Is emotive preaching manipulative and wrong?

The first time I heard John Piper preach I didn’t like it. It was about fifteen years ago. Someone had given to me a cassette tape of Piper speaking on the topic of the supremacy of God in preaching, and in this particular message he stressed that the preacher’s delivery of the sermon should match the emotional gravity of the text. I disagreed with Piper, believing that he had embraced an anthropocentric view of the preacher’s task. As far as I was concerned, the Bible was the point of preaching not the preacher’s delivery. I didn’t understand how Piper could be so wrong.

At the time, I was in reaction against the vacuous emotionalism that I had encountered in the charismatic movement. I do not mean to say that all charismatics are vacuous. I’m only commenting on the little corner of the movement that I experienced in the early 90’s. The charismatics that I had been involved with were not gospel-centered, bible-saturated charismatics. On the contrary, they portrayed spiritual growth as moving from one emotional experience to the next. After a couple years of chasing such experiences, I became convinced that it was all vanity and that there had to be more to Christianity than this.

As a result of this experience, I sort of overreacted. I began to discount all religiously motivated emotion as manipulative and wrong. Thus emotive preaching and bible preaching were antonyms as far as I was concerned. Piper sounded to me like the charismatics that I was trying to get away from, and I didn’t want to hear from him anymore.

Fast forward a few years. I was in seminary and was reading Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections for the very first time. I became convinced that my former allergy to emotive religious expression was entirely wrong-headed. Edwards argued that “true religion” lies in “gracious affections.” In other words, true Christianity always results in a heart that is much-moved by the things of God. Emotions weren’t an optional add-on to the faith. They were part and parcel of all saving faith. I found that truth confirmed all over the Bible, but especially in the Psalms.

Edwards applied this insight to preaching, and this time I had ears to hear what I couldn’t receive from Piper. Edwards writes:

“If it be so, that true religion lies much in the affections, hence we may infer, that such means are to be desired, as have much of a tendency to move the affections. Such books, and such a way of preaching the Word, and administration of ordinances, and such a way of worshiping God in prayer, and singing praises, is much to be desired, as has a tendency deeply to affect the hearts of those who attend these means.” –Religious Affections, Yale edition, p. 122

In other words, Edwards is saying that preaching must be done in such a way as to move the hearts of listeners. Edwards’s belief in the sovereignty of God did not lessen his belief in means, but enhanced it. If God uses means, then sermon delivery matters. The preacher’s delivery should be compelling and emotive not disinterested and flat.

Is emotive preaching manipulative and wrong? No, not necessarily. When the Bible is the subject matter, the preacher cannot show indifference toward God’s truth. There must be some connection between the gravity of the text and the persona of the preacher.

That is what I learned from Jonathan Edwards many years ago, and it is what I am still learning today.

13 Responses to Is emotive preaching manipulative and wrong?

  1. David Rogers October 1, 2009 at 12:58 am #

    My hope is that preachers will tell the text of the Scriptures well. That is, I have heard far too many preachers either rush through the reading of the text or read it with such a flat tone that the Scripture text itself communicates hardly anything to the listener due to the poor means of reading it outloud. One should tell the text in accordance to the punctuation and with communicative emphasis on the words and phrases that a person without a copy of the Scripture before him or her can still understand what the Scripture is intending to communicate.

    Tell the text.

    Preach the sermon.

  2. Mike Aubrey October 1, 2009 at 1:13 am #

    Ironically, Edward read all of his sermons in a monotone voice…

  3. Mark October 1, 2009 at 1:15 am #

    Emotive preaching in the sense that the preacher is passionately delivering the message of the text truthfully so that the hearers will repent and believe the inspired message? Yes, absolutely. I think some of us Reformed/Calvinist Christians need to be more balanced and not think that biblical preaching is preaching through a text in a robotic fashion. If we truly believe the Word of God how can we but not feel strongly about it?

