Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content

Skill Builders

Home > Skill Builders


Helping People Think Higher (Pt. 1)

Do you have a mindset for inspiration?

This interview is part one of a two-part series. To read part two,click here.

Bryan, how would you define inspirational preaching?
Inspirational preaching is preaching that lifts people. It lifts people on a variety of levels. It lifts their understanding of themselves, of God, of the world, and of history. Most people's thoughts tend to drift downward. They get discouraged about life. They begin to doubt God. They question their own abilities. That downward drift of thinking needs to be uplifted. Paul says, "set your minds on things above." And so inspirational preaching helps people think higher.

It also lifts their sight, their vision of what life could be, from what life actually is. Like a hiker on a trail, after awhile our eyes drift downward, we begin to look at the ground in front of us, and walking gets tedious and tiresome. Inspirational preaching gets people to lift their eyes and look further down the trail, to enjoy the sights around them, and to think about where they're going. Inspirational preaching lifts people's sight so they can see what could be up ahead.

Thirdly, it lifts people's spirits. People tend to get beaten down by life, worn down, put down. Inspirational preaching helps people believe in God, believe in themselves, and see what could be, rather than what is. So uplifting is the best word to describe inspiration.

That's a great definition. Of the preaching you hear, how much is inspirational?
Not as much as ought to be. A lot of preaching is informational, telling people things they need to know, and certainly we need to do that. Part of preaching is instructive. Then a lot of preaching becomes exhortational, urging people to do things they should do. They should witness, tithe, serve, or pray. Exhortational preaching is creating a sense of urgency around those things. That is important. We need to exhort people.

Inspirational preaching encourages people to do things they already want to do. People want to be generous. People want to share their faith. They want to be closer to God. While it's important at times to exhort them to do those things, inspirational preaching taps into that desire they already have and liberates it, gives them permission to try things. It fills them with courage, which is what encouraging means.

Inspirational preaching encourages people to do things they already want to do.

Any other types of preaching that come to mind in addition to exhortational and informational?
Another might be confrontational, where we're correcting some false understanding of doctrine or behavior. There are times to be corrective or prophetic, but too often we leave out the inspirational element.

An example might be tithing. Every pastor sooner or later has to preach on tithing. A certain amount of that is informational, especially today when some people don't know what tithing means. So explain it, give them the information they need. And then move on and exhort them. You need to tithe. Start tithing. The church needs you to tithe. And that's appropriate, but don't stop there. Encourage people. Inspire them to want to tithe. Tap into that desire they have to be generous and help them imagine what life could be like if they became tithers. We leave that element out too often.

Any examples?
Recently I was doing a message from Romans 8 on the work of the Spirit. The congregation needed some information: "Who is the Holy Spirit? How does the Holy Spirit work in people's lives?" There was also an element of exhortation, as I reminded the people we can't live the Christian life in our own strength: "We need to rely on the Holy Spirit." But I didn't want to leave it at that—sending them out knowing and feeling they should—I wanted them to want to be filled with the Spirit. So at the end of the sermon I used a John Ortberg illustration.

He talks about the difference between rowing a boat and sailing a boat. It's a story about canoeing in the wilderness and how tedious and tiresome it can be to paddle a canoe hour after hour. But when the wind picks up, you can grab a poncho, tie it to your paddles, make a sail, and go flying across the lake. I said, "You can paddle if you want to, but it's a lot more fun to sail." People walked out of the message wanting to sail, wanting to be filled with the Spirit, and for weeks people referred back to that illustration.

That's great. I often find myself trying to categorize preaching in terms of answering the questions how, what, or why. Inspirational preaching seems to transcend those questions in some way.
It does transcend all of those. It captures all of them and lifts them to a higher plane, to where the congregation not only has understanding and a sense of urgency, but also the want-to, and the belief that they can live differently than they do now. Life can be better than it is. They can be stronger Christians than they are. The church can be more vibrant than it is. Helping people really believe —that inspires them.

So the sermon moves beyond the information dump to motivation.
Yes. I had a church member who was a motivational psychologist. He had done some research in the area of what motivates people in the workplace and contrasted extrinsic motivation with intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is rewarding people externally with a bonus, a pay raise, a vacation, or benefits. Many companies will motivate their people with those kinds of rewards. But research has found it's far more effective to tap into people's intrinsic motivations, their internal drive to want to be successful, to want to be competent, to want to belong. If you can tap into those intrinsic motivators, you don't need the external ones.

People who are intrinsically motivated work better, last longer, and have more fun. They're better teammates. This psychologist helped us create that environment in the church. In fact, he challenged me to never use the words should, ought, or must in a sermon. For a couple of years, I tried it just to discipline myself never to use those words, and it was difficult. But I soon found myself using different language, words of invitation. Why don't you? You get to do this. What would it be like? Imagine doing this. It became more invitational rather than exhortational.

How can a preacher determine whether they are inspirational or not?
There are a few analytical questions you could ask yourself. One would be: How often do I use the words should, ought, or must in a sermon? Listen to yourself. Look over your manuscript. Chances are, you're using them more than you need to and more than what's effective.

A second would be: How many of your illustrations end negatively? A sad story or a story with a bad ending is gripping. The guy who ends up lonely because he doesn't join a small group or the married couple whose marriage deteriorates because they don't work at their marriage—those get people's attention, but negative stories don't inspire. Preachers will sometimes use those kinds of illustrations because we know we get people, but I'm not sure we get them where they need to go. So how many of your illustrations end negatively?

Next, think about content. Do you tend to preach more out of the Epistles or the Gospels and the Book of Acts? If you work mainly out of the Epistles, chances are you're more exhortational in your preaching. The narratives and Jesus' preaching tend to be more inspirational. If you're in the Old Testament, do you tend to work out of the prophets, which will be exhortational, or out of the narratives and Psalms, which can be inspirational. So our content has something to do with it.

Another simple question is: How do people feel when they leave the service? Do they leave smiling? Do they leave feeling optimistic and hopeful? Or do they leave feeling sad or sobered? There are times they need to leave feeling convicted. But over the long haul, how people walk out of the sanctuary is a good indicator of whether they've been uplifted or not.

In part two of this two-part series, Bryan gives tips on how to be more inspirational.

Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Related articles

Helping People Think Higher (Pt. 2)

Do you have a mindset for inspiration?

Delivery: Introduction

How do I speak in a way that arrests hearers?

Delivery: Part 1: Workshops

How do I speak in a way that arrests hearers?