The Preacher Trap

A little while ago I wrote about “The Teacher Trap” where teachers of the faith place themselves morally above those that they teach.

But there is another aspect to this vein of corruption that I like to call The Preacher Trap.

This goes beyond the usual problem of hypocrisy where we do not practice what we preach. All of us fall short of this in one way or another.

No, here I am talking particularly about those who have been given the charism of actual preaching in the same way that others may have been given the charism of teaching. While there is a great deal of overlap between the two, they have a fundamental distinction. Teaching involves helping people know and understand certain moral or religious precepts. Preaching primarily is about moving a person with words towards the Kingdom of God.

Another way to look at it is that teaching is aimed at the head and preaching is aimed at the heart. One involves the gift of clarity, the other involves the gift of rhetoric. Again, these often overlap, but I’m sure we’ve all encountered good teachers who were not good preachers and good preachers that were not very good teachers.

So here I am dealing with those who seek to move the hearts of men and women by the power of their words. The impact of this type of speaking cannot be overstated. Maya Angelou once said “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This points to the lasting impact a powerful preacher can have.

In my own life, I can look to its turning point when I encountered Fr. Larry Richards. His ministry as a preacher cut through me like a sword and broke open the hardness of my heart. I know hundreds, if not thousands, of people who could say the same thing of him. In the preacher there is great power.

But in that power there is always great danger.

There is an art to preaching and not everyone has a talent for it. But for those that do, they use the full force of their rhetorical skills to pull at every heartstring. Stand up comedians will often talk about why they put up with abuse from hostile audiences: because when the comedy does work, making people laugh feels amazing. In that moment you have a kind of control over how they feel. If you are performing an emotional scene as an actor, it is incredibly gratifying to see others moved to tears by what you have done. A good preacher will know how to use every rhetorical tool to move the emotions of the audience in one way or another to bring them to Jesus.

But the trap involves confusing feeling with succeeding.

It takes no special grace from heaven to move people’s passions. People from all different faith backgrounds have learned how to stir the emotions of men to action. The preacher may also develop these skills through time and training or natural talent. With a simple turn of phrase he can make a person laugh or cry. But the trap is to confuse the emotional experience of the audience with a spiritual one.

A person can have a profound spiritual experience by means of a deeply cathartic emotional sermon. But it is also possible that the experience goes no further than the emotions. Remember the Parable of the Sower where the seed that fell on rocks represent those that heard the Word of God with joy, but then fell away quickly.

The preacher can fall into the trap of thinking that he is succeeding in saving souls by the power of his words. This thought by itself is incorrect.

If the preacher can move people emotionally, then all he knows is that he incited their passions. There is no guarantee that this will lead to a permanent shift in the disposition of the soul. Also, any human action alone is insufficient for the salvation of a soul. This activity is completely dependant upon the grace of God. The preacher needs to remember that he is merely an instrument of the Divine. He must not confuse his power in moving hearts with saving souls.

Should he fall into this trap, it will lead to a corruption in pride. He will begin to think himself powerful in his skill to shape people’s lives. He will focus less on his own personal holiness and rather upon more dynamic ways to shock and entertain the audience. Preaching will begin to devolve into mere performance.

And in his interior heart there will begin to grow a gnawing doubt. CS Lewis warned those who defended the Christian faith that doing so would bring in them doubt. He said, “No doctrine of that faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate “ It does not mean that the content is incorrect. But what it means is that you feel as though the power of your words and intellect are the foundation of that doctrine. But we all know how fallible we are, so we look at that doctrine as perhaps equally fallible.

The preacher will move people to faith, thinking he is doing so by his power alone. But he will feel less connected to the truth he is preaching in his own heart.

So what is the solution to this trap?

Above all it is prayer. The preacher must remember that success or failure is not in his hands, but God’s. He must always remember that even if he elicits an emotional response, even that seems to bring about immediate religious fervor, that this is not the end but the means. The fiery sermon is to the soul like the blacksmith’s furnace which heats the metal and makes it pliable. But it is the grace of God, not the powerful words, that shape, strengthen, and temper that steely soul.

And the power of God’s grace can only be brought about through humble, submissive prayer. By getting on his knees and begging God’s help in reaching souls, the preacher acknowledges that God does not need him to accomplish His work. Yet God invites the preacher to be a co-worker in the vineyard of the Lord. This will help him remember that the most powerful words without God’s grace will vanish like puffs of smoke.

But even the crudest words infused with the grace of God have the power to move mountains.

Copyright 2016, W.L.Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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