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Rocks in the Rhetorical River: Five Essential Elements for Persuasive Preaching

by Joe Pursch on April 29th, 2011

I’ve been thinking recently about what makes a preached message persuasive. As I have done so, it has occurred to me that the preachers of the past had a benefit that modern preachers lack: a background in rhetoric.

Bible teachers in past generations were trained in rhetoric and its companion skill of logic. But many modern-day practitioners of preaching, myself included, saw those as unpleasant electives to skip in our university journey. It’s a pity that we did so, because though the times may have changed, the structure and the processes of peoples minds have not altered. The soul remains the soul, generation to generation.

This means that people think, imagine, and commit to action along the same tried-and-true lines that they always have. But today we pastors operate in a generation that is thoroughly committed to believing that people are actually, by and large, emotional creatures, completely divorced from any activity of the mind or logic. Postmodernism has, to borrow a phrase from its own vault, flattened the world of preaching into a subjective experience, powered by storytelling but bereft of thoughtful conviction. Well, I’d like to put a few wrinkles back into the landscape of your thinking about effective preaching.

What I’d like to do is to describe what preachers in earlier times understood to be the elements of a persuasive message. There used to be five commonly agreed upon points that needed to be placed in any message that a preacher of the past wielded upon the hearts and minds of the people. They have been described by many different authors on the preaching art in the past, under various titles. However, these five key elements of a persuasive message can be described with this overarching premise:

To persuade in preaching, we must appeal to:

The Reason

The Conscience

The Imagination

The Emotions

The Will 

You can see already that, in line with “older thought”, there is a linear progression to this approach. The classic preaching message began by landing upon the soil of reason by making an argument from a truth premise. That argument settles as a seed into the open soil of conscience and begins to confront the new heart of the regenerate listener. The stirred conscience sends out a seedling into the imagination, and there is birthed the first tendril of contemplation or conviction. Conviction then presses its tender folds up through the soil and touches the next element in the preaching cycle, which is that of the emotions. The emotions, under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, then produce an array of responses ranging from godly sorrow to fiery commitment, and these divinely stirred emotions finally barge their way into the decision center known as the will, where action is taken in line with the call of God through the preaching.

I believe this is the way the Word of God moves through the mind and heart of the listener, and drives along the pathway of understanding to produce commitment. Pastor friend, I want to challenge you to consider how you are building each one of these steppingstones of commitment, these Rocks in the River of Persuasion, into your preaching. It’s been a great exercise for me to revisit these elements in my own preaching work as I appeal to souls for Jesus sake.

It’s time to remember that it was not an idle statement for God to introduce His encounter with His people with this phrase “Come, let us reason together.”

Keeping the faith with you,


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