Argumentation, Persuasion, and Proclamation

People love to argue! If you were trapped in the bubble of either legal or theological education, you would be convinced that people LOVE to debate about anything and everything. I never realized how much and how long people will quarrel over the most minute details, irrelevant laws, or obscure doctrines. Arguing over minutia may be the prevailing thread that runs through both legal and theological education. Yet, the way Seminaries and Law Schools prepare their students to communicate, argue, and persuade is (in my experience) very different.

Before Law School: Seminary & Preaching Classes

Although my preaching professor was committed to training his students to be effective communicators of truth, the majority of professors and courses in seminary placed little emphasis on the art of communication, persuasion, or argumentation. I can still remember the preaching professor telling young seminarians that he had to be hard on them because churches deserved and needed men who could communicate with clarity and conviction the truths of God’s Word. While seminary was an amazing experience that provided me with a world-class education, it did not fully equip me to be an effective communicator. However, I must acknowledge that the theological training that I received was transformative and shaped me as an expositor of the Word and as an evangelist for Christ.

Subtracting my two preaching classes (both electives), I received three graduate degrees from one of the most prestigious seminaries in the United States with basically no training in how people learn and how to effectively communicate biblical truth. The underlying and unspoken belief is that knowing truth is enough–God will do the rest. While I am absolutely committed to the belief that only the Holy Spirit can open a person’s mind and heart to the gospel, I am equally committed to the call to persuade (compel, plead, implore, etc.) unbelievers to call upon Jesus Christ for salvation. With that said, I must make it absolutely clear that I do not subscribe to any form of manipulation when communicating the gospel.

Manipulation is NOT persuasion.

Preachers, Excuses, & Hard Work

Over the past twenty years, I’ve met a lot of men who say that they are called to preach, many of them are formally trained. Yet, I’ve only met a handful who’ve been willing to invest in the necessary education (whether formal or informal) and training to become effective communicators for Christ. Sadly, some preachers hide behind Paul’s comment that he had not communicated to them (the Corinthians) in “lofty speech” nor with “enticing words of man’s wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1, 4). It is obvious that Paul was not excusing ignorance or laziness. Instead, Paul is drawing a distinction between relying on one’s speaking ability alone to convince his audience and relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to convict, call, and equip those who hear the Word of God. While the faithful preacher does rely upon the work of the Holy Spirit in preaching, he is also a man who disciplines himself and works hard to acquire and develop the skills necessary to be an effective communicator of truth (see, 2 Timothy 2:15).

The hardest working man in a church should be the pastor.

If God has called you to the pastorate, then He has called you to a life of hard work. Thus, it follows that pastors should be willing and eager to learn how to become more effective communicators of God’s Word.

Legal Training & Preaching

How did law school make me a more effective communicator? Although I could write an extensive list of ways in which legal training has prepared to be a better preacher and evangelist for Christ, I will limit my analysis to a few high points. However, I must admit that I am still learning and growing as a communicator. Thus, my comments and analysis are not those of one who believes he has arrived, but from one on a journey. 

You don’t have to go to law school to acquire and develop the skills to be an effective communicator, but you do have to invest your time in researching, learning, and applying methods of becoming a better communicator. Stop settling for mediocrity, Christ deserves more!

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Legal Writing – Great communicators aren’t always great writers. However, learning how to write persuasive briefs and motions has helped me become a better advocate for the gospel. How? First, you can’t just “wing it” in a legal brief, memo, or motion. You have to spend a lot of time thinking about your arguments and how to structure them to have maximum impact. That is, you are writing to persuade your audience, which is typically someone who is far more experienced in the law than you (e.g., attorneys or judges). I’m convinced that much of modern preaching involves very little consideration of how the argument (i.e., sermon) should be structured to have the maximum impact on the audience. Although I am not a fan of writing a sermon manuscript, I am equally not of fan of “Brother Wing-and-a-Prayer” (the guy who simply makes it up as he goes along). A preacher who does very little in the way of meaningful study and reflection has no right or authority to claim that “God gave him this message.”

Second, when you have to write out your arguments, you have to consider how the reader will be impacted by both your points and your structure. In fact, a good writer is always considering how his audience is perceiving and/or interpreting his message. As a pastor, I’ve come to realize that everything I write and everything I say can have either a positive or negative impact on others. Thus, I want to invest my time in becoming a better communicator, both as a writer and as a preacher–all for the glory of God.

Although I do not write out a manuscript for my sermons, I spend a substantial amount of time writing and rewriting notes that will eventually form the structure and arguments for my sermon. These notes include an analysis of the text, which includes exegetical and hermeneutical work. Additionally, I write out ways to communicate the various points of the text, giving special attention to how to structure my sermon to have the maximum impact on the congregation. In the end, I want the sermon to be driven by the biblical text and call for a response that glorifies Christ! (For more on sermon preparation, see my article on “Outlining a Book of the Bible.”)

It should go without saying that the Holy Spirit works in both the preparation and the delivery of the sermon. However, it is ridiculous to claim that the Holy Spirit works apart from meaningful study and thoughtful preparation. Preachers cannot simply stand up and speak whatever comes to their mind and then declare that their messages are from the Holy Spirit. What if what they are saying contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture? Is that from the Holy Spirit? Of course not!

Yet, endless hours of studying can not replace the unique work of the Holy Spirit. That is, only the Holy Spirit can take the sermon, which must be an exposition of biblical truth, and use it to convict, convert, and/or empower the listeners to call upon and follow Christ.

Conversely, laziness and ignorance are not conduits through which the Holy Spirit works in a man. Someone once said, “The Holy Spirit has a strange affinity for the trained [and prepared] mind.” Thus, preachers must saturate their hearts and minds with the Word of God as they prepare to preach.

