Does Expressing Emotion Make for Better Sermons?

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I was watching NBC’s The Voice last week when I was struck by how often the coaches tell aspiring singers to show more emotion. In a recent episode, Voice coach Alicia Keys asked team member Christian Cuevas where his sound comes from. Christian’s response to her question, “Thinking about my dad. He passed away about a year ago." In the episodes that follow, Keys encourages Christian to tap into the ‘emotion’ and ‘vulnerability’ of his story.

Voice Coach Alicia Keys is not alone in her advice. All of the coaches are quick to give advice by saying things like “let them see what this song means to you” or “you need to connect emotionally with the audience.” Sometimes the advice is technical, with singers being encouraged to hold on to a note a little longer or use more inflection. Other times better body language is needed to help the audience get the full impact of a song. Regardless of the means, the end goals are to get the attention of the audience, give them a new perspective or deeper understanding, and to make a lasting impression.

As I was thinking about some of these transcendent qualities of a good performance, I wondered if any of this could (or should) translate to preaching. While preaching is not performing (nor should it be), I wonder if there are some common objectives. For example, aren’t pastors trying to help the church reach a deeper understanding of scripture? Don’t they strive to keep people’s (often short) attention? Isn’t the hope that the message will stick beyond Sunday?

On the flip side, can too much emotion distract from delivery? 

I’d love to hear from pastors and sermon-listeners alike.

Pastors, what role (if any) does emotion and/or body language play in your sermons?

To those in the pews/chairs, what have you appreciated (or not appreciated) about the use of emotion in sermons?

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A good sermon should contain a combination of inspiration and information. The text of the sermon matters, of course; the words, the structure, the exegesis of scripture and the proclamation of the Gospel. The delivery matters, too. Bland monotone delivery can derail a good message, while proper emphasis and variation in tone and cadence helps bring the message to life. A caution would be to remain authentic. We all have times when we're excited or enthusiastic about a topic; our family, our favorite team, even political issues (especially these days). That authentic, genuine interest needs to be present in preaching. It's about bringing our best selves to the message, not about mimicking someone else or using some technique that we wouldn't use otherwise.

Admin

Really great thoughts, Gary. Especially appreciate your caution to be authentic. Makes me think about how God works through very ordinary people (not just those gifted in public speaking, etc.) in extraordinary ways. 

Hi, Staci.  We were just discussing this topic at Calvin Theological Seminary.  (I am an M.Div. student there, and I am a commissioned pastor in my classis.)  In this semester's Preaching Practicum class, Prof. John Rottman asked us to read an article by Richard F. Ward titled "Performing the Manuscript."  In it, the author advocates for viewing preaching as performing.  He acknowledges the the word "performance" has unfortunately received a pejorative connotation by many Christians today.  But he says that the word should not be used as an epithet indicating sham or pretense.  Instead, he uses the term "perform" to mean "how language written for the sermon comes to life in the preaching event."  Performing includes "all the vocal and physical behaviors a preacher uses to bring thought to expression."  Ward looks to the Old French roots of the word -- par and fournir, which means "to perfect" or "carrying through to completion."

In seminary, we also watched an hour-long video about what various body postures and gestures communicate from the Fall Preaching Conference at Calvin.  It's very helpful to remember that communication involves more than words.  The video is worth a watch:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndKWOtnZtig 

Now that I've shared what Calvin Seminary is teaching regarding "performing," let me add to it my personal experience.  The last sermon I had the privilege to share was on 9/11.  I ended with the emotional story of a local woman who lost her life on United Flight 93.  If I had read that part of the sermon with no tenderness, no emotion and no vulnerability, there would have been a profound disconnect.  It would have been inauthentic, and it would have been less than the message deserved.  I made sure not to "put on" fake emotion.  I instead tried to be authentic, as one human talking to another about the reality of death and the fragility of life.  I have a link to that video if anyone is interested.

In summary, I think it is very, very necessary to "perform" and to bring the appropriate amount emotion to the presentation... as long as it serves the right purpose, comes from the right motivation and does not distract.

Admin

Lots of excellent thoughts in this comment, William. Thanks for letting us in on the conversations happening at Calvin Seminary. I agree that the word 'performance' can cause many of us to cringe. But to think of performance as being 'the behaviors that bring thought to expression' is completely different. Encouraging to hear that the Seminary is placing value on helping people become better storytellers. 

I'd love to get a link to your sermon on 9/11. It sounds like you sought to be authentic in dealing with tragedy and I'm sure that was conveyed to those listening. 

Thanks again for sharing. 

Thank you, Staci.  Here is the link to the sermon!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppIlNlGY1Q8

Admin

Hi Bill! Just listened to the sermon and really appreciated many different tactics that you used (i.e. images from 9/11, descriptive words, body language, and just the overall tone that used to tell stories of heartache and loss). Really good stuff and you truly brought me back to the emotion of this day. In addition, I couldn't help but appreciate your love of snow and confidence in tackling the MI roads (even as spin outs happen). Thanks for sharing! 

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Emotions need to be expressed in sermons so that the listener does not conclude that the speaker is not really so sure about this text or teaching. Unemotional preaching leaves you with the feeling that the preacher really believes what he/she is preaching.

On the other hand there needs to be a delicate balance of the emotions of the heart and the thoughts of the mind.  We need to embrace in our preaching.