By LEEWIN B. WILLIAMS
From The Preacher's Magazine, June 1929
PSYCHOLOOY AND THE PREACHER
MATERIAL FOR THINKING
THE PREACHER'S TASK
THE SPIRIT USES PSYCHOLOGY
AS OTHERS SEE HIM
ATTITUDE IN WORSHIP
A simple definition of Psychology is that it is a scientific study of the mind. The word comes from the Greek word Psyche, meaning soul. We speak of man as composed of body, soul, and spirit. Soul and spirit are frequently used interchangeably, but in psychology these words do not mean the same thing. Soul has reference more particularly to the human mind as distinguished from the body; it is the "ego," the "I," the "self" that we recognize as knowing, feeling and willing. Spirit is a term used especially in connection with the higher aspect of self, that to which we attribute immortality.
Psychology takes many forms, has many branches; such as social psychology, experimental psychology; and we speak of the psychology of emotions, of public speaking, of language, of the psychological moment, etc.
In the limited space for this paper, only the briefest references can be given to the subject. Only a few of the common principles will be discussed, making no effort to use strictly scientific terms.
PSYCHOLOOY AND THE PREACHER
The preacher having to do with many men of many minds, and many women of many kinds must "study to show himself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed." A knowledge of psychology will not make a preacher, but if he succeeds, he will learn, consciously or unconsciously, many of the fundamental principles of mind activity. The better he understands the workings of the mind, the more effective he may be in preaching the gospel and impressing truth upon his hearers.
All the information that we have of the world in which we live we have gathered through the five senses; viz, seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, and tasting. We were born very young and did not know anything to begin with. We began to acquire knowledge, though imperfectly, from our earliest existence. True, we were born with certain instincts which enabled us to take food, otherwise we would soon have perished. In this respect the babe is more helpless than many, if not all, of the animal creation. Even the chick can find its food soon after leaving the shell.
The sense impressions that the infant receives are indistinct. For some time he is not able to interpret them. The air that rushes into his lungs upon the first breath, and the blanket we think so soft, are uncomfortable to him, and his instinct causes him to complain with a cry. He soon has an uncomfortable feeling that we call hunger and he cries again. He learns later that that uncomfortable feeling may be relieved sooner by crying, so be cries for food. He early learns a mother's touch and voice, so the cry is changed to a coo upon hearing her voice or feeling her touch. Early he desires companionship and he cries for it. His only way of recognizing companionship is by touch or sound (not being able to recognize by sight for some time), hence we must rock the cradle or sing a lullaby to him, otherwise he does not know that he has companionship. He soon learns that some experiences are pleasant and that some are unpleasant. A light, for instance, is pleasant, therefore he shows displeasure when the light is turned out. Motion of the body is pleasant, so he orders some one of the household to carry him about; and once we begin it, he demands that it be kept up. When he gets a little older we wonder why he wants to put everything into his mouth. He has learned that some things give pleasure to the taste. Not knowing whether the objects he has found by the sense of touch will be pleasant to the taste, he experiments. He tries this test on everything from his big toe to all the objects within his grasp. He is gathering information, his education has begun; all this may be said to be the beginning of wisdom. If he is our child all these symptoms indicate that he will be very wise!
The process of gathering information continues throughout life. The mind is the great storehouse; and, let it be well understood, if nothing useful is put in nothing useful will come out. The law holds true here as well as in mathematics that you cannot subtract something from nothing.
MATERIAL FOR THINKING
By the sense of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste we gather the raw material out of which all our thinking comes. With the infant all sense impressions are hazy; and, it may be added, the same is true with many grown-up! We can never think clearly unless our mind pictures are distinct. We are able to form a more accurate idea of an object when we can bring to bear upon that object more than one of our senses. We look at an object, then want to "see it in our hands," probably smell it, taste it. A clear idea of an apple is easily formed, because we call upon at least four witnesses to testify; i. e., sight, touch, smell, and taste. On the other hand, our idea of Johannesburg is hazy, because we have never seen, heard, felt, tasted, or even smelled such a place. We know of such a place only by faith, and think of it in terms of other cities that we have seen.
