Exhort? Or Evoke?

Several years ago, I was speaking with a friend on the difference between exhortational preaching and evocative preaching.

Exhortational preaching challenges. Urges. Implores. It is filled with phrases like “you should” and “we ought” and “do this” and “consider that.” It implores people to change beliefs and behaviors based on the propositions included in the sermon.

Exhortational preaching is deductive in its logic. By that I mean it begins with the point and then systematically seeks to prove and/or demonstrate that point. The congregation doesn’t have to wait for the answer to the sermon’s dilemma; it instead joins the pastor on a journey to see why the answer makes sense and how it applies to life.

Evocative preaching is different. It seeks to evoke a response in the hearer; to craft the kind of experience that moves the emotions before it speaks to the mind. It uses fewer imperatives and asks more rhetorical questions. It’s heavy on images, often leaves the “punch line” to the end, and sometimes leaves the implications of the message in the hands of the listener. The experience of the message will empower people to change beliefs and behaviors.

Evocative preaching, then, is inductive in its logic. It begins with life, raises questions, creates tension, and then seeks to see how Scripture intersects with dilemma in a way that brings meaning, power, and change.

I believe evocative preaching communicates well with 21st Century people — people who are often skeptical of authority and yet accustomed to receiving their information from screen-based images. I attempt to be more evocative than exhortational in my messages — though I’m not sure how often I reach the goal.

When done well, evocative preaching can even open the way for exhortational preaching: as the proclaimer and engages emotions, he or she then has the trust, space, and freedom to issue challenges. Even blunt ones.

Back in 2014, as part of an Elijah-based sermon series called Lost & Found, I delivered a sermon called Lost Religion. The message dug into the story of the contest at Carmel in the prophets of Baal fail – miserably so – to ignite a bull carcass while Yahweh through Elijah does so with effortless ease. The sermon’s journey that day landed at this bottom line:

The gods you make will always let you down. The God who made you will never let you go.

To bring home that point – to evoke trust and assurance – the message closed this way:

Down in rural Florida, a little boy was walking near a pond near the family home. (Child, water, FLA . . . you know what’s next).

As happens down there, a gator bit on to the boy’s legs. Fortunately, the boys’ mother was near, saw what had happened, was filled w/ adrenaline, and grabbed his little arms. Tug of war started. More tug. More war. The gator was stronger but the mother was more determined. Great thing was, a farmer drove by, heard the screams, had a gun in his gun rack, took aim, and shot the gator dead (Dead bull AND gator in one sermon; sorry).

Remarkably the boy survived though he had some nasty scars on his legs. Several weeks later a reporter came to the hospital room to do an update. He asked the boy if he could see the scars on his legs. He pulled sheets over so he could.

But then the boy did something else: “But look at my arms! I have some great scars there, too. I have them because my Mom wouldn’t let me go.”

She made him; she wouldn’t let him go.

The gods you make will always let you down. The God who made you will never let you go.

Very little exhortation needed in that moment because the evocation was complete.

If you’re a constant exhorter, try giving evocative preaching a shot. Chances are your exhortation will stick even better!

*For a resource of evocative sermons, I recommend The Collected Sermons Of Fred B. Craddock, Westminster John Knox Press

**For another resource of evocative sermons, try my 2015 release The Storm Before The Calm, published by Abingdon Press and available here.