Persuasive preaching

Preaching that depends on God's Spirit is the way around the pitfalls of manipulation to positive, persuasive power.

After a career as a military chaplain (most recently as Rear Admiral and Chief of Navy Chaplains), Barry C. Black now serves as Chaplain to the United States Senate.

Some assert that preaching has little to do with secular theories of persuasion. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard believed that secular theories of persuasion form an inadequate approach to preaching because the goals of rhetoric and preaching are different. Kierkegaard advocated his own approach to preaching, called “edifying discourse.”

Although the goals of rhetoric and preaching may differ, preachers can learn much from both the secular and spiritual laws of persuasion. Sometimes, as Jesus asserted, “the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light” (Luke 16:8).1

Bertrand Russell once said, “What is distinctively human at the most fundamental level is the capacity to persuade and be persuaded.”2 Any preacher who fails to realize how the laws of persuasion can enhance his or her preaching may miss a great opportunity.

We attempt to wield influence in several ways. One way is power, which often involves force, threats, and commands. Second, we may seek to use negotiation, trading, exchanging, or haggling. Superior to both of these is persuasion, which involves communicating with others in a way that induces them to think or act differently voluntarily. God bless the preacher who learns to persuade.

At least 13 laws of persuasion provide substantive ministry tools: ethos, pathos, logos, agora, syzygy, reciprocity, contrast, friends, expectancy, consistency, scarcity, power, and spirit. The first four come from Aristotle’s wonderful book, Rhetoric. The other nine have been discussed for years by people who study the nature of persuasion.

The law of ethos

The law of ethos refers to the character of the messenger. Nothing can substitute for the moral authority that comes when people perceive that our words are backed by deeds. We have all witnessed what happens when a great preacher loses his or her reputation. Godliness draws and persuades. Edgar Guest put it this way: “I’d rather see your sermon than hear it any day.”3

The law of pathos

Pathos refers to the preacher’s awareness of motives, feelings, and attitudes, and his or her knowledge of the audience. We should know our congregation and have an awareness of the fact that we speak to multiple concerns. Someone once observed that if in your sermon you seek to speak to broken hearts, you’ll never lack people who will listen.

The law of logos

Are our sermon points and moves logical, coherent, and cogent? Too many preachers focus on the gravy, forgetting that good meat makes its own gravy. Appropriate logos means always having something substantive to communicate.

The law of agora

Agora is a gathering place, especially the marketplace in ancient Greece. The preacher who is aware of agora will be sensitive to the venue, the setting, the culture, and the timing of the worship experience. I would preach differently at the United States’ presidential retreat at Camp David than I might at a general church gathering.

The law of syzygy

Syzygy, a word from astronomy, refers to the rare alignment of celestial bodies, such as the sun, moon, and earth, during an eclipse. One of our persuasion goals should be to properly combine and balance key persuasive elements. For example, it is possible to have excessive logos and a deficiency in ethos. You may have too much pathos and not enough ethos. Effective persuaders properly align persuasion elements.

The law of reciprocity

This law simply states that when someone gives you something of perceived value, you usually respond with a desire to give something back. I saw this at T. D. Jakes’ Potters House Church in Dallas, Texas, USA. When three friends and I arrived at the sanctuary, greeters came and asked, “Is this your first visit?”

“Yes, it is,” we responded.

Because we were first-time visitors, we were handed a shopping bag filled with sermon tapes, books, and other helpful resources. Then we were led to a preferred seating area and received special recognition during the service.

What was the impact? When the offering plate was passed, I found myself in a very generous mood. Moreover, my heart seemed even more eager to receive the sermon. Implementing the reciprocity principle can enhance our preaching and worship.

The law of contrast

This law declares that when two items are relatively different from each other, we will see them as more different if they are placed together in time and space.

For example, I wanted to attend a preaching seminar that would have cost me a significant part of my monthly salary. The coordinator, however, made a one-time offer of the video for the same seminar for about one-fourth that amount. If I had been told about the video offer first, the price would have seemed quite high. But when I knew this valuable information was available for a fraction of what it would cost to attend the workshop, it seemed like a bargain. This illustrates the law of contrast. Find ways of incorporating it into your preaching and worship.

The law of friends

When someone asks us to do something, and we believe that person has our best interests in mind, it motivates us to want to fulfill his or her request.

Many years ago I worked in an evangelistic series with a wonderful woman named Mildred. She worked as a Bible instructor helping people make a decision for baptism. Eleven other Bible instructors helped, but I noticed a difference: Mildred’s people were drawn to her outgoing, affectionate personality. She called them “my people.”

