Preaching: Don’t Assert, Evoke

OK, it’s been a while since I’ve heard a sermon — not quite forty-eight hours — so I can write something about preaching that doesn’t apply to any particular recent homily.

Last time, I said, “Don’t write checks you can’t cash.” This morning’s admonition is less metaphorical: Don’t assert when you can evoke.

Often, unnervingly often, preachers will pull the sermon to a dead stop and tell the congregation that what they just said was noteworthy, startling, moving, or whatever. “His love is amazing.” “Stop and think about that.” Sometimes they tell the congregation how they ought to feel.

I vigorously support affective preaching, no question. The sermon should affect the congregation not by naming a feeling then stating that the congregation should feel it — that’s no more pertinent than when you might tell the person on whom you have a crush that they should love you, too. Ummm, if it ain’t already happening, then telling people to feel it won’t help.

The sort of preaching that seeps into people’s hearts, that changes the way they look at the world, involves bringing to the fore and articulating feelings that your listeners might not have understood in the way you’re suggesting. It involves showing them familiar sights with highlighting, with coloration, with particular sorts of reinforcement and emphasis, so that they make unfamiliar associations (associations that stick, intensified by the feelings that the service and the sermon evoke and heighten). Sermons that affect people in the soundest, truest ways bring truth (the deep truth, the truth that necessarily involves non-demonstrable, deeper-than-words truth that emerges from between, around the things you say explicitly) not by stating propositions and cajoling a congregation into assenting to them, but by providing the conditions that draw forth assent, even more than assent, affirmation or conviction.

Is that manipulative? Yes, in way. There’s no way on earth to stand up in front of a crowd and talk to them that doesn’t involve some sort of manipulation. Preachers imperil their congregations and themselves weekly; again, all the more reason to do this carefully, deliberately, and to do it toward the end of a considered (and intersubjective) truth. The rhetorical tradition through the ages recognizes the power of discourse, and the ethical problems that preaching, writing, oratory involve. We do not evade those problems by speaking off the cuff, saying just what occurs to us, submitting “just my perspective” on matters of transcendent importance. And it’s part of the reason I understand pacificism, non-coercion, to constitute a cardinal mark of the Christian tradition: our only claim to integrity rests in a transparent, free, visible connection to the truth. Otherwise, it’s all just more marketing hype. Evangelism as Super Bowl advertising.

If you want people to share a feeling of awe, or shame, or joy, or gratitude, you don’t just tell them to feel it — you construct the sermon so as to evoke that feeling. Careful composition puts more responsibility on the preacher, requires deliberation, entails a kind of attention to what you say and how it works. Most preachers shun that sort of craftsmanship (someone please come up with a duly gender-inclusive word for “craftsman”); it’s just plain hard. But if you won’t put in the effort to draw feelings out from the congregation, don’t bother just saying “Feel this.” You might as well start a career in stand-up comedy and tell your audience, “This is funny: laugh at it. C’mon, laugh!”

Travis says:

In your sentence with craftsmanship – how about artistic duty.

Most preachers shun that sort of “artistic duty”; it’s just plain hard.

I cant think of a gender neutral term. Oh well.



[“Artistic duty” opens the topic up, but it sounds a little different to me: more compulsory, less a matter of voluntary earnest diligence, attention to detail. And “artistic” risks invoking mystified associations of “inspiration” and “creativity” (however much I might insist that artistry involves the disciplined practice of a craft). I’ll keep working on it.]

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