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Preaching with Empathy in a Callous Culture

3 ways to develop empathic muscles in our preaching.

Preaching with Empathy in a Callous Culture
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Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Lenny Luchetti’s book Preaching with Empathy: Crafting Sermons in a Callous Culture (Abingdon Press, 2018). We would highly recommend reading his book to dive deeper into this topic of empathy and how it relates to preaching!

Extreme anger and apathy abound. The United States are currently not so united. We are divided along the boundary lines of politics, race, and economics. Misunderstanding, caricaturing, and stereotyping are norms in this allegedly advanced society. The good news is that what we preachers say and how we say it can offset this trend, assuming we preach with empathy in a callous culture.

Seminary taught many of us important skills for preaching. We were shown how to exegete a biblical text by probing the literary, historical, and theological contexts. Next in the curricular line-up was the art of rhetoric. Various linear and narrative sermon forms were critiqued or commended. Then we were thrown into a somewhat sterile preaching lab where we tried our best to impress our peers and professor with voice fluctuation, gesture variety, and, of course, eye contact. Seminary professors hoped that students, in the process of learning how to preach, would develop a deep love for God, Scripture, and preaching. I suspect most of us did.

There is another love necessary for preaching to reach its full potential for societal transformation—love for those to whom we preach. It’s not enough to get the biblical text, sermon form, and delivery right; the preacher must also get the listeners “right.” If not, the preacher will “prepare generic sermons for generic humanity that never truly become enfleshed in the real-life situations of particular congregations.”[i]

Enter empathy. Empathy gives preachers the capacity, the grace really, to put themselves into the shoes of their congregants so that they think and feel what their people think and feel. Empathy makes mediocre preaching better, and good preaching great.

Without empathy, preachers cannot begin to fully know and love the people to whom they preach. Grace-empowered empathy has the potential to create a revolution in the pulpit and pew that ripples to the ends of the earth. There are numerous ways to develop empathic muscles in the practice of preaching. In this article we will discuss three.

Engage in Empathic Exegesis

Empathic biblical exegesis requires a hospitable openness in the interpreter, a willingness to be led where the text wants to go. Empathic exegesis is a lot like having a considerate conversation with a friend. We try to resist the urge to think about what we want to say in order to fully attend to what our friend is saying.

So, how can we read and interpret Scripture empathically? For starters, try to empathize with not just the hero but the victim and the villain of a biblical narrative. Don’t only consider the perspective of the young stone-slinging David, but also the viewpoint of the sword-wielding Goliath or the power-hungry King Saul. When interpreting the struggle between Jesus and the scribes, try empathizing with those legalistic lawyers. Putting ourselves empathically in the sandals of the victim or villain, not just the hero, enables us to grow our empathic muscles by preaching an old familiar text in new and fresh ways.

Employing our imagination through the five senses is another way to enter into the biblical text. Ignatius of Loyola, a sixteenth century priest, was the first to organize and popularize this merging of Scripture and prayer with the imagination. As you read a story in Scripture, use your senses to empathically imagine your way into the scene. What do you see, smell, hear, feel, or taste? Consider what different characters in the story sense. As you do, you will experience empathic identification with the characters that enlivens preaching.

Of course, our empathic imagination functions best in tandem with scholarly interpretation. Here, too, we can engage empathically by listening to the diversity of voices available to us in biblical scholarship. How might an Asian American female expositor in her 50s or an Africa American male scholar in his 30s shed interpretive light on the Bible passage you’re preaching?

The point is that reading the Bible empathically through the eyes of the “other” can unearth my personal biases and reveal fresh interpretive insight.

Contemplate Various Vantage Points

The 2008 movie, Vantage Point, starring Dennis Quiad and Forrest Whitaker, is about an attempted assassination of an American president. The movie explores the scene of the crime from the vantage point of multiple people who experienced the event. Everyone sees something different based upon their location at the scene, their vantage point. When it comes to preaching, people hear the sermon differently based upon their life-situational point of view.

