Preaching with Emotional Impact

As mentioned previously, thinking about God is required if we are to love God. As preachers we do not want to foster cold, heartless thinking. Rather, we want our people to think emotionally. We want our preaching to inflame the passions of our people for the heart of God. Prime and Begg make a distinction between the intellectual target of teaching and the emotional/behavioural target of preaching:

In teaching we aim to give people an understanding of God’s truth. Beginning often with the first principles of a doctrine, we will make sure that people grasp it as best they can in all aspects. Then in preaching we make an appeal to people’s wills, as well as to their emotions, to respond to the Word that they have now understood through teaching… Considerable harm may be done to people if they are called upon to act without first possessing a proper foundation in their understanding of that action. Many have made an emotional response to preaching, and have not understood afterward what they have done. That is irresponsible of the preacher and damaging to the hearers. Preaching at its best maintains a balance between teaching and preaching.[1]

Whether we make a clear definitive distinction between teaching and preaching, or we consider them to be two aspects of the preaching ministry, it is essential that we ensure that our ministry targets both the head and the heart in order to motivate the hands.

Just as it is wonderfully intellectual, the Gospel is deeply emotional. God created human beings in His image but we rebelled against God. This betrayal of our Creator ought to grieve our hearts. God became man and we brutally murdered Him by nailing Him to a Cross. The sheer violence of this act ought to affect our hearts, not to mention the aching realization that we killed the One who gave us life. The deep love of God, however, shines through all of this because it is while were still sinners and enemies of God that Christ died for us, the ungodly (Rom 5:6-8). It is important that we help our congregation to connect with the truth of the Gospel in an emotional way.

Unfortunately, familiarity breeds apathy. It is so easy to sanitize the Gospel of all emotion. It quickly becomes an emotionless transaction between us and God. The challenge for the preacher, therefore, is to continuously find ways to help the congregation to reconnect with the heart of God through the Gospel.

It is interesting to me that many in our pews will shudder at the thought of animal sacrifice, but sit easily through a description of Good Friday. This does not mean that these are bad or heartless people. It is simply an illustration to prove the point that we can quickly be desensitized to the most graphic violence simply through repetition. Since, however, animal sacrifice elicits such a strong reaction Leviticus 1-5 becomes the preacher’s ally, helping him to shock the congregation into a fresh emotional appreciation for the sacrifice of Christ. The near sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 is another example than can be used to show the deep love of God the Father, that He would sacrifice His only Son for us. There are many such examples throughout the Bible.

It is important that we, as Christians, do not grow cold in our hearts. Jesus warned the doctrinally committed Ephesian Church: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Rev 2:3-5). The works Christ refers to are works motivated by love, works fueled by emotion that had been stirred in them through the Gospel. Jesus does not want us to be doctrinally sound but emotionally cold. He wants us to be doctrinally sound and emotionally engaged with the heart of God.

More to the point, Christ desires his people to be moved in their affections so that our allegiance to Him is not coerced but rather wooed. As Piper says:

When God sends his emissaries (preachers) to declare, “Your God reigns.” his aim is not to constrain man’s submission by an act of raw authority; his aim is to ravish our affections with irresistible displays of glory. The only submission that fully reflects the worth and glory of the King is glad submission. Begrudging submission berates the King. No gladness in the subject, no glory to the King… When the kingdom is a treasure, submission is a pleasure.[2]

Our emotions help us to engage our lives submissively with joy. When our hearts dry up then our Christian journey becomes forced, stale, and bordering on counterfeit. Therefore, we must continually be renewed in our knowledge of God’s glory so that our love for God remains hot and our slavery to God remains freedom.

There is not one single way to impact the congregation emotionally. Every congregation is different and every preacher is different. Sparking an emotional response cannot be formulaic.  At the root, however, emotion that comes in response to preaching must be a response to nothing other than the Gospel and the Person of God. Indeed, the preacher must be careful not to hypnotize the congregation, and thus flush out emotion that is misplaced. That is, any emotion that does not flow from the believer’s response to the Gospel is not properly placed.  Music is a powerful means to prepare the heart to hear the Gospel. However, the abuse of music can cause a congregation to fall into a collective trance. A hypnotic trance is not the goal of biblical preaching. Preaching or praying over music, therefore, must be employed with tremendous care and wisdom. It cannot be said to be wrong one hundred percent of the time. However, if it is music alone that elicits an emotional response then the preacher has failed in both his means and his end.

The Bible contains the full range of human emotions and therefore every preaching text must be carefully studied to see which emotion ought to be tugged at by the sermon. Since all sermons find their climax in Christ, however, all sermons ought to have a ring of hope. Some preaching texts, such as texts from Judges 19 or Ezekiel 16, will cause despair and heavy heartedness. Therefore, the sermon ought to permit, yes even encourage (.), despair and heavy heartedness. However, the answer to these chapters is the hope we have in Christ. Therefore, take care to leave the congregation with hope, which leads to peace and joy.

Speaking about marriage, Ravi Zacharias writes: “Without the will, marriage is a mockery; without emotion, it is a drudgery. You need both.”[3] A similar comment could be said about preaching: Without the intellect, preaching is a mockery; without emotion, it is a drudgery. You need both. Indeed, Zacharias continues to develop his understanding of the relationship between the will and the heart concluding that they are inseparable. In marriage, the will creates a foundation for the heart and the heart fuels the will. So is the relationship between the intellect and emotion in preaching. Both are needed because each contributes to the other, thus safeguarding the impact of preaching from both mockery and drudgery.

[1] Begg and Prime, Pastor, 125-126.

[2] Piper, Glory, 25.

[3] Zacharias, Isaac & Rebecca, 30.

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