Preaching as Persuasion

Preaching seeks to move the hearts of hearers toward faith in Christ and in Holy Scripture. We call this “persuasion” and it appears frequently in the teaching and preaching ministry of Paul. (Acts 13:43; 18:4; 19:8,26; 28:23). Perhaps the most famous occurrence of this word is in Paul’s dialogue with King Agrippa who wondered about the haste with which Paul was attempting to persuade him in Acts 26:28. The Greek verb for persuasion is peitho and it describes an attempt to cause someone to come to a particular point of view.

Immediately we recognize that there is a part of persuasion that does not belong to us. Even with scant preaching experience, we come to understand that even sound logic and faithful exposition of Scripture does not automatically guarantee that the one who listens to our words actually hears them and embraces them as truth. Far from it.

Accounting for the eternal tension between what God does and what we do, we then must ask ourselves, “Am I attempting to convince and change the hearts and minds of those to whom I preach? And if so, how do I accomplish that?”

In his classic work, On Rhetoric, Aristotle articulated a theory about how persuasion takes place. (Obviously, his thoughts only concern the human aspect of this transaction.) Why are some message convincing and others not? Aristotle believed that it was the combination of three issues: logos (the intellectual aspect), pathos (the emotional or personal aspect), and ethos (the social and ethical aspect). These relate to both the speaker and the audience. In other words, your brilliantly constructed argument for a particular subject might not be received if the audience is not in the right frame of mind to listen to it. Appeals to character will be ignored by wicked people.

The logos of a sermon is obviously very important. Content matters. Dumbing down the message might gain some semi-interested followers but that does not equate to persuasion. The form in which the message comes–its vocabulary and delivery–make up a significant part of its pathos. The dimension of beauty in a sermon is often neglected but probably at the expense of its compelling nature. Every preacher knows that cold logic without a warm heart is akin to hammering on cold steel. But is that all we need, content along with some enthusiasm?

If you believe that listeners accept the messenger as much as they do the message, then ethos becomes a vital part of persuasion. Bryan Chapell made an excellent point at the 2015 Priority of Preaching Conference. He noted that if you begin a sermon by telling a joke about a blond or a Democrat or a particular ethic group, you may get a laugh but you will probably lose your audience. Why? In their minds,they sense that you are not to be trusted. You have demonstrated your willingness to get a cheap laugh at the expense of a human being. And in that message, your logos may be great and your pathos inspiring but without ethos, there is no persuasion. The messenger often obscures the message.

So as we prepare to preach each week, we should allow these ancient categories to act as spurs to our conscience. David Helm phrased three questions for a preacher to ask before he preaches and they help me examine myself according to this triad of persuasion:

(1) Did I prepare well? (2) Did I pray well? (3) Have I pledged my heart to my people?

How could you use the categories of logos/pathos/ethos in your preparation each week?