Chapter 160

The Source of Passion

Focusing on emotion does not produce truly passionate preaching.

Some time ago I dropped in for church in a small town I was driving through. The preacher's message might have been fine, but his manner was almost without expression, to the point of being distracting. His voice did not rise and fall where it might have; his pace did not vary; his arms stayed attached to the pulpit; and his energy seemed low.

Many preachers need to be and long to be more passionate in the delivery of their sermons—provided that they can avoid the manipulation of a congregation. Most preachers who desire to be more passionate, though, make a common mistake: they think of passion in preaching as primarily an emotional issue rather than a theological one.

Two generations back it was common and often expected that a preacher would cry in the pulpit over the sins of the people. When we think of passion in the pulpit as primarily about emotion, its effect can be the opposite of what we intend. Hearers may perceive the preacher to be less than authentic. Everything in the sermon suffers when hearers question the integrity of the preacher.

Passion in preaching is primarily a theological issue arising out of a preacher's strong awareness that God wants to accomplish something through the sermon. Preachers have good reason to be passionate when they facilitate an encounter with God and when they offer the congregation what they are longing for: an experience of God judging and reconciling the world in love and grace.

Obviously no one has the ability to offer God apart from the activity of the Holy Spirit working in and through the sermon. Because this is the case, preachers might be tempted to conclude they can do little to help the Holy Spirit in this regard, when in fact there is much they can do.

Preachers can try to focus on God instead of continually focusing on humans and what humans are expected to do before God. Such sermons tend to be man-centered. They may sound like they are talking about God, and the congregation may think they are getting the help they need, but generally the preacher is casting them on their own resources to accomplish what God requires instead of additionally offering God's help as it is revealed in the biblical text at hand. This help is not separate from the cross, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.

Focusing on God in itself is often not sufficient, though, for the sermon easily can become more like an essay than a word of proclamation. We can present God in a manner that suggests that the most important thing for the congregation to receive is information about God rather than communication from God as an event in their lives. We can present God as an abstract idea the congregation must apprehend, or a theological doctrine they must accept—both of which are important and have their place in a sermon—rather than as God known in three Persons and who seeks a relationship with his beloved creatures.

Some preachers may protest that they are most passionate when they exhort people to growth. Passion certainly includes exhortation but ought not be restricted to it. The foolish parent is often the one who is expressive only when being critical or offering instruction. Passion in preaching also needs to communicate God's love and delight in the Lord.

I am convinced that God cannot adequately be the subject of the sermon unless God is the subject of the theme sentence of the sermon. Since it represents the sermon in microcosm, where the theme sentence focuses, the sermon will focus.

Unless we look at biblical texts through theological lenses that allow us to identify what they say about God, we may miss what they do say.

For example, Paul writes, "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1). Because Paul has humans as the subject of his sentence, we may naturally decide to keep humans as the subject of our sermons on this text. As long as human actions are the focus, it is hard for preachers to become passionate in anything other than exhortation, for the message quickly becomes an effort to prove a point, in this case Paul's point that we are justified by faith. To make that argument has merit, but the sermon need not focus exclusively there when it can also offer something more. As preachers we are called to proclaim the power, mystery, and saving grace of God. The potential for passion rises when the preacher puts on theological lenses and brings God into focus. Paul is saying this: God justifies us through Jesus Christ.

Even a theme sentence properly focused on God's empowering and redemptive action may not be enough. A good portion of the sermon needs to focus on God's action. Preachers too easily have a good theme sentence and then revert to language that emphasizes human action.

When we get to a place in the sermon where we talk about God's power, greatness, activity, and purpose, then we have something more to be excited about. Then too our people have something to get excited about. They can leave church buoyed by the Spirit, not weighed down by their sins and failures. It is not that the latter have not been mentioned but rather they have not been allowed to have the last say, just as the cross was not the end of our story.

I recently heard a former student preach. He and his family had been through hard times since I knew him, and it showed. There was a reverence in his pulpit manner, a deep respect for his task, a deep feeling for the words of Scripture as he read them. His sermon was not eloquent, but he was sincere, his humor was natural, and he had a wonderful, hopeful message focused on Christ. This preacher was passionate in the best sense of the word: authentic, exhortative at times, and also rejoicing.