Podcast Episode 9 | 13 min
Preaching with Intensity
Finding and conveying the emotion of the text in your sermon.
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Matt Woodley: This is Matt Woodley, and this is Monday Morning Preacher, where we review one aspect of preaching and analyze one master preacher. I'm here today with my guest host and fellow preacher Kevin Miller. So Kevin, this past week I had this dream.
Kevin Miller: Okay, Matt, in this podcast we analyze sermons, not your dreams.
MW: Well, this was a dream about preaching.
KM: Oh, so you're saying it counts.
MW: I think it does. So there is this preacher guy who was giving the sermon in this classic-looking church sanctuary—wooden railing, nice pulpit, stained-glass window behind the preacher—and I have to say the preacher looked a lot like me, but I'm not sure if it was me. This preacher started preaching in a really loud high-pitched, intense, kind of angry and completely strained and unnatural voice. I mean, there was no modulation, there was no change in pitch or volume. It was just full-throttled, unrelenting intensity through the entire sermon.
KM: Wow. So what did your therapist say about your dream?
MW: Well, I haven’t had a chance to discuss it yet.
KM: So what happened in the rest of your dream?
MW: Well, the dream ended, but I do remember thinking, Do I sound like that guy, I hope not. And curiously enough, I remember in the dream that the church was completely empty. I mean, the guy's screaming drove everyone away and there he was left completely by himself.
KM: So today are we talking about screaming and preaching?
MW: Well, we are talking about emotional intensity. And as you can see, maybe I have some issues with emotional intensity in preaching so I want you to start here, help me out. Emotional intensity in preaching. What is it? But tell us first, what is it not?
KM: Well, it's not doing like the figure in your dream did, but here is what I think it means. It means that when you go to a biblical text or a biblical truth, it has an emotion in it. So some texts are gentle and some are urgent and so on. So what I think we are talking about today is how do you convey the emotion of the text at the intensity level it appears in the text so that your listener feels that same emotion at the same level of intensity as it appears in the text?
MW: Excellent definition. I love that. So when we were looking through over 25 years of sermons on Preaching Today, we found some great examples of how to use emotional intensity. We got preachers like EV Hill, H.B. Charles Jr., Samuel Rodriguez, and even Tim Keller. Now, some people, that may surprise them.
KM: Yeah, it surprises me a little.
MW: I'll get back to Keller in a few minutes and I will prove my point that he preaches with emotional intensity. Anyway, we chose a sermon from Francis Chan, who's got a lot of …
KM: Emotional intensity.
MW: He channels it, man. Anyway, he was preaching on …
KM: Was that a pun?
MW: That was. Thank you for noticing. He was preaching on 2 Chronicles 16, the sermon is titled “Stay Strong in the Lord” and can be found on Preaching Today.
Francis Chan: I don't want to be like those who petered out at the end. I want to be like Joshua and Caleb. Isn't that one of the most motivational speeches, for those of you who are further along in life? When Caleb says,
Hey, I was forty years old. I remember going to the Promised Land. And I was one of the two people who said, "We can do this thing. Those other ten spies, they're all whining and got everyone scared. Not me. I knew we could do it. Now it's forty-five years later. I'm an eighty-five year old man. And you know what? I'm ready to go up that hill and take this land. My God is still with me. I'm as strong as I was when I was forty, and I'm eighty-five now. So let's go.
That's who I want to be. That is the model we have in Scripture.
There's a verse I want to share with you, a verse you're very familiar with. We had it painted on the wall in our living room in one of our homes. It was 2 Chronicles 16:9 where it says, "The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him." I love that verse. The eyes of the Lord are roaming throughout the earth. Do you believe this? Do you take Scripture literally like I do? Do you know what, right now God on his throne is literally looking around the earth and he's observing what's going on here? That right now God knows what's in my heart, what's in my mind, my thoughts, whether or not I'm here to just lift myself up or to lift him up and tell you what a holy God he is. He knows what's going on in here. He's roaming throughout the earth and looking. He knows what's going on in your mind right now as you're listening to the Word of God, whether or not you believe he's watching right now. He already knows this. But it says his eyes roam to and fro throughout the earth, and he's actively looking to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. Isn't that wonderful that God's actually looking for someone to support?
KM: Okay. Wow, that was intense. So Matt, what do you think preachers like you and I should take away from hearing somebody like Francis Chan about emotional intensity in our preaching?
MW: Well, the first thing you have to notice about Chan is he is really intense. He is like a 9.5 out of 10 on the intense scale.
