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Both Fact and Feeling

Allowing emotion to buttress truth
The generation behind me tends to trust feelings over facts.

I grew up in the 50s and 60s, in what some call the "Weekly Reader generation." The Weekly Reader was a little black-and-white newspaper distributed in grade schools that kept students informed on current events. Conventional wisdom of the 50s told us that facts were going to form the future, so the magazine was filled with facts. As a generation, we tended to trust facts and mistrusted emotion, and that affected our religious views as well. Emotional religion was for the uneducated, and religious teaching focused on the factual proofs for Christianity.

I learned that as a preacher I needed to prove factually that biblical principles "worked." If the Bible commanded us to honor our father and our mother so our days on earth would be long, I validated that injunction with statistics showing that people with happy families lived longer. While feelings could be manipulated, facts were the sixteen-penny nails of our faith.

Emotional credibility

Things have changed, though. The generation behind me, often called Generation X, tends to trust feelings over facts. Its young men and women know facts can be manipulated, that there can be information without knowledge. Madison Avenue knows this well. Think of the Nike commercials on TV: They don't tell you anything about the product or the price. Nor do they compare Nike shoes with any other athletic shoe. They touch your emotions, showing Michael Jordan hanging above the rim while you hear the roar of the crowd. And that communicates to you that Nike makes a great shoe.

The use of emotion through image has serious implications for preachers. In a sense, the ability of a preacher to evoke emotion in Generation X — not in a manipulative way, of course — can help gain credibility and drive home the truth of the gospel.

I know a pastor who sometimes weeps during his sermons, and it's been fascinating to hear the different reactions of people in his congregation. One woman, embarrassed by it, said, "My pastor cries during his messages. Do you think maybe he's having an emotional problem?" On the other hand, I've heard younger people say, "Man, he's real. He's got the stuff."

My point here, of course, is not to imply we should use emotion irresponsibly or ignore reason. I'm simply trying to buttress my thesis that on a large scale, the way people think has shifted in recent years, and a pastor needs to continue to grow to be effective. Nor am I saying we eliminate facts from our preaching. Rather, we may want to use emotion strategically in our communication to increase our effectiveness.

Connecting early

In 1998, for example, the Birmingham, Alabama, area lost 34 people in a tornado during Holy Week. A thousand homes were destroyed and hundreds of people were injured. On Sunday morning, the paper ran photos of all 34 victims on the front page. The paper included stories about each of the victims. The tragedy was on people's minds as they came to church, and I needed to speak to their hearts about how this event could possibly fit into the message of Easter.

I began with a story about a wedding I performed in the 1980s. At the rehearsal, the whole wedding party was downcast and the bride was crying. I assumed her emotion was due to the normal prewedding blues. As I was leaving the church to attend the rehearsal dinner, the bride and groom asked if they could talk with me. As soon as the bride entered my office and shut the door, she burst into uncontrollable tears. I asked what was wrong.

"My father just found out this morning that the biopsy report was positive," she said. "He has a malignancy. It's a fast-moving cancer, and he doesn't have long to live, and he's walking me down the aisle tomorrow."

Then the groom said, "How do you rejoice when you really want to cry?"

I told that story on Easter Sunday and repeated the question: How do you rejoice when you want to cry?

"It's been a long and hard week in Birmingham," I said. "This morning all of us sat around our breakfast tables and looked at the pictures of 34 people. We wept as we read the stories of people between the ages of 2 and 89 that died this week. There's a side of us that says, `I really find it difficult to celebrate Easter today.' But we don't have any choice. It's Easter. We're Christians. And we are supposed to rejoice."

I went on to tie our story in Birmingham with the story of the first Easter in Palestine, how it had been a devastating week in Jerusalem — the lives of three people had been taken, the lives of the disciples had been shattered, and yet there was a wonderful promise from Jesus. I had to work hard not to make the rest of the sermon a manipulative, emotional monologue. I avoided the temptation to say, "Don't you all want to be ready for Jesus when the next tornado comes?" Instead I discussed the meaning of the resurrection.

My point about the opening illustration is its placement in the sermon — at the beginning. If I had preached that same message in 1975, I might have ended the sermon with the story from the wedding. But because of the cultural shift from reason to emotion, I placed the moving story at the beginning of the story. I needed first to connect with my audience and then later to bring in the facts of the resurrection.

Gary Fenton is pastor of Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and author of Your Ministry's Next Chapter (Bethany).

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