall it be), for example,

   Preacher  Response
5.7  I will not beg for bread again  Amen
5.8  I shall not be put to shame in Jesus' name  Amen
(See Appendix B: DESR 6)

6.1.2 Repeated Statement

Very often preachers make statements, which they intend the congregation to repeat, despite that this may not be clearly implied in the statement. They may elicit this response directly or indirectly. Direct elicitation of discourse may be done through six means: (a) "say after me" (b) "say to me" (c) "say to yourself" (d) "tell your neighbour" (e) "say to the devil" (f) "tell God". The first four are sometimes accompanied by a pointing of fingers toward the person as prompted by the preacher. This is particularly a common strategy for controlling the discourse among Pentecostal preachers. Each type of direct elicitation identified above is give below respectively:

   Preacher  Response
5.9  Can you repeat after me "The Lord will fight my battles and I will hold my peace"  "The Lord will…"
5.10  Point your fingers towards me and say "pastor, you must not fall"  "pastor, you…"
5.11  Everybody, touch your ears and say to yourself "my hear will hear good news today"  "My ears will…"
5.12  Turn to the fellow sitting next to you, tell him or her "you have been called to holiness, so be holy"  You have been…"
5.13  Tell the devil "devil, the hedge of God is around me, so, you cannot touch me"  "devil, the hedge…"
5.14  Common, open your mouth and tell God "I don't want to continue this life of suffering arise in your power and deliver me.  "I don't want to…"
(See Appendix B: DESR 4)

Preachers elicit indirectly when they make positive statements about themselves, which the congregation see as worthy of being repeated because of its positive nature. The statement is not just seen as a prompting by the preacher. The response is given due to the general belief among the Yoruba people of the South West that one should always say positive things about oneself. It then follows that if people say something positive about themselves, there is likelihood that those around them would repeat such expressions and ascribe them to themselves. This belief, coincidentally tallies with the doctrine of "positive confession" in some Christian folds (saying positive things about oneself and others and believing they will be so). This is a general principle that underlies every prayer in the Christian faith.

Some preachers also use prophetic utterances to elicit responses indirectly. An indefinite pronoun "somebody" is used in an utterance that has a positive meaning and the congregation ascribes this to themselves by saying "amen" or following the specific promptings of the preacher. Examples are:

   Preacher  Response
5.15  There are temples of witchcraft, but My body is the temple of the Holy Ghost  "My body is…"
5.16  This month, I shall not beg for bread  "This month…"
5.17  Somebody here is going home with a basket full of blessing tonight.  "Amen"
5.18  There is somebody here tonight who has some good news waiting for him at home. If you are the person shout haleluyah!  "haleluyah"
(See Appendix B: DESR 7, Appendix C: IMSR 4)

6.1.3 Gap Filling

Preachers sometimes deliberately make incomplete statements and expect the congregation to fill the gap or ask questions. This is a way of ensuring that the congregation is following the preaching, e. g.

   Preacher  Response
5.19  Jeremiah says "the joy of the Lord My strength is my what?  "My strength"
(See Appendix A: INSR 3)
   Preacher  Response
5.20  Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy lade and I will give you…  "Rest"
(See Appendix B: DESR 3)

6.1.4 Corrected Statement

Sometimes, preachers deliberately make obviously incorrect statements and expect the congregation to correct them. If the congregation detects and corrects the statement, it is an indication that they are following the teaching, e. g.

   Preacher  Response
5.21  The Bible says those who will live a righteous life will be loved by all men.  No! Will suffer persecution.
(See Appendix B: DESR 5)

Analyses also show that polar questions are often asked to elicit response. 43.14% of the interrogative forms in the data are such forms. An example is:

   Preacher  Response
5.22  Are you ready for bone breaking tonight?  Yes
(See Appendix A INSR 2)

Sometimes, it is not very clear to the congregation the kind of response expected when interrogatives are used. For instance, they are not sure if they are expected to respond with a physical action such as the raising up of hands or just a mental behaviour, such as meditating on the issue raised in the question. An example from the data is:

   Preacher  Response
5.23  Is there anybody here who wants to go to heaven?  Raised hands / Reflecting on the issue

The responses here vary, and they are determined by how the congregation perceives the question. Some may raise up their hands, thereby interpreting it as the preacher wanting them to indicate (INAR). Others may just reflect on the issue, thereby interpreting it as a call to them to search their minds (INMR). This is often made clearer by the preacher by either bidding them to raise up their hands or asking them to just ruminate on the issue. For example:

   Preacher  Response
5.24  Do you know the Lord you claim to serve? If you do, let me see your hands up  Raised hands
5.25  Do you know the Lord you claim to serve? Remember, the scripture says those who know their God shall do exploits. Think about this  Reflections

It is also common for Pentecostal preachers to engage their congregation in the course of their messages in physical actions such as clapping, shaking people's hands, waving one's hands, bowing down, kneeling, and some highly symbolic ones like "kicking the devil". "Kicking the devil" is a physical act of actually kicking the air and interpreting that to mean "kicking the devil". It is symbolic in the sense that its meaning to the congregation may be that, as they engage in the physical act, something is equally happening in the spiritual realm - the devil is being humiliated, thereby the congregation is devastating his kingdom and its effects on their life or as Ron Kenoly, a popular African-American gospel singer puts it "tearing the devil's kingdom down" and therefore conquering him.