At the end of a 12-week series, more than 250 people were baptized. Nearly half of those were on Mildred’s list. She skillfully used the law of friends.

The law of expectancy

The law of expectancy asserts that we tend to fulfill the expectations of those whom we trust or respect.

I recently discovered this when I made an appeal for accepting Jesus after a sermon. After I left the pulpit and moved down to the lower level, many people came forward to meet me at the altar. The power of this law is one of the reasons for the placebo effect. When people are given a sugar pill from someone they respect, they often feel better, although no medical reason can be given. It’s the law of expectancy.

The law of consistency

When a person announces that he or she is taking a position on any point of view, he or she will strongly tend to defend or follow through on that commitment. This law of consistency is used in evangelistic preaching. When people sign a commitment card for baptism and bring a baptismal bundle containing clothing for the service, they nearly always follow through with their decision.

The law of scarcity

If people think that something they want is limited in quantity, they believe that the value of that item is greater than if it were available in abundance. In evangelistic meetings, we give away free tickets because of limited seating. As it happens, suddenly the tickets take on enormous value to those who find they can’t attend. This occurrence is best illustrated by the phenomenon of “ticket scalping” for sold-out concerts or sporting events. The price of the ticket is fueled by its scarcity.

The law of power

People are drawn to those they perceive to have greater authority, strength, or expertise. In the Old Testament, a priest had special attire that symbolized his authority. I discovered during my navy career that with each promotion and increase in responsibility, people more positively responded to my preaching because of the perceived power associated with my new positions.

The law of the Spirit

This is the most important of the laws. Without it the others flounder.

The prophet Zechariah referred to it: “So he said to me, ‘this is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord Almighty’” (Zech. 4:6). The apostle Paul alluded to the law of the Spirit: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2:1–5).

Obviously, Paul possessed ethos, pathos, logos, agora, syzygy, and other persuasive gifts. He did not lean on them, but he trusted the law of the Spirit. He seemed to have discovered that only God’s Spirit can convert sinners, promote holiness, and comfort the sorrowful.

The call to humility

To activate the law of the Spirit, we must first cultivate a spirit of personal lowliness. Paul put it this way to the believers in Corinth: “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3).

One young pastor preached his inaugural sermon at his new church. After ascending the staircase to the pulpit with his head high, he discovered he had brought the wrong notes. He attempted to deliver his prepared message without notes and failed miserably.

Descending the pulpit, his eyes cast downward, the rookie pastor was greeted by an old sister, who offered some sage advice. “Son,” she said with a smile, “if you had gone up like you came down, you would have come down like you went up.”

Cultivate a spirit of personal lowliness, for Proverbs reminds us, “. . . humility comes before honor” (18:12). God’s Spirit gravitates toward those who have contrite hearts.

Reject the ornate

The persuasive preacher who permits God’s Spirit to lead him or her rejects the fancy and sensational. Paul said, “I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God” (1 Cor. 2:1). It seems that Paul learned on Mars’ Hill (Acts 17) the limitations of eloquence.

Like Paul, John Wesley rejected the ornate and fanciful. Tradition records that he read his sermons to his maid and changed the words she had difficulty understanding.

Master one subject

In George Lucas’s film Star Wars, during the Death Star trench run, we hear the character Obi-Wan Kenobi tell Luke Skywalker to “use the force.” The persuasive “force” for the Christian minister is the power of Calvary to convict and convince. Preachers must, therefore, master that one subject, thereby using the force of the law of the Spirit. Paul put it this way: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

The great British preacher Charles Spurgeon was once asked by a young preacher, “Sir, how can I improve my sermons?”

Spurgeon paused as he slowly responded, “Son, no matter where you start in your sermon, head as quickly as you can across country to Calvary.”4

Calvary brings magnetism. Jesus said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all [people] to myself” (John 12:32). Christ-centered preaching that depends on God’s Spirit is the way around the pitfalls of manipulation to positive, persuasive power.

1 Bible texts in this article are quoted from the New International Version.

2 See Gary Owen, “Gore vs. Bush: Why It’s All Greek to Me,” Kennedy School of Government Bulletin,
Autumn 2000, 14.

3 Leroy Elms, Lost Art of Disciple Making (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978), 102.

4 Referred to by Gardner C. Taylor in Edward L. Taylor, ed., The Words of Gardner Taylor: Lectures, Essays, and Interviews, (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2001), 5:116.




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After a career as a military chaplain (most recently as Rear Admiral and Chief of Navy Chaplains), Barry C. Black now serves as Chaplain to the United States Senate.

January 2006

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