Your preaching must capture interest, imagination, and emotion.
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If you want your listeners to catch fire, you must catch fire yourself. If you do catch fire, many of them will burn with you. Pastor and rhetorical scholar Hugh Blair said it this way in the 18th century: "There is obviously a contagion among the passions." I'd like to speak to you about this contagious passion.
Begin by asking if the topic of contagious passion is worth our time. Isn't logos what counts (exegesis, research, biblical fidelity, and truth) in a message? It absolutely counts, but we're talking about communication, how to communicate content, how to express what we are expounding, and how to explode or project the love of God shed abroad in our hearts. How are we to project the joy of the Lord which is our strength? How are we to express the magnetic beauty of the gospel?
To the person who asks about logos versus pathos: We can't separate logos from pathos. The Bible's word is "heart." The old dichotomy between "head" and "heart," or "mind" and "emotion" does not come from the Bible.
In the Bible, the "heart"
- thinks (Prov. 4:23, 23:7; Acts 8:22), includes knowledge and belief (what we call "worldview")
- plans actions (Prov. 16:1, 9; Gen. 6:5)
- experiences emotions such as joy (Deut. 28:47), sorrow (1 Sam. 1:8), anger (2 Kings 6:11), and anxiety (John 14:1).
The Bible depicts the heart as an amalgamation of interior motives that lead to action.
An accurate synonym for the biblical term "heart" is "motivational structure." From the confluence of perception, understanding, beliefs, values, and feelings, we are motivated to act. It is possible to expound with exegetical accuracy but not reach the heart. Preaching must capture interest, imagination, and emotion to reach the "motivational structure." We want to preach to the whole person so that hearers are "cut to the heart" as in Peter's great sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:37). After all, from the heart "flow the springs of life" (Prov. 4:23).
So how do we do that? I want to offer one way forward: preaching with passion. There is a contagion among the passions. One way to reach other hearts is by displaying your heart.
When the speaker displays passion, it causes a reciprocal response in the listener.
There is nothing new in that insight—all effective preachers, public speakers, and performers know it. There is a contagion among the passions; around 380 BC Plato described it with the image of a magnet.
Socrates converses with Ion, a "rhapsode" who relates the thrill of reciting Homer before an audience: "At the tale of pity, my eyes are filled with tears, and when I speak of horrors, my hair stands on end and my heart throbs." Ion then describes how his emotion spreads to the audience: "I look down upon them from the stage, and behold the various emotions of pity, wonder, sternness stamped upon their countenances." Ion is exhilarated when that occurs but clueless about why it happens.
Modern psychology uses the term "empathy" to explain the "magnetism" or "contagion." When the sender experiences fear, joy, or another emotion, he or she exhibits those feelings through delivery; then receivers perceive the feelings and the perception triggers the same emotion in them. Well established in social science is this law of empathy.
Science goes a step further with the idea of mirror neurons. They are specialized nerve cells in the brain that fire when we see someone perform an action. These cells help people mimic the actions of the sender as when a mother smiles at her baby and the baby smiles back. Mirror neurons are the physiological basis of the "contagion." When the speaker displays passion, it causes a reciprocal response in the listener.
Preachers are interested in contagion, magnetism, empathy, and mirror neurons because we seek to stir passion. We seek to fan into flames truth that is buried deep. We bring truth out of the dusty and musty warehouse into the light.
The most influential sender of nonverbal messages, the person who is most contagious, is a group's leader. Speed of the leader is the speed of team. Because of the law of sympathy, empathy, contagion, magnetism—call it what you will—the congregation keeps pace with the preacher. We have seen that truth verified from science and social science, but theology lies under it. God has placed in the heart of the sheep a desire to be shepherded, an instinct to follow. To be sure, some sheep bite and some go astray, but in every believer is the life of Christ, a life that is humble and submissive, tuned to hear to the shepherd's voice. Believers want to follow a friend, mentor, leader—a pastor—who practices what they preach. God has made us that way. We gravitate to leaders who lead.
So, there is a contagion among the passions. The speaker's passion sparks a reciprocal response in the receiver. Let's take this idea a step further. This contagion not only spreads to the receiver, but also, in a sense, to the sender. Our own behavior, our own expression sparks emotion in us.
Display of passion generates emotion in the sender
Delivery not only reflects the speaker's emotion, it also generates the speaker's emotion. Let me show you that from two studies.
Paul Ekman spent years mapping the face and which muscles activate with various emotions. He discovered that there are a handful of universal facial expressions that people use to express emotions. By the way, Pixar hired Ekman as a consultant to help their artists with facial expression, and at the end of Inside Out, Pixar paid special tribute to him.
In his years of research, Ekman stumbled across a surprising truth that emotions follow the body. When he and his colleagues practiced activating their own facial muscles, they "discovered … that expression alone is sufficient to create marked changes in the autonomic nervous system. When this first occurred, we were stunned." They generated actual sadness, anguish, and anger by manipulating their faces. Painstakingly, they documented this effect with control groups. Participants were instructed to make various faces and then the team measured physiological changes associated with stress.
So, emotion follows the body. Displaying passion generates passion. In a sense, we catch the contagion from ourselves.
