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The Recovery of Gravitas in Preaching

Are our sermons filled with majesty and power or superficial and thin?
The Recovery of Gravitas in Preaching
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In her article, “We’ve Lost the Plot,” Megan Garber gives an unnerving picture of society where amusement is no longer a way of escape; it is where and what we inhabit. It is a world where the lines between fiction and reality can no longer be distinguished.[1] This is our culture—and increasingly it is true of the church. Preaching is more intent on regaling than teaching, skirting rather than proclaiming reality.

Like products in a store that are reduced to smaller and smaller packaging, we have seen a reduction in sermons. They are losing their substance—weight and depth. It is rare for congregants to have an Emmaus-like experience where the scriptures are opened, Christ is encountered, and you see the truth about yourself and the world.[2] Instead, the scriptures are mentioned, followed by sermons that often are trivial and flippant.

Today, divine encounters are replaced with tips for living; substantive truths are exchanged for rambling stories; and serious reflection is superseded by entertainment monologues. In some cases, there is a sense of redundancy as words are worn thin by familiarity and repetition. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, the words “have been chewed up so many times there are no nutrients left in them.”[3]

Missing in all of this is a sense of gravitas. But what does this mean? Years ago, in his op-ed about the “dreamy weightlessness” of political campaigns, Lance Morrow wrote about the gravitas component people are desperate for in a leader. He defined it as a “mystery . . . a secret of character and grasp and experience, a force in the eye, the voice, the bearing.”[4] Gravitas is not a technique. It is not something faddish, though the business world sometimes suggests it is a way to rise to the top. In the world of preaching, a similar mistake is made when we assume gravitas is some “X-factor” that can boost one’s homiletical skills.

Tracing the word back to its roots offers some clarity. gravité was initially used to describe the quality or state of deep moral seriousness. Over time, gravitas has been used to speak of those who walk with a certain bearing, who carry themselves with dignity and grace.

What Characterizes Gravitas in Preaching?

I have listened for this, both in those I hear, as well as in the sermons I have preached. I sense a gravitas when I find myself in the grip of God, overwhelmed with feelings generated by the Spirit. This, for example, happens almost every time I preach about God and his grace. While I generally keep my emotions in check, a passage revealing the unconditional love of God can leave me speechless, my soul laid bare before the congregation. I also find gravitas when I am moved by the weight of argument and the forcefulness of conviction These surface when I realize the passage preached is calling for nothing less than repentance and change of heart. I am suddenly impacted by an application that must be made, even if there will be fierce pushback. Some themes, like the fear of God, dare not be preached in a trivial way. They demand a deep and prevailing solemnity of mind.

When I look beyond and listen to preachers like John Piper, I see gravitas. There is an intensity of spirit, a weightiness in the words that are spoken, as well as a force in the eye. Words are handled with all the care that a surgeon wields a scalpel. Language is neither inflated nor devalued.[5] In his little book, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, Piper addresses the need for gravitas.[6] Along with him, I have found these to be other attributes of gravitas:

  • Preaching possessed by authenticity, where words are congruent with behavior. One’s life is one’s argument.
  • Preaching is driven by purpose and passion. One who preaches with gravitas is one in the grip of someone, something else. Think of one of Scotland’s greatest churchmen, Thomas Chalmers, whose fervency in the pulpit has been described as “blood-earnestness.”[7] Or Jonathan Edwards, whose whole soul was thrown into every part of the conception and delivery, riveting the audience.[8]
  • Preaching exudes divine authority. Sermons with substance are more than heartfelt expressions, moral exhortations, or skillful presentations. Hearing the Word carefully exposited, the listener becomes conscious of God, his rights over the soul, and his power to transform. The commanding force of divine presence meets the hearer, one that at times is fierce and formidable.
  • Preaching that corresponds to life as it is. There is an in-touchness with the hungers, aspirations, and sociocultural presuppositions of the congregation (though not defined or driven by them). Sermons characterized by gravitas do not cheaply accommodate to the desires of the hearer. Rather, they are devoted to the will of God and his Word, his rhythms, his ways, and his realities.[9]

In sum, I have found that to preach with gravitas is to be willing to receive the power of God and become a chosen instrument of the One who kills and makes alive, who wounds and heals—who demands that we take on this terribly dangerous mission to preach.[10]

What Argues for Gravitas in Preaching?

Here are four that have stood out to me—

The Depth of God

The subject of our sermons must be God and his glory. These must be a preacher’s greatest focus and highest duty (1 Cor. 10:31). When these capture me, I find gravitas in my words. Everything else is secondary.

Think of this. The very definition of the word for glory, kabod, speaks to an immeasurable weight. It is used to describe God’s central position, of one whose authority is unsurpassed in all of creation. Through Jesus and his presence in the church, God’s glory is filling the earth.[11] Sermons reflecting this glory correspondingly carry immense weight. They are by their very nature comprised of majesty and power, the antithesis of anything superficial and thin.

