Column entry, “Preaching to Entertain,” by Brandon Knight

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Column Title: In Search of Right Words: Saint Augustine, Rhetoric, and Preaching

By Brandon Knight, Ph.D.
William Carey University

April: “Preaching to Entertain”

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.


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April 2023

Preaching to Entertain

In my last column, I discussed how Augustine followed the classical model of oratory for preaching which was categorized into three aims: to inform, to persuade, and to entertain. I then briefly examined the pastor’s need to inform congregants about the subject matter before diving into the notion of persuading or moving the audience to action.

However, this last categorization—to entertain—does not fit so well with preaching.

Scripture seems to point in the opposing direction. Paul even wrote about a time in which congregations will demand teachers who preach only what they want to hear (2 Tim. 4:3). One quick google search can show our need to stave off entertainment. But must Paul’s biblical command to beware preaching that “tickles ears” eradicate all entertainment in preaching—or are we only considering the negative connotation of entertainment?

Interestingly, when searching for other synonyms of “entertain,” I discovered words with less negative connotation such as “delight” and even to “please.” Preaching to delight adds another layer to our understanding. I want us to stick with the notion of preaching to entertain because the term’s baggage forces us to wrestle with the role of the preacher. Plus, your interest is  Augustine’s understanding of preaching that entertains.

The 4th century bishop of Hippo contends that Christian communicators must consider how they will ensure the attention of those listening. Why? Because if congregants aren’t paying attention, then you cannot even begin to consider the aims of informing or persuading.

In public speaking, we call this the “hook” or the “attention getter.” Without securing the focus of the audience, it will be difficult for the truth to be properly understood or persuasive. Thus, Christian communicators and preachers need to consider the role of entertainment, because, although entertainment can be used destructively, it can also be used in the service of redemption.

Unlike believers in Augustine’s day, contemporary believers are addicted to technology and, as a result, have trouble focusing. A recent study revealed that attention spans using screens on average is 47 seconds which is down from 2004 when it was 2 ½ minutes.[1] In other words, technology is rapidly decreasing our ability to focus which means that part of the task of preaching may, in fact, be using an entertaining “hook” to serve those who need to hear the truth.

A tempting response would be for a pastor to argue that it is the sole responsibility of the listener to remain engaged and, if not, that says something about their faith. This possible shift of burden challenges us to reconsider some biblical examples.

For instance, John the Baptist seemed to be quite the character both in attire and diet. Yet, through his theatrical antics, he prepared the hearts of many to believe in Christ by making the pathway straight for Christ and inevitably those who would follow him. Even Christ gave his audience parables which sought to capture the imagination and heart.

Entertaining Eloquence in Service of Truth

More specifically, Augustine argues that truth understood in its naked form is that which is most pleasing and delightful. Therefore, entertainment can also be redemptive in the act of teaching and preaching—but only when it is used to aid others in discovering what Augustine argues is most pleasing:  truth.

In Book IV of On Christian Doctrine, he describes the delight when a teacher lays bare falsehoods:  “And hence even falsities are frequently a source of pleasure when they are brought to light and exposed. It is not, of course, their falsity that gives pleasure; but as it is true that they are false, the speech which shows this to be true gives pleasure.”

Considering this point, the Christian orator is unfolding the drama of light and darkness before the eyes and ears of those in attendance, thereby embodying what Paul meant when commanding believers to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5 ESV).

Of course, this is a different form of entertainment than what was probably presupposed when you started reading this column. Nevertheless, the proclamation of the gospel reveals the truest drama. As such, when preaching, one is literally shining the light into darkness and thus unveiling the face of Jesus Christ. Here, we see the purest of entertainment—truth—that brings delight and satisfaction to satisfy longing hearts.

Preaching as Art

A friend recently sent me a book entitled The Beautiful Sermon:  Image and the Aesthetics of Preaching. Dean Nadasdy, the author, seeks to encourage pastors to realize the dual nature of scripture. That is, to say that scripture is both textual and visual. Yet much of our teachings in homiletics grapple solely with the argumentation and rationale of the biblical text. Of course, this is vital; but, if we are being honest, rationality alone is not a holistic hermeneutic. If anything, it leaves out what we’ve learned from Augustine about preaching to entertain, delight, and satisfy.

Preaching needs to tell the full drama of scripture which means that we need to reframe how we see ourselves and our congregation. Nadasdy notes that when pastors consider the textual and visual elements of scripture as well as the congregation’s desire to find delight in truth, we all must become artists.

He writes, “To describe a preacher as an artist or a poet is to affirm both the visual nature of the texts from which we preach and the visual nature of preaching itself. The making and presenting of a sermon call on us to visualize truth and goodness with our listeners. The result can be an engaging beauty. In this sense, preaching is incarnational, summoning us to a beauty as real and as visible as flesh and blood.”[2]

We serve our listeners by going one step further than where many pastors have been willing to go. Our attention is a battle ground; and pastors have a unique opportunity to entertain the soul with the beauty of truth. Pastors are artists and poets who get to tell and retell the greatest story ever told.

Let’s preach to entertain—but only so they can find that which truly delights:  Truth.

* The views of any CCSN columnists are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCSN. We invite and embrace a wide range of views and critiques on important communication and cultural issues from a Christian perspective. The CCSN is a community of Jesus followers who study communication. We do not support or promote a particular social, political, or denominational agenda. 


[1] Sandee LaMotte, “Your Attention Span Is Shrinking, Studies Say. Here’s How to Stay Focused,” CNN, January 11, 2023,

[2] Dean Nadasdy, “The Beautiful Sermon: The Aesthetics of Preaching,” 2021. 23.

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