Emotion in preaching

In this article, Dr. Bresee deals with the role of emotion in worship, particularly in preaching. He answers the questions as to how logic and emotion should be related and in what sequence they should come in the sermon, and gives six principles for using emotion in preaching.

W. Floyd Bresee, Ph.D., is director of continuing education for the Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.


There are just three ways to persuade a person to do anything. Now, there are lots of ways to force him: twist his arm, hit him with a baseball bat, or point a gun at his head, for instance. But preachers must help people want to do something. They are professional persuaders. The art of preaching is the art of persuading persuading people to love and serve Christ. And there are just three ways to persuade—no more, no less.

Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, like the language of the New Testament, comes down to us from ancient Greece. Aristotle said you can persuade through ethos, pathos, or logos.

Ethos refers to the character of the speaker as perceived by his audience. (Our English word "ethical" comes from the Greek ethos.) It includes everything about him as a person what he weighs and what he wears, the shine on his face, and the shine on his shoes. Pathos means emotion, passion, feeling. Logos is logic, reason, that means by which a speaker demonstrates a truth.

Every preacher, intentionally or not, uses all three modes of persuasion every time he preaches. We quickly defend the importance of a Christlike character and the necessity of careful, logical thinking. But what about that third mode of persuasion? What about emotion?

Emotion tends to be highly suspect in church. Oh, it's all right for people to shout for joy or moan in agony as they watch their favorite ball team win or lose. But in most congregations, to enthusiastically express joy or sorrow in worship suggests spiritual fanaticism.

Just what is the proper place of emotion in worship? Should preaching mostly help people think, or feel?

Logic versus emotion

Logic is good. It is good because it, provides stability to one's spiritual life. It helps him stick with Christ even during those times when he doesn't feel like it. A religion based too much on emotion is roller-coaster religion—too much up and down.

Logic has value because it interests and challenges the intellectual. People are fed, they learn. And Jesus said, "Go ye therefore, and teach" (Matt. 28:19). Preachers are to feed the sheep—not stampede them. "The truth is [that] all sound minds at the bottom are rational. Every man's self-respect is appealed to when his reason is addressed; and every man, however much he may for the moment be pleased with the mere tickling of his fancy, will resent it in the end with revulsion of feeling, as if he had been imposed upon." 1 Anselm said theology is "faith seeking under standing." If this be true, then every preacher must be part theologian.

Logic is good because the audience is less at the mercy of the speaker's integrity. A former student of mine studied for a Master's degree in speech. In the course of his studies he conducted an experiment on the freshman classes he was teaching. He prepared two speeches on the same subject. One was filled with impeccable logic, lots of careful reasoning, and deep thinking. Another speech on the same subject was made up of nothing but platitudes and entertaining anecdotes. He tested each of his classes regarding their attitudes on the subject, then they listened to either the first or second speech, and were tested again. Guess what! College fresh men were more often persuaded to change their attitudes by listening to the emotional speech that said nothing. Emotion can be dangerous! But that's only one side.

Emotion is good. To be afraid of feeling is not Christlike. Jesus was not afraid to feel. He cried when Lazarus died—and when Jerusalem rejected salvation. What a tragedy that, just at the time churches were throwing emotion out as not intellectually respectable, Freud picked it up and recognized it as the driving force of life.

Emotion is good because a lack of it signals a lack of commitment. Only a thing that's dead has no feelings. Only the man who chooses no side can remain unemotional. If you are deeply commit ted to a given football team, you will desperately want them to win. You'll be emotional. How different you feel when you are watching two teams play, neither of which is important to you. Commitment engenders emotion. Emotion is good because it holds most people's attention better. The preacher must never neglect the intellectual in his congregation, but neither must he neglect the worshiper most readily, reached through his feelings. Actually, a wise use of emotion can help unite an audience, for people are a lot more alike in the way they feel than in the way they reason.

Balance is best. E. G. White suggests, "The object of preaching is not alone to convey information, not merely to convince the intellect. The preaching of the word should appeal to the intellect, and should impart knowledge, but it should do more than this. The words of the minister should reach the hearts of the hearers." 2

How can you best know the Pacific Ocean: by studying a map or by feeling beach sand under your feet and the ocean spray on your face? To really know the ocean you need both facts and feeling. How can you best know Christ: by studying the theology He taught or by getting the feeling of how He loved and treated people? To really know Christ you need both. A balance is best.

Balance is best because you must reach the whole person with the gospel. People who are to live the Christ-filled life need all the help they can get. Since the human both thinks and feels, the preacher gives the most help possible only if he addresses both his reason and his emotions. You have not spoken to the whole man until you do.

Balance is best because it leads to action—rational action. You may use logic to convince a man of your point of view. But emotion is required before he will act upon that conviction. Preaching that merely tells people what they ought to do is futile. Most already know what they ought to do. How do you move a listener's thinking from "ought to" to "want to"? Add emotion. People mainly do those things they feel like doing.