The patterns of response elicitation also differ from one congregation to another. Fewer responses are elicited in orthodox congregation than in pentecostal settings. This may be explained by the fact that in orthodox churches, pulpit messages, which are popularly referred to as sermons are often 'written to be read' to the congregation. In pentecostal settings, however, the preacher is more flexible in his style. The approach is a more radical one - the discourse flows as naturally as possible. The preacher often leaves the pulpit and moves freely among the congregation and sometimes selecting some members of the congregation to respond to his elicitation. The movement is made easier for preachers with the use of cordless microphones. Their movement is no longer restricted to the pulpit.

The use of interrogatives as a response elicitation strategy is particularly found to be quite common among Pentecostal preachers. There is a general tendency for such preachers to want to carry the congregation along in their messages by demanding directly or indirectly verbal responses from them from time to time. However, in orthodox churches, whenever preachers use interrogatives, they are usually rhetorical, meant to set the listener thinking, rather than give any verbal response or physical action.

It was also observed in the data that many of the styles of response elicitation that are peculiar to preachers of some denominational affiliations are avoided as much as possible in non-denominational and interdenominational services. At such services, preachers stick to styles that can be regarded as neutral in the sense that they are common styles in all churches, such as response to prayers.

   Preacher  Response
5.26  As many of you that are listening to me tonight will come with your testimony next month.  Amen!

The kind of move above is common across different Christian congregations. A style that is less common is:

   Preacher  Response
5.27  There is somebody here tonight who will receive some good news tomorrow  Amen

Styles of response elicitation, which are clearly seen as being typical of certain organizations, such as 5.27 are not always used in mixed congregations.

Shouting hallelujah is a common way style of response elicitation in Christian gathering. It is an expression of praise to God. Leaders of different denominations lead their adherents to shout hallelujah in different ways. Below are some ways of eliciting the shout of 'hallelujah' from the congregation

   Preacher  Response
5.28  Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!
5.29  Shout twenty-one hallelujahs  the congregation shouts twenty-one hallelujahs
5.30  Shout hallelujah  Hallelujah!
5.31  Somebody shout hallelujah  Hallelujah!
5.32  Praise the Lord!  Hallelujah!
5.33  Praise-praise-praise-praise the Lord  Ha-ha-ha-hallelujah
5.34  Shout a big hallelujah that will shake this auditorium  the congregation shouts hallelujah very loudly

While some congregations realize that once the preacher utters the word, they should also repeat it (5.28), in other congregations, the leader has to call for it by asking the people to shout it as in 5.29, 5.30, 5.31. Some leaders place emphasis on the number of times the congregation should do it as in 5.29, while others emphasize the intensity of the loudness, as in 5.34. Example 5.32 is the most widely used form in mixed congregation.

Every preacher has his own style of eliciting responses. For instance, one of the preachers investigated elicited more of mental responses especially while using interrogatives. He asked many questions, which obviously were not meant to be answered. However, preachers still try to conform to the expected norms of linguistic behaviour in the religious community they operate in.


7 Conclusion

The study examined how some preachers in ECPD elicited responses from the congregation. Despite that the way responses are elicited depends largely on the beliefs and practices of any given religious community, certain patterns of elicitation are common to ECPD preachers. These are the ones highlighted in this study. The study is limited to the South Western Nigeria, therefore the findings cannot be said to be exhaustive. Further attempts at studying ECPD in other geographical locations may reveal more about the nature of response elicitation.



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Samples of some Response Elicitation Categories in the Data

A Interrogatives

INSR 1 If any man be in Christ old things are passed away, all things have become new. All means what ? All
INSR 2 Are you with me ? Yes
INSR 3 Jeremiah 8 says "the joy of the Lord is what?" …my strength.
INAR 1 A friend of mine would tell me this, "God is not asleep. How many of you know that God is not asleep ? Raised hands
INAR 2 Let me ask you, how many of us were at the Holy Ghost Miracle Night we had on Friday? Some hands raised
INMR 1 I know you speak in tongues everyday, but how many demons know you? Mental response
INMR 2 I want to ask you, do you have anybody who has discovered his ignorance? Mental response

B Declaratives

DESR 1 Blessed be your Holy name Halleluyah (CA)
DESR 2 I believe God I will see you in your body when we get to heaven Amen (RP)
DESR 3 Come to me, all ye that labour and are heavily laden and I will give you… …rest (GF)
DESR 4 Tell the fellow sitting next to you 'it's going to be well with my children whether the devil likes it or not' It is going… ( RS)
DESR 5 The kingdom of God suffereth violence and the violent taketh it by 'jelenke' No - by force (GF)
DESR 6 I shall not be put to shame in Jesus' Name Amen
DESR 7 This month, I shall not beg for bread This month, I shall…
DEAR 1 I lift up my hands unto the Most High god for he is worthy of my praise and adoration (raises hands) Some lifted their hands
DEMR1 You know that the difference between extraordinary and ordinary is extra Mental response

C Imperatives

IMSR 1 Tell your body 'body, you are the temple of the Holy Ghost. Two masters cannot be in the same body' Body, you are…(RS)
IMSR 2 I need a resounding Halleluyah Halleluyah (CA)
IMSR 3 Tell the devil "devil, the hedge of God is around me, so you cannot touch me Devil, the hand of God…
IMSR 4 Common, open your mouth and tell God "I don't want to continue this life of suffering. Arise in your power and deliver me I don't want to continue…
IMSR 5 There is somebody here tonight who is going home with a basket full of blessing Amen
IMAR 1 Open your eyes and lift up your hands to the Lord People opened their eyes and lifted up their hands
IMAR 3 Common, kick the devil out of your life, common. People kicking at an imaginary devil.