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‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’

Preaching with heart: A case for emotion in expository preaching.
‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’
Image: Renee Fisher / Unsplash

I was disappointed but not surprised. The editors at Preaching Today had rejected the sermon I submitted. The quality of the recording was poor, they said. Worse, they claimed my sermon lacked emotional appeal.

I will be the first to admit that I am more cerebral than emotional. Not Spock exactly, but certainly more like him than Star Trek’s temperamental Captain Kirk. I am what they call a cool communicator. My preaching style has always been restrained.

Holding that rejection letter in my hands nearly thirty years ago, I wondered: “What if a preacher isn’t naturally emotional? Is he supposed to be someone in the pulpit that he isn’t outside of it? What emotions should a preacher try to convey and elicit from a listening congregation? And how does any of that relate to expository preaching?”

Those questions nagged at me for nearly a decade. Finally, when it came time for me as a major in practical theology with a concentration in homiletics to formulate a question to guide the research for my doctoral dissertation, I knew what it had to be. To riff off of that Tina Turner classic, my query was “what’s love (or any other emotion) got to do” with expository preaching?

A Case for Emotion in the Expository Sermon

It is quite simple actually. God created us in his image. The Bible portrays God as experiencing and expressing a wide array of emotions—grief (Gen. 6:6), jealousy (Exod. 20:5), anger (Ps. 7:11), pity (Ps. 103:13-14), and love (John 3:16), to name but a few. Therefore, part of what it means to be human, to bear God’s image, is to have emotions.

The Bible was written by humans to other humans. It is preached by humans to other humans. For those reasons, it is impossible to keep emotion out of preaching. Our aim should be to preach the whole Word to the whole hearer, and by necessity that includes the emotions.

At least three serious consequences follow when we neglect emotion in our preaching.

Rhetorically speaking, we deprive our hearers of any motivation to act on the text other than the motivation of duty. I recall that old Nike slogan, “Just do it.” How often would that slogan capture the essence of how we challenge our hearers to apply the truth of our sermon? Just do it! Jesus, on the other hand, said things like, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” When we neglect the role of emotion in our preaching, we are depriving our hearers of motivation to act.

Related to that and exegetically speaking, by neglecting the emotions in the text, we are more likely to distort the intention of the text. Here is an everyday, non-biblical example. Take the simple statement “there’s someone at the door.” You know what it means, but what does that statement intend for you to do? It depends on how and when it is said.

If my wife whispers it to me at 2:30 in the morning, she intends for me to get out of bed, check it out, and protect her. If she says it to me at 5:30 in the afternoon, she may intend for me to pay the pizza delivery guy so we can eat. It is the same sentence but with a different intention depending on when and how she says it. Similarly, by neglecting a text’s emotions, there is a greater chance we will distort its intention.

Theologically speaking, when we neglect the emotional, we are hampering our hearers’ spiritual growth. Part of discipleship, and at the heart of preaching, is worldview transformation. Worldview is directly related to one’s values, and values are emotionally charged. Cut a value, and emotion will come surging out. To challenge and reshape hearers’ worldviews, we must tap into their values. Connecting with them emotionally is how we get at their values and from there to their worldview.

Emotion’s Power to Connect and Persuade

Ancient writers on the subject of persuasive speaking—men like Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian—recognized that apart from the facts under consideration, speakers have three primary tools of persuasion at their disposal. They serve as “proofs” in a sense and give life to a speech. These three dynamos are logos, ethos, and pathos.

Logos pertains to the content and development of a speaker’s thoughts and arguments. Ethos has to do with how the speaker comes across to the hearer, ideally as a person possessing good sense, good character, and good will towards his or her audience. Pathos pertains to how a speaker influences the hearer to feel in such a way that he or she will be inclined to agree with the speaker and pursue the speaker’s suggested course of action.

To be clear, pathos was not viewed as mere ornamentation—feelings aroused for feelings’ sake. No! Pathos was held to be an important tool of persuasion. Moving people with trustworthy information so that they would act on it, that was the goal.

Twentieth century rhetorician Kenneth Burke suggested that for someone to persuade another, identification must occur. The would-be persuader must get the other party to feel like they identify with one another. Or, as they say on the streets, the persuader must get the hearer to think, “I feel you.” Feel (pathos) = identification = persuasion.

Can’t this get manipulative? Sure it can! Just like every other aspect of preaching. Hearers’ minds can be manipulated just like their emotions. A text’s meaning can be misrepresented as easily as its mood.

That said, we should certainly be aware of the ways that preaching can become emotionally manipulative. We manipulate the text emotionally when we fail to take its intentions seriously enough, with the result being we use the text to arouse emotions other than those the text intended. We manipulate our hearers emotionally when we fail to engage their emotions until the very end of our sermon, with a tear-jerking, guilt-inducing, or fear-laden story. We manipulate the situation emotionally when we display emotions in the pulpit that are not genuine. Emotional hypocrisy is inherently manipulative.

