A Friday Question – Emotive Preaching?

March 16, 2007

A couple of months back, I posted a Tim Keller sermon on “Workman Watch.” It generated a lot of interest, with an interesting discussion ensuing about the role of emotion in preaching.

J. Gary Ellison kicked things off when he wrote of Keller:

“Last year he spoke on the Gospel and Postmodernism at John Piper’s conference. His analysis was very good and Haddon Robinson speaks highly of him as being in touch and able to speak to contemporaries, so I wanted to hear him preach when I saw your analysis of his sermon. What I found difficult was the _apparent_ (underline apparent) lack of passion. His message was excellent, but there was a great difference in his level of ethos and that of David Martyn Lloyd-Jones whom he quotes in is lecture on postmodernism. I once heard Leo Buscaglia, a secular professor, speak with great passion and conviction that gripped me. Have I missed something here? Do we have to speak calmly to get a hearing with contemporaries?

My response was:

“Gary, that’s why I (personally) have an ever so slight preference for listening to the likes of Piper/MacArthur than Keller. For me, the former ‘convey’ a greater sense of passion as they deliver the solid content. That said, I’m always careful about this because preaching is ‘truth through personality.’ My impression is that Keller is a laid back kind of guy and therefore its no surprise that this translates into his preaching. Moreover, sometimes when I’ve heard Keller speak I’ve detected that he is excited about what he’s talking about. Of course, Keller’s passion won’t ‘look’ the same as Piper’s!”

Finally, Tim Keller himself (most graciously!) weighed in on the debate:

“I’m a little worried about the ‘passion’ statements. I don’t take them personally at all–not at all. But they may be a bit short-sighted. We all have different temperments and Rev A can feel something just as strongly as Rev B and yet not be as intense and dramatic in his outward expression of it. But keep in mind that a lot of secular people simply can’t hear the gospel very well when the speaker gets highly emotional. There’s room for a great range of temperments in preachers because there is such a great range of temperments in the listeners.”

So I’m interested – what do you all think? Does passion need to be evident? Or is it an evident turn-off to post-modern people?


  1. I listened to that same sermon from Keller. Perhaps we forget that earnestness and dry humor can be expressions of emotion also. My style is certainly not Kelleresque based on my Southern campmeeting background (you haven’t preached until your shirt is soaked through; air conditioning kind of ruined that measuring stick of preaching) so I am not arguing for his style over some other style. In fact, I was surprised to see Macarthur referred to as an emotional preacher (passionate yes, emotional no). The listener plays perhaps a huge role in the perception of emotion.

    But emotion is a significant part of the sermon. The gospel is a message appealing for a response from the mind, emotion, and will (indirect quote from Will Metzger’s “Tell the Truth”). In some the mind leads the other two. Emotions lead in other persons. The key is to appeal to the whole man with the Word.

  2. Passion must be evident. The people must be able to discern whether the preacher believes this message he is preaching.

  3. I think you must take into account the personality of the preacher. If a preacher tries to “be” somebody other than himself, I do not believe the message will be as effective.

    Preaching is interactive, and so the listeners will also shape the delivery to a certain extent. The same preacher may deliver the same message differently to two different audiences.

    Of course, we must believe in and care about what we preach. Otherwise we should just sit down. But how that conviction comes across will vary from preacher to message to setting. Perhaps clear conviction is a better measure than the level of observable passion.

  4. I think Ray is on the right track.

    I think everyone believes that what is truly necessary during preaching is a movement of the Spirit of God, and I don’t think that the Holy Spirit is necessarily tied to externally visible emotive passion.

    What the Holy Spirit is tied to is holiness and love in the preacher. I think there will certainly be occasions where even the most stoic preacher leaks out emotive passion, but simply because he does not do so on a regular basis, does not, I believe, in any way limit a powerful movement of God’s Spirit.

    Others would know better than me, but I understand that when Jonathan Edwards preached such sermons as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” he basically read them and would even stop reading from time to time in order to quiet the congregation down if they were getting too worked up. Certainly no one would accuse Jonathan Edwards of lacking the inner fire of the Spirit and everyone would admit that even his dry readings caused enormous movement of the Spirit.

    Basically what I’m saying is that the only thing that really matters is the internal presence of the Holy Spirit, not the external signs that can be associated with different individuals’ disposition.

  5. I think Keller’s point about different listener and different preacher temperaments is very interesting. Does this mean that we need to hear different preachers regularly, a mixed diet of sermon styles? This, if true, is a major challenge for most evangelical churches, especially those in a tradition of one church/one minister pastoral models. Perhaps the Brethern have been right all along?

  6. Dave,

    You may be interested to know that I asked Dr Keller this:

    “One question I do have though – if every congregation has a range of temperaments, do preachers at times need to adapt? Put another way: does every Keller need a bit of Piper in them (I’m stereotyping!), and every Piper a bit of Keller if they will reach the whole congregation?”

