Progressive-Emotive Preaching

Progressive-emotive sermons are generally classified either by their relationship to the source material (topical, textual, expository) or by the method of their argument (inductive, deductive, dialogic). The progressive-emotive sermon, however, is defined by its intended impact on the listener.


Change in behavior, attitude, or understanding never occurs in a vacuum. It is produced by three things: psychological interaction with a variety of sensory experiences; a clear understanding of a preferred way of thinking, acting, or believing; and a viable means by which to move in that direction. The progressive-emotive sermon seeks to bring these three elements of motivation together.

There are several major decisions to make in developing the progressive-emotive sermon. The first is to select an extremely clear and precise idea of the psychological movement desired in the emotions and will of the listener. This idea must be specific enough to shape all the materials considered for inclusion in the sermon. For example, a sermon entitled “Putting Your Heart Back Together,” based upon the letter to the church in Pergamum (Rev. 2:12–17), reads that passage as indicative of the manner in which people live with the dissonance of motives and values that splinter hearts and sap spiritual energies. Only when Christ, by his Spirit, restores singular unity to one’s existence does a person find life in its fullest sense, both now and for the future. Using the metaphors of broken hearts, splintered lives, mixed motives, and the idea of putting one’s heart back together, the sermon keeps its direction true and refuses to get sidetracked by exegetical details, word definitions, or excessive historical background. Historical and grammatical studies help the preacher understand the passage more fully, but they don’t necessarily communicate the meaning or intent of the scriptural text to others in the homiletic development itself.

The second decision to make in preparing the progressive-emotive sermon is that of choosing to read broadly, to observe minutely, and to experience life meaningfully. Since one apprehends reality through constant reception of images created by a multitude of sensory experiences, the progressive-emotive sermon draws from a vast array of ideas, pictures, stories, facts, statistics, and the like as the raw material of preaching. People are rarely moved by rational argument alone. Rather, they are taken along the path of a rational argument in a convincing manner only as they see it surrounded by familiar images that attract and pictures defined by colors and sounds that direct them away from other possible walks of life.

Thirdly, the progressive-emotive sermon relies heavily on gifted storytelling. The progressive-emotive sermon does not use illustrations; it is itself an illustration, a moving picture, a living metaphor. That doesn’t mean that the progressive-emotive sermon is merely a lengthy narrative. It may be that, but it is often more rapid succession of word-pictures, incidents, common experiences, and the like, which together shape a passageway along which listeners will be encouraged to move.


In a sense, the progressive-emotive sermon is constructed visually. It attempts to see reality through the eyes of the listener and engages him or her in a quest, illuminated by Scripture, toward a new identity, a deeper knowledge, or changed behavior. Thus the idea of one path among many is always at the heart of the sermon. Sometimes the message marks progression down that path; sometimes it uncovers the glory shaping that path, and sometimes it stops at intersections where that path needs to be more clearly distinguished from other possible paths. But the outcome is always the same: movement in the inner life of the listener that produces outward changes in thought and action.

In order to achieve this, the structure of the progressive-emotive sermon depends more on the type of “moves” that David Buttrick identified in Homiletic (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987) than it does on traditional “points” and subpoints. For instance, the short tale of Simeon’s role in the Christmas story (Luke 2:21–35) might be shaped by the familiar idea of “Home for Christmas” and then carried along by a number of specific “moves”: (1) We all like to be “home for Christmas.” (2) But, surprisingly, Jesus, who stands at the heart of our celebrations, wasn’t himself “home for Christmas.” (3) Come to think of it: often, spiritually, neither are we! (4) Actually, Jesus, being away from home on that first Christmas, made it truly possible for Simeon to go home! (5) And in the restless homelessness of our lives, Jesus also gives us the opportunity to go “home for Christmas” in the truest spiritual sense.

The first “move” in this homiletic development serves as an introduction, identifying our existential place in the rush of the Christmas season. Then scriptural elements of the Simeon narrative are used as illuminated markers to guide the other “moves” of the sermon: (2) Jesus’ circumcision in the temple (2:21–24); (3) Simeon’s words to Mary about the character of her child (2:33–35); (4) Simeon’s words of praise to God (2:29–32); and (5) the spiritual journey of Simeon’s life (2:25–27). As the message unfolds, the listener journeys toward a new experience in understanding and celebrating Christmas.

A similar approach is possible for theological ideas that seem, at first, static and unmoving. They also can be made dynamic within the lives of the listeners. For example, John’s encounter with Jesus in Revelation 1 defines the manner in which the vision of the book ought to engage its readers. A progressive-emotive sermon might begin with an introduction that finds each person encountering the reality of the divine presence in his or her life in some experiential way. What does that encounter do to the person? (1) It shakes (see John fall to the ground); (2) it shelters (sense how this stronger presence protects him from the powers of the world that placed him in exile on Patmos); (3) it shapes (feel the changing contours of John’s perceptions); and (4) it sends (walk with John in his new mission).

The procedure may vary significantly with different scriptural texts or topical ideas, but these things are always necessary: keep the normative change of thought, perception, or behavior clear and central, shaping every element of the sermon’s development; and design the moves as a logical sequence of steps aimed at discovering and journeying toward the intended passageway.


A number of tools seem particularly suitable to use in enhancing the contact between the progressive-emotive message and the listener. Often these are in some way extensions of the preacher, aspects of his or her communication style already in place through personality traits. Still, the progressive-emotive sermon draws heavily on the following tools:

Clear and Contemporary Language. For the most part, the progressive-emotive sermon contains short sentences and a vocabulary that is up-to-date without being trendy or shocking. Language in the sermon should never call attention to itself by being too academic, too vulgar, too theological, or anything of the kind; rather, it ought to serve as a vehicle by which the listener and the message are connected.

Sensory Speech. Verbs of seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, touching, sensing, holding, experiencing, and the like, draw the listener in. The sermon talks in pictures; it visualizes experiences of life. It does not explain but instead seeks to take the listener by the hand and show him or her what is happening.

Threes. For some reason, most people feel most comfortable in communication with groupings of three: three similar repetitions of an idea, three supporting stories, three examples. One thought moves past too quickly, two thoughts leave one wishing for just a bit more, and four thoughts seem tedious. Three is not a number to tie oneself to slavishly, but invariably it produces a bridge of communication that is stronger than those built on fewer or greater connecting supports.

Spoken English. Spoken language precedes written language. Sermons need to be spoken aloud again and again before they are preached. If a sermon is prepared at the study desk and uttered for the first time in the pulpit it is rarely likely to carry with it the impact of a sermon that is prepared orally.

Manuscript. The volume of material needed for the journey of images and pictures in the progressive-emotive sermon suggests the writing of a full manuscript. Clarity, precision, and storytelling technique do not occur typically without reflection mined laboriously from the preacher’s consciousness and refined in mental sweat at the creative fires of trial and selection.

Patterns of speech that arise from the preacher’s mind without extensive preparation tend to become repetitious and stale. Over time, manuscripts, whether well-read or memorized, give freshness and vitality to one’s preaching.

Pace. Students of communication suggest that persons tend to be drawn toward and believe more readily the speech of a person who talks rapidly. Rapid speech engenders confidence and keeps pace with the listener’s thoughts. Yet variety in pace is also needed to reflect the variety of pace in normal speech and thus avoid jarring the listener.

Adaptable. The progressive-emotive sermon may be expository or topical, inductive or deductive, but it is primarily designed as a means of communication. It stays in touch with the movements of the listener’s heart and uses that psychological development as the normative force in shaping its thoughts and images.

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