By Brandon Knight, Ph.D.
William Carey University
February: “Failing to Call the Audience to Action”
Column Description: Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in his work On Christian Doctrine, illustrates the important relationship between preaching and rhetoric. Even in his day, many questioned what use the church could possibly gain from the study of oratory. Nevertheless, Augustine saw something much deeper in communication that many Christians still miss centuries later. This column will be a personal journey through Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, through which he shows how God can, in fact, use rhetoric to help us see more clearly the beauty of scripture as well as find the right words when articulating gospel truths to others.
Failing to Call the Audience to Action
In my public speaking course, students are required to give both an informative and persuasive speech. The hope is that students grow to see personal biases and hurdles in their own understanding of the world before attempting to persuade.
Speaking informatively requires one to put away their bias—a not-so-simple task.
In essence, the student must take a controversial topic, research both sides, and inform the audience holistically about the social phenomenon without showing favor. With this starting point, students can mature in their research and critical thinking prior to approaching the role of advocacy.
However, I have noticed something here in my last few years of teaching at a Christian Liberal Arts University. Despite requiring a “call to action” in the final persuasive speech, a majority of students refrain from telling their peers to act. Rather, they settle for telling them to “think about it” and make their own decision.
I am unsure of the exact reason for this, but what is obvious is that many Christian students are unwilling to confront their peers about societal changes.
Interestingly, a similar trend is also evident among believers when talking about religious matters. A 2019 Barna poll revealed that attempting to persuade others to believe in Christianity is considered “somewhat wrong” among 47% of Millennials.[i]
What if preaching is following a similar trend?
Like students in COM 101, many preachers often have misgivings about challenging congregants to act. Why? Well, there are many reasons; but for brevity’s sake, I will only share one of those reasons.
Calling others to act upon information is personal and confrontational. As a result, we excuse ourselves by righteously proclaiming that it is the task of the Holy Spirit to confront and persuade.
But does not that typical response beg the question: How does the Holy Spirit choose to confront and convict believers and non-believers alike? Is it not through the believer that God makes his persuasive appeal?
Decisional Preaching: Transitioning from What to How
Augustine, 4th century bishop of hippo, wrote in Book IV of On Christian Doctrine that preaching, just like classic oratory, has three primary goals: to inform, to please, or to persuade.
To paraphrase his words: Teaching is about what we say. Persuading is about how we say it.
We must begin focusing on the how and not merely just the what.
If Christian communicators only provide information for intellectual assent, the task of preaching is not yet finished. Listeners need to be exhorted to change. In doing so, we are actually preparing the way for others to find Christ—whether in discipleship or salvation.
Effective preaching must, therefore, encompass teaching at times–but not always. Augustine even argues that preaching must, at times, be pleasing to those hearers who find no interest in the topic, but that is for another column.
My point is, I hope you see, that the pastor must confront the hearers.
In Jim Shaddix’s Decisional Preaching, he agrees that modern preaching often does not challenge the audience to make a decision. Rather, preachers are often too information driven.
Decisional preaching, Shaddix argues, is what is needed.
He describes decisional preaching when stating that it is “aimed at seeing both believers and unbelievers respond positively to the preached word by offering a faith response to whatever truth is being presented.”[ii] In other words, decisional preaching presses for judgement of the message and, therefore, burdens the hearer to act.
Many readers, I imagine, will not like equating the act of preaching to a burden. After all, we have many burdens in our day and age, so why would we desire to add one more especially to someone else’s pile?
It is interesting to consider the discrepancy in many modern sermons despite the culture of advocacy around us. Every day, we are bombarded with political messaging and capitalistic marketing that challenges us to decide about public figures and products.
The offers, in many ways, are all the same: Do this and you will have a life of ease and comfort!
The world is not afraid to preach about the good life despite their messages being false. Yet, when it comes to Christ, preachers shy away from preaching the burden of the cross.
The Burden of the First Christian Sermon
The early disciples believed that Christ was using them to appeal to a world in need of hope.
Consider the message of the early apostles. For instance, Peter’s sermon at Pentecost consisted of a highly diverse demographic of Jews who probably knew of Jesus and his crucifixion but not him personally (Acts 2: 5-11). Thus, to be effective and appropriate, Peter had to inform the audience as to how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of old—which he does through specific references to the OT book of Joel and the Psalms of King David.
But, even after informing the Jewish audience, Peter’s sermon was not complete because the audience didn’t know what to “do” with the information (Acts 2: 37).
He calls them to act: “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself’” (Acts 2: 38-30; ESV).
Peter’s preaching culminated in a decision that changed the course of Christianity. We should follow suit.
[i] “Almost Half of Practicing Christian Millennials Say Evangelism Is Wrong,” Barna Group, accessed February 9, 2023, https://www.barna.com/research/millennials-oppose-evangelism/.
[ii] Jim Shaddix, Decisional Preaching (Rainer Publishing, 2019).