John Broadus asks, "Who expects to make soldiers charge a battery or storm a fortress without excitement? Many per sons shrink from the idea of exciting the feelings. It seems to be commonly taken for granted that whenever the feelings are excited, they are overexcited. But while ignorant people often value too highly, or rather too exclusively, the appeal to their feelings, cultivated people are apt to shrink from such appeals quite too much. Our feelings as to religion are habitually too cold—who can deny it? And any genuine excitement is greatly to be desired. Inspired teachers have evidently acted on this principle. The prophets made the most impassioned appeals. Our Lord and the apostles manifestly strove not merely to convince their hearers, but to incite them to earnest corresponding action, and their language is often surcharged with emotion." 3

In balancing logic and emotion, chronology is critical. Logic should come first, emotion second. Thinking should precede feeling. Thinking should engender feeling. The preacher who begins his sermon emotionally finds it hard to lead his listeners from there to careful thinking. But the preacher who begins by leading his audience into careful thinking finds that thinking can naturally lead to feeling.

The preacher's own temperament tempts him to neglect the very area that would most help him. The emotional preacher doesn't work hard enough to give his sermons the logical emphasis they need most. The scholarly person thinks emotion is beneath him. Actually, the more a preacher uses logic, the more he can use emotion. The more masculine and intellectual person can be freer to express emotion.

James Stalker observes, "It is certainly remarkable when you begin to look into the subject, how often we see St. Paul in the emotional mood, and even in tears. In his famous address to the Ephesian elders he reminded them that he had served the Lord among them with many tears, and again, that he had not ceased to warn everyone night and day with tears. It is not what we should have expected in a man of such intellectual power. But this makes his tears all the more impressive. When a weak, effeminate man weeps, he only makes himself ridiculous, but it is a different spectacle when a man like St. Paul is seen weeping; because we know that the strong nature could not have been bent except by a storm of feeling." 4

Using emotion In preaching

You have been trained to be logical. But who has dared help you know how to make the best use of emotions in your pulpit? Let's try. As you have read to this point, you may have been thinking of the emotional preacher as one who shouts or cries a lot or tells "tear-jerker" stories. But you may use less extreme and more workable ways to engender pathos:

1. Be Life-oriented. William J. Tucker tells this story on himself. Early in his ministry he preached a sermon that he expected to be quite effective. It fell miserably flat, and he was devastated. But he did something that preachers ought to do more often—he went to a discerning friend in the audience and asked what had gone wrong. Tucker says his friend gave him the best criticism he ever received: " 'You seemed to me,' he said, 'to be more concerned about the truth than about men.'" 5

Sermons often answer questions nobody is asking. Jesus knew better. He did not unravel long passages from the law or the prophets, then look around for some contemporary application. He began where the people were. He showed how truth works in life.

Phillips Brooks likens most preaching to delivering lectures on medicine to sick people. The lecture may be good, it may even be helpful, but the preacher's real business is healing rather than just lecturing. Brooks comes down hard on preaching that has no direct relationship to life. Speaking of the notion that faith consists in the believing of propositions, he says, "Let that heresy be active or latent in a preacher's mind, and he inevitably falls into the vice which people complain of when they talk about doctrinal preaching. He declares truth for its own value and not with direct reference to its result in life," 6

2. Be audience-oriented. The listener's emotions are invariably touched when the sermon relates to (1) life in general and (2) his own beliefs or needs in particular.

If, for example, your listener strongly believes in the atonement, any reference to Christ's death for him will grip and move him. You can engender emotion by appealing to basic beliefs.

In his pulpit the preacher should begin with the needs of his people. In his study, however, he should begin with the Bible's truths—otherwise he has no real answers to his people's problems. But once he has thoroughly researched his passage or subject in the Word, once he has found what he believes to be truth, he must sit back and think through how that truth meets the needs of his congregation. He must run through his mind the young, the old, the sick, the lonely in his audience. He must ask how he can present this truth to meet each need.

You touch feelings when you show the listener that your key fits the lock of his own private door. One of the most flattering results of preaching is the question the little boy asked when Spurgeon preached. Turning to his mother, he whispered, "Mother, why does that preacher keep speaking to me?"

3. Be careful of humor. The preacher needs a sense of humor, but seriousness must always prevail in the pulpit. A sense of humor reveals the preacher's humanness and proves emotional maturity. The minister who cannot laugh now and then at life will likely be defeated by it. Yet when you are preaching, you are teaching people who are hanging over a precipice. It's hardly a laughing matter. You must not become known as the funnyman. People don't feel the need of the community comic when their baby dies or their marriage collapses.

