Emotion in the Pulpit and PewJune 22, 2007
Not very long ago, someone recounted to me the first time the current Senior Pastor in my church shed tears in the pulpit. Fifteen years ago now, this was apparently quite an event in Charlotte Chapel. Congregants were not so used to ministers expressing such emotion in the pulpit. But, the person added: “There was a hush around the whole congregation. I think people were very moved.”
Peter is not the only one who gets emotional. On ocassion, I find that emotion ambushes me. At these times, I come back to a familiar and difficult question: what place should emotion have in the pulpit? How should we handle both the sobs and the smiles (as John Piper so amply demonstrates!)? Here are five exhortations I’ve developed for myself.
1) Remember that preaching with strong emotion has biblical precedent. Think about Jeremiah in the Old Testament. Just read through his prophecy, taking note of the emotion he displayed. As you read of his frequent tears and heart-rending pathos, you will discover that he is aptly named the “weeping” prophet (cf. Jer 31:16). Or consider the apostle Paul in the New Testament who preached the Word with “trembling” (1 Cor 2:3)? And was it not this great apostle who commanded the Ephesians elders to “Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day even with tears“? (Acts 20:31)
2) Realise that people appreciate emotion today. One upside of the long discussed postmodern shift has been a growing recognition of emotion’s significance. Though heart should never bypass the head – nor take the ‘lead’ in the marriage – historically there has sometimes been a tendency to diminish the place of “religious affections.” But now cultural changes have rightly re-emphasised the importance of a head and heart Christianity. The corrolary is that today we must have “Head-and-Heart-Preachers.” After one service last year when a preacher had expressed emotion in his sermon, a non-Christian student sitting beside me was evidently challenged. “I didn’t realise before that the pastor really believes what he’s talking about”, they remarked. “Of course he does!”, I replied. Nevertheless, the preacher’s emotion had conveyed that reality.
3) Beware of emotionalism. “Turning on the waterworks” or “feigning joy” is always bad form. Sadly there remains a danger that we preachers tug the heart strings of our congregation by intentionally using our emotions as the instrument. Of course, it is a legitimate aim to touch the congregations emotions through “the word of truth.” And the fact is, people will be moved whenever we show emotion. But we must be careful that we don’t seek to do the Holy Spirit’s work for Him. Its a fine line, for sure. But I think we know the difference between emotion that is pre-meditated and that which is not.
4) Understand that fear of expressing emotion is often rooted in our pride. Sometimes when coming back from church in the car, a conversation with my wife has gone something like this: “I nearly lost it today; I could feel myself getting emotional, but I held it back.” Invariably my wife responds, “Why? Why are you so afraid of showing emotion?” Having thought about it at length, my conclusion is simply ‘pride.’ Especially for men, we hate to express emotion in public for the fear of looking weak, foolish, or just a little too passionate. However this ungrounded fear (rooted in unhelpful influences in our culture about masculinity) needs to be tackled head on, and our pride needs to be reduced. Was the Paul who endured beatings and shipwrecks and riots any less of a “man” because he “came in fear and trembling” and “tears”?
5) Realise that excessive emotion can be unhelpful. Now I need to tread carefully here: it is almost impossible to be excessive with our joy! And I don’t want to negate the last point that some of us need to be less prideful and be willing to show some emotion, some of the time. Nevertheless there can at times be such a flood of emotion that the audience begins to shift their focus off the message to the messenger. To be honest, some preachers are manic. It is one thing to preach with solemn earnest and warning, its another for people to leave the church only remembering how you kept banging the table! Similarly I recall an ocassion in my previous congregation when I was so overwhelmed by emotion that I could hardly speak a complete sentence for several minutes. Though the tears probably conveyed how much I meant what I was saying, it was probably not helpful for the message or congregation that I got so carried away.