It is crucial for preachers to be aware of the multiple vantage points represented in the congregation when speaking about hot topics like sexuality, abortion, divorce, and politics. Will the rebellious teenager, sickly senior, jobless mid-lifer, divorcee, Latino, and widower respond to your assessment of the issue with a “yep,” a “nope,” or a “huh”? The ultimate aim of discerning where your people stand is not pandering but empathizing. I’m not advocating the compromising of biblical convictions, just the contextualizing of them.

Empathy demands both honesty and sensitivity. Preaching with empathy entails speaking to and for people on all sides of a given issue. Of course, the voice of the biblical witness has the place of primacy on any topic. We are called to preach “the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help us God.” However, like Christ according to John 1:14, our sermons must embody grace along with truth, without conceding either. Preachers can articulate different viewpoints without abandoning biblical truth. Grace and truth is the goal.

Empathically considering multiple vantage points enables the preacher to communicate with Christ-like compassion and winsome grace. Sometimes we preachers proclaim hard, even painful truth in an unnecessarily arrogant, angry, or apathetic manner. These postures in the preacher are met with defensiveness in the listener. But if listeners on all sides of an issue feel as if you “get them,” even if you disagree with their position, they are more likely to hear you and “get God.” The goal of Christian proclamation is not rightness but reconciliation. I’m not suggesting that biblical truth doesn’t matter. It does immensely. All I’m asking for here is that we share the hard truth with people more like a loving mother offering direction to her children than a callous judge reading a guilty verdict to a criminal.

I remember years ago hearing a popular evangelistic preacher speak to a massive crowd about abortion. Everything he said was true. I agreed with his biblical perspective on the issue. He resonated with church-going folk, many of whom never had or would consider having an abortion. As far as I could tell, however, there was no redemptive grace offered along with the bold truth. If I were a woman who had an abortion I would walk out, maybe even run out of the arena. Every woman I know who has had an abortion already feels a load of guilt and shame. None of them need coaxing into shame; they need grace to move on from the severe regret that plagues them.

Somehow the preacher’s words must offer that vantage point too. Jesus “came from the father full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). So must the preacher.

Deliver with Empathy

UCLA neurologist, Marco Iacoboni, writes that, “… mirror neurons fire when we see others expressing their emotions.” Those neurons “… help us understand the emotions of other people.”[ii] So when we look into the eyes and at the facial expressions of the people to whom we preach, it causes our mirror neurons to fire and give us a sense of what listeners are thinking and feeling.

When we are attentive to listeners with our eyes while preaching, we adjust what we’re saying and how we’re saying it based on the non-verbal cues of listeners. Even Augustine in the 4th century taught preachers to make empathic adjustments in response to the non-verbal cues of listeners. He wrote to preachers that if you see a listener open his mouth “no longer to express approval, but to yawn,” employ humor to get them back.[iii]

Manuscript preaching has some advantages but can diminish the empathic connection between the preacher and listeners. Strong eye contact, almost intuitively, creates an empathic bond. It seems worthwhile, then, for preachers to devote, at minimum, 25% of their overall sermon preparation time to the prayerful internalization and memorization of the manuscript.

I suspect most of us were taught to embrace the importance of maintaining eye contact while preaching because of its rhetorical appeal. I’m asserting that eye contact is crucial because of its empathic stimulus. The “in-the-moment” preacher is able to see people and, immediately and intuitively, preach with empathy.

[i] Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 23.

[ii] Marco Iacoboni, Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others (New York: Picador, 2009), 119.

[iii] Augustine, De Cat. Rud. 13:19 (CCL 46:142-43); trans. Canning, 100.

Dr. Lenny Luchetti is Professor of Proclamation and Christian Ministries at Wesley Seminary of Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana and the author of Preaching Essentials: A Practical Guide and Preaching with Empathy: Crafting Sermons in a Callous Culture.

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