A plea for balanced preaching

When I leave a church service, I ask myself the question: Which part of me need I not have brought here today?

Nearly thirty years ago Stuart Briscoe, the veteran preacher who seems to have discovered that 85 is the new 45, referred to this comment from Donald English. He went on to talk about preaching to the mind, to the will, and to the emotions.

I think the question is still valid: effective preaching needs to have a cognitive element (something to think about), an affective element (something to feel), and a volitional element (a course of action to follow).

It seems to me that the story of the reading of the Law in Nehemiah 8 illustrates this. The setting was Jerusalem, following the work to repair the city walls under the leadership of Nehemiah. At the request of the people, Ezra reads – at length – from the Book of the Law of Moses.

Cognitive: preaching to the mind

Nehemiah’s account of the reading notes the work of the Levites who helped the listeners to understand what was being read. Whether this was translation (from Hebrew to Aramaic), or interpretation (here is what this means), clearly they wanted to make sure that the minds of the listeners grasped what was being said.

Effective communication of God’s word does not need to bypass the mind. It certainly does not need to be pitched at a level that can only be reached by neuroscientists or astro-physicists, but it should be presented in such a way that it gives people something to thing about.

Affective: touching the emotions

The listeners in Nehemiah 8 were reduced to weeping. Doubtless they realised how far short of the standards set out in the Law they had fallen. Interestingly, they are told that that particular day is not a day for weeping, but they are to rejoice: in fact, ‘the joy of the Lord will be [their] strength’.

We are emotional beings. We don’t just think, we feel. We are not just head, we are heart. In fact, what we feel can often be more powerful than what we think. Perhaps its a fear of that that leads some of us to be leery of emotions, certainly of emotionalism.

Nonetheless, our emotions are part of us and preachers ought not to be fearful of them. Not that they should attempt to neglect the mind and preach purely at the emotions. There is a difference between an appropriate emotional reaction and being manipulated by a preacher with a repertoire of stories about labrador puppies and kittens!

But we should not regularly be leaving church without having some sense in which our emotions have been stirred.

Volitional: calling for action

Nehemiah 8 goes on to describe what happened on the day after the reading of the Law when various leaders came together for further study. They discovered the long-forgotten instructions about celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles. So they went off to celebrate the feast.

Homileticians tell us that application in preaching answers the questions, ‘So what?’ and ‘Now what?’ Biblical truth is not given merely to fill our heads or even merely to stir our emotions. It’s given to change our lives.

Old Testament prophets don’t restrict themselves to generalisations in their denouncements of sin. Jesus was not content to allow the rich ruler to escape with a general nod in the direction of most of the Law – he put his finger on the specific issue that was keeping him from eternal life. Paul balanced his doctrinal teaching with some very specific instruction on what it means to live out the Christian calling. The anonymous writer of Hebrews followed his ‘since’ with ‘let us’ (see chapter 10).

Simon Vibert (Excellence in Preaching,141). cautions against application that is overly vague and general.

Many preachers fall into the trap of ending their sermon with a general expression such as: “And may God help us to apply this to our lives today.” … a sermon should be applied much more specifically and directly than it often is, so that the congregation are not left wondering how to make personal and specific sense of the sermon in their own lives’.

Preachers will have their particular leaning or their particular blend of these three elements. Some of us are strongly didactic and our people never fail to have their minds stimulated and challenged. Some of us are ‘roll up your sleeves’ types whose listeners are really in doubt about what is required of them. Some of us may be master story-tellers and therapists for whom church is always an emotionally rich experience.

Whatever your strength, work to find a balance. Perhaps as part of your preparation you could ask how each of the three elements will be addressed in your sermon. Just make sure that no one is left justifiably asking the question at the top of the post!

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