God has made us each with an emotional aspect to our personalities. Some react more based on their emotions while others may respond more based on reason.
(Contrary to popular belief, the gender stereotypes are not correct here because this division is not along gender lines. Some men evaluate your preaching based on emotion while some women will challenge you on the basis of reason. A given person may respond based on reason or emotion in different circumstances.)
Some emotional blockages are rooted in our sin nature. The sinner confronted with his sin will often get angry at the one confronting them, no matter how lovingly they are confronted.
Some emotional blockages are rooted in a particular life experience for the hearer. Someone who has lost a child to suicide, for example, will usually be sensitive when suicide is discussed (understandably so). We use wisdom when we know our people and can talk around these situations by speaking God’s Word into them in such a way that they will hear it despite the emotional blockage.
Some emotional blockages will appear to be based on reason when in reality they are based on emotion. For example, I minister in a Baptist church that is Reformed in orientation. I sometimes I encounter people who have difficulties with the doctrine of election (a core Reformed doctrine). I have found that when I talk about this doctrine without using certain buzzwords (such as “election”) people are usually accepting of the teaching. (I am not the only one who has noticed this.) The objections in these situations are usually based more on emotion (they’re reacting to a word alone because they really don’t understand the concept).
Some emotional blockages have little to do with you at all. I once had a woman get up and walk out in the middle of my sermon in protest. (The problem with doing this in church is that pastors usually just assume you got up to go to the bathroom or something so your “protest” is usually not recognized as such.) Turns out, her husband had “forced her” (her words) to come to this church when she wanted to go to a different one and, as a result, she was nitpicking and finding fault with everything. (She later admitted as much.)
How do you communicate across these emotional difficulties?
First, avoid language that could trigger such an emotional response.
You shouldn’t need me to tell you that some examples or illustrations are probably not wise. For example, using the example of a suicide right after someone in your churchy has been touched by that is not wise. Find another example.
Some terms that have political connotations are best avoided, too. If you’re taking issue with a “liberal” interpreter, its best to explain that you mean “liberal” in a theological sense, not in a political sense (ditto “conservative”).
Second, warn people when you’re about to discuss something that might trigger an emotional blockage and ask them to listen to everything you have to say before passing judgment.
You can acknowledge this right up front and simply ask to be heard. “I know that you’ve probably heard this text explained like thus-and-so, but please hear me out and see if there isn’t a better way to understand it that makes more sense of all the information in the text. Please don’t tune out until you’ve heard me explain it all.”
Third, recognize that sometimes you just can’t stop emotional blockages from happening.
I once preached from the prophecy of Balaam in which I referred to Balaam as a “two-bit prophet.” A man cornered me afterwards and told me I shouldn’t have referred to “a man of God” in such terms. I thought back over and I really don’t think I could have been any more clear that Balaam was not a true prophet of God (in fact, that’s the whole point of the story). He just didn’t get it and there was no way to get him to understand it.
In those situations, all you can do is go on about your business and preach the Word the best you know how. If you weren’t clear, use it as a learning experience and try to be more clear in the future.
Remember also that whenever you preach, the people in the pews are filling your words with their own meanings. I once mentioned the “the prayers of the saints” in a sermon and a visiting Roman Catholic took this as wholesale approval of Roman Catholic dogma. You can’t always avoid this or correct them, but you should think about the demographic of people to whom you speak and think of how they will receive your words.
An Encouragement to Prayer and A Reminder of God’s Providence
I have a preaching prayer list I pray through each week and on it I ask the Lord to enable me to speak with clarity. I pray this and then I trust that God will answer such that the Holy Spirit will make God’s Word clear. But don’t use that as an excuse not to think through what you say and how you say it.
In the end, preach Christ, strive to do it with clarity, and then leave the rest to the Lord. It may be that a conversation afterwards with someone seeking clarity is in God’s providence to allow you an opportunity that you might not have had otherwise to minister one-on-one to someone.