Humor, idealism, and sanctified imagination are three rhetorical tools that most preachers make use of at one time or another. We will explore why they should be avoided.
Humor in the pulpit rarely serves the intended purpose of illustrating the text of Scripture. Invariably, the only thing that it accomplishes is to cause those who listen to remember the personality of the speaker. Separating humor from the personality of the speaker, so that the congregation remembers Scripture rather than the preacher, is a great and possibly even insurmountable task.
Generally speaking, humor and exhortation form two competing and contrasting languages that cannot be mixed successfully. Exhortation carries the weight of authority. Humor has the potential to undermine the authority of the speaker by removing the sense of sacredness from the worship service. The simple fact is that people will not receive exhortation from a comedian. We should not expect those in the pew to make the mental and emotional shifts required from preacher to comedian, and then back to preacher.
Humor, if it is to be used at all in the sermon, should be used strategically and sparingly. And only in order to illumine a passage of Scripture that could not be more readily understood through more somber and reflective methods of explanation.
Because God is adequately understood through those modes of worship which are synonymous with his character, the sermon as an integral means of worship is most effective when it portrays God as he really is, holy and worthy of awe. And while the God of the Bible may very well have a robust sense of humor, the average church member does not relate to him on this basis. Why? Because God’s humor is obscure, while his awe, majesty, and wonder are plain. The most that humor in a sermon can accomplish is to explain how man relates to himself and others—not how God relates to man, or man relates to God.
Most preachers possess an idealistic temperament. This means that they are neither analytical in a positive sense nor cynical in negative sense.
I found it quite remarkable recently when I heard two pastors, one Baptist and the other Presbyterian, preach exactly the same thing. What both said was that if the people in their congregations loved one another as Christ commanded his followers to love each other, the unbelieving world would then be forced to accept the claims of the gospel. Both pastors said that the unsaved would literally be breaking down the doors to get in.
Such idealistic rhetoric does more harm than good, for it is contrary to both Scripture and reason. Should such fallacious statements be indulgently ignored by those in the pew, or should they be given a more critical review? An indulgent response is generally not beneficial either to the pastor or the listener, or to the life of the congregation as a whole. The danger with an indulgent response is that of the congregation dismissing something that sounds nonsensical and then not listening as closely the next time, when the pastor does say something that is worth listening to.
It is fair to raise the question as to whether or not idealism is an occupational hazard for ministers of the gospel. Or is it simply the case that there is a perceived rather than a real optimism inherent in the teachings of Christ? In other words, do certain ministers believe that they are somehow being false to the gospel if they do not project through their words and actions an attitude of optimism toward the future? After all, Christ’s kingdom will one day be victorious. But does this fact necessarily warrant a stubborn idealism about what happens on this earth until the time of Christ’s return?
In US culture, optimism is more prevalent than pessimism. Why is this the case? For the simple reason that optimism is easier than pessimism. In a culture where tolerance and equality are worshipped as idols, it is much easier to fit in than to stand out. Such optimism is a legacy of the can-do philosophy of freedom and opportunity which is supposedly available to every citizen and foreigner in the United States. A civic doctrine such as this has little patience with any frame of mind which might be construed as promoting doubt or negativity. In the land of opportunity, failure is not an option.
When a pastor uncritically soaks up the beliefs and values of the surrounding culture and then baptizes them in the name of Christianity, the church is ill served. Transforming civic values such as optimism and idealism into Christian virtues by adopting a pious vocabulary is a snare which preachers can all too easily fall into. The only thing that is required is for common civic terminology to be morphed into terms recognizable as Christian piety.
If a pastor prays from the pulpit that it is the fervent wish of the congregation that every person in the city becomes a Christian, those sitting in the pews would do well to ask themselves some hard questions. Such as, is this in fact God’s will? When in the history of the church has this ever occurred? The point is that logic and exhortation should complement each other, and not be in opposition.
The preacher who makes such declarations does harm on three levels. The first is to himself as an individual. The second is to the members of his congregation. And the third is to the reputation of Christianity as a whole.
The preacher who consistently uses idealism either as a conscious rhetorical tool or merely as an unnoticed expression of his own personality will lose credibility in the eyes of at least some of those in his church. Beyond this, the reputation of his congregation will also suffer. Those who visit, and then leave dissatisfied, usually will not hesitate to vocalize their concerns to others. And while such concerns are generally expressed in house, that is, among Christians, the reputation of Christianity in the broader community will also be damaged. Unbelievers who have a bias against the gospel will seize upon any opportunity to justify their unbelief. Preaching which is not connected to reality offers one such opening.
Gradualism and continuity are two aspects of change which are seldom given their due by the leader who is impatient for change. People need the opportunity to see how the new coherently connects to the old, before they will endorse change. They also need to be given adequate time to assimilate new ideas within the context of their present existence, so that bridges of transference can be clearly thought out and initiated. Church members ask the question, although not always on a conscious level, “How can I make this new idea, which is being proposed by the leaders of the church, work in my own life, and the life of my family, without causing too much disruption?”
The challenge being that the dreams which idealism promotes are not to be judged according to any outcomes achieved, but instead by the power of the incipient vision which is created within hearts and minds. Idealism is never a conclusion but merely one beginning after another. The inability of the idealist/optimist to recognize potential drawbacks inherent in projected plans and initiatives can be a significant problem. Because the visionary is so often caught up in the realm of dreams rather than reality, the stubborn nature of tradition and the status quo are seldom given adequate consideration. The status quo may be wrong to varying degrees, but it is what the lives of a majority are heavily invested in. New plans and proposals inevitably fail when a pastor attempts to initiate change too quickly and dramatically for his congregation to appreciate and follow.
Perhaps the most difficult of the three pitfalls to recognize is that of sanctified imagination. But it is helpful if we can think of the sanctified imagination of the preacher as being the verbal counterpart of superstition.
How does this work? Superstition is an attempt to bridge the gap between the natural and supernatural worlds by the use of non-rational means. Inherent within superstition is the unspoken assertion that what is most valuable in the supernatural realm lies beyond empirical verification. It is precisely at this juncture that the paths of faith and superstition diverge, each to follow its own course. Faith recognizes the mysteries inherent in revelation, yet nevertheless embraces reason as being a useful guide to that part of the Christian faith which can be empirically verified and tested. Superstition regards such a process as possessing little value.
The preacher who indulges in bouts of sanctified imagination unwittingly fulfills the same role as superstition, albeit using a non-physical, non-corporeal method. Thus, the impulse toward superstition, using the benign venue of preaching, achieves the same deleterious consequences.
While superstition typically relies upon non-verbal and non-rational forms of expression, sanctified imagination provides a convenient means by which the Protestant minister can safely (in his own mind at least) add to the biblical text. These verbal flourishes, while less obvious than the use of images and icons, should be avoided at all costs. The reason being that superstition in all its forms has the effect of blunting and softening the revelation of God’s Word. It is this very non-threatening and non-confrontational aspect which makes it so pleasing to the carnal nature of mankind. Those who listen to such flourishes and filling in of the gaps on the part of the preacher are invited subconsciously to let their imaginations wander beyond the boundaries of thought that are logically related to the text which is being explained. The result being that emotion clouds reason, and the power of God’s Word is veiled.
When a preacher uses the words “sanctified imagination” in a sermon, or when he says things such as “can you imagine” or “imagine if you will,” he is inviting the congregation to enter a realm which is much more controlled by the listeners than by Scripture. While Scripture provides a mental hedge or fence in which to contain the thoughts of the listeners, imagination effectively removes this hedge, allowing their thoughts to travel freely beyond boundaries which are logically related to the biblical text. On a subconscious level, this allows emotion, rather than reason, to govern the response of the listeners to God’s Word. The danger of such an emotional response is that the hearers, being unrestrained by the text, will invariably apply those categories of thought which are most pleasing to themselves.
For example, in a sermon dealing with the woman at the well (John 4:6-26), the listener may be invited by the pastor to imagine what might be going through the woman’s mind as she speaks with the Lord. And yet in this story, what are viewed by the pastor as being gaps in the biblical narrative are in reality not holes which need to be filled but instead silences which are meant to limit speculation. Sanctified imagination invariably becomes carnal imagination, as the both the speaker and the hearer of Scripture seek to control God’s revelation for the benefit of their own self-righteous complacency. The result is that we are no longer as concerned with extending the message of God’s truth and mercy to moral outcasts such as the woman at the well, as we are in subtly congratulating ourselves that we are not in her benighted condition.
This assertion—that a preacher’s use of his own imagination to fill in the gaps where Scripture is uncomfortably silent amounts to a form of superstition—will be difficult for some to accept. That Scripture tells us everything we need to know to live the Christian life successfully should not be news to anyone. That the Word of God does not tell us everything that we would like to know is also obvious. Throughout the history of the church, this void of information between what is required and what is desired has come to be filled in various ways by different churches according to their traditions and interpretations of Scripture. The use of images, icons, and ritualized prayer is one common method, and the answer least acceptable to Protestant churches. However, we should not be lulled into a sense of complacency regarding the desire of the flesh to seek after substitutions and addendums to Scripture that are less confrontational than God’s own Word.
Dr. Paul Flodquist is a member of the Covenant of Grace OPC in Oxnard, California. He has also taught Systematic Theology at a local Bible College.