A friend described a meeting that we were both in. I thought the meeting was productive and successful, but when my friend described the same meeting to others he used over the top language to describe the amazing way that God was at work in our midst. I was scratching my head. Were we talking about the same thing? His description felt like campaigning, trying to wow people and win them over.
In the internet age there is more pressure on pastors to perform at a world-class level than ever before. With that comes a great temptation to turn to emotionalism and manipulation to produce some kind of response. Leaders try to prove their worth by the amazing stories they can tell of what God is doing through them. We may seek to produce spiritual fruit by stirring up a frenzy, getting people excited and playing into their emotions.
What You Win Them With…
This is nothing new. In I Corinthians 1, Paul contrasts his ministry style with those of the great orators and wise teachers that the Corinthians were used to hearing in Corinth. Paul warns against this type of eloquence, manipulation and so called “wisdom.”
Paul says he was sent “to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (I Cor 1:17). Instead, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (vv.23-24).
And finally, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
Today we say it this way: what you win them with is what you win them to. Deep and sacrificial, persevering faith is not produced by cheap tricks and emotional manipulation. Paul intentionally avoided “the wisdom of men” in order to be sure that their faith rested in the power of God. The fruit produced by a spiritual frenzy is not the fruit we’re looking for. Instead, Paul committed himself to preaching the foolish message of the cross in a way that made him look weak and Christ look strong. He devoted himself to a simple, manipulation-free, proclamation of the unfiltered and unpopular gospel.
The Style of the Gospel
The big mistake that we’ve made is believing that as long as we stay true to the essence of the gospel message, we can use whatever means possible to proclaim. There is no bad way to proclaim the gospel. It’s only a message. But Paul is saying here is that the message requires a certain medium. It’s not transferable to any medium you like. In fact, the wrong medium can overturn the message. I visited a church in Florida on a vacation years ago where instead of a sermon there was a series of skits by a group of clowns. It didn’t matter what words they uttered, the medium told us that this is trite, humorous and does not really matter. Communications experts would tell us that when two sign-systems conflict, we naturally trust the less direct one over the more direct one. If I tell you that I love you while frowning with my arms crossed, you will trust my body language over my words. The medium can overrule the message.
Paul is laying out for us not only the message that we are to preach, but also the method and the means. Our message is Christ crucified. Our method is humble, clear, Christ-centered exposition. Our means is the power of the Holy Spirit. The puritan John Flavel said, “we must preach a crucified Christ in a crucified style.” The gospel message must control the method of its proclamation. There simply is no room for manipulative emotionalism in gospel ministry.
Is There No Place for Emotion Then?
Should we never show emotion? Are we to be robot preachers? No. That’s not a crucified style either. The gospel changes everything and affects our whole person. While we can’t hear or see him preaching, Paul clearly showed emotion in his letters. But it was the genuine emotion that flowed out of his message. Consider the gratitude and affection of Philippians or the anger and pleading of Galatians. The Doctor, Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “If there is no persuasiveness, there is no preacher.” Preaching is persuading people with the truth. It is persuasion, but it is not manipulation or emotionalism.
Let us leave behind the ploys of greasy salesmen and con artists. The gospel does not need better PR or a new ad campaign. It cannot be supplemented with our wisdom and manipulation. A frenzy does not produce real fruit. The gospel does not need click-bait or bait and switch. This is not the way of the gospel. These are tricks that salesmen resort to when they have junk to sell to the naïve. The gospel will not be peddled like trinkets in a tourist trap.
Let us reject any kind of manipulation and devote ourselves to the simple, humble and clear preaching of the gospel. For there, my friends, is the power.