Dr. Amy Cuddy measured endocrine levels not with facial expression but with posture: when subjects took "high-power" poses such as head held high, arms raised in victory, or hands held behind the head with feet on the desk. When subjects held the pose for as little as two minutes, blood tests revealed higher levels of testosterone (the hormone linked to dominance) and lower levels of cortisol (the "stress hormone"). The opposite occurred in another group that took low-power poses.
Cuddy advises people who need confidence, such as candidates interviewing for a job and speakers about to step to the podium, that if they behave confidently, their actual confidence will rise. Our behavior becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, our own display of passion influences others (contagion) and influences us.
When the nonverbal message conflicts with the verbal, listeners trust the nonverbal.
Nonverbal communication tends to be an accurate reflection of the heart, therefore listeners trust it. Nonverbal communication cannot be manipulated as easily as words. If words say, "Welcome, it's great to see you," but hands push the congregation away and the brow says, "I wish you weren't here," we believe the latter. If the words say, "I'm fine," but the frowning mouth, flat voice, and averted eyes say otherwise, we doubt the words.
In a classic study from the 1960s, Albert Mehrabian studied the phenomenon of mixed messages. He concluded that when speakers conveyed their feelings in an ambiguous way, that is, when their words did not match their delivery, listeners interpreted the speaker's feelings based on facial expression and tone of voice more than words.
When listening to mixed messages, listeners do not have time to pause and analyze why they develop impressions, but develop they do. We use the nonverbal cues as the baseline of interpretation and then try to harmonize the words with the picture. If the two cannot be harmonized, we distrust the words and the speaker, and passion fizzles. The words may proclaim a well-known truth such as "We are citizens of heaven," but if the face and tone of voice say, "Who cares?" ministry of the Word falls flat. The words may say, "Jesus is coming again," but if the eyes and tone of voice say, "I'm in a hurry, I have to get through this sermon fast," listeners will not catch fire. No magnetism. No contagion.
Six tips for showing passion
I would now like to offer six practical tips to help us express passion in our sermons.
Start with yourself
2 Timothy 1:16 says in part, "fan into flame the gift that was given you." The first person to wade into the waters of scriptural truth should be the preacher, and then from the depths he or she beckons others. To stir the church to the truth that they have been born again into living hope (1 Peter 1:3), immerse yourself in that hope. To remind the church that they should not worry about life—what they eat, drink, or wear—remind yourself how God cares for the birds of the air (Matt. 6:25-27). Before preaching on the three hallelujahs of Revelation 19, shout hallelujah yourself—at least 3 times! A reservoir can dispense only what has flowed into it.
The necessity of starting with ourselves places a rigorous demand on the spiritual life of the minister, and no short cut will serve. Only by Bible study, prayer, and meditation can our own hearts be magnetized to God himself. Ministers need to keep themselves in the love of God (Jude 21).
Start with yourself. Pray and meditate deeply into the Word. No technique can replace that. Without it, no technique will avail. Teaching someone to display the signs of earnestness without the heart of earnestness is like painting a furnace red to make it appear hot.
Building on the foundation of a vibrant devotional life, these concrete suggestions can help us leverage passion.
Watch yourself on video
Video is the great schoolmaster. Painful though it can be, video shows us what the congregation sees and hears. We often have a skewed perception of ourselves.
Observe (but don't imitate) preachers you admire
If you watch or listen to one preacher you admire, you will become a poor imitation, but if you watch or listen to multiple preachers, you can take elements from each and weave those elements into the fabric of your style. My practice is to listen to 7 to 10 sermons by a well-known preacher and then move on to another set of sermons by another preacher. I download the sermons and listen while I drive or exercise.
In addition to listening to preachers, you may like to listen to Scripture readers, paying attention to how they use their voices to convey the emotions percolating in each text.
The term "extemporaneous" means that the sermon is well-prepared, usually delivered from skeletal notes but not read word-for-word from extensive notes. Why do I suggest extemporaneous delivery? I suggest it because paper is a poor conductor of electricity. The paper isolates you and prevents the contagion from spreading; the paper weakens the flow of magnetic force.
Reading a sermon from sheets of paper greatly hinders nearly every aspect of nonverbal communication, particularly eye contact, gestures, and variety of rate. When most people read aloud, their voices flatten and fall into a cadence dictated by the eyes' scanning the words on the page rather than lively thoughts arising from the heart. A metronome belongs in the piano studio, not the pulpit.
Practice aloud. Get your body and voice involved.
Walk to the pulpit with purpose. Smile (if appropriate), establish eye contact, and then begin. Remember that the speaker's own emotional state follows the body, so fire up your facial expression and take a stance of confidence.
As Hamlet advised the troupe of actors: "Suit the action to the word," or as Spurgeon said, "Let the gesture tally with the words, and be a sort of running commentary and practical exegesis upon what you are saying."
Pray and ask God to transform the inner person.
Out of heart the mouth speaks and the body speaks.
May God help us to lead well through what we say and how we behave. May he help us expound the Word and express it with passion.
Jeffrey Arthurs, Ph.D., is the Professor of Preaching and Communication & Chair, Division of Practical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.