The Weight of Scripture

The Word of God is primal, having an inherent power, weight, and authority (Heb. 4:12; 2 Tim. 3:16). The gravitas of a preacher is grounded in the depth of one’s correspondence with the revealed Word and the Spirit’s work of illumination.[12] After nearly forty years of preaching, I have found that it is only by God and his Word that something extraordinary happens. When the Scriptures are exposited with accuracy, eloquence, and passion, the silence is broken, and lives are forever changed.

The Authority of the Office

The pastoral office is not a mere job or profession. It is part of a noble lineage going back to the prophetic office of the Old Testament. With Elijah and Jeremiah, one speaks with a gravitas that comes from carrying the weight of an official commission, an authority of position, and a setting apart with the authorization to speak.

The present loss of gravitas is, in part, a reflection of a failure by an increasing number of pastors who have lost sight of the official role they carry. Preaching is not a “generalized activity” undertaken by all believers; it is assigned to those who have been entrusted with this commission to stand and speak as God’s instrument and the church’s voice (Rom. 10:14-17; 2 Tim. 4:2).[13]

The Power of the Pulpit

The place of preaching represents sacred space. While some preachers use it to show off their shoes, should it not be a place where we are moved to take them off (Josh. 5:15)? When I pause to survey the context, I realize this is holy ground. Here God chooses to disclose himself and manifest his character. We need to recover the recognition the novelist Herman Melville gave to preaching: “The pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world . . . the world’s a ship on its passage out . . . and the pulpit is its prow.”[14]

Here in this most public of pastoral acts, faith is made possible (Rom. 10:11-15). Perhaps it is why I have chosen to always use a full manuscript. Though careful not to read, I must be precise. In this space, theology is taught, and moral excellence is defined. The unbelieving are invited to believe and the believers are comforted, encouraged, and inspired to devotion, dedication, loyalty, and discipleship to Christ (1 Pet. 1:23-25; 2 Tim. 2:15).

Preachers who sense this full weight realize they stand between the people and God, taking the heat, veiling the light, buffering the noise, and delivering the message in a human voice. To preach is to press flesh to its limits—both the preacher’s and the congregants. Hence, I have found nothing more demanding. The one speaking must be careful that people do not faint from fear. No wonder the sermon has been likened to carrying nitroglycerin around in a crystal goblet.[15]

What Leads to Gravitas in the Pulpit?

Speaking with the full weight and force of the Word comes with a price. As I look back, here are the non-negotiable costs:

The Habit of Holiness

Preaching with a solemnity of purpose requires a rigorous and ongoing self-examination. There is no force in preaching apart from a consciousness of God’s presence and purpose. There is no gravitas unless I have found myself unnerved by the realization God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:28-29). The closer I get to him, the more I feel the heat. It explains Paul’s admonition to preachers to watch their lives and teaching closely (1 Tim. 4:16). When godliness and proclamation converge, the minister is “an awful weapon in the hand of God.”[16]

The Discipline of Study

The weight of character cannot make up for a lack of strictness in the study. Preachers with gravitas are respected because they have done the demanding work of researching, thinking, reasoning, and reflecting. This cannot be done the day before; it requires the best hours of each day. John Calvin made it his mission to preach purely, chastely, and faithfully. To do this, he studied ferociously, straining the limits of his body to know the passage. To preach with gravatas requires the same resolve. Preparation, I have found, must be proportionate to the task.

Jeremiah reminds me that I am entering—not merely into my study--but into the council of God (23:18). Here, if there is any hope of gravitas, I must first become silent. In the quiet, I begin to sense the relentless presence of God moving upon my heart. He compels me to place myself under—not over—the Word. God expects that I handle it with the greatest of care and exactness (2 Tim. 2:15). For years I have grappled with textual challenges, passages that go in strange directions, and theological mysteries that keep me on my knees. It is nothing less than a dialogue marked by revelation, prayer and reflection. One is doing what Eugene Peterson describes as contemplative exegesis.[17] One is grappling with God’s inscrutabilities, looking into every sentence for layers of meaning, drawing out what is there, and then reflecting on what it all means for yourself and the congregation.

In every encounter, I have learned to come with an expectation that God will speak. It is far more than working with biblical languages and theologies. It is more than finding an illustration or mastering a subject. This is God’s work, not mine. He initiates the conversation and enables me to engage in a dialogue—on his terms! It is unnerving. God’s words are powerful and majestic, able to break the cedars, hew out flames of fire, shake the wilderness, and strip the forest bare (Ps. 29:4-9).