Study & Preparation + Dependency on the Holy Spirit = The Preacher’s Work!

Cold-Calls (not to be confused with telemarketing) – Although I don’t believe that it is an effective way to teach the law, cold-calling is a part of legal education. That is, students are called on at random to recite the primary issues, key facts, holding, and reasoning of various cases that were assigned from the reading. On the one hand, I hate cold calls! I’d prefer to sit quietly and listen to the lecture. Yet, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of always being ready to speak and, if necessary, give compelling reasons for my position. See also, 1 Peter 3:15. This requirement (i.e., always being prepared to provide a robust response) is one of the areas where theological and legal education part ways and take the learner in different directions. In many of my bible or theology classes, lazy students would default to the old “this-is-what-it-means-to-me” approach to a text or theological position. Although the meaning of a biblical text doesn’t change, many of my colleagues interpreted it as if it did. However, when you are in a room with 100 other people who also know the law, facts of the case, holding, and reasoning, you can’t just wing it. You don’t get to say, “this law or holding means this to me.” If so, you’d fail the class and eventually flunk out of law school. In order to succeed, you quickly learn that you have to be ready at all times to make a compelling argument to those who know just as much, if not more, than you. Those experiences have contributed significantly to making me a better preacher, both in the pulpit and in public.

What if everyone in the congregation knew as much as you (the preacher) did about your preaching text and the doctrinal points that you present each Sunday? You’d make sure you were well prepared each week!

Appellate Arguments – The first year of law school included a gauntlet of research and writing assignments, which all culminated in oral arguments where you were pitted against your classmates. The lead up to the oral arguments included several months of research and writing on a particular issue. Eventually, each student was assigned a side (appellant or appellee). Far from the traditional debate model, appellate oral arguments are a strange combination of order and chaos. The orderly aspects are limited to decorum, the order in which each side speaks, the length of time you may present, and the way you must address the court. However, the presentations can be a chaotic barrage of questions, half-answers, interruptions, and confusion. Oral arguments before an appellate court (a three to twelve judge panel) are not like the typical trials that you’ve seen on television or experienced in person. Each side is given a specified time to make their respective arguments, with one side (appellant or petitioner) reserving the right to make a rebuttal at the close. Although the setting is formal, the shock and awe come when the judges begin interrupting the advocates by asking questions or challenging their arguments. As soon as the first judge interrupts you, your formal and neat presentation implodes. In order to survive this onslaught, you must have (1) researched the material so well that you know it inside and out, and (2) you must be quick on your feet. There is no time and even less mercy for an advocate who doesn’t answer the questions.

Can you imagine your Sunday morning sermon being presented to a panel of experts who interrupt and question you throughout? Although this idea once terrified me, I actually think it would be invigorating. If pastors had to travel such a gauntlet, even occasionally, how much harder would they have to work? As a pastor, I am discouraged to witness how much harder other professionals work, while so many of colleagues in ministry just coast or invest little in the preaching ministry of the church.

Your pastor should work harder than your lawyer!

Trial Advocacy (i.e., Mock Trials) – After taking Basic Trial Advocacy, I was selected to participate in Advanced Trial Advocacy. Both classes are structured to prepare law students to become litigators, whether criminal or civil. Although the classes cover essentially the same tasks, the competition is increased substantially in the advanced course.

In both classes, students are required to deliver opening and closing statements, conduct direct and cross-examinations of witnesses, make objections, use exhibits, and put on both mini and full trials. At each stage, you are openly critiqued by the professor in front of the class. I don’t care who you are, criticism in front of your colleagues is tough. If that wasn’t enough, you have to watch videos of yourself and then provide a written critique. Throughout the process, you are praying that your co-counsel for the final trial is a competent, hard-working student so that you don’t have to carry the load of trial prep yourself.

There is no substitute for preparation and practice; both are essential to be successful in trial advocacy. You are taught to always begin with the end in mind, which is a favorable verdict for your client. Of course, if you are the prosecutor, your client is the state or the people of your county. Regardless, you are representing your side and you must diligently prepare at every point to give your side the best chance at a favorable verdict.

Although the final verdict for humanity has been written (see, Revelation 19-22), pastors must realize those individual verdicts have yet to be decided (humanly speaking). If the sanctuary was filled with only unbelievers next Sunday, how would you prepare in order to persuade them of the historicity of the gospels, the exclusivity and uniqueness of Christ, and their need to repent and call upon (i.e., believe in) Christ for salvation and eternal life? Conversely, what if the sanctuary was filled with only Christians next Sunday, how would you prepare in order to convince them to go and tell others the gospel of Jesus Christ? The cute and irrelevant man-centered sermons that we preach, demonstrate that we aren’t preaching for a verdict.

Stop preaching to the congregation in order to receive words of affirmation. Instead, preach to them in a way that demands a verdict!

My Closing Argument

After all of the evidence has been presented, all of the witnesses heard, and the case has been made, what will people remember about your preaching/teaching ministry? I pray that you will not be satisfied with the subjective and temporal praises of people, who will love you one day and pray that you move the next. Instead, may it be said of you and me, that we refused to settle for mediocrity in making Christ known. Instead, may they say of us, that we refused to quit, we worked tirelessly, we were absolutely determined to communicate the gospel in such a way that people could understand it, and that we relentlessly called for a verdict. That is, we never stopped calling people to trust in Jesus Christ for salvation and eternal life.

Law school taught me to love arguing my case, but pastoring has taught me to love preaching the gospel. The temporal victories of the courtroom could never compare to the joy of witnessing a person place his/her faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Until all have heard and believe, we have a case to make!

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