Do you remember those arcade games with a mechanical bar that slides back and forth, continually nudging a huge stack of coins that rest on a shelf? You “play” the game by dropping in coins and hoping the mechanical bar will nudge the stack in such a way that some fall off the ledge. Most of the time, though, little or nothing happens.
These tiny nudges always remind me of preaching, whether the granular nudge of individual words or the aggregate nudge of the completed sermon. The more I preach, the more I long to make each nudge count and move people toward conformity to Christ. In Burning Hearts: Preaching to the Affections, Josh Moody and Robin Weekes argue that we make our sermons and our nudges count by preaching to the affections.
Affections and Peer-Reviewed Sermons
Moody (pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois) and Weekes (pastor of Emmanuel Church in Wimbledon, London) are practitioners, writing mainly as preachers for preachers. They are friends who first met more than 20 years ago in England while at college, but this is their first book together.
Burning Hearts divides into two main sections. In the first, Moody and Weekes argue that the affections are what “moves us towards action” (14), or, as they say more succinctly later, the affections are “the leading edge of the thinking-feeling-willing unit of the heart” (69). And this is the part that preachers should try to reach. Near the end of the first section, they suggest how to do so.
The second section of the book includes four of their sermon manuscripts. These they call “worked examples” since throughout they “hit pause” to dialogue about what’s working and why. This section reminded me of a time in seminary when my preaching professor, Bryan Chapell, analyzed an Edmund Clowney sermon. The effect in seminary, and as I read Burning Hearts, was something like a football analyst breaking down game film—which is to say, eminently helpful.
But it’s also at this point that I’ll offer my only critique: such concrete examples need to come sooner. I feel comfortable saying so since the authors admit as much in the introduction: “By this stage, you may be feeling that all this talk of preaching to the affections is rather abstract.” Regardless, for those who can wait, the examples do come—and with power. This, consequently, is a real selling point of the book, as I know of no other preaching book that offers this much by way of examples.
A major takeaway from this latter section—one more implied than stated—is the benefit of debriefing sermons with others. Most agree that peer-reviewed articles lead to increased quality, but how many of us peer-review our sermons? It’s humbling, I know. I’m on a teaching team that does this weekly. But isn’t it better to be humbled (and encouraged) in the church office by a few trusted friends than to go proudly into the pulpit and preach poorly? This give-and-take is part of making our preaching nudges count.
Grab Bag of Goodies
In the process of teaching how and why we should preach to the affections, Moody and Weekes offer many other pieces of sturdy preaching instruction. I’ll just name a few of my favorites.
First, we shouldn’t just preach sermons but rather a person, Jesus Christ. They write, “When we have finished preaching, it would be good to ask ourselves, ‘Have I just taught a passage? Or have I preached a person?’” (32). Remember, Paul wrote it’s “him we proclaim” (Col. 1:28).
Here’s another goodie: It starts with you, Mr. Preacher. You—humanly speaking—must be moved by the passage if you will move others. “The chief reason why sermons fail to connect with hearers’ affections is because the preacher himself has not first had his affections stirred in his preparations,” they write (52). This challenge was timely for me. As I was reviewing the book I was working through a passage that just wasn’t exciting me. I’d studied diligently, and thought I knew it well enough, but the delight, passion, and force of the text weren’t affecting my own heart. And Sunday kept getting closer. So I prayed, skipped two meals, and prayed and worked some more. Then I went home. Early the next morning, while tinkering with the manuscript, it happened—affections that accorded with the passage arrived.
Though there are many other helpful tidbits in this book, I’ll just mention one more. Preaching styles are not “value neutral,” Moody and Weekes contend (67). The subtext contributes or detracts—always. Therefore, the “way we preach [should be] shaped by the content of the particular passage we are expositing” (68). Last summer, I learned this lesson the hard way. I was preaching from Proverbs 5 about sex. At one point I tried to explain that God created sex as a gift and is unashamed within its proper context (e.g. Prov. 5:18–19). On Monday morning while debriefing the sermon with our other teaching pastor, he pointed out that my timid, bashful tone—my preaching style—undermined the content of what I’d said. He was right. Style and subtext are not value neutral.
As I said at the start, I want my “nudges” to count. But this should be true to some degree of all who follow Christ, whether they preach in the formal sense or not. All Christians are saved by God to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). Nevertheless, for those of us called to “proclaim” from a pulpit, Burning Hearts is a great tool to stir our affections so that we can help stir the affections of others.