I am currently working on a Doctor of Ministry degree in Preaching through the Association of Chicago Theological Schools.  I am deeply passionate about preaching as a medium for communicating the Gospel.  Preaching isn’t the only means for communicating, but it has been an important part of the Church’s life.  As such, it is good practice to reflect on what we are doing as we preach.  I do not pretend to be an expert, but write this as an opportunity for me to further reflect on what I am learning and offer it to others for their own reflection.

I have been preaching now on a somewhat consistent basis for nearly a decade.  The bags under my eyes are probably in part from several “Saturday night specials” and the stress of trying to say an appropriate word to the community of faith in the preaching moment.  It has become less stressful in some ways over time.  The consistency of my preaching has improved.  But, there were still moments when I preached a sermon that proved deeply meaningful one Sunday only to be followed up the next week with something resembling a soggy firecracker.  Even after I became acquainted with various methods for preaching a sermon, it wasn’t always helpful.

It has helped me to learn about two different frameworks in a sermon.  The first framework is the structure of the sermon, which can take a variety of forms: Preaching as Celebration, Deductive, Inductive, Lowry’s Loop, Buttrick’s Homiletical Moves, etc.).  These were different ways of structure the content of a sermon.  There are many wonderful and helpful tips you can learn from a variety of these methods.  But, for me, there was still something missing.  This is where the second level of structuring illuminated my confusion and consistency in preaching.  The emotive and cognitive flow, which sounds self-evident, was something that I did not always shape well and which left sermons flatter than a Dr. Pepper that’s been sitting open for two days.  Not only did I need to structure my content; I needed to structure it to honor the emotive-cognitive arch was connects with the “intuitive” core of a person and community.  This is the double meaning of the title for this post.  Despite being inconsistent in the past, let’s become more consistent now.  And, let’s preach in a way that opens people toward a response for transformation.  Let’s preach “for a change.”

The Enlightenment was a period that was primarily focused on the cerebral comprehension of a text (i.e., scripture or any other work).  The Historical Critical method for understanding a text was the primary means utilized for getting at what a text meant.  In other words, the text held one meaning and it was the author’s original meaning, which could only be mined and understood if we were able to uncover all of the historical, factual contexts of that particular scripture.  In no way do I want to demean many of the wonderful discoveries about the historical world of scripture that emerged from that quest.

But, as Fred Craddock and many others pointed out, this created a homiletical (preaching) method that focused on an audience’s head but often left their heart disengaged.  As such, the audience could mentally assent or “believe” in a “fact” about scripture, but their lives were sometimes unaffected by these “beliefs.”  There was a disconnect created in the person through this focus on preaching as teaching for mental comprehension and assent.

So, how do we join head and heart?  Dr. Frank Thomas offers a helpful way of approaching both head and heart, cognitive and emotive, in the sermon.  His framework, which I will call the emotive/cognitive arch of a sermon, helps keep these two pieces together throughout the sermon.  Thomas points out that the emotive and the cognitive parts of ourselves cannot truly be separated.  When the emotive is in the “driver’s seat,” the cognitive is in the “back seat” asking if this experiential part of the sermon is connected to the rest of the sermon.  Vice versa, when the cognitive is leading, the emotive is asking how this connects to our lives.  It is helpful to keep in mind that both are at work; it’s just a matter of which is in focus at any given moment.

The emotive-cognitive arch has a helpful pattern for helping hearers engage in the sermon and move to a point of celebration.  The emotive-cognitive arch has an alternating pattern which has three positions: emotive over cognitive, cognitive over emotive, emotive over cognitive.  This is the three-fold pattern of the emotive-cognitive arch, which can be utilized within a number of homiletical methods (Lowry’s Loop, Craddock’s Inductive method, 3 Points and a Poem, Four Pages, etc.).  Let’s think about why this pattern is important for experiential preaching.

First, we begin with the emotive in the driver’s seat.  There are a number of ways this can be done to create emotive connection (i.e., a story, a familiar song, poetry, a joke, a physical demonstration, etc.).  The emotive connects with personal, communal experience, which creates identification and interest in the sermon itself.  If this happens, then the hearers are more open to following the preacher through the rest of the sermon.  Although the emotive is driving, the cognitive is acting like a GPS for the sermon.  Does this story connect with the rest of the sermon?  Is this going somewhere?  Does this story have a bunch of fluff?  Is this an appropriate analogy or metaphor?  Is this theologically coherent?  The cognitive shapes the emotive element, but the emotive identification at the beginning is important for the hearers.

Second, the sermon shifts to the cognitive, with the emotive helping in the background.  Here, the cognitive element is the opportunity to do some of the teaching, educating, exegetical pieces that are often necessary to comprehend the text.  This is where things like tradition, theology, philosophy might come to bear on a particular text.  But, in case we might get to “heady,” the emotive is walking alongside us asking us to make these concepts connect with our lives.  Images are the emotive vehicles of language.  As such, we can couch the theological, exegetical, historical, philosophical elements of the sermon in images that continue to allow the congregation to connect with the cognitive content.  However, images can help us keep from over-explaining.  If we have to over-explain something, it might suggest that we aren’t familiar enough with a particular topic.

Finally, the sermon switches back to the emotive as the front-runner.  This is the move toward celebration as we have resolved the complication (topic for another day) in the text/sermon.  Again, just because we are using the emotive, that does not neglect the cognitive piece.  The cognitive is still asking if the emotive elements are connected to what came before.  Is it connected with the text?  Is it connected with the situation, complication, and resolution in the sermon?  Does the celebration make too large of a leap for people to follow?  The emotive at this final part of the sermon allows us to move the cognitive part of the sermon toward the heart, engaging the whole person.

Dr. Thomas concludes that utilizing both the cognitive and the emotive in a sermon allows the congregation’s intuition, the place of core beliefs and behavior, to be changed.  The congregation has the opportunity to respond positively or negatively to a sermon (in other words, this isn’t emotional manipulation).  But, by combining both the emotive and the cognitive, it calls for some kind of response.  And, it also provides the opportunity for change.

One final note.  This post doesn’t mention the work of the Spirit in the sermon.  And, if we aren’t careful, we might conclude that the sermon doesn’t need the work of the Spirit.  That is far from true.  The Spirit should be a companion in the process of preparation, preaching, and participation.  But, for this particular post, I wanted us to diligently think through methods of how we structure sermons so that we might lessen the barriers that we mistakenly create when constructing and delivering a sermon.  And, I believe that preaching which engages the experiential center of people’s lives, both the cognitive and emotive elements, has a greater possibility of becoming deeply rooted in the lives of our congregations.

 

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