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The preacher’s power to persuade

Synod of the Covenant webinar helps preachers to marshal their rhetorical chops each week

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Stephen Radford via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Their place at the pulpit offers Presbyterian preachers a weekly opportunity to persuade parishioners of the power and reach of God’s love for them — as well as hundreds of other messages found in Scripture.

How to effectively use those powers of persuasion was the topic of last week’s podcast, “Opening Your Listeners to New Perspectives,” offered by the Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick, interim executive of the Synod of the Covenant, which is offering monthly online opportunities to preachers from across the denomination. Watch the 85-minute webinar here.

Early on, one participant noted that preachers have at least two tasks as they sit down to write their sermon: be open to the Holy Spirit’s moving and invite hearers to take action.

“You hear wonderful sermons and afterward you wonder, ‘So what?’” the workshop participant said. “What’s the invitation or application or challenge? God wants us to be involved in God’s mission. How are you going to take up that challenge?”

The preacher’s weekly task can be found toward the end of the A Brief Statement of Faith, Hardwick said: “In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit , we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives …”

“We write sermons that are helpful and effective,” Hardwick said. “We do that because we are grateful to God.”

Sermons, he said, are “a mix of theological claims and rhetorical choices.” As defined by Aristotle, rhetoric has no negative connotation. Rather it describes “the available means of persuasion in each case.” After that, it’s the job of the hearers “to decide whether they will adhere more fully to what we say,” Hardwick said.

“The more effective a sermon’s rhetoric,” Hardwick said, “the more likely your listeners will be open to a new perspective.”

Context matters, Hardwick stressed. The words that preachers use and the ideas they present “will totally depend on who your listeners are,” Hardwick said. “What’s the occasion? What does this particular group of people need to hear on this particular date for a particular purpose in a particular space?”

The Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick is interim executive at the Synod of the Covenant. (Contributed photo)

Then Hardwick displayed two photos. One depicted a group of girls gathered for Vacation Bible School. The other was of the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, a preacher blessed with extraordinary gifts.

Suppose, Hardwick said, that for some reason, Nelson agreed to preach a sermon to that group of Vacation Bible School attendees. And suppose that Nelson elected to recycle a sermon he once preached to one of the largest churches in the denomination, Peachtree Church in Atlanta. How would it be received?

“It would be a total bust,” Hardwick said. Who determines that the sermon was a bust? “The girls get to decide,” Hardwick said. “In this extreme example we can see it, but it’s harder to believe it when it is our congregation. Our listeners get to decide whether [our sermons] are effective, not us.”

But while listeners determine what’s effective rhetoric, only God can determine whether a preacher’s theology is faithful, according to Hardwick.

As Aristotle taught, speakers have three rhetorical devices:

  • Logos, persuasion that occurs through arguments when preachers show the truth or the apparent truth from whatever is persuasive in each case.
  • Pathos, or persuasion that causes hearers to feel emotion. Almost any sermon illustration falls in this category, Hardwick said: “It helps people emotionally relate to what you’re talking about.”
  • Ethos, defined as persuasion through character whenever the speech is spoken in such a way as to make the speaker worthy of credence, for “we believe fair-minded people to a greater extent and more quickly.”

Ethos can be both internal and external, Hardwick pointed out. The former is how speakers present themselves while they’re speaking, such as the illustrations they use. External ethos is how speakers present themselves outside the pulpit. When the preacher delivers a sermon on caring for Creation but leaves the porch light on at home on a Sunday morning, a parishioner passing by the preacher’s home is sure to notice — and just might say something.

But above all three rhetorical devices hovers this important question: does the preacher love those hearing the sermon? Another is almost as important: Do they feel that love?

The ethos-based response might be, “We have a long relationship with each other, and you’re going to have to trust me” when I preach on this difficult biblical text, Hardwick said. “Please go with me this time.”

Another classicist, Cicero, taught these five canons of rhetoric in his “On the Ideal Orator”:

  • Invention, the ideas preachers include after completing the exegesis of the Scripture that’s being preached on. It’s where “you figure out what the sermon is about and what ideas you will include,” Hardwick said.
  • Arrangement, the order one will deliver those ideas. Hardwick said he typically writes sermon ideas on sticky notes and shifts them around until discovering the right order.
  • Style, which determines what words the preacher will use, including big or small, funny or serious.
  • In what Cicero calls memorize, Hardwick relabels the fourth step preparation, including a decision whether to preach from a manuscript, by using few notes or preaching the sermon without using notes.
  • Delivery, how the preacher embodies the sermon.

“Usually, we do well with one or two and less well with the others,” Hardwick said, urging listeners to use the ancient tools to diagnose their own preaching.

In response to a question, Hardwick encouraged white preachers to draw on people of color, young people and the LGBTQ community to “lift them up in your [sermon] illustrations. Lift them up as a fully human part of the body of Christ from whom we can be inspired.”

Dr. Anna Carter Florence

Sadly, by the end of sermons that participants will preach in the weeks to come, “you may not persuade them,” Hardwick said. “But you can certainly make it worse by not thinking through these things. It’s not a magic bullet, where if I present the exact right argument I will unlock things and totally make people change their mind.”

Then Hardwick prayed to close out the time together, thanking God that “these ideas that have been around for 2,000 years can help us today.”

Dr. Anna Carter Florence, the Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, will lead the Sept. 1 workshop, which begins at 10 a.m. Eastern Time. Florence’s topic is “What Poets Can Teach Preachers About Surviving, Thriving and Talking About What We Do.” Learn more here.

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