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If like me you have ever made a donation to a political candidate or party, then you know that your reward is a daily deluge of fundraising emails from all kinds of people and for all kinds of politicians of whatever party you supported. Every day in my Inbox I get emails “from” the President and former presidents, senators and former senators, celebrities and sports figures and whoever else the party in question pressed into fundraising service. Basically I delete them all without looking at them and am generally not tempted to open one on the odd chance (the exceedingly odd chance) Barack Obama is actually sending me a personal note. (Though I think he owes me one!) You may get emails from a different party than I do, but I’ll bet they look the same.
One thing I have observed, however, is that these emails use every trick to get your attention and thereby, it is hoped, your money. There seems to be a lot of psychology at play in how this goes. You can detect this just by the titles of the emails without even having to open them.
So at the top of the hour you may get an email with the title “NEW POLL: We Are Overjoyed!” Half an hour later (and probably from the same source) you will get an email that says “NEW POLL: We Are Weeping!” Or one email will say “BIDEN RESIGNING?” followed some while later with a different one titled “BIDEN SOARING!” The email titled “OVER THE MOON!” may be followed by “HEARTBROKEN!” Then there are the guilt-inducers: “Scott, Is This Goodbye?” “Scott, Why Are You Ignoring Us?” And then my favorite in that it always elicits my doing this very thing: “Please Don’t Delete!”
But since I spend the bulk of my time not deleting political emails but instead thinking about preaching, I tend to connect most things I observe in life with preaching (sometimes with good results, sometimes with strained results). All of us who are engaged in public communication and speech and preaching know that there is a long tradition in oral rhetoric that traffics in the neighborhood of persuasive speech. Take any college or university speech class worth its salt and you will surely be asked at some point to compose and deliver a persuasive speech. In the wider world, no doubt there are many tools in the “persuasive speech” toolkit. A good many of them are on display in those email titles I just shared. There are scare tactics and tactics designed to sweep you up in a happy feeling. There is guilt manipulation and attempts to shame you into action. And there are words designed for sheer shock value.
Perhaps in the wider world of rhetoric, each of these is considered legitimate and effective on its own merit. For politicians as for people designing ad campaigns for products, if a given approach works, use it. And since different people are wired to respond in different ways to different approaches, sometimes you throw out a scare tactic as that motivates some but then follow it with a more positive approach as others get excited and so are motivated that way. Some respond to guilt, others don’t. Same goes for shame: it bothers some of us and others of us less so if at all. So throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.
But what about preaching? Should the “anything goes” rules of oral rhetoric generally be equally acceptable for what preachers say from the pulpit? My own sense is that the answer to that question needs to be No. There are ways to communicate the Gospel that accord with the core message of that Good News and there are rhetorical approaches that undercut that message. Clearly this was something Paul worried about in the earliest days of the church. Consider these words from 1 Corinthians 2:
When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God . . . My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power (NIV).
Paul was frequently concerned with being seen as manipulative or relying on worldly forms of rhetoric that were no doubt well known in the Graeco-Roman world. The Gospel needed its own form of Spirit-driven rhetoric that relied above all on the power of God through Christ.
In short, proper pulpit speech is grace speech in service of a message that must always and again be fundamentally a proclamation of Good News. Although preachers need to talk about sin, few people have ever felt penetrated by Good News if the sermon slathered them up with guilt manipulation. Shaming someone into following Jesus may or may not work but it for certain undercuts a spirit of joy and hope that preaching ought to foment. Trying to scare the hell out of someone rarely succeeds in scaring the heaven into them. And I hope it goes without saying that plastic rhetoric and displaying faux piety is no way to encourage conformity to Christ who is himself the embodiment of “grace and truth.”
Those of us who listened to the recent Christianity Today podcast “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” heard many excerpts of Mark Driscoll’s preaching that properly elicited a shudder. Crude humor, offensive language, outbursts of (alleged) anger, belittling people, shaming people, using tactics of guilt manipulation: all of it undercut the Good News because such speech is the opposite of the joy and hope the Spirit would have us proclaim. Make no mistake: for a long while this worked for Driscoll. People responded to it. That, however, is beside the point.
We live in a culture that says that no matter what we do in life, just go with “Whatever Works.” But for those of us who must constantly ponder our rhetoric in the pulpit, that anything goes approach will most surely not in the long run serve the Gospel or Christ Jesus very well.
Thanks, Scott, for your thoughts on gospel persuasion, especially as proclaimed by ministers of the word, your area of expertise. I think “fear” has been the most prominent method used over the course of Christian history. We have examples such as Jonathan Edwards, who accused his audience of being sinners in the hands of an angry God. And more currently (even in Reformed churches) is the Kennedy approach of “if you should die and stand before God and he should ask, why should I let you into my heaven, what would you say?” The whole idea of heaven and hell is at the heart of the Christian scare tactic. And if the minister or church member is lucky enough to persuade the sinner to convert, you had better be careful to guard your bankroll, because the church will want a good share of that. And yes, the deacons (along with the minister) have their own methods of persuasion. So tell us, Scott, how to persuade generally good people that they’re going to hell if they don’t buy into the Christian gospel?