Impression or Information: What Is Your Objective in Preaching?

August 20, 2013

When you preach do you preach primarily to impart information to your listeners or to make an impact and impression on your listeners?

This is an important question, the answer to which may reveal what you truly believe about the purpose of preaching.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones weighs in on this question while discussing the preaching of Jonathan Edwards.

The first and primary object of preaching… is to produce an impression. It is the impression at the time that matters, even more than what you can remember subsequently… Edwards, in my opinion, has the true notion of preaching. It is not primarily to impart information; and while [the listeners are taking] notes you may be missing something of the impact of the Spirit. As preachers we must not forget this. We are not merely imparters of information. We should tell our people to read certain books themselves and get the information there. The business of preaching is to make such knowledge live. . . . What we need above everything else today is moving, passionate, powerful preaching. It must be ‘warm’ and it must be ‘earnest’. (“Jonathan Edwards and the Crucial Importance of Revival,” in The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors, 360, emphasis mine)

Here’s what Edwards himself writes about the matter:

The main benefit obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind at the time, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered. And though an after-remembrance of what was heard in a sermon is oftentimes very profitable; yet, for the most part, that remembrance is from an impression the words made on the heart at the time; and the memory profits, as it renews and increases that impression. (Vol. 1, 394, emphasis mine)

I think this is an important issue that needs to be discussed, and here are some of the relevant questions related to the discussion.

  1. What is the proper relationship between information and impact in preaching?
  2. How concerned should preachers be that their listeners remember and retain the information presented in a sermon?
  3. Should we encourage our listeners to take notes while we preach? Does this encourage an informational view of preaching?
  4. Should an expository series through a book of the Bible consist of individually-packaged, self-contained sermons, or is it okay for one sermon to bleed into the next?
  5. Should we view preaching primarily in terms of content or as an event?
  6. Should our objective in preaching be shaped to some degree by the occasion or setting of our preaching?
  7. What is the measure of a successful sermon?
  8. In what sense, if any, should the preacher view himself as a teacher?
  9. Does biblical exposition consist primarily of providing commentary on the text along with pertinent historical and cultural background information?
  10. What is the place of rhetoric in preaching? How much attention should preachers give to their rhetorical strategies?
  11. What difference does one’s view on this issue make in terms of delivery and style in preaching?

My concern is that those who are committed to expository preaching (unpacking the text in its context) often lack a clear and forceful purpose for communicating all that good exegetical and contextual information.

Are we asking ourselves on a regular basis “Why am I giving people this information? What effect or impact do I hope it has on the way they think, feel, and act?”

And then, just how passionate am I that people respond biblically to this information? If I am seeking to impact my audience with the truth, I cannot be like the mailman who delivers the mail but doesn’t really care if anyone reads it. He simply delivers the goods. If he manages to get the right mail in the right box, he’s done his job successfully.

Preachers who are seeking to make an impression with the truth, on the other hand, are not content until the mail is delivered faithfully and read and understood and responded to.

Question: How would you answer one or more of the questions above?

Related Post:

Preaching to Impress: Conveying a Superlative Sense of God’s Glory

Kerry McGonigal

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In Adam by birth but in Christ by grace. That's my story. Husband to one and father of three. Pastor, homiletics teacher, and passionate proponent of expository preaching. If you like what you've read and want to be notified of future posts, take a second and subscribe via RSS or email (on the right sidebar). Opinions expressed here are my own.

6 responses to Impression or Information: What Is Your Objective in Preaching?

  1. Good reminder and interesting perspective, especially in light of the accounts of Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon and other times where God was indeed at work through His messenger.
    I think the key is what do preachers want people to be impressed with: The Text and it’s Author or the messenger and his outline? The intended application of the Text to realign the listener’s heart-posture or the high level of the speaker’s homiletical prowess?
    If the subject of our preaching is God and His glory, then how could we not endeavor in preaching to impress people with Him through His eternally impressive Text? To not do so would be a waste of their time and a humbling of God’s Word instead of an exaltation of its grandeur. While God’s Spirit can indeed speak His Word and impact hearts through base forms (He once used a donkey), this does not give us license to be lazy and base in our preparation and presentation of His Truth.

    • Thanks for your comment, Samuel. You’re right. It’s possible to work so hard to get people to remember our outlines and get all our “points” and yet fail to impress them with the glory of God and the power of His word.

  2. You nailed this, bro! Grateful for the conversation…

    DMLJ & Edwards speak from the grave on this topic.

    “I don’t think ministers are to be blamed for raising the affections of their hearers too high, if that which they are affected with be only that which is worthy of affection, and their affections are not raised beyond a proportion to their importance, or worthiness of affection. I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.”

    – Jonathan Edwards [1758], The Great Awakening (WJE Online Vol. 4) , Ed. C. C. Goen

    • That’s good, Ian. Thanks for sharing. “They are affected with nothing but the truth,” Edwards says–so it’s not truth or affection, as if the two must be pitted against each other. It’s sincere and appropriate affection elevated by the truth. These are voices that need to be resurrected for our day.

  3. Good thoughts, friend. Here are some thoughts regarding a few of your questions.
    Q1 – My thoughts are that it is the Scriptural information that should impact the preacher/listener. When we read the scripture, there is no drama presentation, no video feed, no choreography, and no background music. God gives His Word in written form, which impacts the affections through the mind/heart of the listener. My desire is to impart accurate biblical information, which the Holy Spirit takes and influences the listener, making an impact on their lives.
    Q3 – I encourage my church family to take notes, using the outline I provide for them. I do this, at least in part, to teach them that there is a logical flow to scriptural truth, which leads them to the right biblical information regarding a text, and is intended to lead them to a proper response in light of the truth/information presented.
    Q4 – I think it is important that God’s people see a flow through a book of scripture. So when we preach expositionally through a book of the Bible, we should be showing what the connection is to not just the immediate context, but also within the structure/message of the entire book. However, i also think it wise to form each message as its own “identity.”

    Just some thoughts.

    • TJ, thanks for taking the time to interact with some of these questions. It’s helpful to get your perspective as a pastor in the trenches. As a listener, I know I benefit from taking notes. It keeps me on task and I still find my affections engaged unless the speaker’s focus is purely on filling in the blanks or something like that. But that’s me. Others says it makes them feel like they’re listening to a lecture in school. 🙂 I’m sure the same could be said of using PowerPoint slides. I think regardless of our particular methodology we need to internalize the truth and endeavor to answer the “So what?” question for our listeners. When you consider the nature of Paul’s letters, for example, you realize that Paul never wrote without some applicational or situational purpose driving him. So the doctrine (the information, if you will) was never purpose-less. He had a Spirit-inspired rhetorical goal he was aiming at and he went after it passionately and usually quite logically. So we follow his logic out to his purpose, or see how his purpose drives his logic, and therein lies the point and impact of the text. And I think you’re right about the need to show people how a text fits into the structure and message of the entire book because in many cases that’s where the applicational point and impact lies. It’s not apparent until you step back and consider the whole. I also think some of the impact comes from exegeting the emotion or tone of the text. Not only does the text convey meaning but it communicates a certain pathos, which, if captured, can be transferred into the preaching event. At that point both the content and spirit of the passage are being faithfully communicated. This ensures that the affections of the preacher are biblically informed and balanced. And since each text may have different “feel” to it, the sermons of a biblically faithful preacher will likely reflect the wealth and variety of godly affections. Anyway, lots more could be said. Thanks again for your input, and happy birthday one day in advance!