'Heads Bowed, Eyes Closed': Analyzing the Discourse of Online Evangelical Altar Calls

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Bryan, Clinton David
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Middle Tennessee State University
This discourse analysis study examines the final moments of selected online sermons delivered by America’s leading evangelical pastors and speakers, paying particular attention to the language employed in the presentation of Christian gospel tenets, the public invitation for salvation, the altar call that identifies new followers, and the benedictory prayer meant to conclude each preacher’s remarks to the faithful. Machin and Mayr (2012) provide the theoretical framework of multimodal critical discourse analysis, a social semiotics approach, for interpreting the lexical elements, the nonverbal communicative movements, and the optics of each video (if taped) to uncover the embedded power relations of the sermonic discourse and the myriad ways in which the preachers carefully construct personas for accomplishing certain rhetorical aims. By uploading these audio and video tracks to the Internet, ostensibly for the purpose of proselytization, these evangelical ministers have blurred the lines between insider and outsider language by foregrounding the types of in-group discourse normally reserved for religious services held within the confines of brick-and-mortar church buildings. Moreover, archived sermon videos become linguistic artifacts that last well beyond the time of the sermons’ performance on Sunday mornings. Putting these sermons online and thereby obliterating the narrow boundaries of the traditional evangelical church audience, these preachers have opened a fairly ossified discursive form, the evangelical altar call, to linguistic scrutiny that provides valuable material for scholars interested in contemporary American religious discourse and practitioners (i.e., preachers interested in gearing their lexical choices to the understanding of potential parishioners unfamiliar with this language). Using Kenneth Burke’s (1970) seminal definition of religious conversion as persuasion effected toward initiates’ adopting a new language spoken by the faith community, this study asserts that this corporate indoctrination into new ways of speaking begins with the salvific prayer.
Altar call, Conversion, Critical Discourse Analysis, Evangelical Christianity, Megachurch preachers, Online