Recently, I heard about a seminary student who took a preaching course and turned in his first persuasive sermon assignment. His professor returned it with a grade of “D”. Concerned and perplexed, the student asked, “Why the low grade?” “The title,” said the professor. “You know how to write and deliver a good sermon. But, you title is dry and uninteresting.”
The professor pressed on, “Even your sermon title should be so alluring that when people ride past the church on a bus and see your title on the marquee, they will be irresistibly compelled to come hear you.” The student left and returned a day later with the revised manuscript. Proudly, he placed it on the professor’s desk. In bold print the new title read, “There’s a Bomb on Your Bus.”
Persuading people in preaching is not always easy. It may be especially difficult for ministers because it is ad-versarial. Ministers, thank the Lord, are usually more concerned with reconciling hearts and lives than taking sides in arguments. But when ministers are called to persuade, how should they do it best?
For five years before entering ministry I practiced as a trial attorney. Over the years, I noticed that ministers are often better speakers than lawyers. But, lawyers have one key motivation for truly persuading their listeners that ministers do not — at the end of attorneys’ court room speeches they either win or lose. Based on how well attorneys argue, their clients are often immediately imprisoned or released; they gain windfall profits, or lose every thing they ever worked for; clients either revel in or suffer the consequences of their attorney’s performance.
For these reasons, it is instructive for us as ministers to consider vividly, “What if someone’s life, freedom, or entire life savings were at stake, based upon the form and content of my sermon? If these things were true, how would my preaching change?”
Certainly, God is the one at work in the hearts of listeners. Yet, God is also the one who implores preachers to use their best skills, talents, and scholarship in preaching, (2 Tim. 2:15). God cares about what and how preachers preach, (Isaiah 61:1-2). A client’s freedom or finances may not be on the line at the end of every sermon. But, people’s hearts, behavior, and spiritual lives are often immediately influenced by a persuasive sermon.
The following basic tools are taught by law schools and used by experienced trial and appellate attorneys to persuade in oral argument. These will be fundamental to most ministers. But ask yourself, “Do I exercise these each week in preaching?” Especially when preaching to convince, consider creating a brief check list of these key ingredients for persuasion. I have found them enormously transferable from the court room to the pulpit.
1. Don’t bite off more than you can spit out. More is not better when it comes to persuasive preaching. There is a brute power in simplicity and brevity. A sermon about a controversial issue that effectively explains one idea in three ways is almost always more persuasive than a sermon that clouds the mind with 20 ideas. Educated listeners may hear numerous points but, they will more likely be swayed by one or two solid arguments with clearly drawn conclusions. Whether your church’s sermons are traditionally 15 minutes or 45, nourish your listeners’ hearts and souls with memorable, meaningful material, by serving it in satisfying, digestible helpings.
2. Don’t Read. Years ago I was a boat guide in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I’ll never forget seeing a friend who was a white water raft guide fall asleep and fall out of the back of the boat after heading into the middle of an enormous rapid. His excuse? He was being bored to death by a passenger who insisted on reading some of his poetry to those in the boat.
Few like to listen to someone read a text. We as ministers usually acknowledge this. But, we still engage in it too often from the pulpit. Particularly, when we write a sermon in advance, use a previous sermon, or stay up late writing a “Saturday night special,” we think that we know our text cold. But then we enter the pulpit only to find our delivery mechanical and passionless. Know your material. Refresh your memory. Know your Scripture passage, by heart if possible. As we have all experienced, the pay- off of a highly familiar sermon is a nimble, personalized message spoken from our hearts to our listeners’ lives.
3. Acting Out. In public speaking, we are face to face with our audience. Liberally use sounds, dramatic pause, voice inflection, facial expressions, hand motions, and body language. Especially in persuasive speech, people need non-analytical reasons to agree with our positions. Rather than merely reciting a Bible verse about reconciliation, passionately tell personal stories illustrating how someone you know reconciled with an estranged friend or family member. Show how the golden rule, when applied to someone’s life, smacks not of a Pollyanna lifestyle, but of the way that we all wish life treated us. Use the differences between oral and written expression to your advantage.
4. Do you believe you? Not long ago, I listened to a tape of myself after a long, exhausting few months of ministry in our church. My delivery was flat. It is remarkably easy when we preach often to preach with little or no expression, or with a practiced “sing-songiness” in our voice. If we do not sound like we believe our own argument, why should someone else? Particularly when it comes to persuasion, we must sound sincere in our positions. If we are unable to do so, we must avoid making the argument.
5. Be scrupulously accurate. Persuasion requires forcefulness. Forcefulness requires credibility. Credibility and trust are earned by a consistent track record of accuracy. For me, few things are more irritating than sitting in a pew and hearing an otherwise talented, minister butcher the details of history, misstate scientific theory, or erroneously attribute something to someone who never said it. When we say it correctly consistently, we win the minds of our hearers.
