“Preacher, what I need you to do is to stomp on my toes and make me do what I know I ought to do!”
“Pastor, I did not like that sermon for I felt that you were too direct in your application. I do not need you to tell me what I’m doing wrong. I need you to preach about the love and grace of Jesus. Just preach the gospel and you’ll be fine.”
What pastor has not heard these words, usually in the same congregation and sometimes after the same sermon? One of the most difficult issues facing pastors is the role of their pulpit ministry to motivate believers into action. There are those who come to church expecting to be raked up one side and down the other for their lack of commitment/dedication/faith/you-name-it. There are others who not only do not want this but consider it an abuse of the pulpit. How can a pastor use preaching to effectively motivate and yet avoid the manipulation that is so tempting?
To be honest, manipulation is much in style because manipulation gets immediate results. Most people carry enough residual guilt within them that they are susceptible to sermons which prey upon that guilt. It is not unusual to see preachers of this sort have meteoric-like numerical success, and numbers lead to imitation in our success-driven world. Whether or not the persons behind these numbers exhibit the lasting commitment exemplary of valid decisions is an appropriate question.
Yet there is a legitimate need for dealing with guilt — a need to challenge both believers and non-believers to genuine repentance. Nonbelievers need to be issued a call to profess faith in Christ and believers to “live a life worthy of our Lord.” There is also a need to motivate believers into service, for it is still true that in most churches 20% of the people carry the work and financial load. How can the preacher motivate properly?
Basic to this question is an understanding of what motivation can and cannot accomplish. A gifted speaker can affect — on a temporary basis — attitudes, thoughts, speech, and actions. She cannot, however, affect one’s underlying value and belief system. Those can only be altered by undergoing a change in perception that comes through a conscious decision of one’s will.
In essence, to transform one’s belief and value system is a rebirth and is beyond the power of any human being to effect upon another. Small wonder, is it not, that Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again.”
Without the active presence of the Holy Spirit the preaching event is a lost cause. Properly understood, true motivation comes when the proclamation allows the hearer to be confronted by the truth of the text and the one who stands beyond the text, our Lord Jesus Christ.
In properly motivating, the preacher must be sure, as far as possible, that his own motives are for the kingdom and not for personal gain. Far too often the call to church growth stems from a desire to see one’s name on the list of rapidly-growing churches, or to pay for newly-acquired or desired buildings. The matter of motives is difficult to sort out and can be accomplished only through prayer and personal examination under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Each minister needs to ask: When I seek to motivate a congregation to action, is it from a desire to see them move forward in genuine ministry and spiritual growth, for personal gain, or due to frustration with the situation?
Sermons preached out of frustration manipulate a few but motivate even fewer and are counterproductive over time because they use up one’s credibility with those who realize what is transpiring. The shame of it is that few ever ask the question, “Why is the pastor frustrated?” but reproach him for being frustrated.
Secondly, on the whole, the motivation must be positive, not negative. I realize there are negative messages in the Bible, especially by the prophets and even by our Lord, but these never constituted the bulk of our Lord’s preaching ministry. Further, even in the prophets who proclaimed God’s judgment upon His people, there was always an element of hope and the message that one day God’s people would be restored.
Preaching has become associated with negativity; when someone is harping about a matter they are often heard to say, “I don’t mean to be preaching ….” The gospel is good news, and the call to discipleship and Christian living is a call to be blessed by God and to live life the way it works, the way God intended for us to live it.
The call to a godly lifestyle is not so much a call to stop doing certain things, as it is to live positively the teachings of our Lord so we have a fulfilled life. This is certainly a call to the positive, and not to negative preaching and manipulation.
Third, we motivate not manipulate when we treat our congregation as adults and not as children, by leaving the ultimate response to the hearer. I am not thinking here of moral issues, for those are ones that demand the preacher “tell it like it is.” In our amoral and immoral world where values have been relativized to the extent that “anything goes,” the preacher of God must speak clearly and unequivocally. However, in the broad arena of faith there are many variables that make once-and-for-all-time pronouncements extremely difficult for the sensitive pastor. It is one matter to preach the biblical standard of tithing and stewardship, but quite another to say that anyone who does not tithe is not a Christian.
Likewise, any area of life can be used for either manipulation or motivation. The question comes down to this: Am I viewing my congregation as children or as adults? If they are children, then I tell them explicitly what to do and how to do it. If they are adults, then I lay out for them the guiding principles of the Bible and then let them make the final commitment for themselves. Jesus never violated human autonomy and we should not either.
Further, manipulation can occur whenever the preacher uses language and/or stories designed to evoke an emotive response. Please do not misunderstand me: emotions are created by God and are involved in our religious faith commitment. However, to specifically design sermons to pull emotional strings so that “decisions” are made is ungodly, unbiblical, and unChristlike.
Most of us have heard the usual “preacher stories” which circulate from generation to generation and are designed to evoke a sympathetic and emotional response. I wish they could all be buried and never resurrected. I am so glad that our Lord never resorted to such tactics but spoke to the mind as well as to the heart in issuing the call to discipleship.
A final aspect of this issue regards congregational expectations. Many have been so manipulated that they no longer recognize it; they almost expect it to take place, and are uncomfortable when it does not occur. The usual scenario is that the person experiences remorse and guilt over the sin being propounded upon, undergoes a catharsis in feeling rightly punished, and goes forth without any real resolve to change behavior or without any plan of action to implement the objective of the sermon. The feeling is that “I got what was coming to me and now that I’ve paid my penance I can continue on about life.”
The problem is that even with manipulation the desired action is still not forthcoming. This type of preaching tends to produce sorrow of the moment but not godly repentance. We need to educate our people that this type of preaching is counterproductive, unbiblical, and not worthy of our Lord.
What constitutes proper motivation? An appeal to the love of God as seen in Jesus Christ as the foundation for our living the life of faith as revealed in Holy Scripture; this is motivation and not manipulation. As a fellow pastor said to me: “If the love of God and what Christ has done for them on Calvary cannot motivate them, then how in the world do they expect me to do it?” Good question.

Share This On: