Why Preaching Doesn't Work

Why Preaching Doesn’t Work

(…Not that this is actually going to stop anyone…)

“Knowledge can be communicated
but not wisdom.”
– Herman Hesse




“What do you mean, “preaching doesn’t work”?

Of course it works! They’re packin ’em in! They’re selling tickets! They’re making money! Who says it doesn’t work?

Well, your trusty LiveReal Agents, that’s who.



It seems like folks have been preaching at each other probably as long as as we’ve existed on the planet.

Almost everywhere we go, we hear a nonstop chorus of “shoulds” and “oughts” about how the world and people in it should be. We should be nice, more kind, more loving, more compassionate, more exciting, considerate, fun, strong, polite, understanding, better-smelling, etc, we should be less judgmental, boring, hateful, weak, rude, etc.

“I hereby decree
that from this point forward
everyone should be nicer to each other.”

Take any random group of people, really find out what they’re thinking about, and no doubt you’ll find that they all have tons of different ideas about how things should be, and most of them are busy trying to make the world fit into those ideas.

So everyone seems to be busy trying to remake the world (and really, the people in it) according to their own image and likeness – everyone saying to each other, in one way or another, you should be like this, you should be like that, etc.

So, there’s a lot of “preaching” going on. And well, we can’t really blame ourselves. We find something good, we all want to ram it down somebody else’s throat, at least a little…

But just to focus on the professionals . . .

Before asking if all this preaching actually “works,” well, it seems like we first have to ask, “What is the purpose of preaching?” “Why do preachers preach?”

To make an arguable leap, in trying to determine what the “goal” of preaching is, let’s imagine:

If every preachers’ wish would come true, what would happen?

Here, let’s take another leap: ideally, then every individual who hears their sermon would, as a direct result of the sermon, “become an individual who is full of love for one another and for their Creator, and who do not sin.”

This is arguable – one may say that the goal of preaching is not this at all, but rather to educate, or simply communicate ideas, or get people to think . . . but what is the goal of that? Is it not ultimately the same, Willis? Let’s assume for now that, ultimately, the desired result is to get people “to love each other, to love their Creator, and to live without sin.”


Could you describe, say,
the taste of chocolate to someone
who has never tasted it?
The smell of a skunk, to someone who has
never smelled one?
What it’s like to ride a roller coaster
to someone who’s never ridden one?
Could you describe thirst to a fish?
Could you describe what it’s like to be in love
to someone who has never experienced it?


If this is the case . . . then if one were to judge only in terms of results, then in spite of all this effort and centuries of work, in spite of all the voices made hoarse, sermons delivered, hymns sung and pulpits beaten, overall, the world does not seem to have become a place where “everyone loves one another,” where “sin” doesn’t happen, and “where everyone loves God.”

. . . overall, preaching doesn’t seem to be working too well.

Why not?

Quick Historical Perspective

A quick aside: it seems that actual “preaching” (as in, “you should do this, you should not do that”) seemed to be, in older times, much more accepted than nowadays. It seems to be a current trend nowadays not to respect any personal authority of any kind, aside from, say, certain rock stars, but to question it.

So in modern times, telling people to do or not do something, or that something or other is wrong, is likely to be greeted with “Who are you to tell me what to do/judge me/impose your morality?”

In other words, it was once accepted that that some certain people (such as preachers) knew more about “how to live” than others, or than ourselves, so we trusted them and listened to them. Nowadays, well, for the most part, everyone considers themselves to be their own expert.

This – however true it might be – is not the kind of preaching we are discussing here; meaning, it is possible that preaching, even back in the “good ole days,” well, didn’t even work back then.

“Go into the street
and give one man a lecture on morality
and another a shilling, and see which will respect you most.”
– Samuel Johnson

But back to our story.

A Few Experiments

If you are so inclined, try this sometime:

Approach someone, and tell them to “laugh.” See what they do.


Another experiment:

  1. Go up to someone else, and tell them to “get hungry.”
  2. Observe results


“Preaching” rests
on an assumption of “moral authority.”

Hypothesis: “Moral authority”
is a concept that that many people
simply no longer believe in
(a.k.a. Moral Flatland).

Try different data: tell someone to cry, get thirsty, itch, get a stomachache, get tired, and so forth. What happens?

Experimental Results

Well, in the vast majority of cases, the subject will stare, blink repeatedly, and consider honestly whether or not you’ve gone insane.

Another experiment (and try harder, Willis!):
Command someone to cry.
Observe results.

If this doesn’t work, escalate your efforts:

Again, tell them, with as much conviction as you can muster, “If you don’t laugh, you’re going to go to hell.”

