Sermons Classified by Psychological Method

For many conservative evangelicals even the thought of preaching with a Psychological Method is repugnant; yet in his book 'The Craft of Sermon Construction' W. E. Sangster makes a fairly compelling case that it is at least something to be aware of. His thesis is that inherent in the nature of preaching there will be some form of relationship between the preacher and the congregation; the preacher will give some kind of impression. Further, whilst it is possible to educate the minds of men on a purely intellectual level the will of man will only be swayed after at least some emotional engagement. He suggests that the extent to which a congregation is gripped by a message will depend on the skill to which the preacher harnesses the emotional development of a sermon with its intellectual one. Perhaps less convincingly Sangster proceeds to suggest that whilst the educated may be engrossed and persuaded by ideas the less educated will relate better to the progression of emotion. He does state, and observation would aver his opinion, that a sermon which appears to drag on is usually one in which the preacher has allowed the emotional climax to occur significantly before the end of the material. He argues for a pattern in which minor peaks are scaled during the sermon but in which they all point to a major emotional impact towards the end. Based upon the preceding justification he then details four major psychological methods which can be applied to preaching.


Sangster rightly notes that the authoritative model is the one most usually suited to the delivery of Biblical Exposition. If we believe that the Word of God has authority then we should deliver it with power and authority. The ability to deliver with authority is predicated on the conviction of our calling; if God has chosen to use us to deliver His Word today then we are chosen to deliver it with His seal. The concept is easy but the execution is complex and involves the walking of a very thin line. On the one hand the preacher must guard against underselling the authority of his text. The Word of God is not to be offered for consideration; it is the Word of God. Conversely the preacher must guard against imputing the authority of the Word to himself. Confidence in the text must not be manifest as pomposity or arrogance. He suggests that part of the solution is to attribute his authority to preach as being to the office of the preacher rather than to the preacher himself. Sangster does not mention, but one should note, that one must also carefully distinguish between confidence in the text and confidence in one's own interpretation of the text[1].


Sangster guards against any charge of the persuasive method being manipulative by asserting that when using this method one must declare ones purpose from the outset. He likens the situation to a courtroom where one must declare ones position during the opening remarks. He does allow for the suppression of one or two details in the opening to allow for the element of surprise later; but essentially he argues for openness. Interestingly Sangster sees the force of an intellectual argument as being a potential hindrance to the persuasion of will. He believes the line must be walked to persuade the mind without antagonizing the will. A key element in persuasion is the genuinely affectionate nature of the preacher; if he has a love for those to whom he is preaching then it will add emotional winsomeness to the message. Going further empathy can allow the character of the preacher to disappear in the mind of the hearer so that they themselves are having the thoughts that the preacher is expressing. This method is naturally vital for evangelistic preaching.


Sangster defines the co-operative method as one in which the preacher starts in the position of the audience and then explores the truth with them. He may start with some particular knotty problem or text and then discuss the method used to reach a conclusion. Sangster clearly states that in such a method the preacher must actually have an extremely clear idea as to where he is heading so as not to lead the congregation astray. Nonetheless he encourages the use of expressions such as 'do you suppose' and 'we might consider'. The benefit suggested for this form of preaching is that it closes the social divide between the pulpit and the pew. Personally I would observe that one can preach this form of sermon as effectively if one makes clear that one is retracing ones steps for all to see; rather than pretending that one is making the journey for the first time. Thus one might use 'I wondered if ?'; whilst it does place the preacher ahead of the congregation temporally few will resent that the preacher prepared his notes before preaching!


As Sangster observes his final method is by far the most controversial and dangerous. In the subversive method one takes a position which is entirely contrary to truth and seeks to defend it. During the defense one deliberately admits to weaknesses in one's own argument with the view to the false truth being adequately discredited in the minds of the hearers.  This method is sufficiently unnatural that Sangster spends two pages giving detailed examples of how it might be used. Essentially it is the sarcastic one-liner turned into a thirty minute art-form. Sangster notes that this method is best deployed sparingly, by experience preachers and to quick-witted audiences. He does believe the method to be particularly valuable when preaching to the academic as the oddity of the approach may well arrest their attention. Again I would observe that the inherent dishonesty of the method can be obviated by a simple prefix of 'one might argue that' whilst retaining much of the intellectual strength of a reductio ad absurdum presentation.


Sangster's argument for considering the psychological relationship between speaker and hearer is compelling. Once that argument is accepted then the statement that we need to relate that relationship to the subject matter is clear and the downside of reaching the emotional summit too early is apparent. I think the four psychological methods have merit especially if stripped of their showmanship. If one is simply stating the Word of God then have authority; if one is adding interpretation then make the distinction clear. If one is setting out to persuade then declare ones purpose and fearlessly invite the audience to decide. If one is attempting to demonstrate a method of exploring then feel free to detail the route taken. If one is aiming to show the absurdity of a commonly held position then show the difficulty of defending that position. The bottom line however is to remember that the Word of God is designed to appeal to the Spirit as well as the Mind.


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