What’s the Difference Between Preaching and Motivational Speaking?

This is from Sherman Cox‘s article “Are you a preacher or motivational Speaker?

“Some preaching that is considered great by many is nothing more than a motivational speech. It might be true, it might even be helpful. It may help you succeed at work. But too often all one has done is changed the title from the latest pop-psychologist’s seminar from “how to succeed” to “how to fulfill God’s purpose” where God’s purpose is defined as “succeeding in this life.”

It is almost rampant in some circles. In fact, some see this as the epitome of “relevant” preaching. The person comes and learns a skill or a mindset that will help them finally break the boundaries that keep them from that promotion. Maybe others finally decide to go back to school or change their career. Perhaps others find ways to become better planners and thus are more effective in their financial life. And then the preacher sits down. Sometimes the people shout, other times they sit there contemplating the message, but in too many cases what is missing greatly outweighs the benefits of these messages.

When a sermon is merely a motivational speech, what is missing? At least two things:”

He goes on to list:

1) The Cross

2) The Kingdom

He concludes:

“There is a time and place for the motivational speech, but if you as a preacher use up all of your time being simply another place, then you have not done your duty. For a preacher to degenerate into a facsimile of Oprah Winfrey or Tony Robbins is to step down from the height of speaking God’s words to humanity to speaking good advice gleaned from the best human thinkers.”

What’s are some factors that make speaking a sermon and not a motivational speech?  Also, what trends, both good and bad, do you see in the 21st century in regards to preaching?

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  • One of the things that we were told in my homiletics class was that no sermon is truly a Christian sermon if it does not involve Christ at it’s fundamental level… and specifically, Christ as bringing people from where they are to where God wants them to be… 

    • AmyS

      Okay, Robert, so if you’ll allow me to push a little… 🙂 so I can understand you better.

      Is Christ, in that sense, a vehicle for personal growth or improvement? 

      • Only in so far as engaging where you are, recognizing that it is not where GOD wants you to be and being convicted to move in that direction… motivational speaking is centered on the personal desires of the listeners…  a sermon is centered on the desires of God being communicated to the people… and rarely are they the same.  A truly gospel, Christ-centered message that is contextual to the audience will almost ALWAYS make people feel uncomfortable and challenge their desires in light of God’s desire…

        • AmyS

          Yes, the gospel is definitely unsettling. If we don’t discover ourselves on the wrong side of the law, either we aren’t listening or the gospel isn’t being preached. 

          The contextual piece is huge. I live in an area where the culture is very “me” centered and consumeristic (ubersuburban) and highly churched. The cultural expectation is that God wants us to be better behaved people–nicer, kinder, more fiscally responsible, etc. In this context, Jesus just wants me to be a good person, and I want to be a good person too, so church is there to help me meet my goal of being a good person. The sermon is a pep-talk, a boost, “getting fed.” The sermon might make me uncomfortable, because I know I’m not perfect, but it’s still missing the “deeper magic” of the gospel. It’s still focussed on how *I can* be a better Christian, not on how *God is* at work.

          • AmyS

            This is not my home church. 

          • If i could push back a little 🙂

            Is the “wrong side of the law” a place where a saved, forgiven, redeemed, sealed believer finds himself?  What I mean is that is this what we need to hear every week?  I am bad, sinful, “wrong side of the law” conditions must be wrestled with every week?  What is the freedom of our salvation from if not guilt and being captured by our sin?  I am not saying that morality is what needs to be preached, but it seems as if we once get on the “right side of the law” then we do not need to be re-convinced that we are currently on the wrong side of the law.  Didn’t Jesus’ work on the cross put us on the “right side of the law” once we are in Christ?  

          • Agreed, we might want to steer away from talking about “wrong side”, but I also believe that the Christian way is a journey and that, while we may “be saved”, there’s a lot of transformative work that needs to be done.  What one of my theology professors posited one time in our discussion of salvation “When was Peter saved?”…. consider the life of Peter as portrayed in the gospels, he was a VERY rough diamond… and even as we read in the book of Acts and the letters of Paul, Peter still struggled with certain aspects of the faithful way, even late in the movement.  If Peter still had growing to do, what makes us think that somehow, once we’re saved, we have no more work to do in our lives?

            This is where my sermons take the stance… I do preach salvation if the context of the audience and the message asks for it, but it is more on the lines of trying to teach and preach a need for continued transformation and relationship with Christ so that we can continue to no longer need “the law” but actually have it, as the “Jesus Creed” states, written on our hearts.

          • AmyS

            Ah, yes. I forget that “wrong side” can be read “in” or “out.” I most certainly did not mean to imply that.

          • AmyS

            Funny, we both used Peter. I’m so glad he’s in there with us 🙂

          • AmyS

            Haha…I had a feeling that phrase could spark a response 🙂  We might be coming from some different assumptions about the law (or at least in regard to this thread).

            The way I read, the law is a beautiful thing. Jesus loved the law and is the telos of the law. I would go as far as to say that Jesus is the embodiment of the law. The law brings justice. It makes everything right. It brings shalom. The law is the righteousness of God. I want the law. 

            When I say “wrong side of the law” I am envisioning those times when we stand with Peter as he denies Christ. He turns a deaf ear and a blind eye to Jesus’ suffering. He refuses to identify with Jesus. He positions himself in opposition to Jesus. He allies with those who just look the other way, or are too afraid to buck the system. He can’t take the heat. He rejects the suffering of the cross. 

            I do it too, and I need to hear the word of God through the scriptures, preaching, and my worshiping community, in order to be called back into alignment with the ways of justice, mercy, and the shalom of God–The Law. 

