Preaching alive

It's Sabbath morning; you're ten minutes into your sermon.

Willmore D. Eva is the former editor of Ministry Magazine.

It's Sabbath morning; you're ten minutes into your sermon. The congregation is with you, but as you transition to your next point, eyes that had been fixed in your direction shift away. Fingers fidget. Feet shuffle.

You've lost them.

What causes this well-known scenario? Some of the answer, I think, has to do with the use of feeling and emotion in preaching.

My daughter Amy is gearing up to write a Ph.D. dissertation in the field of literature. Part of her work involves the role of feeling or emotion in the interpretation, understanding, and appreciation of poetry. She has already documented how the strategy of identifying and then entering into the feelings in a given piece of poetry can powerfully engage students. Through this method, a teacher can capture the attention of students who, otherwise, might have considered the chip of verse in front of them as an imposed trek into some meaningless mental stratosphere.

There's clearly a legitimate link between this approach to poetry and our preaching. We must need to develop an eye or ear for the feelings inherent in the verses we are expounding. We must, ourselves, feel the feelings that flow from the text; only then can we communicate those feelings as we preach.

Take the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19). A preacher can say all kinds of good, rational things about this story, but when he or she gets into the apparent deep hungers of this little man, into the impulses of the crowd, and into the emotions of Jesus as he sees Zacchaeus, then the story comes to life.

But how does one get hold of such things in the text, and do it legitimately?

One must enter the story as completely as possible, and prayerfully ask questions such as, Is there anything aside from the shortness of Zacchaeus that makes him do as odd and embarrassing a thing as to run ahead and climb a tree? What might he feel as he does so (verse 4)? Why the running and why the climbing of that particular tree? Does the climbing depict anything about the inside of the man that at first may not be obvious? What is going on in the soul of this man as he runs and climbs? What are his desires hopes and dreams, as suggested in the text? How might he have felt about his shortness, and the obvious need to compensate for it? And later in the story, what actually passes between this little man and Jesus as Jesus reaches the spot and looks up at him in the tree? These are just a few suggestive, feeling-related questions we might ask as we prepare to preach on a passage such as this one.

There is another crucial, more noted role for emotion in preaching. It has to do with how the preacher actually feels about the Lord. More specifically, it has to do with the preacher's actual feelings about what he or she is proclaiming.

Every sermon needs a certain "vision" to drive it. By nature, effective preaching does not allow for a stale or stunted vision. When the preacher's vision of Truth has gotten tired, when it has become commonplace and stereo typed and worn and threadbare and musty and shopworn; when it's archaic, outmoded and bygone in his soul, when to her it ends up contrived or staged, inevitably the sermon comes out flat, banal, and empty.

It is impossible for effective, communicative preaching to live without a fresh, felt vision. Effective preaching is ruthless in demanding objective and emotional congruence between text and testimonial, between the point and its proclamation.

I used to wonder about the unpredictability of a sermon's outcome as I preached. Then I realized that how well I preached on Sabbath was directly related to how deeply I felt about what I was saying. Now even before I get up to the pulpit, I almost intuitively know if I'm going to keep their attention or if, before long, eyes will wander and feet will shuffle . . .

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Willmore D. Eva is the former editor of Ministry Magazine.

December 2002

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