One of the preacher’s jobs is to persuade people away from worldly ways of thinking toward a biblical worldview. We are called to convince people that what the Bible says is true, that the implications of its truthfulness ought to matter to them, and that when its truthfulness is embraced it affects how they live every moment of their life. Since growing in holiness is a lifelong process, we need to call even the most mature Christian away from opinions that are out of accord with Scripture.
It would be nice if persuading our congregations of these things was as simple as constructing a sound argument. Unfortunately, even bulletproof logic can fail to change people’s hearts. In the midst of our sermons, we often think that we are articulating a biblical position with impeccable precision, all while the young professional struggles to see himself as a part of the story we are telling, the stay at home mom can’t see how this applies to dirty diapers, and the high school student is just plain bored. This happens every week to every preacher.
Therefore, the task of preaching requires more than theological accuracy, it requires congregational accuracy – as in accurately aiming your sermon at your congregation in such a way that persuades them to embrace the Bible’s view of life and this world. It doesn’t matter how sharp your arrow is if it’s not pointed at the target.
So how do you become more persuasive? How can we convince people that God’s Word ought to make a difference in their life? Why does it take more than a good argument?
People need more than just a sound argument
John Frame, in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, defines effective persuasion as the point when “I have accepted those laws and realities into my own value system” (151). It’s taking the step from understanding what the preacher is saying to owning it. So the head is not the only part of the person that needs convincing. The heart does, too.
Frame continues, “We are not seeking merely to validate statements but to persuade people” (151). Because people are people, they are emotionally invested in the beliefs and opinions they hold. It’s not that they simply haven’t come across a better argument. It may be due to something they or a loved one has experienced. It might be because of some unfulfilled desire. Whatever it is, everyone has an incentive for believing what they believe that goes beyond the logic. This is why people find it so easy to hold contradictory positions. It has little to do with logic and much more to do with their hearts.
It’s your job to show them how their deepest desires are met in the gospel. It’s your job to show them how sin and sinful ways of thinking don’t really pay off in the end. The incentives are ultimately empty. As they begin to see this – over time, not over night – they will become more open to what the Bible teaches.
Three mistakes that kill the persuasiveness of your sermons
The wise pastor makes an effort to preach convincing sermons. This is why the Book of Proverbs points out the need to be intentionally persuasive with our words. When we fail to take the advice of Proverbs, we kill the persuasiveness of our sermons. How so?
One way pastors kill their persuasiveness is by being unnecessarily offensive. “The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness,” (Proverbs 16:21, ESV). The “sweetness of speech” doesn’t need to be fake smiling the whole time, nor does it mean sugar coating the truth. It simply means that you discern the best way for something to come across in order for people to receive it. I recently came across a D.L. Moody quote that encapsulated this idea wonderfully: “When you’re winsome, you win some.”
Another way pastors lose persuasive is through simple lack of effort. “The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips” (Proverbs 16:23, ESV). Notice how the verse says, “adds persuasiveness.” The wise pastor realizes that the words don’t do the job all by themselves, but that they need something additional to get the job done. This is the difference between marinating and seasoning a steak as opposed to just throwing it on the grill. That takes extra work on your part, but your dinner guests certainly appreciate it. The same is true for your sermons. It takes extra effort to consider how something would most effectively come across, but you will find more people embracing what you are preaching.
A third persuasiveness killer is impatience. “A ruler can be persuaded through patience, and a gentle tongue can break a bone” (Prov. 25:15, HCSB). People rarely adopt a new way of thinking the first time they are confronted with it. It usually takes hearing an argument several times in many different ways before they start to see its validity. Yet so many pastors try to do all their convincing in just one sermon. Take your time. As you grow in patience, your tongue will grow gentler, too, which will help you avoid the first persuasiveness killer above.
Our hope for persuasive preaching: the Holy Spirit
Fortunately, no one is a match for the persuasive power of the Holy Spirit. When we remember that in the midst of our sermon preparation and our preaching, we open ourselves to his leading. He will help us package our sermons and preach them in a way that softens hard hearts. And he will even work on our hearts, too, persuading us away from our worldly ways of thinking, as well.