Thoughts on Preaching

When I think of preaching, I find the 3 categories of classical rhetoric useful.

1. Ethos – This is our character. People listen to us when they know us to be people of character. Character refers not only to our moral qualities – are we honest and credible, etc. – but also are we interesting? Are we characters? Do we have something to say? As Christian speakers we continually develop our relationships with people – to build trust – and with God, to become interesting people. When we preach we’re putting words to the life of God in us. That’s why traditional teachers of preaching have said that sermon preparation is as much preparing the preacher as preparing the message. To a great extent, the preacher is the message.

2. Logos – Does our message make sense? Is there a logical flow to it? When we prepare a message with logos in mind, we think not only of the logic of the content we’re communicating, but also the logic of our audience. With regard to the first, we approach the text and pursue understanding. We question the text – and let the text question us. The closer we preachers stick to the text (of scripture) the better we do. But we’re not just learning the text for our own sake, but for the sake of our audience. We know our people. The better we know them, the better we can anticipate the questions they would bring to the text – and perhaps the ways the text might question them. The work of anticipating the questions people will have is difficult, but offers the potential of great reward.

3. Pathos – I detest boring sermons. Like it or not, sermons are often the centerpiece of Sunday morning worship in the eyes of many. in worship we seek to meet with the God of the universe. Some in the audience are living on the very edge of commitment. Will they become followers of Jesus? Our words and actions can tip them one way or the other. I never want bore people away from Christ. With pathos we add feeling – energy – to our message. Our character and our logic may be impeccable, but without pathos we leave people disconnected from the truth, unwilling to take up the call of Jesus. In this context we preachers entertain our audience, not in the vulgar sense of merely making them laugh, but in the deep sense of grabbing their attention, waking them as they stumble blindly on the road to death. This is not pathos for the sake of pathos, but pathos – passion – to connect people with the passion of Christ. In preaching pathos and logos are comrades in arms – not competitors.

4. Sometimes a fourth characteristic is added – Mythos. Some preachers are great story tellers. Some use stories to make a point, while some shape the whole sermon as a story. Mythos may include either approach but is to be identified with neither. Rather, mythos looks at the way the sermon fits into the story of God. As Christians, we inhabit a story much larger than ourselves. As preachers, we take cognizance of that story, point our audience toward it, and urge them to become willing participants. Some times our messages will be primarily urging participation in the story. Other times our messages will be primarily giving direction for how to take up our roles in the story – what our next steps might be. Our preaching is not something that takes place outside the story, but is itself an act in the story, so in our preparation we approach it as such. The leading question we ask in prayer as we prepare is, “Lord, given where these people are now, what do they need to hear next as they live as your people?”

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