The little sermon that jumped the tracks

By Gary Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

I have at last spotted a creature that until now I’d only read about. It is the reappearance of a style of preaching which does an end-run around the rational mind and appeals to the non-rational. I’m probably the last one of my social set to spot this particular sasquatch; my excuse, as usual, is that I’m out of the USA for long periods of time.

Here’s how the sermon went: it started out as a talk about some topic, for about 20 minutes. Then the preacher showed a 10-minute video clip. The movie hit the audience on a gut level. It was not about dead puppies, but let’s say it had all the emotional punch of a film about running over cute furry animals. Also, the video had no obvious connection with what had gone before. That is, the sermon was not about, say, animal cruelty or whether we would see our pets in heaven.

Again the outline: 1. Here’s a sermon on some topic. 2. Now here are pictures of dead puppies. Once again: 1. Short talk that had nothing to do with dead puppies. 2. Dead puppies movie. Men as well as women were tearing up at the end of the video and thus at the general conclusion of the message. The film was moving – I love puppies as much as the next guy – nevertheless, I have no idea why were being shown it. I’m pretty sure that no-one else would have either…they would probably have been too upset to consider the question. For my part, I was ticked that I was being made to choke up for no authentic reason…only because the stage manager was holding up a CRY!! sign.

The video clip was a “cheat”. Its effect was to bring the message to a tearful end and to gain approval for some idea, but it was support bought with false coin. Maybe he thought he was appealing to both sides of the brain. My point is that, all persuasion in a sermon should be coherent, that is, it should appeal to the whole person with the same truth(s) in mutual support. This is not just good oratory, it’s good ethics. I appeal to emotion all the time when I preach – my goodness, so did Jesus, check out the parable of the prodigal son. I am also in favor of using the visual media in teaching. But I don’t think I would have the nerve to hold diced onions under the eyes of my listeners, people who deserve to know that I wouldn’t play games with their feelings.

Would this preacher use the words “postmodern” or “emergent” or “emerging” to describe his message? I would guess so, having examined his website. But because I do not know so, I won’t link his style to any movement, except in the tags that I’ve attached to the blog. If you googled “emergent dead puppies sermon” and have landed here, well, it’s up to you to ask whether you’ve seen anything like this before and to put it in its proper classification. And believe me, I’ve seen dozens of pre-postmodernist evangelists who manipulated the tear ducts with not a speck of shame – including one unforgettable night decades ago at a Jimmy Swaggart rally. Yet it is the insult to the intellect that is particularly egregious in this new setting, and one that I suspect will be repeated a million-fold.

PS – As with nearly all topics like this, it interests me because, if I see a sermon like this in North America this year, the style will turn up in my ministry area (Central America) in 2-3 years and it’ll be my job to help counteract it. Thanks, reverend, you’ve given us a heads-up.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting post. I come at story-telling from a different angle – as an ex-magazine editor and current blogger – but the dead-puppy technique is not unknown in these worlds. I too am curious about the topic of the original sermon.

  2. Down with dead puppies!

    But I really want to know what the actual topic + video combo was. Why are you holding out on us?

    • I’ll email you! If I got into the real material, which was much more graphic, it would be a distraction to the point I’m trying to make.


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