Moving Messages

After a particularly effective sermon, a parishioner might say to the preacher, “Thank you for your message today. I found it so moving.” It’s a remarkable turn of phrase, when you think about it. Isaac Newton would tell us that no one and nothing is moving unless some external force acts upon it. Your coffee, for instance, will stay situated on the desk until you need another sip of caffeine. Try to command the coffee into your mouth, though, and you will stay thirsty—not to mention drowsy. We don’t normally think of mere words as being such an “external force.”

Our grateful parishioner is not speaking nonsense, however. Experience attests that while brute force can move someone, so too can speech. More significantly, as Christians, we understand that the Word of God, inhabiting Spirit-filled speech, has the power to change hearts and move hands. All disciples have the privilege and responsibility to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into his glorious light” (1 Peter 2:9b, ESV), and pastors have the further vocation to do so publicly and authoritatively for the edification of God’s people. But whether in a Sunday morning gathering with a hundred people or a Saturday morning conversation between friends, there are fundamentally two aspects to moving messages: the human capacity to communicate, and the divine Word of God. You might think of them as the art of proclamation and the heart of proclamation, respectively. With the rest of this article, I’d like to unpack these two parts of proclamation, so that you can better appreciate what makes for moving messages—and be emboldened to share them yourself.

The Art of Proclamation
Historically, the art of public speaking (including proclamation) has been considered under the category of rhetoric. Aristotle famously defined rhetoric as “the faculty of observing, in any given case, the available means of persuasion.” And according to the ancient Greek philosopher, the means for effecting this movement are chiefly three:
Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself.1

These three kinds are known in Greek as, respectively, ethos, pathos, and logos.2  First, the speaker persuades by means of their ethos, as Aristotle says, “when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.” On the one hand, ethos is established before a word comes out of the speaker’s mouth; the expression “their reputation precedes them” gets at this notion. This is why a keynote speaker is introduced with his resume and why brands covet celebrity endorsements. Ethos deals in authority, answering the question in the audience’s mind—even before a word is uttered—“Why should I listen to you?” (Whether the ability to dunk a basketball makes one an authority on, say, pharmaceuticals is open for debate!)

Secondly, the speaker persuades with pathos, an appeal to the emotions. Aristotle remarks, having in mind the infamous Sophists of his day, that “it is towards producing these effects… that present-day writers on rhetoric direct the whole of their efforts.” We could hardly disagree in our own time. Maudlin novels or romantic comedies might also come to mind. Abuses and manipulations of the emotions aside, however, pathos is undoubtedly a powerful tool of persuasion. The authoritative speaker, who can also tug on the heart strings, as we say, is much nearer to moving people than the dry lecturer whose speech is merely accurate.

Thirdly and finally, Aristotle tells us that we as speakers persuade with logos (an appeal to reason) “when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.” Airtight arguments and satisfying syllogisms are the domain of logos. Aristotle clearly regards logos as the superior form of proof, and that every speech ought to rise or fall solely on its logical merits—and many Christians, especially preachers, would surely agree. Is it not enough that our sermons are true and logical for people to believe them? In many cases, the answer is no. Nevertheless, for communicators of the gospel, logos will always be part and parcel of faithful proclamation.

In any given speech, sermon, or spiritual conversation, one of these modes of persuasion may suffice. Needless to say, though, the most moving messages will tie together all three—the rhetorical “hat trick,” if you will.

The Heart of Proclamation
Communicating clearly and persuasively is essential if we are to proclaim effectively; the art of proclamation enables us to better connect with our hearers and conversation partners. But rhetoric alone is insufficient. We also, and even more so, need the heart of proclamation, the powerful Word of God.

St. Paul memorably makes this point in 1 Corinthians.
 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
—1 Corinthians 2:1-5, ESV

Ultimately, if the force of persuasion is dependent on the persuasiveness of the proclaimer—that is, you and me—then it is a counsel for despair. Our wisdom and eloquence will eventually founder on the rocks of human weakness and diabolical opposition. Instead, our faith rests in the power of God.

There was a superb example of this last year. Pastor Zach Meerkreebs was called upon to deliver a chapel message at his alma mater, a small Christian liberal arts college. He preached on Romans 12 and Paul’s admonition to “let love be genuine.” Shortly after his brief message, he texted his wife: “Latest stinker. I’ll be home soon.” He said later that he was sure that he “totally whiffed” on his message. As it happens, that chapel service at Asbury College in Kentucky was the beginning of a revival that saw thousands of college students coming to know the Lord and made national news. Almost as if the persuasive power was ultimately in God’s Word all along, rather than merely in God’s messenger!

The Lord uses his people to move others with words. Whether it’s from pastors in the pulpit or disciples in their vocations, when the art of proclamation is wedded with the heart of proclamation, God connects to human hearers in powerful ways. Even when we’re certain that we totally whiffed.

Dr. Ryan Tinetti is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Arcadia, Michigan, and the author of Preaching by Heart (Cascade Press, 2021). Pastor Tinetti also writes a regular column for 1517’s Craft of Preaching website called “The Preacher’s Toolbox.”

1 Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric, 1356a.

2 Note that these are not in a prescribed order. Pathos may just as likely provide a closing appeal as be part of the body of an oration.


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