KM: And I'm not, so what do I learn from a guy like that?
MW: Well, the good thing is unlike the guy in my dream, he's not intense all the time at the same level of intensity. If you listen to the whole sermon, he even sprinkles in some humor five or six times to break up his intensity. So I think likewise with our emotional intensity, there is an ebb and flow to it, it's not full throttle.
KM: One thing I love about this sermon is that for Francis, it's not emotional intensity for emotional intensity's sake, it's for God's sake. So he directs your gaze upward onto God. Now, he could say at the end of this sermon, “Be like Caleb, don't peter out at the end.” But instead he turns your gaze up to this all-seeing, all-knowing, utterly holy God who is searching through the earth for someone whose heart is turned toward him, and that makes it intense, just the reality of a God like that before whom I stand silent as a creature.
MW: I think it's also important to note that Francis is an intense guy, it's his personality. His wife says that being married to him is like participating in the TV show, The Amazing Race.
KM: So since you're not that, I think it's fair to say, and I'm not …
MW: No, I'm a Minnesota boy.
KM: Yeah, and I tend to be more introverted and reserved in my makeup. So how do you and I become appropriately emotionally intense in our messages for when we reach those texts that themselves are?
MW: I'd love to hear your answer to that question but let me take a shot at it first. I think you have to find a level of emotional intensity and how you express that in a way that's authentic to you. And as you said at the beginning, it derives from the text. So it derives from really the Spirit of God who is speaking through that text. So we want to convey that intensity through our personality. That's where I think Tim Keller actually conveys a lot of emotional intensity. Now, of course he's an East Coast intellectual, but if you listen to Keller when he's driving a biblical text home and he's pointing to Jesus, he's intense. He's intense, but he's intense in a Keller-esque kind of way.
KM: Okay, you convinced me.
MW: And I want to be intense in a Woodley-esque kind of way. That is a word, Woodley-esque.
KM: So what would intensity that is Woodley-esque be like?
MW: Let me give you an example. I was preaching a sermon on 1 Timothy 3, I was talking about the qualities of a spiritual leader and I called it an integrity checklist. So I talked about living a life of integrity. These are characteristics of living a life of integrity. I ended with this very powerful story about John Stott where he anonymously washed the muddy boots of this 16-year-old kid from Mexico who was now 50 years old and running a ministry in Mexico City. So I heard that story from this guy. So it was a story that just moved me, and I just told that story and I had such feeling in that story because I knew these people and because I urged people to live a life of integrity, that a life of integrity is a beautiful life.
KM: I remember that very well because I happened to hear that sermon, and you're right, that story at the end really hit home with power, with emotional power. I think as we think about takeaways for our listeners, the one thing I would suggest is to meet God in the text. Because when you meet God in the text, somehow that seasons everything you say and you bring the right thing. For example, this morning I was reading from Isaiah 40 where it says that God tends his flock like a shepherd, and I was thinking how impatient I can be with people who are moving not at the speed I want them to be moving, but God doesn't do that. He takes those who are with young and those who are not able to move very fast like the lambs, and he carries them close in his arms, the text says. There was something about the gentleness and the kindness of God that struck me in that text in a fresh way, and it made me want to preach a sermon that had a very gentle tone, a gentle emotion. So I felt like that sermon, as I started to think about it in my mind, should have almost like a lullaby effect on the listener. I don't mean put them to sleep but I mean give them that same evocative sense of the kindness and gentleness of God.
MW: Beautiful! There is one more point about emotional intensity. Now obviously it matters a lot. It helps your people connect with the biblical text and your passion for God's Word. But there's something else that's also very powerful on this topic, and that is what I would call the intensity of the Holy Spirit because there is an emotional intensity to God, there is an emotional intensity to Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is intensely seeking lost people. He is intensely drawing people out of sin and into the Father's embrace. So we preach with the intensity that we need, but remember that it doesn't all depend on you; the Spirit is at work through you to bring people to the Lord as well.
KM: That's a great point. I mean, they say that Jonathan Edwards, the most brilliant theologian that America probably has ever generated, used to read his sermons and it was in kind of an academic monotone. Yet, the sense of the presence of God in those messages was palpable to the point that people would literally hang on to the pillars of the sanctuary to steady themselves against the palpable sense of the holiness of God.
MW: So preachers, preach with emotional intensity. Look at your intensity. Ask people to review your emotional intensity. What do they hear coming through in you? Get some feedback on that.
Francis Chan is former pastor of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California, and author of Crazy Love and Forgotten God.