To help our hearers feel the text without manipulating them, the key is to let the text have its way with us, to let its ink become our blood, to let its pathos—its passion—control us. Abraham Kuruvilla in his Manual for Preaching puts it like this: “To be passionate simply means to demonstrate the passion that the experience of the text has already evoked in you so that you might, by the power of the Spirit, evoke that same passion in your listeners as you help them experience the text.” That’s the ideal! That’s what we should aim for as we deliver our sermons.

Becoming an Emotionally Mature Preacher

How do we get there? How do we become emotionally mature preachers who deliver emotionally evocative sermons?

Attend to your emotional health and understand yourself emotionally.

It requires more than the development of our homiletical techniques. Emotions have to do with who we are and how we view the world. If a preacher finds it difficult to relate emotionally to his text or hearers, he should figure out why and do something about it.

There are lots of reasons our preaching can fall into emotional ruts. There may be unresolved trauma in our past that has left us angry, bitter, fearful, guilt-ridden, nonconfrontational, too eager to please, or whatever. Until that trauma is addressed, we are likely to find it difficult to connect emotionally with anyone or anything. Moreover, our anger, bitterness, and so forth can become the filter through which we read and preach all Scripture. Then, every sermon, no matter the topic or text, takes on the same tone. That’s a problem.

Emotional fatigue can be another problem. Sympathy and empathy for others drains us emotionally. Until we figure out healthy ways of replenishing our emotional reserves, our preaching’s pathos will surely suffer.

Our personal temperament also plays a role, as does our spiritual gifting and theological leaning. Each of us should ask ourselves: Am I naturally more of a prophet or pastor? Which is easier for me to preach—law or gospel, Old Testament or New? Where does my preaching usually fall on the truth-to-grace scale?

Sometimes we fall into emotional habits as preachers because of our denominational or congregational culture. Our people expect fire and brimstone or a friendly smile and pat on the back. To be true to the text, our preaching cannot be that way every week.

Learn more about how emotions work.

Read what Aristotle had to say about pathos in his treatise On Rhetoric. Take a few minutes to ponder Robert Plutchik’s “wheel of emotions.”

Read your sermon’s text closely.

In other words, read it slowly, deliberately, repeatedly. Let it wash over you.

Be mindful of your text’s literary genre. Different genres naturally suggest different sorts of emotions. “Law,” for example, connotes authority, judgment, guilt, shame. “Gospel” suggests the opposite. Obviously, not every passage in the five books of Law is packed with guilt and condemnation, nor does every pericope in the Gospels shout “good news!” Nevertheless, a text’s literary genre is a general indicator of its pathos.

Other indicators and contributors to a text’s emotional thrust include emotionally charged words, captivating images, historical context, and how characters are portrayed in the text so that we identify with them and their plight.

Look for repeated words, phrases, and ideas. Be sensitive to how it all makes you feel.

Use your imagination .

As you study your text’s historical context, ask yourself, “What would it feel like to be in that situation”—a childless couple, a quarantined leper, a proud monarch? Beware though of letting your imagination run away with you. Keep it grounded in historical realism.

As you read and imagine, allow yourself to identify with all the characters (good and bad) in your text if it is a narrative or the author and his audience if it is not a narrative. If you cannot see yourself in their shoes, you are unlikely to suffer their pain, share in their pleasure, understand their motives, and convey that convincingly to your hearers.

Improve your skills as a storyteller.

See it clearly in your mind, then describe it vividly to your audience. Use concrete nouns and active verbs.

Read John Walsh’s book The Art of Storytelling and watch his workshop videos by that same title on YouTube. Listen to effective storytellers. So much of a text’s emotion is conveyed and caught through effective storytelling.

Practice your emotional appeal outside the pulpit.

You can do that when reading to your children, swapping news with family and friends, and praying. Get comfortable expressing your emotions to God, just like the psalmists did. Eventually, you will feel more comfortable expressing them to others.

Mind your delivery, but do not let it distract you.

So much impacts how a sermon is received—your voice’s pitch, rate, and volume; facial expressions; hand gestures; eye contact; props; whether you stand above your hearers on a platform or on the floor at their level; and more. But be careful! The more you concentrate on those things, the more you obsess over them, the more likely your sermon’s delivery will look and sound unnatural. Rather than moving your hearers, your delivery will distract them—the effect being like watching a poorly dubbed movie. You cannot pay attention to what the actors are saying because you are too distracted by how their lips are out of sync.

To avoid that, feel the text. Breathe its air. Live in it, then let it come alive through you next Sunday. Perhaps then your hearers will gaze into their Bibles and say in their hearts, “I feel you.”

Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.

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