Brooks suggests a type of humor that fits the pulpit and one that doesn't: "People sometimes ask whether it is right to make people laugh in church by something that you say from the pulpit as if laughter were always one invariable thing. . . . The smile that is stirred by true humor and the smile that comes from the mere tickling of the fancy are as different from one another as the tears that sorrow forces from the soul are from the tears that you compel a man to shed by pinching him." 7

4. Be hopeful. Use of the negative to establish need is perfectly proper—especially early in the sermon. No one appreciates salvation until he first knows for sure he's a sinner. But preaching should always be more positive than negative. It should emphasize hope. Most people don't have to come to church to know they're sinners. But they may have to come to know there's hope. John Edgar Park affirms, "It is clear that mere scolding is out of place in the pulpit. Under a rain of denunciation most modern hearers put up their umbrellas and let the drip run onto their neighbor's shoulders." 8

Nearly all the most successful preachers have accentuated the positive. Study model sermons and the biographies of great preachers. Almost always their preaching emphasized hope. One can also see this in contemporary Christianity. Whatever else Norman Vincent Peak and Robert Schuller may offer their listeners, they always leave them thinking there is hope—and people flock to hear them preach. On the other hand, if one persists in handing out stones when people ask for bread, they will eventually quit coming to the bakery. One best overwhelms evil not by focusing on the bad but on the good. "Whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things" (Phil. 4:8). Protests may stop wrong action, but proposals are necessary to initiate right action. Why do preachers overemphasize the negative? That kind of preaching is easier—it requires less thinking. Evil abounds; one can easily find it. One must work hard to find positive answers to life's problems. Anybody can tear a house down. It takes skill to build one.

Our preaching can also become negative because of our personal frustrations in the ministry. What minister does not sometimes become a bit disappointed, or even bitter, over his congregation's lack of commitment to Christ and involvement with the church? If we get a little secret enjoyment from shaming people for their sins, look out! It may mean we're feeling more anger than love in our hearts for our people. We're not spiritually prepared to talk with our people about their sins unless it almost breaks our hearts, Charles Reynolds Brown cautioned, "If a man is accustomed to pray for half an hour over his sermon he preaches on the love of God, he had better pray for an hour and a half when he is to preach on the fate of the wicked." 9

The Lord lays upon no man a message that will discourage and dishearten his congregation. Don't send your people home on flat tires. Touch positive emotions by preaching hope.

5. Be enthusiastic. Never has so much truth been preached with so little passion as in our day. Enthusiasm moves people. In fact, they will believe an enthusiastic half-truth before a boring truth. Hitler spoke error enthusiastically, and nearly a whole nation followed him.

An old European church long known for its uninspired sermons has this inscription over its pulpit: "Though he be dead, yet he speaketh." Those words would fit over too many pulpits today, and congregations don't like it. Preacher, be fired with enthusiasm, or you may be fired, with enthusiasm.

Brooks called enthusiasm the breath of life and said, "The real power of your oratory must be your own intelligent delight in what you are doing." 10 But don't pretend enthusiasm. You can't put it on like a pulpit robe. Don't try and make the fire burn in the pulpit if it has not been lighted in the study. That fire is lighted in your study when you open your Bible and bend your knees.

Black preaching has something to say to the rest of us. One black preacher described his sermon preparation in this way: "You read yourself full, you think yourself clear, you pray yourself hot, and you let yourself go." Halford E. Luccock suggests, "There is wisdom worth noting in the child's description of a tiger, recorded by A. A. Milne, that 'he always seems bigger because of his bounces." There are restrained bounces in speaking which can be used of the Lord. I was impressed several years ago that Eugene Ormandy dislocated a shoulder while leading the Philadelphia orchestra. I do not know what they were playing. . . . But at any rate, he was giving all of himself to it! And I have asked myself sadly, 'Did I ever dislocate anything, even a necktie?'" 11

I have come to believe that the preacher has no right to expect his listeners to be more than about half as enthusiastic over his sermon as he is. The good news is that, within limits, as his enthusiasm increases so does theirs. Don't you want your congregation to feel enthusiasm? Then preach enthusiastically.

6. Be compassionate. Compassion is a delightful word. I like it better than sympathy. While sympathy can mean to look down tenderly, to feel pity toward, compassion means to feel with. You get close to people by letting them know that you know how they feel and that you feel with them.

Jesus was compassionate. Several times the Gospels speak of His feeling compassion. "But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion" (Matt. 9:36). "And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them" (chap. 14:14). People turned Jesus on. That's one of the signs of a great preacher. Compassion led Him to feed people (chap. 15:32), help people (chap. 20:34), touch people (Mark 1:41), and comfort people (Luke 7:13).

Have we forgotten the way Jesus worked? From high up on the fortress wall of our solid and correct theology we shout down to the people that Christ loves them. It's all very true, very important—and very ineffective. Until the Christian preacher convinces his people that he loves them, how will he ever convince them that Christ does? Stay so close to Christ that He can teach you how to love your people; then preach with compassion.

Preacher, just where do you stand on this logic versus emotion continuum? Do you stand where Jesus stood? Or are you just drifting with the instincts of your personality, oblivious to the needs of your audience?

Suppose that I want to try sailing. Renting a boat and a rudder, I launch out into the lake. I position the rudder so as to head me precisely in the direction I want to go. There I sit in complete control going absolutely nowhere. Paddling back to the dock I explain that I want action and would like to trade the rudder in for a sail. Back on the lake my grandest hopes are immediately realized. My sail catches the wind, and suddenly I'm racing across the water right into the rocks on the far shore. To sail successfully you cannot choose between rudder and sail. You must have both.

In preaching, logic is the rudder, emotion is the sail. You must have both.

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W. Floyd Bresee, Ph.D., is director of continuing education for the Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

March 1984

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