Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What Can Preachers Learn from Politicians

image The title of this post may seem ludicrous or even insulting to some.  But in reading an article in Newsweek, I think that preachers might benefit from paying attention to a lesson that politicians have learned well. 

Bryan Chappel (president of Covenant Seminary and author of Christ Centered Preaching) speaks of the three elements Aristotle says are found in every persuasive message:

  • Logos -the verbal content
  • Pathos -the emotional character
  • Ethos-the perceived character of the speaker.

The Newsweek article addressed the second (Heaven forbid we let the candidates influence our verbal content).  But the pathos and (and to a lesser degree the ethos) is a different matter. 

The article is entitled "When It's Head versus Heart, the Heart Wins."  Sharon Begley refers to several books on voters' behavior to note that (this is not big surprise) voters decide much more based on emotion than knowledge.  One of the sources she quotes is How Voters Decide by Richard Lau of Rutgers Univ.  Lau states: "When voting your party doesn't apply [as in a primary], and when the candidates don't differ much on the issues, you have to choose on some other basis. That's when you get people voting by heuristics [cognitive shortcuts] and going with their gut, with who they most identify with, or with how the candidates make them feel."

Begley comments "What has emerged from the volatile and unpredictable primary season so far is that the candidates who can make voters feel enthusiasm and empathy—and, perhaps paradoxically, anxiety—are going to make it to November and maybe beyond."

She gives examples:

Campaign ads therefore aim for the heart even when they seem to be addressed to the head. One Clinton ad shows a skydiver in free fall against a background of headlines about the housing bust and stock-market gyrations. A parachute opens—and Clinton's image appears. The emotional goal is clear: stir up fear and anxiety about the economy, then present Clinton as savior. In another ad, Clinton talks about her economic-stimulus plan, followed by a voice-over warning that "we know you can't solve economic problems with political promises." By reminding voters that these are risky times, the ads are meant to make voters feel anxious and thus more receptive to the argument that this is no time to gamble on a relative newcomer such as Obama.

When voters consider candidates' positions, they are drawn to the candidate who assuages fear, inspires hope, instills pride or brings some other emotional dividend. People are not dispassionate information-processing machines. "When a candidate says he is pro-life or antiwar, for example, he is giving voters a policy position but also appealing to strong emotional elements," says Democratic strategist Carter Eskew, who is not affiliated with any campaign this year. In Clinton's health-coverage ads, "she identifies with people she says have been forgotten or invisible. It's a policy position with an emotional appeal."

The article goes on to note that the most common emotions "in play" are fear, the yearning for security, hope, a desire for inspiration and a wish for a certain level of comfort with a candidate." (The Newsweek article can be found here.)

So what does this lengthy summary of the article have to do with preaching? 

It is a reminder that logos is not enough.  To simply share information will inform, but not move people.  If the goal of preaching is life transformation, information alone does not transform lives.  We must be aware of the importance of the emotional message.  This is not to sanction manipulation (as many of the political ads seem to do), but it causes us to ask the question, how will/should this message make people "feel"?  Does the message reach people on both levels?

This is not to attempt to do the work of the Holy Spirit, but it is to recognize that our work is on several levels. 

Give me feedback.  How do we do this without being manipulative?  Do YOU think that this is preempting the work of the Holy Spirit? Why or why not? 

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