6. Set hearts, not ears, ablaze. The most common error in persuasive speech is giving in to the temptation to defame an opponent. In my first year of law practice, I represented a large auto-maker against a tenacious and persistent pro se (i.e., self represented) plaintiff. The plaintiff sued the car maker for breach of contract, claiming that he returned his car and stopped making payments on it because it “slipped on the snow and ice.” He vigorously continued his suit despite his admission that he was given no special guarantees against such slipping at the time of purchase.
He repeatedly lost, then appealed his case, ultimately to the U. S. Supreme Court. He eventually sued everyone ever having to do with his case, including me and two judges. Never was I so tempted to argue, “Judge, you should dismiss this complaint against my client, the car maker, because the plaintiff is a complete nut case who has clearly ‘stepped off the curb’!” I resisted the temptation. I always dealt respectfully toward the plaintiff in court. Five years and $50,000 in attorney fees later, I prevailed.
Inflammatory statements about another person’s view, or worse yet about the opponent him or her self, usually have the opposite of the desired effect. Such statements suggest that we are unable to deal with our opponents position on its merits (or demerits), and that we have to resort to name-calling or other dirty tactics to defeat them. We lose when we demean an opposing position as “frivolous,” “absurd,” etc. Instead, we should clearly and accurately state an opposing view. Then, simply state why that position is incorrect. Most listeners prefer level headed accuracy and understatement to shoot-from-the-lip, foot-stomping haranguing.
7. Anticipate objections and questions to assertions. It is classical tension whether preachers should be a rock of decisiveness in the pulpit, or a “fellow-struggler” with listeners. Whatever our style, in attempting to persuade we must acknowledge — at least to ourselves — the merits of an opposing position. Listeners know that people are rarely 100% correct in their views. “In arguing, we have to step into our opponents shoes,” says flamboyant and nationally recognized attorney, Jerry Spence. Our own claims gain force when we anticipate our weak points.
8. Facing our problems head on. When we do decide to express the weaknesses of our arguments, we should never understate them. I once read the deposition of a man accused of injuring another man’s dog. The accused man was questioned as follows:
Q: “Did you pick the plaintiff’s dog up by the ears?”
A: “No.”
Q: “But you said you did have your hands on the dog’s ears?”
A: “Well, yes.”
Q: “Where was the dog when you had your hands on its ears?”
A: (pause) “In the air.”
Few things deflate one’s argument more than dodging or fudging the truth. Conversely, immediate and open recognition of the shortcomings of one’s argument, followed by as reasonable an answer as anyone could give, can quickly buttress a weak point.
I recently heard Charles Colson preaching on a gruesome — by today’s standards — Old Testament text. He didn’t try to excuse the text or focus on complex sociological issues. He deftly admitted that the text was “pretty gory” for most of us moderns. Then, he briefly concluded that it simply reflected the mores of times in which it was written. Typically, it is far better to be blunt, clear and forthright about the problems in a text or in our position. Thereafter, we should offer the best answer we can. Listeners may disagree with our conclusions. But without such honesty, we give the impression that we have not fully considered our positions, or that our arguments simply cannot meet the rigor of the streets.
9. B-O-R-I-N-G! Being faithful to the basics of the Gospel does not mean that all good sermons must stoop to the lowest common denominator of knowledge. Often our audiences are more intelligent than we give them credit for. If we condescend to them, we run the risk of boring them with excessive qualifications to our every assertion.
With the advent of seeker oriented churches, some increasingly are tempted to feel that we can’t say anything about our beliefs without a justification. Arguably, however, even in seeker churches it is better that we expressly state that the Bible is the basis of our preaching authority. We can say that the Holy Spirit may be working in the lives of our listeners as we speak. We can intelligently and simply tell audiences, without reservation, what our church holds on controversial moral issues. We are in church, after all. Presumably, people are there, at least in part, because they want to hear about spiritual things. For these reasons, as with any argument, we will do better to speak freely and frankly, rather than to bore people with excessive qualification or the painfully obvious.
10. Practice in the presence of my enemies. All good preaching requires practice. Great persuasive preaching requires practice in front of friends or, better yet, enemies. Before preaching a sermon in which we intend to do some serious persuading, it is best to sit down and run through it with someone with brutal candor, who will honestly challenge us. Once we’ve been through a few such exercises, our muddle-headed thinking begins to fade. Arguments become sharper; more reflective. We take on the tough questions, rather than merely setting up straw men to knock down.
Try these tools. With God’s grace, prayer, and complete reliance on the Holy Spirit, we just might offer the world more than the answers that 1 Peter 3:15 directs us to give for the hope that lies within us. We might offer persuasive ones.

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