The Courage to Proclaim

One must be just as arduous in the task of communication as the work of study. This begins with bringing our sacred work of preparation to the altar and sacrificing it to him. I have found this to be an essential habit. Before I enter the pulpit, there has to be a giving over. The sermon is God’s for his purposes. No matter if people listen and regardless of the season (Ezek. 2:7; 2 Tim. 4:2). This is our obedience, our confidence (Jer. 26:2; Ezek. 3:4 37:7).

Preachers with gravitas realize that there is a huge cost if one neglects their holy task. Souls will be laid to our account (Ezek. 3;18-20; Acts 20:26-27). Convinced that we are an instrument in the hands of God, we must preach the full counsel of God (2 Cor. 2:17). Courage, rather than art or craft, is the prerequisite for serious preaching. Proclaiming those difficult texts will point people in a different direction, and I must be willing to do this.[18]

Preaching has been described as lightning bolt of divine disclosure that is beyond the control of the preacher.[19] This takes nerve. Lowry refers to it as “dancing on the edge of mystery.”[20] God reveals his hiddenness. It requires daring. The fire shut up in one’s bones is released (Jer. 20:9). This demands audacity. People become aware a prophet has been among them, and life begins to stir (Ezek. 2:4; 37:7). Congregants suddenly become transfixed by the supernatural. This leads to stillness. Once the message is faithfully proclaimed, it is the preacher’s task to sit down at the right moment and let God do the work. This is gravitas.

The Hunger of the Congregation

Over the years, I’ve come to see that gravitas is not fully on the preacher. In the pew, there must also be a fresh yearning for serious preaching. Early on, I and my leaders determined that the sanctuary must also be sacred space, where the hearer enters the quiet in anticipation of God’s presence. Visiting should be left behind in the foyer. Congregants need time to look at their souls and see the malnutrition so evident in our day. There must be a growing admission of a famine in the land, one like the days of Amos, when people became desperate for the Word of God (Amos 8:11-12). The more congregants find gravitas in the preaching, the more they will rise up, pray, and settle for nothing shallow or silly.


Preaching with gravitas touches the hearer viscerally, making the transcendence of Yahweh appear palpably immanent. The congregation meets the living God face-to-face. When it happens, I find it to be a remarkable event.

Years ago, the Catholic scholar Richard Neuhaus made this observation of a preacher with gravitas:

Whether he speaks in tones stentorian or is barely audible, whether he is accompanied by grand gestures or with a crouch of intense concentration, it is soon evident that here is a preacher. Here is no smooth therapist, no peddler of religious palmsmanship, no friendly pusher of spiritual highs, no aspiring social critic, no seven o’clock news commentator on portentous events. No, here is a preacher who has been visited by the seraphim with a burning coal from the altar.[21]

The times beg for such a voice. As much as any moment, we who are tasked with declaring the heart of God will have to ask—

  • Will I step into this defining moment and seize the call of God to preach the Word of God?
  • Am I willing to preach with the same conviction of the Psalmist that divine words can rip apart and take down forests?
  • Do I believe that Scripture represents the miraculous revelation of God?
  • Do I realize that the main preparation required is my attentiveness before the God who speaks?
  • Can I see that preaching is engaged in a struggle, a war in which one speaks against the presumed authority, issuing a declaration of war against some of our most cherished idols?
  • Do I see that self-generated human speech is rarely of great consequence?
  • Does the congregation enter the sanctuary with a certain trepidation, a holy hush, aware that God will speak?
  • Will I step into the moment and recover gravitas, both in my bearing in my preaching?

[1] Megan Garber, “We’ve Lost the Plot,” The Atlantic, January 2023.

[2] Richard John Neuhaus , Freedom for Ministry, 161.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent, 24.

[4] Lance Morrow, “The Gravitas Factor,” Time Magazine, March 14, 1988.

[5] John Burgess, Jerry Andrews, and Joseph Small, A Pastoral Rule for Today, 104.

[6] John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, 50.

[7] James Alexander, Thoughts on Preaching, 264

[8] Sereno Dwight, Memoirs, in Banner, 1:clxxxix.

[9] Thomas Oden, Pastoral Theology, 132.

[10] Will Willimon, Pastor, 11.

[11] John N. Oswalt, “kabed,” TWOT, Vol. 1, 427.

[12] Oden, Pastoral Theology, 137.

[13] Ibid., 128.

[14] Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 14.

[15] Taylor, God is Silent, 64.

[16] Andrew Bonar, Robert Murray McCheyne: Memoir and Remains (London: Banner of Truth, 1966), 281.

[17] Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles.

[18] William Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 168, 170.

[19] Ibid., 169.

[20] See Eugene Lowry, The Sermon: Dancing the Edge of Mystery.

[21] Neuhaus, Freedom for Ministry, 173.

John E. Johnson is an adjunct professor of Pastoral Theology and Leadership at Western Seminary in Portland, OR. He has served as a lead pastor for thirty five years, and currently is a writer working on his fourth book, as well as serving as an interim teaching pastor.

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