Moved or Removed: Managing Emotional and Exegetical Distance

One of our favourite ways to move people with our sermons is to use material that has already moved us. It surprises us, then, when the congregation seem relatively unmoved by the things that have had such an impact on us. It might help us, then, to consider the amount of distance that we have created between our material and the men and women who are listening.bench separation

We could, for example, count the removes the listener experiences with the material that the preacher offers. For example, the preacher might offer a story he had read in biography about an emotional event a missionary had observed while in Tokyo. That is four “removes” by my count.  The missionary’s observation is one remove. The biographer who tells the missionary’s story is the second remove. The preacher who reads the biographer’s account is the third remove. The listener to the preacher’s description is a fourth remove. That is quite a bit of distance to manage if the listener is supposed to care. Vicarious emotion is a difficult thing to manage.

This can also happen with the exegetical propositions that we offer. Let’s say the preacher is working from Galatians 6, trying to speak about the restoration of a brother who has fallen into sin. Along the way, the preacher notices from the context that this act of restoration is what happens when one “keeps in step with the Spirit.” Of course, this comment about the Spirit is rooted in the fruit of the Spirit which is described in chapter five. Of course, one of the fruits of the Spirit is gentleness and so the preacher offers five minutes on the merits of gentleness when it comes to attempting restoration. Count them up and you will find that this involves at least four exegetical removes: (1) gentleness to (2) fruit to (3) stepping to (4) restoration.

To advocate for gentleness in restoration is an excellent thing to do. It even has the merit of being exegetically sound. My point, however, is that this level of intellectual removal is a hard thing to manage in an oral medium. I am not saying that you should not attempt it. You should, however, be aware of what you are asking of your listeners and adjust accordingly, leaving the necessary bread crumbs so that you are certain that the listener can track with you.

As to the matter of vicarious emotion, a certain amount of removal is unavoidable. Even if I share my own passion with the audience, that is still one level of remove. Ideally I want to try to help the listener feel the affective impact for her or himself. Working to create the listener’s own encounter with God through his Word is always going to be more effective than to try and generate the listener’s interest in the emotions of someone else – even if that someone else is the preacher.