(Note: Here it is good to note that, obviously, you probably shouldn’t actually do this experiment, but leave this as a thought experiment, which should suffice aplenty.)

Here, it gets interesting: depending on how convincing you are, a few people might actually laugh. Or, do their best to laugh, anyway – most likely, they’ll try really hard to summon up a laugh. It would be a fake laugh, most likely, but a laugh nonetheless. It’s the best they could do under the circumstances.

Analyzing the Data

Results: This approach, well, doesn’t seem to work in the world.

But isn’t this often what preachers seem to do?


A Look at Preaching

Boiling down the core message of many sermons and spiritual lectures into something like this:

  • “Love your neighbor.”
  • “Love God/Your Creator.”
  • “Don’t sin.”

Most people agree that it’s a very good and positive message, beneficial for everyone involved. (Of course, a few people might see the “sin” part as spoiling some fun, but assume that “not sinning” is actually about having more fun, not less, in the long run) . . . So then, why all the difficulty in catching on?


A Theory

Here’s a theory: it’s not what is being said, it’s how.

Say I’m a sincere sermon-goer. I hear that I should love my neighbors, I should not sin, I should love God. I then go about, trying my best to do exactly that.

But, it’s not long before I run into all sorts of difficulties. I try to “love people,” but then my little sister sets my pants on fire; I really try to be cool with the stray dog down the street, but he smells like the rotting carcass of a dead llama, not to mention he ate my pet frog . . . I try to be nice to, the homeless stranger, who keeps scraping his toe jam onto the sidewalk . . . well, I try to “love” them, but well, I can’t seem to quite pull it off.

And so forth, with the other noble ventures. I try not to “sin,” but soon find myself doing all kinds of not-too-virtuous things (no details here); I try to “love God,” but don’t succeed too well with that either. Try, failure, guilt. Try, fail, guilt. Repeat.

What’s the problem?


1) Ram something you believe
down someone else’s throat,
even for their own good;

2) “Educate” – to naturally
allow someone to discover something
for themselves, as in helping
something from “within” to “come out”
(similar to, say, birth).


One theory is that, well, you’re always going to fail. We’re imperfect creatures, so get used to it. Do the best you can. The game is fixed, you’re going to lose . . . but try really hard anyway. You’re going to lose, but it’s the trying (in spite of the inevitable failing) that counts. Keep banging your head against that wall.

Another theory is that, well, you’re just not trying hard enough. Try harder. You failed? Well, try harder. Blew it again? Well, you’re still not trying hard enough. Repeat. (This one’s a doozy.)

Another theory is that you just need more preaching. Harder, leaner, stronger, faster, preaching.

Are “preachers” essentially
How are they alike? Different?


Still another theory is that, well, trying to “love” people, trying not to sin, trying to love God and so forth . . . is the same thing as trying to laugh, trying to cry, trying to get hungry, thirsty, angry, and so on. It just doesn’t work that way.

In other words, I find myself strangely, how you say, befuddled: in spite of my best efforts, even with the best of intentions, I’m unable to do something that seems as if it should definitely within my control.

“Let’s Do It;
Let’s Fall in Love.”
– Cole Porter

In cases like these, the best I’m able to do is summon up, well, phony laughs, phony anger, phony virtue, and phony “love.” The most strenuous efforts go towards the most convincing and precise imitation of laughter. Well-intentioned, well-meaning, but, well, phony.

But of course, it’s definitely not the case that it’s all phony. I mean, there is phony, forced laughter, but there is genuine, real, gut-shaking belly laughter, too. There’s phony anger, and definitely real anger. I get genuinely hungry and thirsty all the time – even in spite of my best efforts. What gives?  

Can you “make” yourself believe
something you don’t believe already?


It seems, even, that given the right conditions, laughter, anger, hunger, thirst, happen naturally, even without effort.

Could the same thing be true, say, in matters of virtue?

“We do not need theories
as much as the experience
that is the source of the theories.”
– R.D. Laing

We all know, if you want someone to laugh, tell him a joke. If you want someone to get hungry or thirsty – don’t bark at him that “he should get hungry or else . . .” – just don’t give the person food or water for a while. If you want to make someone angry, stomp on their toes, insult them, tell them their mother laughs like a screeching goose – and the rest happens naturally.

The way it doesn’t happen is by telling someone to do it, directly.

Can someone be, say, “intimidated into”
believing something?

If so, even if they are genuinely intimidated,
can it be said that they “honestly” believe it?


