Illustrating Emotion in Preaching

The Bible is full of emotional content.

In Luke 2:8-20 (the passage I preached on at Crossway this morning), emotions careened all over the place. Sadness and fear and joy and extreme joy.

A great deal of preaching ignores these emotions. Preachers tend to teach the intellectual content of the passage and then move to application. They explain what words mean. If they're fancy, they refer to the Greek. They share illustrations to help people understand what's going on. They make the meaning clear.

Their hope is that if the meaning becomes more clear, the hearers of the sermon will be more willing to live in the reality of the passage: believing and obeying. And I think this is probably true.

But what do we do with all of this emotional content?

Every once in a while, I'll structure a sermon in order to help hearers connect with the emotion in the passage. Illustrations are organized around a desire to bring the emotional content of the passage to the surface, not necessarily to improve hearer's intellectual comprehension of the passage. This technique is extremely useful in familiar passages and straightforward narratives.

Illustrations that help people connect emotionally with the passage will usually answer these two questions:
  • How did the characters feel in this moment? 
  • How do we feel as we hear this story?
This technique works wonderfully when you're using a narrative-weave sermon structure. This is my preferred structure for preaching in the field. Here's one example:
  • Passage Part A - Story Part A (Setup)
  • Passage Part B - Story Part B (Conflict)
  • Passage Part C - Story Part C (Resolution)
In today's sermon, I used this structure [listen here]:
  • Luke 2:8 - Infertility Story: Sadness/Frustration (Setup)
  • Luke 2:9 - Breaking the Baby Story: Fear (Conflict)
  • Luke 2:10-14 - Dressing as Santa Story: Joy/Unselfconsciousness (Climax)
  • Luke 2:15-16 - We're Pregnant Story: Extreme Joy (Resolution)
  • Luke 2:17-20 - Busy Life Story: Confusion (Denouement)
The weave structure is very important here. If the thread that connect the illustrative stories is too weak, they will feel random and hearers will feel lost. Why is he telling this story? The opportunity to connect emotionally will be lost in the confusion.

This is something I stumbled onto when preaching in the field. Preaching multiple times every week with very little time to prepare, I found this structure to really work for me. If you listen to any of the old GCF podcasts on iTunes, this is invariably the structure that I used.

I realize that a lot of this material may not be relevant for you. If you don't get to preach often (or ever), you may feel like there isn't much to do with this. But I wonder if you would consider conducting an experiment.

The next time you hear a sermon, listen to hear how the preacher communicates the emotions that swirl around the passage. If Paul is angrily writing a letter to the Galatians, can you hear it? If David is joyfully praising God, can you sense his joy? If Mary is afraid, can you tell? If you can, encourage the person preaching.

Illustrating emotion is hard work.


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