The power of gathering and recognizing sense-impressions is called Perception. It is capable of great development. We send the child to the kindergarten for this purpose; in fact, this is largely the work of teachers in the lower grades of Our schools. If the child does not develop the power to perceive quickly and accurately while young he will always be handicapped. Hence, a teacher in order to succeed must understand the laws of the mind.
This power of the mind may be highly developed in one line and deficient in another. The blind of necessity develop a keen sense of touch and of hearing. Others by long and persistent effort become experts. The skilled mechanic notices the faulty joints in your furniture. The paper-hanger notices that your paper is not hung perpendicularly. The tailor (and many others) notice that your clothes are a misfit. The highly trained musician notices all the discords in singing and playing. Those who are highly trained along particular lines we call specialists. Nearly all specialists are cranks -- to other people. A crank (not someone mentally deficient) is only a person who has developed his perceptive faculties to a greater extent than others and who is enthusiastic about it. This line is all he knows, he makes a hobby of it. One who is educated will notice your mispronunciations, your slips in grammar, your poor logic. All of which detracts from one's effectiveness as a preacher.
THE PREACHER'S TASK
The preacher has to do with people of these various tendencies. He is supposed to be a specialist in spiritual things; and he will do well to become a crank, so to speak, along his chosen line. This does not mean that he should be queer, eccentric, or fanatical; but he should develop his mind along spiritual lines until he can lift his people to higher things. Religious experiences make strong impressions on the mind, and they should. These experiences are our Ebenezers, we set up stones here. One who was converted in a Salvation Army meeting usually likes the street meetings. Another converted in a mission wants to start a mission, his field is the "downs but never outs." One who has had a powerful, knock-down, epochal experience in conversion or sanctification usually looks on with some misgivings when he sees one meekly confess the Lord Jesus as Savior.
Having these various traits and conditions to deal with, the wonder is not that the preacher fails at times, the marvel is that he succeeds at all.
THE SPIRIT USES PSYCHOLOGY
Let it be said at this point that a knowledge of psychology does not, and cannot, take the place of the unction of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit knows more about psychology than anyone else can ever hope to know. He lays tribute on all our powers. A good voice, a strong body, a trained mind, our powers of eloquence, if any, our logic, our knowledge of history, science and philosophy, these, if fully consecrated, He will sanctify and use. The preacher, however, who has few of these natural and acquired accomplishments, will have little that the Holy Spirit can use. Such a person, if ever called to preach, will be compelled to labor in a limited way. In fact, surrounded as we are with educated people, high school and college graduate -- making up our audiences, what can the preacher who has not a trained mind as well as a fervent spirit hope to accomplish?
The mind works according to definite laws. Strong impressions cannot be made on the mind unless focussed upon the thought being presented by the preacher. This is attention. The mind cannot be focussed upon more than one thing at a time. Hence, it is very important to the success of a sermon that everything possible should be removed that will divert the attention of the hearers. If there are a lot of pictures, mottoes and signs around the back of the pulpit, the people will read these over and over and while doing so, lose the thought of the speaker.
AS OTHERS SEE HIM
The preacher himself is frequently the greatest detraction from his own preaching. If a stranger is to bring a message it is always well to bring him to the platform at least a few minutes before he is to begin to speak, and be should not hide behind the pulpit. The people want to "look him over." All manner of questions will run through the minds of the people in regard to him. If he is young, the girls will wonder if he is married; the boys will hope that he will not preach long. Some may pray that the Lord will give the message, for, as they see it, the prospects otherwise are very slim. If the people do not get through with this before he begins, they will keep it up afterward. When their curiosity is satisfied, he is so far down the road that many will never catch up. This may be the reason someone has said that a speaker succeeds or fails the first five minutes he talks.
ATTITUDE IN WORSHIP
The Secret of true worship is the ability of the preacher to center the minds of the people on God. We have lost patience with some of the older denominations because they use a liturgy or form of worship, but have we not gone to a worse extreme in our loose way of trying to worship?