In other words, anger, laughter, hunger and so forth happen from the “inside-out,” not from the “outside-in.”

Is it possible that the same be true of, say, “virtue,” and even “love”?

The theory of old-style preaching (“Do this!”) assumes that it is within our power to do it. Tell someone not to sin, and if they just have enough willpower and such, they’ll do it. If they fail to do it, it was because they did not have enough willpower.

Experience, such as those produced by our experiments, suggest otherwise.

“Orchestrating Virtue”

To get back to the original problem of the ineffectiveness of preaching: what is the alternative? If telling someone to love their neighbor, not to sin, to love God and so on doesn’t work, what does?

Well, when many people hear the message “don’t sin” and “love one another” and so forth, they normally respond, in general, in one or two ways

  1. They launch a campaign to repeatedly suppress everything in them that they judge to be unloving, sinful, and so forth,
  2. They rebel against the message, claiming that it’s impossible, can’t happen, they are too weak to do it, or so forth.

What if neither approach works?

In other words, the crux of the problem is this: many people, maybe even everybody, has what could be called “good intentions” . . . but, how can those become more than good intentions? How can a person love his neighbor? How can a person not sin? How can a person love God?

On these issues, most preachers are strangely silent. They tell you what you should do, but not how to do it. Figuring out that part is up to you. (That, and of course, we’re imperfect, the game is fixed, so expect to fail, but try hard anyway, ask for forgiveness, etc.)

However, let’s approach the problem again: laughter, hunger and so forth happened when certain conditions caused them to happen naturally. In other words, laughter is the byproduct of telling a joke; hunger is a byproduct of not eating food, and so on.

Is it possible, then, that love and virtue is a by product as well, of something else?


Abraham Maslow built many theories around “self-actualized” people – individuals who seem exceptionally healthy and virtuous.

Yet he never seemed to investigate,
“How does a normal person become self-actualized?”


On the one hand, it seems improbable to suggest that love
and virtue can be mechanically orchestrated and manufactured, say, the same way that laughs can be orchestrated by a skillful comedian, emotions by a skillful moviemaker, tears by a skillful lawyer, etc.

On the other hand, it seems illogical to resign from the problem entirely, and glumly state that “virtue” and “love” are mysterious, inexplicable phenomenon, like lightning, that happen randomly, chaotically, at random, so the best thing we can hope for is to sit around and hope to get struck.

“Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced –
even a proverb is no proverb
till your life has illustrated it.”
– John Keats

A Hypothesis

How many preachers were convinced to become preachers by listening to a sermon?

How and why did preachers decide to become preachers?

Was it because they heard a certain sermon, and successfully conformed to it’s message? Or was it because of what many experienced what they describe as a “call to the ministry,” or simply, a “calling”?

If so, what is this “calling”? What is a “call to the ministry”?

It (as well as the ample literature on the psychology of religious conversion) is a too complex a subject to explore adequately here, but what we can ponder is that there seems to follow many patterns – most notably, an intense period of personal stress and inner struggle, a period of questioning and introspection, and an ineffable experience which convinced one that this path (towards preaching) seems to be the “right” path to tread.

In other words, it was based not (or, not only) on hearing a sermon, understanding it, and acting accordingly, but rather, was based on a personal, direct experience.

What this issue brings up is the topic of “experience” – raw, direct, personal experience. Experiences, not words, are what change atheists into believers, believers into atheists, faithful into agnostics and agnostics into faithful, doubters into believers and believers into doubters – trace every belief back to its source, and you find that the source is some type or other of “something” that happened to us.


Case Studies

Saint Augustine. By all reports, as a young man, he was a far cry from a saint. Womanizer, gambler, drinker, and general carouser and troublemaker. Yet, “something” happened . . . he went on to become . . . well, Saint Augustine.


What was this “something”?.

Another case study: Saul. Again, by most reports, not a nice guy – a tax collector who persecuted Christians. Yet, he went on to become a disciple.

Same thing with Leo Tolstoy, who went on to become . . . Tolstoy. C. S. Lewis. And so forth.

Here, for the sake of argument, were seemingly ordinary, “sinful” not-exceptionally-virtuous individuals, who went on later to become leaders of spiritual thought and virtue.

How did this happen?

Well, first of all, it didn’t seem to happen through willpower, good listening skills, a dash of guilt, hearing a sermon and then following what they heard in the sermon, conforming to what they thought they heard, and so forth.

The turning point in both of their lives was some kind of experience. Paul on the road to Damascus, Augustine somewhere else. Once the experience happened, everything else followed suit.