    Keller’s response was:

    “Colin–Yes and no. I agree that a preacher should try to do some adaptation. You can see Paul doing that in Acts. He most definitely changes his approach when speaking on Mars Hill rather than in a synagogue. But there’s a limit to how much you can adapt–at some point it becomes inauthentic, a kind of acting. So you may want to seek out people that you know God has gifted you to reach better than others. It’s a balance.”

  7. My observations, FWIW:

    1. The sermon Colin discussed was delievered by Keller as a guest preacher in a church that was not his home, and in a foreign country at that.

    2. The “sparky” comment in the thread on that blog post was based on Keller’s teaching at the DG National Conference in which he declared at the outset that he was going to try to be as practical as possible. So not a “typical preach”, either.

    On both those grounds it is safe to say that while one hears “genuine Keller” in both those talks, in neither of them do you hear him on his own turf to his own people. There are plenty of Redeemer sermons available for free download to get a sense for him “at home”. No, his voice isn’t raised like Piper’s, but there is no doubting the emotional intensity and quality of engagement as the Word is declared.

    Plenty more one could say! I’ll stop there. My 0.02p!

    David Reimer

  8. If Keller thinks a preacher should seek out people he can reach, should people find a church where the preaching fits their temperament? Or travel to different churches each week depending on their mood? I think the balance that Keller speaks about can only be found in a church when there is more than one person preaching and teaching regularly.

  9. This is a great question. Has anyone defined what we mean by passion? I think Keller is very passionate if I’m allowed to define it as “a clear and evident certainty that what he is preaching is absolutely true and authoritative”. By this definition, I don’t think one needs to adopt a certain volume, tone or intensity of speach in order to convey passion. One just needs to be resolute, unapologetic, clear, unambiguous.

  10. we are talking about people being expressive and emotional about their passion.

    that is not the same thing as being passionate.

    some people rate their worship to the amount of movement their body makes, it’s the same philosophy.

  11. Jesus said that he would have us to be hot or cold, but not lukewarm. Zeal for Christ’s sake and for the gospel is a virtue. However, we ought to have a proper understanding of zeal. Zeal and fervency are not emotions, but they are often accompanied by strong emotion. Strong emotion alone does not have much merit. Judas and Esau were with distraught with emotion but it did them no good (2 Cor 7:10, Heb 12:17).

    Emotion accompanying zeal and fervency are not a bad thing, but the preacher of the Lord ought to maintain control of himself as Stephen did. When the crowd was provoked to insane madness, he remained calm, a pillar, rooted and grounded in the truth.

    Even when John used such words as “Ye generation of vipers…” it should not be read that this great prophet was mad, foaming at the mouth and gnashing his teeth. Nay, rather I suggest it is the officious manner of the prophets that drove their opponents to madness and provoked them such that being weak through sin they were unable to control themselves.

    Outbursts of wrath, hatred, variance, emulations, and strife are the fruit of the flesh. Preaching in such a manner is fleshly. The word of God says, “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice.” He furthermore instructs us, “But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth.” Amen, amen, “For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.”

    Verily God is angry with the wicked every day, but we are not speaking of ourselves. Jesus said that he that speaks of his own seeks his own glory. Be we seek his glory that sent us. He has called us to rebuke, reprove, and exhort sinners and he instructs us — and we love the instruction of the Lord — “the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.”

    Whether we be passionate or emotional or not, as long as we are zealous ministers of reconciliation I am sure our work will be approved in the day it is revealed by fire. We do not speak of our own, but we represent the gospel as ambassadors. What we feel is not as important as what he feels that sent us.

  12. Let’s not forget the influence of cultural factors. Having grown up in the sub-culture of “Black America” and the “Black Church”, I have an appreciation for dramatic, intense, emotional preaching. The great thing about preaching in a more traditional Black Church setting is the intensity and passion with which the congregation can respond back to the preacher. They will let you know that they’re with you! I’ve learned, however, through my exposure to others from different backgrounds, to appreciate the calmer, more conversational tone in the pulpit. At the end of the day, however, I like to hear preaching that has some emotional intensity. That’s why I’m drawn to the preaching of someone like John Piper, or great preachers of the past like Stephen Olford and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

  13. Some very good thoughts here, especially regarding the context of Keller’s specific lecture (David) – not an a-typical sermon, and differences in cultural factors (Wyeth).

    Peter, you sum it up so well: “I don’t think one needs to adopt a certain volume, tone or intensity of speech in order to convey passion. One just needs to be resolute, unapologetic, clear, unambiguous.”

  14. Passion ought to be evident, even in a lecture. However, passion is not determined by the loudness of the preacher. I’ve heard loud preachers, that lacked any real sense of passion. I’ve also heard preachers who speak low, but you sense their passion through their expressions, piercing eyes, etc.

    Whatever way it’s expressed, passion and earnestness MUST be evident. Where are the weeping Whitefield’s?!

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