What Should You Value In A Preacher?

Who is your favorite preacher? Oftentimes I will ask my students to answer that question on the first day of class. I have just about heard them all: Swindoll, Evans, MacArthur, Platt, Dever, Chandler, Rogers, etc. I even had a student say “Dr. Vern Charette”—students will say anything to get on the professor’s good side!

Though we might not be able to zero in on one specific favorite, we all have preachers we prefer over others. Why is this? Why is it that one thinks a certain preacher “hung the moon,” while another wouldn’t give that same preacher the time of day?

Having favorite preachers is nothing new. Do you remember the Corinthians? They took having favorites to a whole new level. They were divided because some liked Paul, some Apollos, and some Peter, while a group of the real spiritual ones claimed to only like Christ (1 Cor. 1:12). Paul, of course, rebuked them for allowing such a petty thing to divide them.

There are several factors that cause us to favor certain preachers. I think it helps to invoke the ancient terms that Aristotle identified in persuasive speakers: ethos, pathos and logos. In short, ethos is one’s credibility, pathos is one’s passion, and logos is one’s argument. What in the world does Aristotle have to do with preaching and judging preachers?

I think Aristotle is helpful in the sense that he gives us the terminology to describe the individual elements that we tend to sum up with the word “style.” Different people like different preachers because they favor one “style” over another. One’s tradition, upbringing, culture, family, geography, language, ethnicity, denomination and more all play a role in shaping our individual tastes for the “style” of preaching we prefer.

The value we place on the different aspects of preaching causes us to differ in our opinions. For example, someone from a certain tradition might highly value the explanation of the Bible (logos) while another values the emotional appeal of the preacher (pathos). Still another might highly value a preacher’s authenticity and transparency (ethos) above all things. This is what causes us to differ in our opinions and choose favorites.

Early in my development as a preacher, I was in a culture that favored emotional appeal (pathos). If you didn’t holler and sweat, you didn’t preach. The worst thing to say about a preacher in those days was, “They are more of a teacher than a preacher” (ouch). People like this usually consider those who are more cerebral, reserved, polished and prepared to be “dead and lifeless, void of the Spirit.” On the flipside, those who value explanation and exposition (logos) may devalue those who preach with high emotion based on a so-called lack of biblical and doctrinal accuracy. Their demeaning response is, “That preacher is a mile wide but only an inch deep,” or, “He is all heat and no light.”

When you stop and think about it, the “great” preachers of antiquity were men who excelled in all three components of persuasive speech—ethos, pathos and logos. The same is true of the outstanding contemporary preachers as well. They are men of conviction, passionately articulating a well-prepared and coherent word from God.

Sometimes, preachers who only excel in one particular area remain popular with certain segments of the population because that group places high value on the asset in which the preacher excels. I have known men who have failed morally, oftentimes on numerous occasions, and yet, even though they “lost their testimony and credibility” (ethos), they continue to be used because of their outstanding delivery (pathos, logos). They are given a pass because of their gifts. I have known others who have a history of not being prepared, lacking biblical accuracy and depth, yet are well-liked because of their passion (pathos). People will attend just to see them “burn.” Many more examples could be cited, but I am sure you get the picture.

By the way, which component is the MOST important for the Christian preacher? I would think that ethos (one’s credibility, godliness and testimony) is absolutely vital to the Christian preacher today. In short, if you do not have credibility with your audience, it doesn’t matter how accurate your exposition of the text is. If you aren’t considered a real man of God, you could have more passion than Billy Sunday, John Piper and Johnny Hunt all put together, but for what?

I have to admit that a seismic shift took place in my own preaching while I was in seminary. I began to value the clear exposition of the Word over the topical method that I grew up on. I began to understand that the biblical text should drive the sermon, not clever outlines or passionate appeals. In the terms that we have been discussing, the logos of the sermon became more important to me. For this reason, I acquired a new taste for certain expositors who faithfully focused on communicating the biblical text. I now value text-driven preaching.

All of this is not to say that we should devalue passion and conviction (pathos) in the pulpit. Passion is vital. In fact, I still believe that the 11th commandment is “Thou shalt not be boring!” One of the criticisms of so-called expository preaching is that it is boring. Boring expository preaching should be an oxymoron. Nevertheless, don’t get bad preaching and those who claim to be doing expository preaching mixed up. Good expository preaching exposes the inspired text to the hearer in the spirit of the text using riveting illustrations and piercing applications. How can you not value that?

Much more could be said on this topic. I hope, however, that this post has given you some insight as to why different people favor different preachers. Much of it comes down to what we value in a preacher.