If a preacher had preached to Augustine before his “experience,” would it have done any good? If a preacher had preached to Saul pre-experience, would that have done any good? And so forth.

Book Excerpt

from the autobiography
Surprised By Joy by C.S. Lewis.

“I found (or thought I found) that I was not breathing and concluded that this was death, I felt no fear and certainly no courage. It did not seem to be an occasion for either. The proposition ‘Here is a man dying’ stood before my mind as dry, as factual, as unemotional as something in a text-book. It was not even interesting. The fruit of this experience was that when, some years later, I met Kant’s distinction between the Noumenal and the Phenomenal self, it was more to me than an abstraction. I had tasted it; I had proved that there was a fully conscious “I” whose connections with the “me” of introspection were loose and transitory.”

and shortly afterward,

“I became capable of appreciating artists who would, I believe, have meant nothing to me before; all the resonant, dogmatic, flaming, unanswerable people like Beethoven, Titian (in his mythological pictures, Goethe, Dunbar, Pindar, Christopher Wren, and the more exultant psalms.”

– C. S. Lewis


A single list of cases similar to these would circle the globe: hard-core atheists who suddenly become converted, devout “nonbelievers” who suddenly become believers, Han-Solo types who never believed in anything but a good blaster by his side until X happened . . .

Digression on Psychoanalysis

To digress for a moment, it may be helpful to examine some other situations where similar problems have been examined.

Psychoanalysis in whole has been another bold venture into the exploration of human experience. While the “goals” of analysis were not stated as the production of love and virtue, it was in a way, an attempt at such a feat; in other words, ideally, the goal of analysis was to walk in to the analyst’s office a somewhat unhappy and unloving person, and to walk out, in a way, a more healthy (and subsequently, more loving and virtuous) person.

An interesting note: some psychological theorists, such as Jung, Reich, and many others, found that if a person embarks upon a process of conscious introspection and “soul-searching,” digging beneath the layers of his or her own psyche, they discover some very interesting things.

Through working for many hours and years with such individuals, in a process of “peeling away layers of the onion,” in search of more real motivations lying beneath, they often emerged with new “models of the mind.”

Often these “models” were such that, if a person engages in a process of conscious work on oneself, they will eventually tap into a certain inner state of being from which virtue flows naturally.

For example, Jung postulated the ego, the unconscious, and the Self.

Others, such as Roberto Assagioli in Psychosynthesis, postulate a “Higher Self.” Even modern-day thinkers, such as Barry Long, theorize the unconscious, the subconscious, and beyond that, the self.

Another interesting quote from Wilhelm Reich, a disciple of Freud:

“On the surface, he (civilized man) wears an artificial mask of self-control, compulsive insincere politeness, and pseudo-sociality. This mask conceals the second layer, the Freudian “unconscious,” in which sadism, avarice, asciviousness, envy, perversions of all kind, etc., are held in check . . . Beneath it, in the depth, natural sociality and sexuality, spontaneous joy in work, the capacity for love, exist and operate. This third and deepest layer, that represents the biological core of the human structure, is unconscious, and it is feared.”



So, back to the case of Augustine, Saul, Leo, and so forth – is it possible that there is a pattern to such experiences?

In other words, is it even possible that such experiences are not completely unpredictable, random, nebulous, inexplicable chance occurrences . . . but in fact might follow certain predictable, verifiable, and even replicatable patterns?

It is an interesting proposition. Especially when one remembers that the phenomenon of lightening used to be a random, unpredictable, inexplicable event that was even worshipped; now, however, the power of lightning has become harnessed and is used to make electricity.

And, for example, such books as Cosmic Consciousness by Richard Bucke.

It does seem interesting to note that while genuine life-transforming “experiences” obviously cannot be mass-produced, Big Mac fashion, they do tend to happen in certain environments, and follow certain rules, happen in somewhat predictable fashions – for example, when a person is basically moral, is a seeker, goes through a fairly intense period of questioning, and so forth.

Certain cultures, such as Sufism, Zen, certain Christian traditions, more advanced systems of Yoga, Transpersonal Psychology, and others in fact claim to have narrowed the system down to an almost scientific procedure or method.

While “false” conversion methods definitely exist, such as documented in William Sargent describes in The Battle For the Mind, could it be possible that real ones do as well?.

So, are such claims valid? Could they resemble an alternative to “preaching,” if that is needed? It seems the jury is still out, but many (and a growing number, it seems) are fully convinced that this is the case.

But we’re still hot on the trail . . .

“Jesus was all virtue,
and acted from impulse, not from rules.”
– William Blake



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