June 13, 2024

A Heart-to-Heart: Delivering a Message That Speaks to the Hearts of the Congregation

Today’s blog will be going over how speaking from the heart can help a sermon go from practical to personal.

Noah Cecil

When it comes to studying the Bible, we can sometimes let the mind take over the heart. We might get swept up in theology, rather than looking at what faith looks like in our day-to-day lives. 

While it’s important for pastors to teach on the Word of God with sound doctrine, being well versed in the Scripture, it’s also important that pastors are able to teach from a life lived out in faith. By speaking from personal experience, pastors can illustrate what it might look like for us to live by faith, how it isn’t perfect, and why we’re still forgiven.

Today’s blog will be going over how speaking from the heart can help a sermon go from practical to personal. 

An Absence of the Heart

Have you ever noticed the cliche in movies where there’s a character (typically a child or teenager) who’s forced to sit through a liturgical service (usually because their parents dragged them there, their school requires chapel attendance, or it’s a major holiday), and they’re sighing in boredom as a very slow-spoken, mono-toned pastor or priest, reads page after page of Leviticus?

While I’m sure this might’ve been some people’s church experience, I personally haven’t been to a church as drab as this portrayal. However, I have been in church services where I’ve felt like those bored children in the movies. 

As someone who’s grown up in the Church, I’ve sat through a lot of different services and a lot of different pastors. Some pastors might have a tendency to stay in the Scripture, teaching text by text. Other pastors may want to sit with bigger theological ideas, such as interpreting Revelation or practicing gifts of the Spirit. While these are all valid touchpoints to preach in church, it can sometimes overlook something we deal with on an everyday basis: the human experience. 

When it comes to the struggles of everyday life, I didn’t always see myself in textual readings or high spiritual concepts. My circumstances didn’t seem quite as dire as Daniel being thrown in the lion’s den, and answered prayers didn’t seem as immediate as miraculous healing. As someone who didn’t always see how the Bible related to my life as a modern American, church services could start to feel like a very slow-spoken, mono-tone pastor, reading page after page of Leviticus.

A Message With an Emotional Core

Now, hear me out. I need to make it clear that I’m not advocating for pastors to chill out on analyzing scripture, or teaching on what Paul calls the “Gifts of the Holy Spirit” in 1 Corinthians 12. 

What I am advocating for is the importance of a relatable message that speaks to the hearts of the congregants, from the heart of the pastor. Of course, this is no new concept or reinvention of the wheel, but a concept pastors have been using for centuries that the ancient Greeks might call Pathos.

“Pathos” is a term coined by the ancient philosopher Aristotle, who used the term to describe one of the three key components to persuasive writing (whether it be academic, fiction, non-fiction, argumentative essays, or speeches). According to Jennifer Calonia of Grammarly, “The word pathos is derived from the Greek word páthos, which means ‘experience,’ ‘suffering,’ or ‘emotion.’” 

Pathos is the piece of writing that touches on the emotional core of the reader/listener. The purpose of this emotional core isn’t to manipulate the audience, but (when used correctly) is to communicate the feelings that the writer/speaker is trying to convey.

As put by the St. Louis Community College, “For example, using an individual’s story about losing their home during the mortgage crisis of the 2008 Recession may be more powerful than using only statistics.”

The other two components of persuasive writing are Ethos (the writer/speaker's credibility) and Logos (logic, facts, sources). In this case: the pastor must still study and understand the Scripture and should incorporate research and sources (such as historical context, different authors, or theologians). Without these things, Calonia warns that:

“Employing exclusively pathos to persuade your audience toward your goal has its downsides. It might suggest that your argument is shaky and doesn’t have much evidence or basis in reason—for example, it’s based on a logical fallacy—or that you lack knowledge or experience (ethos) on the topic.”

What Does “Preaching to the Heart” Mean?

So what do I mean by a “message that speaks to the heart,” that doesn’t overlook the human experience? What does this look like for a pastor?

Three ways pastors can do this are:

  1. Personal Testimonies
  2. Anecdotal Testimonies
  3. Character Studies

Personal Testimonies

Testimonies are a powerful way of witnessing to others how God shapes us and works in our lives. 

On the topic of testimonies, Brian Bill of Keep Believing Ministries notes: 

“[the Apostle Paul] had just been falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the temple, was almost killed, and then arrested by the Romans. Because he was granted permission to speak to the people, he decided to share his testimony. As evidence of how powerful a testimony is, Paul’s testimony is recorded seven times in Acts and the epistles.”

Additionally, Bill says that testimonies serve as: “Encouragement for others. There’s nothing like hearing a testimony when you’re feeling discouraged and even distant from God.” 

For me, when I’m going through seasons of hardship–feeling low or discouraged–it helps to hear from the experience of others in similar seasons, how they’ve overcome those hardships, or are getting through them. There’s a feeling of unity in knowing that others have similar struggles or wrestle with questions of faith, and encouragement in seeing the growth produced from those challenges.

According to Pastor Jenny Warner of First Presbyterian Church of Bend, Oregon, “If we really believe the Word of God is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, then we will talk about our stories because that Word is still active today, still speaking into hearts and into the life of this world.”

Pastors can incorporate testimonies into their sermons by sharing personal stories, stories from fellow, consenting congregants, or guest speakers. 

Anecdotal Testimonies

While personal testimonies are a powerful way of sharing encouragement with the congregation, people (including pastors) may not always be ready to publicly share personal struggles. Additionally, sharing only within the church’s community might offer limited perspectives.

Anecdotes are helpful for drawing from stories of people around the world, and throughout history, who’ve shared their own struggles and how they overcame those struggles through faith. These stories can be drawn from biographies, books on faith or church history, essays, articles, videos, or podcasts. 

Adding anecdotes to sermons allows pastors to show how God continues to work in people’s lives throughout history, of all different backgrounds. 

Character Studies

Of course, the Bible certainly doesn’t ignore the human experience. Rather, the Bible is full of rich characters that offer universal insights on the highs and lows of what it means to be human, as well as humans' relationship to God. Though between historical and cultural differences, along with a focus on the larger context of these stories, those human elements can sometimes be lost on the listener. 

Pastors can highlight the relatable nature of biblical characters by incorporating character studies in their sermons. Character studies put us in the shoes of what people in the Bible might’ve been going through, based on their own historical and cultural context, and how it would relate to us in today’s world.

By using sermon preparation applications, pastors can generate their own character studies –– instantly giving pastors a template to work off of for an easier, more time-efficient work-flow.

In addition to developing character studies, pastors can also use these applications to generate sermon outlines, modern-day examples of scripture, and quick search Bible verses. 

Speaking From the Heart, to the Heart

Pastors take on a major role in spiritually guiding their church through faithful obedience to God and His Word. While it’s important to study the Scripture, dive into theology, and uphold doctrine, it’s also important not to overlook the personal lives of the congregation. Speaking from personal experience, sharing diverse stories from other believers, and exploring the universal relatability of biblical characters is a way of connecting to the congregation and what they might be going through. Speaking to the heart of the listener reminds us that following God is a day-to-day experience, and not something we simply study on Sundays. 

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