When the preacher comes before an audience his personal appearance, voice, actions and every movement should he such as to direct the minds of the people in the desired channel. If he must set the furniture in order, do some janitor work, buzz with the choir, make a few remarks that might as well have been left unsaid, punctuate his sentences with "amen," "bless God," "hallelujah," etc., he need not expect the spirit of worship to come upon the people. At the same time if the people have not been trained to habits of reverence in the house of God, if they visit, the children run about, the choir comes straggling in, the people get up and down in a haphazard way, then the preacher will have a double difficulty.
Again, the preacher may put so much of the physical into the "work" of preaching that many watch his movements and pay little attention to his thoughts. They cannot hear the purr of his engine for the rattle of the fenders. He may perspire and over-work his handkerchief until the people get sorry for him. If he sways his body until there is a streak of white between his belt and his vest, the people may become alarmed for fear he will lose his pants. If his voice is loud and harsh the people may feel when it is over that they have been in a boiler factory. On the other hand, he may be so soft and monotonous in his voice and quiet in his gestures that it will be necessary to remind the people and to forget to say their prayers before going to sleep. In justice to the preacher it should be said that he is not responsible for all the things that divert the attention of the hearers. A child running at large in the church may get more attention than a bishop. A silly girl in a choir has spoiled many a sermon.
The preacher should understand the psychology of language. We think in mental pictures. For instance when we hear the word "apple" there flashes into the mind a picture of an apple. There is hung in the gallery of each mind pictures of several kinds of apples. When the word is heard memory runs into the gallery, taking down a picture and holds it before what we call the "mind's eye." If we speak the word "ameba," memory runs into the gallery and you feel a kind of whirling about in your head, but no picture probably can be found, yet this is a perfectly good word. Unless you have studied zoology and worked with a microscope, you have never seen this little one-cell animal, hence will have no picture of it hung on memory's wall.
When the word "apple" is spoken, maybe the picture presented to your mind is that of a big, red apple, but suppose the speaker now adds the words "green, sour." Memory must run back into the gallery and bring out a different picture. If the words had been used in the correct order -- green, sour apple -- the mind would not have to reverse itself. Memory would have to make but one trip to the gallery.
The preacher by being a master in the use of language can so present truth that the mind follows easily. We say, "It makes me tired to listen to him." The same is true when the speaker talks too fast, or starts a sentence and suddenly reverses; also, when the same thought is repeated over and over. The mind soon grows weary of recasting the pictures. Few men can preach long sermons profitably. The capacity of the average mind is limited -- will hold so much and no more. Most of the runners in a race, if the distance is short, go the entire route, but only a few ever complete a Marathon.
The preacher should have, at least, two good books -- a Bible and a good dictionary, not a cheap one. If he continually mispronounces simple words and makes glaring slips in his grammar, he need not be surprised if some think him too ignorant to instruct them in spiritual things. This does not always follow by any means, but the stranger who hears one for the first time may allow minor things to outweigh far more important matters.
The preacher may divert the attention by misstating his facts and figures. If one says that the Dead sea is thousands and thousands of feet below the sea level, that the train ran at a speed of sixty miles a second, the listener of a mathematical turn of mind may become more amused than edified. If you garble facts of history, or tell your experience and the experiences of others, improving the story each time by additions, until the whole thing becomes absurd, the effect that you hoped to produce will be lost. If one says that as he was going down the road he saw an elephant run up a tree and sit upon a limb, your mind rebels at the statement. If the person making the statement is your particular friend your sympathies get busy and you make excuses for him. "Oh, he is mistaken, he means a squirrel," you say. If you have no particular like or dislike for the speaker, you say, "That's absurd." If you dislike the person, he does not belong to your church or your party, you say, "That man's a fool and ought to be sent to the asylum." As a result people whom you desire to win never come back to hear you.
In concluding this paper, let it be said that the preacher is fortunate in that the people who come to hear him are sympathetic. They do not come as a rule to oppose or criticize. The members of the church, have, or should have, a friendly interest. He is their preacher. Grace can do more than all our methods and manners. If power of God is not present all our psychology and other means will fail. However, there are many things that grieve the Spirit and hinder our approach to God. If we could follow absolutely the laws of the mind -- a thing which of course is impossible -- and then have the blessings of God upon us, there is no telling what might be accomplished.
WASHINGTON, D. C.