  4. Derek Taylor October 1, 2009 at 9:47 am #

    Great post. I come from a charismatic background and completely agree with the need to find a balance and also to reject manipulation. There needs to be a certain amount of natural passion and enthusiasm that is conveyed when we preach, teach or share the “passion story”. If there isn’t, people might be correct to question whether we actually understand or believe what we’re actually telling people about. The Gospel is either the greatest story ever told or it is a cruel hoax.

  5. David Rogers October 1, 2009 at 10:01 am #

    I have heard that Edwards delivered his sermons in a monotone. I’m not doubting that claim, but I would be interested in the specific reference to that information.

    I am making a distinction between the telling/reading of the Scripture text and the preaching of the sermon. I have also heard an affected “telling” of the text which exaggerates the text (e.g. saying “Gaw-duh” for “God”, and rhythmically ending every breath with an “-uh”).

    I would hope that a preacher’s telling of the Scripture text would be truly incarnational (cognitive+emotional) falling somewhere between Gnostic/robotic and Broadway musical overdramatic.

  6. Ronjour Locke October 1, 2009 at 1:43 pm #

    It’s sad that most people flock to the highly emotional “preachers” because of their emotionalism and because they sense that taking people through texts is boring. This criticism could be because of itching ears (2 Tim. 4), but we shouldn’t use that as an excuse. It could be that we are failing to fully communicate what God has said because we have divorced the emotive force of the text from the message. I pray that we would be faithful not just to the letter, but also to the heart of the Scriptures. This is

  7. David October 1, 2009 at 2:41 pm #

    Here’s a selection of Jonathan Edward’s that I recall John Piper quoting on several different occasions (the link is http://awurl.com/L1OD2MdVf):

    “I don’t think ministers are to be blamed for raising the affections of their hearers too high, if that which they are affected with be only that which is worthy of affection, and their affections are not raised beyond a proportion to their importance, or worthiness of affection.

    I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.”

    I think this is true, and seems to be what you are expressing.

    David

  8. Steve Schueren October 1, 2009 at 8:38 pm #

    It’s interesting to hear you say that you “sort of overreacted” when it came the emotional component of Christianity in the early 90’s. Same here. And same man was used by God to help me see more clearly their “God-giveness” and design: John Piper. I thank God for putting Dr. Piper into my life.

  9. Matthew Staton October 1, 2009 at 9:05 pm #

    Interesting. This is a side thought but I think genre is part of being fair to the text. This is relevant because intended affect is not separate from genre choice. If the passage is a story with an ironic twist, a sense of irony is appropriate to pass along. If the passage contains some sense of sarcasm or humor or fear or relief or condemnation, etc., the preacher is right to convey that emotion through his inflection and his own emotions.

    Example: Ruth just happened into Boaz’s field (during the time of the judges, a wild west sort of time). The preacher ought to communicate the subtle sense of irony, the emphasis on the “blind chance” of her “just happening” on this field of all fields, during this dangerous time, given her vulnerable social situation. It just so happened…

    This probably affects OT stories and oracles and such more than NT epistles but even the epistles were letters from a person to other people and have passages which convey deep feelings.

  10. Mark Hollingsworth October 1, 2009 at 11:16 pm #

    I think there should be a good Biblical balance. And if the Lord through his Holy Spirit is involved in the preparation and in the delivery and in the hearing, emotion will most certainly be involved to some degree.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Blessings,
    Mark

  11. Denny Burk October 1, 2009 at 11:48 pm #

    David (in #7),

    Great quote. The link you posted is broken, but here’s the correct one: http://edwards.yale.edu/archive?path=aHR0cDovL2Vkd2FyZHMueWFsZS5lZHUvY2dpLWJpbi9uZXdwaGlsby9nZXRvYmplY3QucGw/Yy4zOjY6MTUud2plbw==.

    Blessings!
    Denny

  12. threegirldad October 5, 2009 at 1:59 pm #

    David Rogers wrote:

    I have heard that Edwards delivered his sermons in a monotone. I’m not doubting that claim, but I would be interested in the specific reference to that information.

    Here’s one source that regards this claim as highly unlikely.

  13. mark October 8, 2009 at 9:49 am #

    I’d rather read a sermon by Piper than hear it.

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