Manipulation in preaching is a subject I have visited periodically on this site. Yesterday I touched on a new angle though (new to this site, although I wouldn’t claim anything on here is truly new, of course). Here is that final sentence again – Am I really avoiding manipulation when I give the impression that Christianity is primarily about the commodity of knowledge and I am the dispenser of it?
This is a real issue that needs to be addressed. I would hope that no preacher wants to manipulate, but that all good-willed preachers are doing the best they can. Of course, I don’t want to accuse anyone of sinful motivation. But I do want to undermine the logic supporting an approach to preaching that esteems the intellectual at the expense of any engagingly affective fare. There is here, as so often is the case, a pendulum swing that goes too far.
At one extreme we have manipulative emotional preaching that stirs up the listeners, manipulates commitments and response, sways the feelings of listeners and then seals the deal while they are off balance. There are ways to do this. Certain rhythms of speech, stirring background music, heart-wrenching anecdotes, excessive passion in the preacher, tear-jerking vulnerability, etc. It is certainly possible to go places the preaching text doesn’t go in order to manipulate reaction.
At the other extreme we have disaffected preaching that avoids any hint of manipulation, but leaves all response to the convicting work of the Holy Spirit. (Did you see what I just did? I presented this extreme in entirely justifiable and honourable terms. Who would resist this approach? What if I kept the excessive tones of the previous paragraph though?)
At the other extreme we have manipulative intellectual preaching that puffs up the preacher, manipulates affirmation and the fleshly desire to be as spiritual as the preacher, and then guarantees positive response by offering humble explanation of the approach to preaching that is being advocated (sometimes giving the impression that any other approach to preaching would be in direct violation of some clear mandate of God himself). There are ways to manipulate listeners at the other extreme of the scale. It is possible to present yourself and your ministry in ways that do not reflect the character and values of God, and do not truly represent the Word we preach.
Now I am deliberately pushing this issue to get us to think. Again, I don’t know of many who are seeking to manipulate. But what if our position is doing that and we are unaware? We must be careful. Perhaps when we see the pendulum has swung too far we need to come back closer to the centre. The answer is not to disaffect our preaching, but to stick closer to the text. When people are moved deeply by the truth of the text being preached, we represent God’s Word well. We don’t need to add anything to it. Neither do we need to strip it of all emotion. Rather we need to re-present it to the best of our ability, while simultaneously leaning fully into God’s Spirit to do what our best efforts can never do – to transform us and our listeners as we preach the Word.