Emotion in the Pulpit and Pew

June 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.


  1. […] friend Colin, a pastor in Scotland, has written a helpful article with respect to showing emotion in the pulpit, with particular reference to being overcome with tears while […]

  2. Helpful reflections, Colin! It reminds me a bit of the comment-conversation about this subject that developed early on in the life of the blog following one of your preacher interviews (IIRC).

    One “view from the pew” comment. I have noticed a tendency in some preachers for a combination of #3 and #5 to creep in, even with some fine and seasoned preachers, and that is “habitual emotion”, or maybe better put, “habitual intensity”. I recall listening (MP3s) to one excellent series by someone I respect enormously, but it seems that he was in a season where even mundane things, casual illustrations, etc., were being delivered at a white heat. Not helpful! It erected a real barrier to receptive listening.

    So perhaps a #6: “Beware of habitual emotional” (an adjunct to your #3 against emotion as technique) would be worth adding in!

  3. ^ “Beware of habitual emotional”, by which I meant, “Beware of habitual emotion”, of course! 😕

  4. I have to say, David, I very often struggle with the very thing you’re talking about. I feel so pumped up about the message that I cannot take my foot off the gas peddle…. The real skill seems to be in allowing the content to dictate your emotion. So a fairly light illustration is not the place for searing intensity; but on the other hand, no one should preach hell with a smile.

  5. Amen, brother!

  6. I wonder, how much of our reaction to emotion in the pulpit is culturally conditioned? I was never conditioned to think of emotion in the context of worship as a negative. Even today, I don’t find tears, a raised voice or forceful gestures distracting. In fact, sometimes it is the passion of the preacher that spells the difference between a preacher I have to work at listening to and a preacher I can’t help but listen to. Personally, John Piper’s emotional transparency grabs my attention and holds it.

  7. Very helpful, thanks.

  8. Just wanted to say that is probably my favorite Piper pic I have taken. I’m glad you chose to use it. To me it reveals an affectionate bundle passion and joy which are effulgently expressed in his preaching.

  9. By the way, Timmy, I hope you don’t mind me using your pics. They are superb. I take it you have been taking photos for a long time?

  10. Colin,

    I picked up photography six months after starting seminary (Jan. 2005). I did it because I needed an outlet or hobby away from the books, papers, deadlines, etc. What has been great is to also find other bloggers jump into photography at about the same time. It has provided good fellowship among brothers not just here in Louisville, but across the country.

    Feel free to use the photos as you wish. One of the main reasons why I captured the conference speakers is so that bloggers and writers can use these photos to compliment their articles.

    BTW, I will be live-blogging as well as photographing the Founders National Conference this week. The keynote speaker is David Wells, and the theme is addressing postmodernism. It should be great.

  11. Colin,

    Thanks for this. A well balanced (don’t like that word really) piece. Genuine emotion can add much to both the preacher and the congregation. I can speak from both angles as I’m sure many can. I have sat under preaching where the emotion of the preacher has been very genuine and it has really intensified the impact of the Word, sort of grabs you by the heart and calls your to attention, softens the heart perhaps to hear the Lord in the Word, that hush you speak of. Sometimes it is the enforced silence even, as a preacher collects himself to continue that makes the impact. Likewise in the pulpit if you’re not given to public displays of emotion (which I’m not I’m an Ulster-Scot for goodness sake!!) it does somehow bring encouragement to my soul that perhaps the Spirit is indeed with us.

    Thanks again,


  12. These are 5 very good points.

    “….Can I get a Wittness!!!!”


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