            I’m not saying that we should be preaching hell-fire and guilt all the time. Just the opposite. We all need a message of hope. We need to hear that we are citizens of another country, a kingdom of justice where all things are made right and all people live in peace. Right now, we are a people living in tents, traveling through the kingdoms of this world. Let’s not forget who we are. Let’s remember that our allegiance is to a better country and better king and we can live with the joyful knowledge that, even now, God’s justice is working among us and through us. 

            This isn’t motivational talk. This is radical restructuring of the mind and heart. This is the message of all things made new, all of creation restored, and the Law of Love–Jesus himself–shining in through the cracks of this decaying world. It’s the Sermon on the Mount made real in all places and for all people through the work of the Holy Spirit and the Body of Christ. 

            Do I want to stand with Peter? Only if he’s on the “right side of the law” with Jesus. Do I care about rules and moral codes–maybe not as much as some think I should. I care a lot more about whether or not we  work for justice, reconciliation, healing, and spreading hope, than how much we drink or swear or, heaven forbid, do that thing which leads to dancing before marriage.

            Do we do something or declare something that gets us on the “right side” once and for all? Well, that hasn’t happened for me. I am lukewarm. I’m guessing that you are too (forgive my impertinence). For instance (and there are many more), I like chocolate, even though most of the stuff I eat enslaves real people whom I’ve never met. When I make that choice, I’m on the wrong side of the law. Does that mean I think I’m going to hell? That’s not really my concern at the moment. See, the people who are enslaved thanks to my support of the cheap chocolate industry, are already living in hell. 

            I can get into alignment with Christ, on the side of the oppressed and enslaved–the right side of the law–or I can be on mission with the powers and principalities of this world. It’s up to me and I don’t always make the righteous choice. I need to be reminded and buoyed. I need to be encouraged and educated. I need to be challenged and rebuked. I need to be called to account and shown a better way. I need to be shown how to get on the right side of the law.

            That’s what preaching is for. It shapes our communities and our individual souls more and more into the likeness of Christ, the perfected purpose and goal of the law. Preaching the word enlivens our imagination of the alternate universe which is the union of God and humanity, and draws us all into the story of perfect shalom

            [I don’t always use the law as a primary theme. It’s just one among many.]

          • I hear what you are saying.  I guess my pushback is still in reference to the line in your response

            Do we do something or declare something that gets us on the “right side” once and for all? Well, that hasn’t happened for me.While I do not want to drag this down into the once-saved-always-saved discussion, I do feel like any preaching that hints in some way that I have either missed-the-right exit or that I have fallen in or out of favor with God, is a potential guilt driver.  Ephesians 1 seems pretty clear to me that IN CHRIST does get me to a place of being on the right side of the law.  The cross as a moment in time must represent a finished work or else we are continually living in fear that we have not done enough or are so in need of more saving that the “freedom” that Christ died to bring us into does not exist.  If I am continually wondering about the law and its hold on my daily expression of being IN CHRIST, then I do nto walk in freedom, I have chosen a life of bondage and the enemy wins that battle every day.  Ephesians 2:15 does seem to imply that Jesus did abolish the law in some way.  Its hold on us, its power over us, something.  So i guess to go back to the original purpose of preaching, I see heart transformation, introduction to Jesus, and an invitation to join into the kingdom and walk towards King Jesus.  Let the Holy Spirit bring the conviction and the inner teaching, I see my role as the messenger of hope and reconciliation.   Thanks for letting me participate in this conversation.  

          • AmyS

            If I am continually wondering about the law and its hold on my daily
            expression of being IN CHRIST, then I do nto walk in freedom, I have
            chosen a life of bondage and the enemy wins that battle every day.

            I don’t think I understand this point.

            How does the law hold you back from a “daily expression of being IN CHRIST”?

            What do you mean by “walk in freedom”?

          • I am sorry to have taken this so far in to the “weeds” so to speak.  My pushback comes from a background of fundamentalist church teaching in which “being on the wrong side of law” was an imposed guilt that was a manipulative process to control the freedom that Paul seems to refer to in Galatians %.  It is for freedom that Christ set us free and we are not to let ourselves be yoked again to a bondage to the law.  Jesus abolished the need for the law and God forgave us before the creation of the world.  Eph.1  So when I hear the “other side of the law” comments, it conjures up ond feelings of death, guilt and performance-based-faith.  You probably did not have any thought in that direction, but on a post about the purpose of preaching my buttons get pushed and I want to respond.  I didn’t intend to hijack your comment.  Thanks for pushing back.  I enjoy the dialogue.  

      • Let me add that what I said is probably why my sermons are not very popular in my home congregation…   I don’t massage egos, I don’t make it nice and “Oh, everything is OK”… I challenge presumptions, preconceived notions, and point out the discrepancies between the model of Christ and where we are, myself included… and I challenge to fix that…  People don’t like that very much…  It’s not a “happy” sermon…

        • AmyS

          How frequently do you preach?

          • To be honest, not as often as I would like nor as often as I feel there is need for this kind of message.

  • AmyS

    A sermon deals, in some way, with the questions “Who is God”, “What is God up to?” and “How should we respond?”

    Motivational speaking asks, “What do I want?” and “How can I get/be more?”

  • Sherwood8028

    Actually, it all depends on the heart of those who hear the message.  I attended church for the better part of my first 45 years and heard lots of messages – none of which ever pierced my heart.  Then, God intervened to give me a new heart.  Nowadays,I hear the messages through ears that are receptive to the “gospel” message – the Good News of Jesus, my Lord.   And I weep as I realize many “preachers” have yet to grasp His message and far too many who are living as I lived for far too long.