One of the components of a traditional education in the Ancient World was the ability to use rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of using words, particularly the spoken word, in order to persuade people of your cause. Thus rhetoric is of importance to politicians, social reformers and preachers alike. We do not often link the word rhetoric to the topic of sermon presentation but the connection is there. How words are used, the speed at which they are used, will make a huge difference as to whether the content and meaning of words are communicated to an audience. We all know how some preachers can move us while others are dull and uninspiring. We also know that most long sermons seldom achieve their aim of persuading a congregation of anything. No doubt we can think of many other reasons why some sermons often fail to hit the mark.
The word rhetoric carries with it the idea of contrivance or technique in the art of using words. One could even speak of trickery being implied when we talk about rhetoric being employed. I want us to think about some of the typical ‘tricks’ that are used as rhetorical devices in sermons because once we can identify them, they cease to have power over us.
A typical rhetorical technique used by the evangelist Charles Finney in the 19th century and his many followers since, was to use words to bring the audience to some sort of emotional crisis. I have heard this standard ‘conversion call’ many times over the years and it has become, to say the least, a little stale. The typical exponent of the call will begin by talking about his own experience of conversion and will often lace it with details of the unregenerate life. This tale of pre-conversion days describe how smoking, alcohol and bad language were leading the preacher to certain perdition and the flames of hell. These will be described with great detail and even relish. Then the change, the conversion came and as a result the preacher can now look forward to the bliss of heaven. The congregation is then invited to come to a point of decision. Do they want to join the swearers, the sexually depraved and the drinkers in the flames of hell or are they ready to make the act of belief in the saving power of Christ? This approach, particularly when it is heard for the first time, is not without its rhetorical power. Many have heard such a message and have gone forward, buoyed up with the emotion of the occasion. Some may even have become Christians for the long term as the result of this message. But there are, of course, problems.
The first problem is that the emotions of an evening meeting among huge crowds do not always survive the cold light of the following day. When I was a parish priest, I would occasionally receive commendations from the Billy Graham crusades pointing me to individuals who had signed a piece of paper at a rally. The pledge to re-link individuals to the church they were connected to already was an indication of the ecumenical sensitivity of the later phase of the Graham crusades. On the two occasions when this happened, the individual concerned was embarrassed to receive a visit and played down the significance of what had happened. Certainly nothing came of it. Meanwhile those individuals had entered the statistics of the Billy Graham organisation as people who had responded to ‘the call.’ The second problem, and this is more serious, is that many of the people who made a ‘decision’ did so in response to the moment of real terror that was placed in them by the rhetoric of the speaker. I myself attended a meeting run by David Watson as part of his mission to the University of Oxford in 1974. I had heard that he was a rising star in the evangelical world and I was hoping to hear a fresh presentation of the Gospel. But no, even David Watson stuck with the Finney script of the moment of decision. We were called to decide between heaven and hell and the decision had to be made at that moment. To say that such evangelism is exploitation of deep-seated fears of annihilation is perhaps an understatement. The words uttered in the context of evangelical meetings of this kind do have the power to unsettle, at the very least, most normal people. The vulnerable, as Chris often tells us, are particularly sensitive to this kind of pressure from the man at the front. (They are normally male.) Should emotional decisions be made in the context of group pressures, stirring music and strong rhetoric, not to mention blood curdling threats?
A separate blog post is needed to unpack the rhetoric of the charismatic renewal but it can be said here that there well-known techniques of creating the kind of crowd excitement that makes charismatic phenomena more likely. I will be talking about something called ‘voice-roll’ which is used to great effect by some charismatic preachers. Also, as a brief comment, it is hard to see how charismatic phenomena are reproduced week after week, unless some rhetorical and other techniques are applied by the leader up front.
The link between rhetoric and preaching, particularly conversion preaching, seems clear. Perhaps in our discussion we can share our experience of this kind of preaching and ask the pertinent question. When you extract the rhetorical devices, the emotional pressure and the induced terror, what exactly is left of the Good News? Is there anything we can retain from this kind of preaching which is wholesome?