Pathetic Ministry


What does emotionally intelligent ministry look like? ‘Pathetic’ now means something like ‘feeble, weak, useless’. In the eighteenth century it meant something like ‘related to the passions’. we get pathos from a similar root. Pathetic ministry, then, is ministry that takes account of the right place of the passions or emotions in the Christian life.

Isaac Watts has some helpful things to say about this in his Discourses o the Love of God. The passions can greatly help us in the Christian life. For instance a truth that is felt is much more likely to stick; and holiness becomes easier when our passions are engaged because, after all, we want to know holiness. And where passions are brought under the rule of Christ, a great ‘engine of mischief’ (p. 669) is taken from the hands of satan, and deployed to the greater glory of God.

Pathetic ministry therefore needs to cultivate an emotional literacy so that we worship with our heart as well as with our minds when we worship together. This is not manipulation if we aim to cultivate passions for God, under the rule of Christ. It may mean consciously making time for reflection and response; it will mean that when we sing, we can celebrate, or lament, or praise.

There are implications for preaching too.

  • The language of Scripture is emotive. When we preach those passages, do we allow the passion to be displayed and evoked? I remember one minister describing how one service during a sermon series on Job had no songs – they seemed inappropriate for the subject matter. Of course, there are other notes in the emotional register!
  • There are emotional applications: how should I feel about this? What do I do with commands to ‘rejoice’?
  • And if feeling a truth helps it to stick, what is a right way to evoke emotion in order to plant the word deep into the hearers’ hearts?
I readily admit to finding this all challenging. But the alternative is even less palatable: a ministry that denies there can ever be a right place for emotions in the Christian life. And that would surely be a denial of the way we are made by God.
PS anyone who wants to know more might be interested in John Owen Centre’s Conference ‘Reaching the Huamn Heart’ where Graham Beynon has a paper on ‘the central place of love in the Christian life’. It runs 12-13 September 2011.

Heartfelt Christianity


Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is best known as a hymn writer. He’s not to be confused with Isaac Newton (1643-1727) author of  foundational physics text Principia Mathematica. Nor with Isaac Walton (1593-1683) author of foundational fishing text The Compleat Angler. Isaac Watts was also a theological writer of note, at a time when England’s Christianity was in the main dry and dull.

I recently had occasion to read, with others, Watts’ Discourses on the Love of God and it’s [sic] influence on all the Passions. It is a treatise on the place of the emotions, or Passions as he calls them, in the Christian life. And their place is surprisingly positive. Of course he is aware that passions can be unruly, but his solution is neither to repress them, nor to deny them. The passions can be governed by making the love of God our supreme passion. By ith the others are brought to serve a supreme and affectionate love of God. This is the emotional dimension of the Lordship of Christ.

What difference will emotional discipleship make? Discourse II lists a number of areas: we learn to wonder at anything we learn about God; we grow in holy desire; our delight is in human pleasures (music, art,…) which centre on God; God’s word, and his people, and his church become the objects of our desire; and anything that is separate from God becomes mere vanity; zeal is awakened, and sin is hated; and we become anxious about the possibility that we might be separated from God. (there is more!). Surely this list makes it attarcive to love God with one’s heart as well as soul, mind and strength.

The passions can also be abused (Discourse V). I have to say that some of this, leaving aside the idioms, could have been written today. What if the wrong passions rule our Christian life? If love trumps God’s justice (read Rob Bell), or fear his forgiveness, or zeal the need for knowledge, and grace the need for holiness? Or what if we take godly passions but press them beyond their godly limits? For instance zeal is pressed to wrath and fury, or the hatred of sin spills into a hatred of sinners? The passions have their place; and they have their limits too.

Heartfelt Christianity is heartwarming Christianity: If we love God with all the heart, we shall keep keaven always in our eye (Disc II, p. 556)