Greek for preachers: logos, ethos, pathos

If you are a preacher who has studied Greek at some point, the title of this post will either have your heart racing with excitement as you anticipate some etymological discussion or your heart sinking into your boots with painful memories of failed vocabulary tests and botched translations.

Let me temper both extremes lest the enthusiasts are disappointed and the timid are tempted to skip the article.

The only bits of Greek in the article are the three terms in the title.

Some of you may know that these terms are drawn from Aristotle’s work on rhetoric. Several years ago they were part of a major study of people who listen to preaching. Several books, including Ronald Allen’s Hearing the Sermon: Relationship, Content, Feeling, and a number of other publications resulted from the project.

In the study, logos basically represents the content and ideas of a message; ethos represents how the listener perceives the character of the preacher; pathos represents the feelings generated by the sermon.

Using these three categories, the researchers set out to identify what listeners found to be engaging or disengaging about preaching. Do listeners find the sermon’s ideas engaging? How does their perception of the character of the preacher affect their listening? What is the impact of feelings generated by the sermon?

They discovered that about 40% of listeners connect primarily through logos, 40% through ethos and 20% through pathos. Using the analogy of a mixing board, each of the three categories can be thought of as a setting through which a listener processes the sermon.

While not everyone agrees with the use of these three Aristotelian categories to analyse preaching, and while biblical preaching ought not to be reduced to mere rhetoric, there are, nonetheless, some useful observations for preachers.

Here are a couple:

  1. We need to be aware that different people listening to us will listen in different ways and will connect with our communication in different ways. Most people will combine all three modes, but the study suggests that everyone has a preference. If we are going to communicate effectively with all of our listeners, we need to give attention to each of the ‘settings’.
  2. We should be aware of the strengths (and weaknesses) of our own preaching. Some are best when it comes to the content, argument and logic of a message. For others, their strength lies more in the integrity and personal warmth that enable them to connect with their listeners. For others, it is the ability to stir the emotions.

Beyond all this, of course, we preachers need to remember that we are not left to this task on our own. Our job is not merely to construct a clever presentation of our own ideas; it is to communicate the message of the written word of God. That word is a living and life-giving word. The same Holy Spirit through whom that written word was breathed is present to give clarity and revelation as we preach.

Preachers: what do you think? Is this something you have been aware of? Do you take account of it as you prepare and preach?

By the way, if you are more a listener than a preacher of sermons, now that you have a bit more insight into the process of preaching and listening, why not do the preachers you know (and yourself) a favour and take a minute to pray for them as they go about their preparation this week!

PS – If you’d like to do a bit more reading around this, take a look at – Listening to Listeners: Five Years Later.

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